An Enormity of Unbelief

First thoughts are the everyday thoughts. Everyone has those. Second thoughts are the thoughts you think about the way you think. People who enjoy thinking have those. Third thoughts are thoughts that watch the world and think all by themselves. They’re rare and often troublesome. Listening to them is part of witchcraft.

A Hat Full of Sky by Terry Pratchett

One of the problems I have with thinking about my parent being sectioned is that I remember what I remember, but nobody from my family who was involved remembers the same thing. Actually we don’t seem to remember any of the same events at all. Some people don’t seem to remember any of it, but fragments seep to the surface anyway and then float away. This means that the whole story doesn’t make sense. This is trauma, the outgoing circles of pain that disrupt memory, disrupt meaning making and make it impossible to see the harm for what it is. People struggle even to have First Thoughts about these sort of events.

There is one bit that we are all agreed on. The hospital he was detained in was called by all of us “that horrible place”. Various people I know have been physically ill and they were in hospital at times. I guess none of us thought those hospitals were nice, but the general feeling of horror about the psychiatric unit is not the same. It wasn’t only that people who are not in touch with consensus reality, or are very confused or very frightened are worrying and distressing. This is entirely about how the staff talked about people and how they treated them. It’s about the things we saw the staff do but don’t always remember and don’t talk about. It’s about questions I asked and asked, that got no satisfactory answers. It’s about the attitude that someone who is not experiencing the world the way we do, or not experiencing themselves in the same terms as our culture allows them to, does not have human rights and if they have no human rights they have no meaningful feelings. It about witnessing abuse, but not being able to do anything about it.  It’s about being silenced to the extent that you cannot even articulate what it is you disagree with. It’s about all that being state enabled and state sanctioned terror. You can’t argue with people implementing the law. Though in this parrallel reality there is no court, no judicial oversight, no jury of peers. The process going on here is a social one not a medical one. It is one of judging someone as less than human. It’s just history and habit.

I remember a lot of adults turning up after things had got very difficult at home. I remember finding the officials very aggressive and violent. I didn’t think much of them as I felt I had been handling things better than they were able to. Before they arrived everyone was safe and my parents had stopped hurting one another. I was sure that if I could handle things without force then the adults should be able to. Of course, this was because I saw the situation differently to them. I saw it as a misunderstanding where one parent had become aggressive because the one who was struggling was behaving in ways they found hard to make sense of, and so the situation had escalated. The adults saw it as the parent who was struggling being the aggressor. The officials had an easy story to get hold of and once they had, they were out to impose it on everyone. I felt my Third Thoughts were more use and gave us a way forward.  I looked at the adults and thought they couldn’t even manage to have Second Thoughts. I wasn’t really sure that they were people who liked thinking about their own thinking though. They might, I guess, see something about themselves they didn’t like. I do know that up until that night I had wanted some sensible adults to turn up and deal with the things I could not. After they turned up, I was pretty clear that I didn’t need more frightened adults in my life, as they only made things worse.

I am sure I remember my parents being asked questions by lots of adults I had never met. I remember this even though I think it would have been highly unlikely that any adult would have allowed a child to be hanging around that sort of conversation. However, I have a pretty good idea that I would have found a way to listen in if at all possible as it was always best to know what the adults were up to. Meetings like that never boded well and it was better to get your information from the horses mouth than try and work out what adults really meant when they told you the version of events they could cope with afterwards.  I remember that I was frightened that the adults would listen to the pleas of one of my parents not to take the other away and that would mean that the problems at home would be ongoing. I didn’t know what might happen if that was the case, things seemed threatening enough already. I remember that I was quite relieved when it became clear that these objections would be over-ruled because I didn’t think things could go on the way they were. I was also pleased at first that the parent who was going to be detained would be going to hospital, not to jail. That seemed right as things were certainly not going well with them. I thought hospital would be kind and approach things like I did, with people listening and trying to make sense of things with my parents. I thought they would be more skilled than me and more able to cope. I thought they would be more able to keep going over time. I didn’t know that the hospital was going to be pretty much a jail.

I was very upset though that they didn’t think to listen to what I remember happening. It seemed easier for them to believe that the parent that was clearly struggling, the one who dipped in and out of sharing the same reality the rest of us did and was finding the world hard to make sense of had hurt the other one because they were ‘mentally ill’. I rather remember that the aggression had been the other way around, before it escalated and got out of control.  It wasn’t the parent they were detaining that I was frightened of, but no-one was interested in that part of the story. I felt that adults had their easy story, the one they wanted to believe. There’s no point in having Third Thoughts if you are the only one having them.

The professionals who came later to tell me about decisions that they had made tried to explain ‘mental illness’ to me and ‘diagnosis’. I listened. I listened to them explain their confusion about what the diagnosis might be and how the situation was complex and how they would give my parent medicine which might make them better. I asked them what tests they were going to do to find out which problem it was as they weren’t sure yet. They said, ‘There aren’t any tests as such…’. I heard them out of course, as I was taught to be polite. I did have a view, when they had stopped talking. However, it takes time for the habits of mind that come from trust to fade- I had an idea that adults weren’t telling me the truth because they tend to patronise children to protect them. ‘I know I’m only 12, but its OK, you can just tell me you don’t know, can’t find out and don’t really know what to do so you just have to guess’. I know now that the adults had managed to kid themselves and all of society into a lie so grand that it is only just beginning to unravel. A lie that seems to be based on so little evidence that I cannot believe that we ever engaged with it as a society. It is also a lie that starts to unravel as soon as you ask whether there is a test for the diagnosis. I listen to my Third Thoughts, they seem to get to centre of the problem. I don’t know what you call the thoughts that lead to a lie like that. Wrong?

I listened to the adults tell me that because my parent was ill they didn’t have responsibility. I thought sometimes they did, sometimes they didn’t. However, when I talked to them, even when they very confused they seemed to be making moral decisions. I thought that this idea made no sense in general. Up till then they had being making perfectly good choices not to hurt me or anyone else- in spite of everything. Both parents had had choices and neither of them had made good ones. Society had made a choice not to provide services until things were at crisis point. Mental Health services had made choices not to talk to my parent about the things that were bothering them, but to see some experiences as something that should not be talked about or engaged with, increasing fear and isolation. Lots of decisions, none of them seemed very good to me. Third Thoughts again.

When I visited my parent in hospital, I was pretty clear that ‘the horrible place’, wasn’t what I imagined a hospital would be like, which was pretty much the last piece of trust in adults I had left after that night.

So if you work in mental health I will probably give you a hard time, though mostly I don’t say anything unless I am trying to get you to think. I am trying to get you to have some Second Thoughts, I do think you should be able to manage that. Whether or not you personally use violence, you are part of a system that often enough uses coersion and force in ways that destroys a fundamental trust. You are also pretty arrogant.  You think that trust can be rebuilt whatever harm you do. You think that trust isn’t something that is earnt. You think that it is a quality you ‘are’ because of your role.  If you are a psychiatrist, mental health nurse or AMPH, you think that in spite of your role and the purpose of your job, you are a special case. I am here to tell you that none of those things are true. You are a special case if you can see the abuse and violence of the system  and understand that although the officials say it is necessary, is much less necessary than they want it to be. You are a special case if you can see that, name it and then do something about it. You are a special case if you don’t respond to my point of view by assuming that I am against detention. I think it is necessary at times. You are a special case if you don’t assume I’m against medication because I disagree with the system as it is running at the moment. As far as I can tell it is overused, but helpful for some people at times. You’re a special case if you understand that I am not against psychiatry, but against the abuse of psychiatry.

I once told someone that I didn’t hate the officials and professionals who use violence and deliberately and repeatedly hurt my parent, and unthinkingly harmed me and my siblings as yet more worthless collateral damage. That is true. What I did do was reject them and reject all authority, falling back on my own resources. I listened to my Third Thoughts and came to the conclusion they were much more important than the official’s easy stories. I decided I was not going to be tricked into doing things I thought were wrong. If I thought it was wrong, I was going to resist doing it in all the ways I could. Power and authority could do a lot but they couldn’t make me agree. The interesting thing about that is I never became oppositional or unco-operative. I got on well with the adults in my life, though not in the least because I had learnt what might happen if you are not easy to understand, or challenge their need for order and conformity. I had learnt that our society rests on an unseen bedrock of coersion and threats, some overt, some subtle. We don’t live in the society we are taught we live in. However, although I remained a child that every teacher would be happy to have in their class, every university wanted, every parent was happy to have as their child’s friend, I never did anything ever again just because an adult asked me. I always had Second Thoughts or Third Thoughts about what people in positions of authority might be about- Are they lying to me? What do they want from me? What needs of theirs am I meeting? What things are they avoiding that they can’t cope with which might hurt me or others? Not least I learnt to separate out people ‘doing being nice’ from the function of their role. I learnt that social structures ask people to deliver an outcome and that someone seeming to be nice was no measure of the function that they were there to fulfil. I became oppositional to social structures and the function of social roles. I became angry at people who were not clear about what their social role asked of them and didn’t question any conflict between their personal sense of integrity and what they were asked to do. I became intolerant of people’s repeated willingness to believe easy stories and outright lies; their decisions to not see, not hear and not recognise abuse. 

Mental Health professionals taught me that there is good reason to have an enormity of unbelief. That lesson is a lifelong ache.



Author: Valid Consent

Promoting trauma informed care

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