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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #343



Yesterday I did one of the most damned fool things of my career. I had painstakingly prepared an interview with the manager of a psychiatric clinic in Lviv for the purposes of a podcast for the Lviv Herald, www.lvivherald.com, and she had undertaken meticulously prepared answers. After a heavy morning’s work - my desk duties now begin at about 7.30am, more or less as soon as I wake up - I tramped up the tram tracks to the clinic to undertake the interview. My interviewee was resplendent in her sophisticated answers to my probing questions, explaining in detail the effects of war upon mental health and how these mental health afflictions are treated. This sort of education is enormously important in a country that has suffered so terribly from the stigma of psychiatry in the past. Recall that in the Soviet Union, psychiatry was used as a form of judicial punishment for political dissidents, and psychiatric hospitals were disguised prisons for the middle classes who had committed political crimes such as criticising the communist system. This still happens in modern Russia, by the way. Therefore Ukraine has a huge exercise in escaping the Soviet past attitudes towards psychiatric healthcare if she is to progress towards twenty-first century Euro-Atlantic standards of healthcare.


Therefore it is very important to talk about these issues, and to bring psychiatry out into the open. Having a psychiatric illness is just like having any other sort of illness. It needs to be diagnosed, treated, and then, with the right treatment, you recover and you go back to living a normal life. I am pleased to play my part in this process of openness about psychiatric treatment and its importance. I am a patient of this clinic, and they have done wonders for me. They are one of the best group of psychiatrists I have ever come across, and that’s because, in the middle of a war, they’ve seen it all before. The full panoply of severe mental illness is seen during wartime, in both civilian and military populations, and therefore they have a huge range of experience of the severest psychiatric conditions and how to treat them. War puts people into extreme situation, often with extreme consequences for their mental health, whether it be anxiety arising out of worry for loved ones or for oneself when serving as a soldier on the front line, or trauma from losing a limb, depression at losing a family member or one’s relationship with them becoming strained because war changes people’s personalities who have been in the thick of it. So psychiatrists working in war have a full panoply of experience and knowledge about the most severe mental health conditions, and they are amongst the top of their trade. That’s why they did such a good job in curing me, because I’d seen half a dozen psychiatrists before for post-traumatic stress disorder, and only these ones got it right.


So I figured I would do them a favour, and interview them for the Lviv Herald.


Unfortunately the night before I had given a joke interview in the street to my friend, in which I was asking him questions like “I hear you were funding the campaign of Mr Navalny; can you tell me how much you contributed?” (British people have a dark humour, like Ukrainians.) And I had placed the microphone switch in the wrong position when I had finished this mock interview. So when I came to interview the manager of the psychiatric clinic yesterday, I actually placed with microphone switch into the “off” position. She provided fluent and eloquent answers over the course of an hour and a half, in her second language English, and I was delighted with her performance and congratulated her at the end of it.- when I turned the microphone back on. I think walked down the street to the military kitchen where I work, happy with my performance, and proceeded to chop some vegetables for a few hours. Then I returned home, plugged the microphone into my computer, and to my horror found that what I had recorded was several hours of my chopping vegetables. And, to compound the excruciating embarrassment, I had sent my interviewee a 300 megabyte file with the sound of chopping vegetables for hours and told her “thank you for the interview”.


It could have been worse, I suppose. She only received a file of my chopping vegetables. I contemplated for a moment covering it all up and pretending nothing ever happened, but I know that when you make an honest mistake the best thing to do is always to confess and apologise. She took it extremely well, and we are doing the whole interview again today when it will be even more excellent I am sure. So it was not time wasted. And, to be 100 per cent certain this time, I am taking my laptop. I have learned the limitations of microphones; I would rather undertake the exercise with my laptop in front of me, comfortably purring at me to the effect that it is indeed undertaking the recording. This is an important interview for us both, about a serious subject. It’s not an interview outside a pub and this is clearly a skilled and professional lady who had made significant efforts to give serious answers to my questions. So she deserves to be treated with respect, especially after taking my foolish error so well and even smiling about it. You can listen to the Podcast when we’ve done it properly, at www.lvivherald.com/podcasts, hopefully later today when I have done it all right.


Apart from that silly incident, yesterday was fairly uneventful - rare in the frozen Saigon. I’ve taken to wearing both military camouflage trousers and a jacket together, because I’ve noticed that women look at me more if I do that. I suppose it’s testament to the old adage that women like a man in uniform. I may see if I can buy a camel brown shirt and trousers to match the equivalently coloured jacket, because the military look is really only good for the front line. I saw some live music. I learned about a new jazz bar; I chatted with some friends. All in all, it was a pleasant and relaxing day and I don’t often get one of those.

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