August 6, 2012

Photo of man and lionIn 2001 after struggling with repressed feelings over my eldest daughter’s disability, I experienced a breakdown. A house move proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. Between then and 2010 I’d had a couple of other depressive episodes but I was always able to recover quickly thanks to the immense support of my family, a great GP and continued medication.

However in 2010 my marriage fell apart after my wife felt she could no longer cope with my depression and started to see someone else. The depression I fell into when I realised my marriage was over was more severe and more acute than it had ever been before.

My carpentry business was on the slide so I asked the trustee of a big cat charity that I volunteered for if there was any chance he could offer me a job as part of the maintenance team. He was aware of my personal circumstances but not my history of depression. Fortunately he did offer me a job, which was such a boon on so many levels. Firstly, I had a full time job. Secondly, I got to work all day everyday around the animals I love. Thirdly, I would have the support and love of my closest friends who I had made in my three years at the big cat sanctuary.

I was always open about my depression if anyone asked

I attended a staff induction where I filled out a personal information form detailing amongst other things any medication I took. So I put down that I took Flouxetine as I was always open about my depression if anyone asked. There was also a presentation where the trustees, amongst many other aspects of HR, said they would look out for and support vulnerable members of staff if it came to their attention.

Three months into my job, despite loving every minute of it, my personal life became so traumatic that I attempted suicide and overdosed on tablets. After taking a week off to recover at the trustees request, I returned to work to be told that they could no longer afford to keep me on and they went to great pains to say it had nothing to do with my recent illness. They even said I was welcome back anytime.

even if they don’t have the money at least I can still come back as a volunteer

That’s ok I thought to myself. Times are hard for everyone and even if they don’t have the money at least I can still come back as a volunteer. However, a couple of weeks later when I asked to come back as a volunteer I was told that I needed at least a six week ‘cooling off’ period. When I calmly asked what it was I needed to cool off from, communication ceased. Countless polite answer phone messages, emails and letters of support from myself, my GP, counsellor and a Rethink advocacy worker all went unanswered.

Finally after two months of trying to ask simply for a trustee to sit down and talk about whatever issues they had with me, I received a phone call from one of the trustees. She told me I wouldn’t ever be coming back onsite again and that she didn’t have to explain her reasons as I was only a volunteer and promptly hung up on me.

The big cats were my life, my therapy. My close friends there were my support group and my rock. If you can think of the amazing effect that animals can have, such as horses with autistic kids or dolphins with disabled people, then it’s not hard to imagine how much of a positive effect working with lions and tigers can have on my well being.

what hurt the most and still hurts today nearly two years later is the discrimination and stigma I experienced

It hurt being ripped away from them. It hurt being removed from somewhere that I loved and had invested so much in emotionally. It hurt not seeing my close friends every day. But what hurt the most and still hurts today nearly two years later is the discrimination and stigma I experienced. All of which could have been dissolved if the trustees had only had the courage to sit down and talk with me.

Today, the majority of my friendships have suffered as I no longer see my friends on a daily or weekly basis and I feel very isolated, so I have explored the opportunities for a new beginning working with lions in Africa. To date it has been to no avail but I live in hope.

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