Social worker Philip Hill’s (pictured) life story was so extraordinary that his psychiatrist urged him to complete the autobiography he had started 10 years earlier. Now a published author, he speaks to Anabel Unity Sale
On a bus bumping along Birmingham’s soggy streets Philip Hill delves into his plastic bag. The social worker pulls out a book with a black and white photograph of two little boys in spacesuits on the cover and hands it to me. It is his newly published autobiography, Living Out of the Book.
It is no understatement to say Hill has overcome huge problems. The book details frankly his story from being taken into care, being misdiagnosed as having learning disabilities as a child and experiencing two breakdowns and paranoid schizophrenia, to becoming a social worker.
An “existential crisis” when he turned 40 prompted Hill to write his life story. When some men have a midlife crisis, stereotypes purport they grow a ponytail and buy a shiny sports car. Neither appealed to Hill so, aware of the importance of maintaining good mental health, he turned to his psychiatrist of 20 years, Femi Oyebode. He recommended Hill continue writing the book he had started (and published 300 copies of) when he first had therapy, aged 30. Hill began work on the enlarged version of his autobiography in October 2005 and completed it last January.
Hill and his twin brother Paul were born in Birmingham in 1966 to a mother with schizophrenia. Their father left when their mother was pregnant and their older sister and brother were already in care.
When the twins were born social services placed them in a children’s home. The impact of this decision – and its consequences – is not lost on Hill: “As babies we didn’t cry a lot so we didn’t get lots of attention. Subsequently, Paul and I have had difficulty forming attachments.”
At 13 months they were fostered by their cousin, the daughter of their mother’s half-sister, and her husband. The foster parents changed the twins’ names to Philip and Paul and the pair tried to settle into their first real family home.
But Hill found it impossible to settle because of his foster mother’s behaviour. She spoke to him with “high levels of expressed emotion” which destroyed his confidence and self-esteem.
“Even though I was told I was loved I never felt it. My foster father was, and is, a very special person but to a certain extent I am still scared of my foster mother.”
He says his foster parents had old-fashioned views about raising children, and favoured the seen-and-not-heard approach to the twins and the baby girl they adopted when he was nine. Hill never spoke out about the emotional abuse he experienced, and never told the social worker who visited the family every six months how unhappy he was.
When five-year-old Hill and his brother went to nursery school but they did not fit in. An assessment by a child psychologist concluded the pair had special educational needs, so they went to a special school until they were nine. Local children taunted them “you go to the school where spazzers go”.
Despite being labelled with learning disabilities, Hill’s inquisitive mind stood out. After winning the “best work” prize three times in a row, on the advice of the head teacher his parents moved him to a mainstream school. His brother went to a different special school.
Hill was not taught to read at school and his foster father, galvanised by the change of schools, took it upon himself to teach him at age nine. Four months later Hill could read: “Books became toys for me because they were the only thing we were allowed to do because they weren’t messy.”
In fact, the title of his book is a reflection of his foster father’s passion for reading: “He thought if you found the right book to help you do what you wanted then you were set for life, so I really am living out of the book.”
For someone with such a challenging childhood, going to university as Hill did should have been a joyful experience. Unfortunately his positive achievements were overshadowed when, two weeks after he finished his degree in economics and economic history and, aged 22, he had a breakdown.
It was triggered by being rejected by a woman. His thoughts disintegrated, he felt suicidal and believed he was Jesus. “My foster mother never allowed me to have an opinion and I didn’t know how to understand my feelings. Instead of being able to react as any other 22-year-old would I had a breakdown.”
Voluntarily he admitted himself to a psychiatric hospital and, having been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, was “zonked out” on medication. Seven weeks later he left the hospital and returned home before moving into a flat with his brother and getting a postal assistant job. A year on, and six months after stopping his medication, Hill became ill again. “I walked four miles to the nearest psychiatric hospital because I recognised what was happening, and I cried when I got there.”
Realising the importance of taking medication for his condition, Hill has now taken it for 20 years. “I know if I didn’t take it for three weeks I would get ill, so if the chemist starts messing my prescription around I get really shirty,” he says, with a laugh.
Given his early poor experiences, some may be surprised that he chose a career in social work. The idea came to him during his second stay in hospital because he was so impressed by the care he received. After a series of dead-end jobs he became a support worker at a hostel run by Rethink in 1993 and two years later was promoted to senior support worker. Hill stayed in post until 2004 during which time he completed a masters degree, a master of philosophy and a diploma in social work. In October that year he joined Birmingham Council as a learning disabilities social worker and has been there since.
Impact on practice
His personal experiences have had a significant impact on his practice. Hill says he is strong at person-centred assessments as he picks up on clients’ nuances. He can also draw upon his own knowledge to help inform fellow practitioners.
He says: “I went to a review the other day and another professional was very surprised to hear a client, who has been going through therapy, was crying so he assumed it wasn’t helping. I said I’d been through therapy and it’s hard work. The psychologist smiled at me.”
Stigma and misconception often surround mental ill health. Thankfully Hill says he has not experienced this from his colleagues, in part because he says they are “protective of me” and also because he has taught himself to be more confident, assertive and value his own opinions and judgements.
Social work is notoriously challenging and demanding. What does he say to those who think he may be too mentally fragile to do it? “Social workers with mental health issues like me have huge potential and need to be valued. It should be recognised that our experiences of distress are valid and useful.”
One area that has proved problematic and frustrating was the General Social Care Council registration process. It took 11 months and Hill complains its forms – in which he was open about his mental health issues – were medically oriented. “It was stressful as I felt like I wasn’t a fully-fledged social worker, although I was covered to practice.”
Hill wants all those who read his book to be inspired with hope: “When you come out of hospital it’s not the end of your life but the beginning of your journey’s recovery.”
Living Out of the Book costs £10 and is available from www.chipmunkapublishing.com