I interviewed a fascinating lady the other day. She looks like anyone you would pass in the street, but she has a mental illness.
The story she told me left me with a heavy heart, but I must be honest, for a second, I wondered if she was pulling the wool over my eyes – after all, she looks just like anyone’s mum, a lady behind the counter in a shop, a receptionist.
But, of course, that’s the thing with mental illness. There are no plasters, scars, or stitches and it can happen to any one of us.
So who is this remarkable lady and what was she doing at Buckingham Palace recently?
Well, Mersey Care’s expert by experience, Iris Benson, received an MBE for services to mental health at an official ceremony with HRH Prince Charles.
Mersey Care’s chief executive, Joe Rafferty, said: “Since the day I arrived at the Trust four years ago, Iris has been an immense help to me and fully deserves this recognition. We pride ourselves on working with current and former service users in developing new ways of working and ensuring we set the highest possible standards for patients’ experience.”
Iris told me that going to Buckingham Palace to receive her MBE was a very special day for her and her family.
“But I’d like to think I went as a representative for everyone who has been through or worked in the mental health system,” she said.
The benefits of treatment have made Iris a staunch ambassador for further improvement in mental healthcare and she is a regular contributor to forums and events across Mersey Care.
I was thrilled when she showed me her MBE. With Iris, what you see and hear is what you get. She holds nothing back when she recalls her life of mental health problems as the result of childhood sexual abuse. Her illness is now under control, thanks to the people who are prepared to listen to her problems and help her find solutions.
Lack of schooling gave Iris a poor start in life. She was taught the basics of reading during time at a children’s home and is still working to overcome the handicap to help meet her real appetite for learning and is quick to offer help to others facing similar difficulties.
“One of the things she has to put up with is the stigma and the pain her husband and children go through with the name-calling. ‘Your mother’s a mad woman’ is one of the things that actually made her try to take her own life a few times.”
I was totally involved in this lady’s conversation. She made so much sense. She said the most basic and powerful way to connect to another person with mental health problems is to listen. Perhaps the most important thing that we can give each other is our attention.
A loving silence often has more power to heal and connect than the most well-intentioned words.
Iris went on to say fortunately times are changing and there are staff with the knowledge and patience to listen to people to make sure they get access to the right kind of treatment, although there is still the need to reach out to carers and their families.
She went on to say: “I’ve got a lot to be thankful for with continuing treatment and support from four great children, my granddaughter and many friends – as well as the staff at Mersey Care.
“My children now say they’ve got their mum back.”
But she still has to live with the demons. The voices are still in her head and there’s always a possibility of a relapse, but she said: “I’m keeping the voices at bay”.
Sadly, Iris also self-harms. She doesn’t cut, she burns and never knows when she is doing it to herself. Some of them are so bad she needs skin grafts.
Her mother and those men who abused her have a lot to answer for. I asked how she felt about her mother. She said, surprisingly, even though her mother has passed away: “I still love her, after all she was my mother. I have many visions of her all of the time”.
One of the things she has to put up with is the stigma and the pain her husband and children go through with the name-calling. “Your mother’s a mad woman” is one of the things that actually made her try to take her own life a few times.
I could say so much about this remarkable lady and, in fact, she’s on my programme tonight.
The voices told her she was not worthy of an MBE – they taunt her and make her feel worthless. How wrong they are. I hugged Iris goodbye and didn’t want to let go. I felt so sad that someone had been through so much.
Iris Benson, MBE, it was privilege to meet you!