Thursday, June 28, 2012


A woman has been standing in the middle of the pavement for an hour or more, gently rocking backwards and forwards with a two pint carton of semi-skimmed in her hand. It’s just as if the film of her trip to the corner shop had been interrupted, some flaw in the mechanism, a glitch – and now she’s stuck, doomed to repeat the same movement over and over and over, trapped in the shadowy space beneath a lime tree and some railings.
‘I hope you don’t mind me calling,’ says a man as we draw level. ‘I’ve been visiting a friend just over the way. I noticed this lady when I went in and I thought it was strange. But then when I came out and saw her still there, exactly the same position – well, there’s something going on. I hope I did the right thing. I asked her what her name was, if she needed help or anything, but she completely ignored me. She’s like one of them zombies.’
‘That’s fine. Thanks for your trouble.’
‘Shall I be going now?’
‘You can if you like. We’ll take it from here.’
‘There’s nothing else you need?’
‘No. That’s fine. Thanks.’
‘Oh, right then, so.’
He walks off.
I approach the woman slowly and quietly, downwind.
‘Hello? It’s the ambulance. My name’s Spence. This is Rae. Can we help you at all?’
She doesn’t even look up, but continues to rock backwards and forwards as before, unblinking, as if she were winding herself up to make a jump. She is a heavily built woman, around thirty, with that puffy, slightly battered look years of medication can inflict. The vest she is wearing exposes her tanned arms, where pale rows of old cigarette burns sit like drops of water on a dusty path.
‘Can I ask your name?’
No response.
‘It’s just that people are worried, seeing you here like this. You must be cold, too. It’s not all that warm today. Can we get you a blanket?’
Rae steps away to fetch one. The woman stares.
‘How are you feeling?’ I say to her. ‘Is there anything we can do. Don’t be frightened. We’re not here to do anything you don’t want to do.’
Rae comes over with the blanket, chin down, advancing as cautiously as a horse whisperer, and slowly drapes it round the woman’s shoulders.
‘There. How’s that?’
It provokes a response. She grasps the blanket around her neck with her free hand and starts to back away from us into the road. We follow her, fanning out either side to stop the traffic, gently herding her until she’s safely over the other side. Eventually she stops under another tree, and looks up and down the street like she’s ready to run.
‘Why don’t you come on board the ambulance for a while? I promise I won’t shut the door. It’ll give you a chance to warm up – and we can make sure everything’s okay. We won’t drive off anywhere. Is that okay?’
She nods, starting to look more aware.
Rae carries on trying to talk to her whilst I go back over the road, fetch the ambulance and drive it across. Once the side door is open, Rae coaxes her up onto a seat, where she sits staring at the carton of milk in her lap.
‘So. What’s your name? What do we call you?’ says Rae.
‘Tracy,’ she says. ‘What’s happened to me? Where am I?’
‘You’re in the ambulance, Tracy. We were called because people saw you standing for ages in the middle of the pavement, looking like you were in trouble.’
‘Where am I?’
‘The ambulance, Tracy.’
What happened?’
‘What’s your past medical history, Tracy? Do you have any problems? Diabetes? Epilepsy?’
She shakes her head.
‘Would you mind if we took a tiny scratch of your finger and checked your blood sugar level? Would that be okay?’
Tracy flashes me a look.
‘What about him?’ she says. ‘Is he going to drive off?’
‘No. Absolutely not. Look – here are the keys. I’ll put them here, where you can see them. Okay?’
She turns and looks back to Rae, then slowly holds out her hand.


Over the next half an hour Tracy becomes more orientated. She gives us her mobile phone so we can talk to her mother, who tells us that Tracy has been suffering with these blackouts for the past few years.
‘She’s been taken home by ambulance and police a few times. To the hospital as well, but she’s had all the tests and there’s nothing they can do. It’s a dissociative state connected with post traumatic stress disorder. She should really wear a bracelet or something. What are you going to do now?’
‘Will she be safe at home?’
‘She should be all right. Put me on and I’ll have a word.’
I hand the phone to Tracy.


Tracy has a basement flat in a gothic building set back from the road. In the narrow gap between the sitting room window and the little back garden, clusters of heavy green leaves spill out over the wall. The flat itself is snug and tidy, smelling of filtered coffee, new carpet, windowlene.
We follow her in to make sure everything’s okay.
‘I’ve only been here a month,’ she says, putting the milk in the fridge.
But her artwork already covers the walls – broad collages of images linked together with fabric and coloured string: photographs, pages from notebooks, letters, squares of maps, vinyl records, buttons, sequins, dried flowers.
‘So tell us some more about this condition you suffer with, Tracy?’
‘They think what happens is I get flashbacks with the PTSD. And the flashbacks kind of short-circuit my usual thinking. I’m surprised it happened during the day today, because it’s usually at night, when I’m tired. But I’ll have one of these flashbacks, and if I don’t manage to use a technique for grounding myself I’ll completely lose track of where I am or what I’m doing. In the past I’ve woken up way over the other side of town with a bag of shopping in my hand, and I’ve sat down and had to go through what I’ve bought, the receipts and whatnot, to try to work out where I’ve been.’
‘It sounds pretty dangerous, Tracy. You’re so vulnerable when it happens. If you’re not aware, anyone could take advantage. And then there’s the traffic issue, of course.’
‘Tell me about it. I’ve been through all this. I’ve had the usual help and I’m a bit stuck. The latest thinking is that therapy will cure me, only they reckon it’ll make the problem worse to begin with. So to have the therapy I need to be kept in a secure unit, only there’s no money for a bed.’
‘But in the short term, what do they suggest? I mean, you’re not exactly safe like this, are you?’
Tracy sits down on the sofa, tucks both her legs under her and reaches down with her right hand to massage a foot.
‘Yeah – well. What can you do? This one guy, he says I should I sew reflective patches on my pyjamas.’


jacksofbuxton said...

PTSD,are the Government still claiming it isn't a real illness or have they finally realised what damage it does to people?

She hadn't been working in Oxford had she?

Spence said...

I didn't realise the government were being sticky about PTSD (but it doesn't surprise me - they're not known for their enlightened attitude to MH).

You can always tell the Oxford vets - a certain twitchiness about the eyes, and a tendency always to sit facing the door with their back to the wall in restaurants...

tpals said...

This was a nice piece; a welcome change from some of your less appealing patients!

What are the references to Oxford about?

Spence said...

Thanks, Tpals.

There was a TV detective here called 'Morse' based in Oxford - a sleepy university town, but according to the show about a murder a week.. ;)