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By Rhea Cartwright
t’s a crisp late spring morning and I’m on my way to St Charles Centre for Health and Wellbeing in the heart of west London to meet five women who specialise in alternative therapies such as breathwork, sound healing and meditation.
For the past eight months, their clients have not been wellness messiahs or those itching to try a new holistic treatment praised by a green-juice-welding celebrity. Instead, they have been dedicating their time and practice to help heal and rebuild the lives of the survivors and bereaved of the Grenfell Tower tragedy.
Despite the sun shining brightly, there is a definite chill in the air. In August, this is one of the routes taken by the floats of Notting Hill carnival; today, hurried mothers pushing prams monopolise Ladbroke Grove’s pavements, while bustling market traders joyfully set up their stalls on Portobello Road. There is a peaceful accord between them all. A shared rhythm among the chaos that is often only found in family, a community or those touched by a mutual event.
Looking up, I see what remains of Grenfell in the distance. The charred tower, lifeless but still dominating the local skyline, is a stark reminder of the devastating moment in history when we all remember where we were and what we were doing when the news of the fire broke.
On 14 June 2017, Grenfell Tower, the residential housing block located in north Kensington, burnt down. Flames engulfed the 24-storey building, the site of 124 homes, housing at least 365 men, women and children – the exact figure is not known. The building burned for 60 hours; an indescribable ordeal for those trapped inside.
Official records show 72 deaths and 293 survivors, but these figures are marked by much contention and controversy as, four years on, there are claims that several people are still unaccounted for.
As the immediate furore subsided, it became apparent that the survivors would need help. As part of the packages from the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea (RBKC) council, they've been offered counselling and non-clinical community-based emotional support. But it wasn’t until September 2020 that Paula Taras, an acupuncturist passionately leading the Notting Hill Therapy Clinic, received news that she’d been granted funding to treat those affected by Grenfell in a clinical setting with a multidisciplinary approach.
“I ended up going to the clinic because I was desperate. My mental state wasn’t good; I wasn’t talking to people; I was scared of lifts, scared of fire.”
Ranging from wellbeing treatments, such as massage and one-to-one yoga, to shamanic healing and Reiki, they offer a full spectrum of complementary therapies.
“The beauty of it [alternative therapies], is that they treat the body and physical symptoms but also the mind – any mental anxiety, stress or how we sleep,” says Paula. “We look at the pain, be that physical or emotional, and see how that affects the spirit.”
With spirit meaning the energetic life force found within us, rather than in any religious sentiment, Paula, like many in the holistic world, believes that our bodies hold on to both physical and emotional trauma.
“Traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies. The past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort.”
“At the beginning, you need to talk it through and try to comprehend what has happened but trauma lodges itself in the body which often comes out as pain, anguish, or twitching,” explains Paula.
It is a theory first popularised by Boston-based Dutch psychiatrist and pioneering PTSD researcher Bessel van der Kolk, as neither talking nor drug therapies have proven entirely successful when dealing with trauma. In his book, The Body Keeps The Score, he discusses how trauma disturbs our ability to know what we feel. We stop trusting our gut instincts and dissociate from our own bodies.
“Traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies,” he writes. “The past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort. Their bodies are constantly bombarded by visceral warning signs, and, in an attempt to control these processes, they often become experts at ignoring their gut feelings and in numbing awareness of what is playing out inside. They learn to hide from themselves.”
Body psychotherapist, Catherine Gehin, who has also been treating Grenfell patients from the clinic, agrees. She specialised in treating those suffering from physical and emotional trauma such as stress, anxiety, muscle tension, depression and chronic pain.
Working on calming the autonomic nervous system, which is the primary mechanism controlling the fight-or-flight response, she says the amygdala is the part of the brain that automatically signals an alarm bell when traumatised, which is then often interpreted in the body.
“Any sensation that reminds us of trauma will send a signal to the brain,” she explains. “In the case of people from Grenfell, the smell of smoke, alarm bells sounding or strong lights could send an automatic alert and trigger a full cascade of stress hormones in the body. When the body is stressed, it affects the blood pressure, the respiratory system and body temperature. If the blood is not circulating properly in the body, certain muscles get under oxygenated which can result in a lot of pain.”
It’s a flashback, as sufferers know they are in the present moment but their whole body reacts as if it was still in the traumatic event.
“Talking about it is not going to help because it is the unconscious alarm bell that is reacting,” explains Catherine.
The automatic response of being able to avert and avoid danger is a core survival function but when those receptors are continually activated, it can seriously impede mental and physical wellbeing.
Grenfell patients at the Notting Hill Therapy Clinic – a project funded by the Grenfell Dedicated Service, which is provided jointly by the NHS and RBKC – were initially allowed 12 free hourly sessions, but this was subsequently cut to just six. Several survivors and bereaved have said having access to the clinic has been the only thing that has helped in the four years since the fire and yet, as the money dries up, so does their access to care. In just seven months, the 19-strong team has treated over 130 people and given over 750 treatments.
A Grade II-listed site, St Charles doesn’t feel like a typical hospital. For one, it is non-surgical, so the pace, energy, and even the smell, feel inherently different. I’m greeted by receptionist Maureen, a Ladbroke Grove local of Jamaican heritage. Her long, hot-pink acrylic nails energetically act as marshalls, directing me to the holistic hub.
Located on the third floor, the clinic is somewhat ironically located in a section of the hospital named “The Tower”. As the lift doors open, I step into a hospital waiting room like any other except for the abundance of Yogi tea bags, a gentle smattering of pink Himalayan crystal lamps, and buddhas.
Alternative therapies are still met with a lot of cynicism from the wider medical community but if the reactions from the survivors I meet are anything to go by, the work of the Notting Hill Therapy clinic speaks for itself.
Despite the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea being one of the richest councils in London, the socio-economic background of the Grenfell residents sat within a close proximity to poverty. According to the English Housing Survey 2017-2018, Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) households are ten times more likely to live in high-rise buildings in the social rented sector than white households. It is probable that the largely BAME Grenfell inhabitants navigated institutionalised racism, which would have affected their quality of life even before the fire.
The Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities report cited the Grenfell tragedy as one of the more recent instances where people from BAME communities “have rightly felt let down”.
Some residents had fled war-torn countries to find safety and solace in England, only to be let down in the most unfathomable way in the place we are all meant to feel the most peace – our home.
“I was really worried about my health but more worried about my child. I didn’t want to lose my first child.”
Somalia-born Maryam Adams came to the UK from Sudan in 1997, before moving to Grenfell in 2008. Her flat was on the fourth floor and it was her neighbour’s malfunctioning fridge-freezer that is believed to be the origin of the fire. Having already suffered three miscarriages, Maryam was three months pregnant when the fire took place that night.
“I was really worried about my health but more worried about my child,” she says. “I didn’t want to lose my first child.”
Pregnant and having lost her home, Maryam was struck with severe health conditions in the aftermath. She had a slipped disc, which meant she needed an emergency operation, after losing all feeling in her legs. She developed lymphedema and more ongoing numbness. Four years on, she still walks with support from a crutch.
Most residents stayed in hotels, temporary homes or serviced apartments. Maryam ended up at the Premier Inn in Earls Court, sharing a hotel room with her husband and brother.
Arriving at the hotel, though, she realised that the bed was too high for her to comfortably reach and there weren't enough sofa beds. For three months, she slept on the floor. In September 2017, a month before the birth of her son, she was moved into serviced apartments in Kensington.
Still breastfeeding and therefore unwilling to take painkillers, she says she endured excruciating pain until she was recommended acupuncture. Long before the clinic received funding, Paula donated her time free of charge to help those most in need. Maryam was one of the first survivors she treated. Unbeknown to Maryam, her psychologist then paid for subsequent treatment.
“For three months, she was using her own money to pay for the weekly session because it was the only thing helping, but I was angry because I knew the council had money for survivors,” she says.
Based on her own positive results, Maryam became a staunch advocate for the clinic and was adamantly fighting for over two years for other Grenfell residents to have access to the services available.
‘I was thinking it’s time to settle down and get married. I’d finished my degree, I had a job and all of these plans – but it was all just taken away.’
As holistic treatments are rarely available on the NHS, it opens up the notion of the burgeoning health gap and the harsh reality that these people simply cannot afford treatments for their ongoing care.
Although several funds have been set up to support those affected, Maryam rightly asks: “Who decides how the money is spent? We’re all survivors and all grieving but each with our own individual problems. This is working for me and so many others, but we’re told we can’t have more.”
The project has been overwhelmingly well-received by survivors but it is imperative that sessions continue to avoid regression. In 2019, a sum of £50 million was agreed by the council to fund the Grenfell Recovery Strategy for the next five years, of which £12 million is allocated for 2020/2021. With multiple services available for survivors, several say they are frustrated and feel that there is little flexibility over how their individual portion of funds is spent.
Fundamentally, sessions stop abruptly and those who are positively responding to treatment want and need ongoing care. It’s as if you visit a doctor and are prescribed medication but only a very limited amount. If the medication is both effective and necessary, then you would expect to take it for as long as it is required.
“We’ve seen people’s perspectives, energy and pain all change since having sessions,” says Paula. “We’ve had clients’ solicitors get in touch with us fighting for more sessions for the patients.”
“There is funding available for other things, but these alternative therapies are working for me, so why isn’t my allocation used how I want? There are so many of us that want access to more sessions,” explains 30-year-old Sarah*, who had never tried acupuncture before meeting Paula at the clinic. She says it has been the only thing that has worked and was the catalyst needed to change her outlook on life.
“Since the fire, I hadn’t been able to stick to any kind of counselling or talking therapy,” she explains. “I would always do one session and then leave or not show up. Talking about what happened was too traumatic, and I didn’t realise there were other ways to help me.”
She had just turned 26 years old when the disaster took place. A stage in her life when, like most young women, she was getting excited about the endless possibilities and opportunities of her future.
“I was at the point where you start thinking it’s time to settle down and get married. I’d finished my degree, I had a job and all of these plans – but it was all just taken away.”
She was encouraged by her key worker to visit St Charles.
“I wasn’t enthusiastic about it and didn’t think it would work. I thought, ‘How is acupuncture gonna help me?’ But my key worker kept saying it was like therapy but in a different way,” she adds.
In her first acupuncture session, Sarah started crying when Paula put a needle in her chest.
“I was apologising because I didn’t understand what was happening, but I could finally breathe. I’d had this emotional weight on my chest for a long, long time and that feeling was just amazing.”
Clinical masseuse Dina Mistry combines several techniques from physiotherapy to osteopathy to alleviate pain. She works on the biopsychosocial model, which explores how the biological, psychological, and socio-environmental factors work together.
“There are various elements that create someone’s pain,” she explains. “Two individuals could have the exact same injury and pain, but the person who has experienced more trauma and suffered on different levels will take longer to heal.”
Take a shoulder injury, for example. Patient A is a middle-aged woman, emotionally supported by her husband, financially secure, and enjoying life without too much stress on her plate. Whereas Patient B could be a single mother of three children, who has just lost her job and is therefore struggling to keep her head above water.
According to Dina and her peers working within the biopsychosocial model, Patient A will typically recover much faster. “The emotional element of our understanding of pain is very much determined by perception,” she explains. “Pain isn't quantifiable – it’s down to the individual.”
The biopsychosocial model offers a lens through which we can better understand why Grenfell, a tragedy that sits at the intersection of race and class inequality, is fraught with much complexity.
For Paula and the other therapists at the centre, their challenge has been gaining the trust of the patients. Tofiq*, 47, is both a survivor and bereaved. He feels let down and frustrated by the council that is meant to protect him. And he was wary of the services they provided.
“I was very sceptical about trusting them and the treatment at the beginning. I was brought up in an environment of macho men – only weak people talk.”
Born in Morocco but raised in west London, his first hurdle was counselling.
“We grew up, in Latimer Road, in Ladbroke Grove – we were tough boys on the street; we didn’t show weakness. We could have had heavy problems on our shoulders but the mentality was to just deal with it rather than talk about it. I only started counselling after a year because I didn’t trust it. It took me a long time to open up and actually speak.”
Since that fateful night, Tofiq says he has suffered from crippling sleep paralysis and teeth grinding.
“After the horror of what happened, I have the same nightmares every night. With sleep paralysis my body locks up – my eyes are open but I can’t move. My whole body tenses, which means I wake up with a lot of agony in my joints and muscles. I was in too much pain to deal with day in and day out.”
His teeth are so jagged and sharp from the incessant grinding that he likens it to having shards of glass in his mouth.
“I ended up going to the clinic because I was desperate. My mental state wasn’t good; I wasn’t talking to people; I was scared of lifts, scared of fire,” he says.
Thankfully, he was introduced to Dina. “She was like a drug to me. She understood exactly what I was going through. It finally gave me respite and allowed my body to rest and have a chance.”
Although Tofiq* was given the maximum amount of twelve sessions, he says it was like a taster and wants more treatments for continued results.
“I wasn't allowed more which was quite upsetting. If I had continued with more sessions for a lot longer, it would have been a good formula. I don't have high enough praise for Dina and her particular therapy,” he says.
The collective Western rhetoric surrounding alternative therapies often labels the practices as nothing more than new-age, “woo-woo” psychobabble. Acupuncture and meditation are not medically discussed with the same vigour as antibiotics or anti-depressants and yet, people are citing the treatments as the thing that has helped them the most.
Our attitudes to healthcare are changing and while there might not be any cold, scientific evidence proving that all alternative therapies work, the Grenfell survivors, like so many others, praise it for helping them feel better and allowing them to have some semblance of a normal life.
The unfathomable tragedy of the ravaging fire four years ago will never be forgotten. As Maryam says, “this will be in our hearts and minds forever”, but the trauma now permanently etched into their core is being eased by Paula and her team.
The fact that news of the fire went viral has undoubtedly amplified the physical and emotional trauma. Those affected couldn’t grieve, heal and process in private. Their identities, whether public or not, were intrinsically tied to Grenfell as they were branded survivors and victims. Their collective pain was thrust into the limelight and a saga, which still continues to this day.
Paula and her roster of holistic therapists have offered healing and hope to those who truly need it the most.
“Acupuncture was medicine for me,” Maryam says. “We just need help to get back to our normal life. That’s all we’re asking for.”
*Some names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.
Four years on from the Grenfell fire, survivors need greater access to holistic therapies to help them move on from the trauma of that night.
By Rhea Cartwright
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