Autumn 2000 and Spring 2001.
That same evening I put Bink in touch with a friend: an erstwhile child psychiatrist who had switched career. I didn’t realise he had a specialist interest in, and knowledge of, her condition: no one could have been better qualified to diagnose.
They talked over the telephone for two hours.
The next day he rang me. “Bink has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I’ll refer her.”
“Oh. Ok: thank you.”
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder? I’d barely heard of it. He might as well have told me she had a slight cold.
Christmas came and went. Life continued.
Three months later I happened to be talking to him about something else. Before I hung up he asked, “What happened about Bink?”
“What do you mean?”
“Haven’t you heard anything?”
“I didn’t know we should have done.”
He was audibly shocked. “I referred her.”
To this day, eighteen years on, I struggle to process this. It transpired – after we discovered how very serious her condition was, and took the trouble to find out why nothing had happened – that our friend, a qualified psychiatrist, was the ‘wrong’ person to have made the referral. It should have been a GP.
Eat red tape for breakfast if that’s what excites you. Paper your house with it, if bureaucracy is the reason you work in hospital administration. Tick all the boxes, if that’s the most important thing about your job... more important than, say, saving lives.
But not even to pick up the telephone? Not bother to reply to the letter of referral, or say anything at all? Not inform the person who took the trouble to write it, or send it to the correct person instead, or advise the parents – or indeed anyone at all – that procedure hadn’t been followed correctly?
If Bink’s illness had been leukaemia or anything else life-threatening – as mental illness so very critically is – would her letter of referral have been folded into a dart and aimed so playfully at the wastepaper basket (if indeed anyone did anything so creative with it) with quite such gay abandon? Can you imagine the ramifications, the outcry in the press, if the consequences had been fatal... and it had been any other disease?
Three months when her condition was still manageable. Three months when she was still young enough to change habits. Three months when she could have learnt what was wrong with her, and how to challenge it, and what she could do to get better.
Three months, for pity’s sake, when she needn’t have continued in her terrible and confusing suffering, still so alone – given that her hapless parents still had no idea anything serious was amiss: since she could still hide almost all the symptoms; since a friend who knew better had done something about it; and since the family had three other children, one of whom very possibly had Asperger syndrome (also barely understood) and had nearly killed himself, so bullied had he been by his teachers.
Three months before her sixteenth birthday.
And why regret those three months, given all that happened – or didn’t – afterwards?
Our friend told me to ring our GP immediately. In those days you could talk to your GP. The same day.
“Bring her in,” Mike said. “Today.”
I can still visualise him, on the telephone in his surgery that afternoon, ringing the Chelsea & Westminster Hospital, insisting on an urgent appointment with the person he had just looked up as the most appropriate for her to see: a consultant psychiatrist with a name for working with children and young people. Mike had run the name past me first for approval. I had nodded dumbly. I’d never heard of him.
The consultant curiously also a Michael: his name and surname soon branded and scarred onto my brain.
“It's very serious indeed,” Mike explained as he put the telephone down. “Just this morning,” he continued gravely, “I referred for hospitalisation a 21-year-old with OCD.”
(Did he even say, ‘sectioned’? It was a long time ago...)
Gosh, I thought. Thank goodness Bink will never be that ill. When she is twenty-one.