One of the hardest lessons in young Sam’s life had been finding out that the people in charge weren’t in charge. It had been finding out that governments were not, on the whole, staffed by people who had a grip, and that plans were what people made instead of thinking.
Night Watch by Terry Pratchett
Sometimes when I am interacting with professionals on Twitter, as I respond, I suddenly remember where I first had that thought and the situation that gave birth to it. In some senses, professional responses are just very predictable. Yet, I wonder how much I am repeating old situations and whether I could do something new. Indeed I wonder, looking back, whether I can think of different ways my 12 year old self could have handled it.
I remember how it felt to be a 12 year old thinking about the rights of the police and officials to enter and arrest people, to use violence and force, of adults to order that another is detained, and to use force while that person is detained. I remember not understanding why using state force to terrify frightened people whose behaviour is annoying and troubling, but not dangerous, made any sense at all. I remember thinking about things in the hope that terror would become less terrifying if I could put a shape around it with concepts and words. Making sense of state-sponsored brutality is never an easy option, making sense of state-sponsored brutality in a context where what the officials actively claim is being offered is compassion and care is impossible, but I needed to do it. I could see the limits of the professionals’ thinking and it was evident that the one thing that they would not be able to do was listen to me: instead they would patronise me, telling me I would understand when I was older; or try and play power games, inappropriately reversing the roles in the situation by asking me what I would do if I had to make the decisions they had to make; confuse me by simply repeating what they had said before, but with subtle differences; attack me by suggesting that my motives were to try and harm the family or because I wanted to stop the medics making my Dad better.
Mostly I thought the adults were very confused, or hypocrites, or both. I had also found that questioning them didn’t really get you very far as you ended up going around in circles, not getting any further towards answers to very urgent problems. After my parent was sectioned I was extremely frustrated with adults’ inability to give any sort of coherent account of what they were doing and why they were doing it. I was delighted that I could give up on the adults completely when I found that the library at my school had books which gave better answers than real people. Real people seemed to have an amazing ability to be evasive or choose not understand my questions, books, however, had answers, and then left me to my own resources to work out what my questions were. In my opinion any early adolescent who reads Every Good Boy Deserves Favour by Tom Stoppard; 1984 by George Orwell; The Contract of Mutual Indifference by Norman Geras; Ekman in Jerusalem: A report on the Banality of Evil by Hannah Arendt and The Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela to try and make sense of the behaviour of the officials in their world, is questioning every underlying assumption of every institution in their society by taking a long hard look at the common processes which operate against human dignity and respect. I felt then, as I do now, that that form of attempting to address troubling questions is much more exhausting than the ‘take your feelings out and look at them’ approach that professionals seem to think is reflective practice. As I read the books I formed the view that the anguish and loneliness I experienced happened entirely because the adults had always been or somehow become immune to suffering, were very insensitive to the pain they inflicted on others and were happy to blindly carry on doing what they were doing because they had bought into an ideology or personal morality which allowed them to abdicate their individual responsibility. What I saw happening to my parent and to the other people I knew in the mental health system was about control, power and dominance, and very much less about care, even if that confusing diametrically opposed package was wrapped up in softly spoken words. I was not sure what was motivating the adults to behave in this way though: whether it was for the sheer sense of joy in harming others or as a way of managing their own fear or pain. Around that centre was the need not to know, not to be a part of it, not to see the pain in case it hurt you in your turn. However, although the books told me that the adults had not learnt any personal lessons about the processes of dehumanisation and indifference from history, I also knew that I couldn’t find the history I wanted. It was many years before I realised that people who experience mental distress have historically been so marginalised that they don’t have a history that can easily be found- and certainly not one that could be easily found in a secondary school library. The stories linking madness, trauma and human rights were present but unexamined in books that tried to engage with other events that are present in our current social consciousness, such as Colonialism, Genocide or Apartheid, just as the repeated lessons which can be learnt from those events are still not yet accepted as our collective responsibilities to one another as human beings.
I took some things from reading those books though. I learnt that the word ‘because’ is not magic, that if I didn’t want to fall into the same intellectual, spiritual and emotional death that the adults had succumbed to that that it was imperative to listen to the explanation that followed that word. The resistance is to notice that the space after the ‘because’ is where the adults try to trick you into their collective blindness. Explanations that are not compelling are often lies. Explanations that are confusing are often lies. The tactic is to say why the explanations are not good enough and to point out the different ways the adults are explaining things are indeed just ways of repeating the same thing. The other tactic, when you are exhausted, is just to say that you disagree. This is very powerful.
I learnt that the word complex doesn’t really mean that things are impossible to understand, it can mean either that someone doesn’t want to explain or that they lack the skills to be able to explain it. Crucially, however, ‘complex’ so very often meant that what the adult was trying to get me to believe was in the most absolute sense not possible for them to explain, because the justification was not even coherent to the adult themselves. The resistance is to understand the excuse of complexity is not true. The tactic is to refuse to accept that anything is too complex to explain and make the adult explain it.
I learnt that just carrying on asking the questions sends you round and round in circles, feeling disorientated, exhausted, frustrated and confused, but makes the adults angry. That led to more learning. I learnt that if you ask a question and someone gets angry, you are on the right track. There is a reason why they are getting angry and trying to hurt you. I learnt that the feeling of confusion in itself is the clue that something is not right here. Confusion is what people who are doing harm feel when you ask them to look directly at the consequences of their actions, but it is also a strategy they use. It acts to stop your behaviour, to stop you thinking, to stop your questions and it gives them opportunity to take control. The resistance is to notice who or what is causing the confusion and work out what the effect of people being confused is. The tactic is to name and carry on naming the institution, organisation, person, or concept causing the problem and what they get out of people’s responses.
I learnt that the people in charge just denying there is a problem is very powerful, a good argument is ineffective and presenting the best evidence can be just ignored if it doesn’t fit with what people want to see. Ideological blindness is a true blindness, as it renders people unable to learn and able to change. I found tactics: I learnt that just stating that I was in disagreement might not change anything, but it did give me a space to stand in that was not invaded by the view of the world that they were trying to impose on me. Disagreeing was resistance.
I learnt that if I disagreed or asked questions, there were consequences. People who are doing harm because they find it satisfying, because they are thoughtless or incompetent, or because they are choosing to be a blind bystander will do anything to find ways not to be put in touch with the outcomes their actions. I discovered that they do this because they were afraid and could not bear it. They were angry because they needed my abject fear, my acquiescence to feel safe. If they needed my fear and needed me to be very afraid, that meant they were reliant on me for their feelings of power, which made my questioning more powerful than they were. In the shifting sands of trauma, I discovered that the balance of power was not where anyone expected it to be. The resistance is to learn to feel your own strength in the space where the people causing the harm do not know that you are strong. The tactic is to plan to avoid people with those needs as much as possible and, if I had to be near them, give them as little information about my thoughts and feelings as possible.
I learnt that you will get hurt by the anger of people who have power if you speak up, at the same time as I worked out that you will be hurt by what they are doing even if you do not speak out. I realised that they do not consider this a potential source of power: the people causing the harm do not realise that once someone has grasped neither speaking up nor remaining quiet is protective, they have lost a lot of the power they were relying on. The resistance is to hold on to an understanding of different bases of power. The tactic is to struggle to find a way to speak.
I learnt that what I felt in these situations was powerlessness and rage. Powerlessness is the level of fear that steals your words because it takes the ability to even think about the things that are happening. Rage is what happens when you learn that even when you disagree, the terrible thing is going to happen and keep on happening anyway. I discovered that our societal response of dismissing strong feelings is a gift to those who cause harm. Powerlessness and rage, the very emotions abusive situations cause, are the ones used to show that the person experiencing the harm directly or as a witness, is not worth listening to. I realised the resistance is to listen differently if we want to stop the harm: we need to hear that fear and rage are caused by something. The tactic is to refuse to be distracted from the harmful actions by people’s focus on the emotions shown by the person harmed.
I learnt the professionals will find ways to hurt you because its easy; it is the easiest thing is for them to carry on as they were, the harder thing is for them to change. I learnt they could carry on forever and that I could not. I learnt that nothing I did would stop it happening: it will just make it harder for it to happen. The resistance is to not be stopped. The tactic is to choose your battles.
I learnt that some people try to get you to identify with them, either with their emotions (Do you understand how hard this is for me?) or with the difficult decisions (What would you do in my situation?). I learnt this is a distortion of the professional relationship and a trick. Of course it is a trap- they studied for years to learn their job, they know all the facts, they will always have an answer about why they couldn’t do anything that you might suggest and it will distract from the concerns and criticism that you bring. I began to resist by noticing when they tried to trick me into doing their job by reversing roles and I developed the tactic of making it clear to them what the roles should be reiterating what my role was in that situation, that it was their job to listen to the concerns raised and address them not mine.
I noticed when they were patronising me and this just annoyed me. Anger, I found, helps with resistance. I told them that the issue was not that I didn’t understand, but that I didn’t agree.
I noticed that sometimes when I did this some of the powerful adults said ‘sorry’ and tried to empathise with me. I learnt this was to meet their needs, not because they were genuinely sorry and willing to change things. Resistance was not to accept a meaningless apology. Wisdom was not to think that empathy was anything but a ploy to undermine my opposition. If they were still doing the same things and they had not changed, their sorry did not mean anything; resistance meant refusing to absolve them of responsibility for all the harmful things that they had done and were still doing.
I also learnt to keep my own notes when I was with professionals and not ever, on any circumstances to give them to anyone.
In the end I learnt that none of this works when you are reliant on professionals to change things. That changing things from the position of relatively less power was not possible. That for me then resistance was about being silent and compliant and doing what was necessary to get them to go away, which was easy because they were not interested in me. I learnt that in good well-behaved children who are doing well in school, rageful silence is not noticed. Being invisible is a form of resistance.
And on Twitter, it seems to me I am still pretty much saying the same things, to pretty much the same professionals.