A cat in the wind

A psychiatrist, dealing with a man who fears he is being followed by a large and terrible monster, will endeavour to convince him that monsters don’t exist. Granny Weatherwax would simply give him a chair to stand on and a very heavy stick.

Maskerade by Terry Pratchett

Aunts are people you’ve known for ever, or your parents have, or are part of your community. Most Aunts aren’t related to you, but some are. Some Aunts you think are related to you aren’t related to you, they’ve just become attached to the family for so long that when you are a kid you think they are related to you. Of course, sometimes it is the other way round and children get attached to familes and then all sorts of complications and confusions can be covered over with the word Aunt.

Adults are just the people who are bigger than the children and get to tell them what to do. When I was a kid I did not think that they were necessarily better equiped to make sensible decisions. Certainly, I didn’t think they understood things very well and that my take on things made more sense. I think I felt that the adults were mostly a disappointment I could find a way to live alongside, but sometimes it was pretty frightening that when I felt I didn’t know what to do or what should happen, the adults seemed to be even more at a loss than I was. In their turn the adults were quite happy with me, though they found my questions amusing and strange.

The adult’s world seemed quite confusing. People seemed to say one thing and mean another, or behaved in ways that were at odds with themselves. I once saw our neighbours old cat in the garden, which was mostly a quiet purry kind of cat, a cat which preferred laying down in a quiet spot to watch the world go by, behaving in an uncharacteristic way, dancing around batting the air, pouncing on bushes. The wind was up that day, and it was like the cat was reacting to the invisible force as though it was a tangible yet elusive entity. The adults’ world made me feel like that cat looked, pushed around by forces that I could not make sense of and I didn’t want to be controlled by. No-body else seemed to have this sense of unseen things acting in ways that made people hard to make sense of. At the time other people certainly didn’t seem to have the questions I did. Like when we were at an Aunt’s house, and I wanted to know why all the doors in the house were always open and why there was at least one outside door open all the time, which seemed unusual; or how no-one in the house could sit in one place for long; or how although everyone spoke very quietly all the time, but when anyone came into the room, they always announced themselves very loudly. That part made more sense one day when the Aunt nearly jumped out of her skin when I came in quietly without calling ‘Hi there’. It seemed quite an overwhelming response, people didn’t usually do that when I popped my head around the door. Eventually, I would start to ask questions about these oddities, if they bothered me enough, though I had long since learnt that the incomplete answers I got were often quite as perplexing as the things that pushed me to mither the adults for answers in the first place. The Aunt had been under house arrest because she upset the government and she had upset the government by not agreeing with apartheid. What was apartheid? What had she done to upset the government? What was house arrest? Could you upset the government by mistake? Was the government a type of adult for adults that could tell them what to do? Even more importantly, how did the answer fit with the observations that troubled my mind? Adults didn’t seem to want to answer my questions because I was too young.

Sometimes explanations made more sense. Like the time we went around to another Aunt’s at christmas, one I didn’t know well. We were all in the living room but everyone was waiting, as though they were expecting someone else to arrive at any moment. It turned out one of the Aunt’s children had died a year or two before. I thought they were still waiting for him to come back.

Years later we visited a house and I was dragged along because I happened to be in the car when the adults needed to go there to meet together. I was listening to music on an ipod and reading- generally trying not to be noticed, so, because I was usually quiet they left me in the car to get on with what I wanted to do rather than going to the extra inconvenience of taking me home and then not being able to co-ordinate timings so everyone could meet up. After a bit I finished my book, got bored and went looking for them, hoping to hurry them up.

The house was a mess, the carpets pulled up, the walls stripped and the furniture pulled away from the wall. The adult’s were having anxious conversations with one another. There was a problem because the Aunt in Question had stopped leaving the house or going out at all. Things were even worse than that though and the adults were very confused. She had phoned the neighbours and told them off for spying on her, which had made them angry as she had repeatedly been rude and interrupted them in the early hours of the morning.  The Aunt in Question was in trouble because she had been phoning the police saying that the neighbours were putting bugs in the walls and spying on her.  Then it seemed all the aunts and uncles had to be involved because she had become sick, but the house wasn’t ok to live in any more. I also took it that she had upset the government with this behaviour, because when she had annoyed people by looking for the spying machines in the walls of the house, she had been arrested. Or at least the police had come and taken her away and she had been locked up, so I thought she must be in prison. I wondered why she had not been put under house arrest this time, perhaps it was because the South African government was racist and didn’t want to put white people in prisons with black people but our government was not as racist so put everyone in prison together. Probably it was cheaper because you wouldn’t need two sets of prisons. It made sense she would be in trouble for damaging the house, I couldn’t imagine how much trouble I would be in if I had made that much mess in my room.

The adult’s seemed very confused by the behaviour and very worried that she believed that people wanted to follow her, put her under surveillance and hurt her. It seemed to upset them that they had not been able to persuade her out of it, through strongly putting it to her that the belief was not rational. They were recriminating each other a great deal about their failure to talk her out of her terror, but of course, what could you do when people got ill? I remember interrupting to say that the belief seemed to make sense to me as she had always felt the house was a dangerous place where a bad government might get her, ever since she had been under house arrest in South Africa.

There was a moment’s silence, then I was told quite clearly that while that was certainly true, sometimes people had a vulnerability to stress and it would all be OK when she had had some time in hospital and some medication. I was banished back to the car, with the adults wondering why I couldn’t just stay put. I thought it would have made more sense if they had shown her how to keep herself safe from the government, so she didn’t upset it by mistake and therefore didn’t need to be so frightened of the bugs in the walls or being under surveillance. Taking into account the worried and shamed way the adults were behaving, the government did seem to have a rather nasty bullying attitude when it got involved in people’s affairs, so it could be quite useful to know how to protect yourself from it.

On reflection, I thought it was best if I kept my bedroom tidy, as a precaution, in case it was the mess in the house which had upset the government.

Fear is a strange soil. Mainly it grows obedience like corn, which grows in rows and makes weeding easy. But sometimes it grows the potatoes of defiance, which flourish underground.

Small Gods by Terry Pratchett

I still feel that I was onto the right of it with my comment. I still feel that my continuing disgreement took all my effort, but had no impact. I know that my rejection of the adults as having anything to offer as either elders or parents was terrifying- they clearly could not cope with themselves or with others and could enforce their view of the world simply by patronising me. Children need adults to be able to cope with the things they cannot, not to be more likley to enact childish rage or fear or hate than they are. When adults can’t cope, they need mental health services to help them make better sense of things, not to join them in their overwhelming fear and confusion. The choices that the adults were collectively making to discriminate and dominate each other rather than understand and support one another when one or other of them was struggling were bewildering.

Recently I came upon a book ‘Beyond Belief’ by Tamasin Knight, where the preface by Rufus May reads:

 It may actually not be normal to be normal, rather it may be normal to be different and to have different beliefs about the world. We need mental health services to reflect this reality. The results of the ideas and research outlined in this book suggests that what people need is support, community and self help strategies rather than externally introduced thought control techniques and interventions.

Beyond Belief by Tamasin Knight

Even after all these years, that child part of me feels safer, when I realise that there are people who can take a more human and practical approach, without reacting in fear to another person’s difference. I feel safer even when I know that this is currently a minority and counter-cultural view. Actually, knowing it is a particular view which is not really widely accepted yet, places the approach that seems right to me in a context and explains why the things I have said throughout my life gained little traction. I feel less like if only I had been louder, stronger, cleverer, more articulate, braver- then the adults would have been able to handle things better. It relieves some sense of background threat, for instance, if I believe and act on an understanding that is not widely agreed upon- perhaps my sense that voice hearing is something we should see as part of the range of human experience, that at least one way of responding to altered states is with a sense of wonder, that we could expand our tolerance of other people’s beliefs and help them live well with them, or that if I don’t keep my bedroom tidy there will be extreme consequences- that I too could be subject to invasion, control and abuse. It is true of course, that any belief which is different from the dominate world view has risks, whether it is not believing in apartheid, or not beliving that we approach people who have complex experiences of distress in the right way. However, knowing that thre are a range of people with a range of views, some of which are allied with mine, means that the child part of me can now learn how to relate to others in a way that feels right, not be forced into the dead end of putting all my energy into resisting the world views of people who were more powerful than me. Resisting all the adults I knew, all the social structures as I understood them and all the cultural messages that were out there with all my might was exhausting. It meant I knew who I was, and that the world around me couldn’t take my soul, but also undermined my confidence in my own thinking, feeling and responding – and therefore all my ability to relate to others- as well as destroying my sense that the adults could take care of me and one another. There is a lot of collatoral damage in our current restrictive views of the ways it is acceptable to be human.

It would be nice wouldn’t it, to live in a world in which our social response to someone being in a state where they are constantly reliving their terror, would not be, in our consternation and sense of being threatened, to immediately terrorise them?





The soul-shaped box

I heard a tale that in Ireland the tradition of keening at a death was one kept by women. I heard that at keening was a ritual for speaking truths and witnessing of the stuff of life. There were songs about sadness, loss, betrayals and abuse, so that everyone could witness them. It was a strong ritual to hold a space for hard things. The story goes that the Catholic Pope acted to halt the act of singing out injustices and in so doing was effective in establishing power by silencing the spirit of the community through removing the memories of women. In this telling of the tale, I understand that Irish culture is just coming out from the dominance of the Catholic Church and is just relearning the fact that the purpose of keening is for a truth and justice ceremony as well as for mourning, although this had been forgotten. I heard this on Radio 4, so it must indeed be a true story. A new true story. This time a bit more complex than the old true story. A bit less easy.

The true story of my parent being sectioned goes like this; me and my siblings were not there. We were out of the house, away on a trip, away at friends, we were older, we were not there. I have always accepted this true story. It is easy to grasp and it is easy to remember.

The easy story is accepted even when it casts a shadow. Underneath the easy story, however, that shadow provides quiet darkness, a cover where disenfranchised fragments of memory have vibrant and rich lives. My stories, the secret keeper’s stories, are kept outside, in the shadows, to thrive in the dark, by fine nets of belief, woven tightly together by structure of the true story. Assortments and remnants do not have a story to tell, as they cannot be weaved together to make a strong enough net to capture belief.

So I am clear, this is not the true story. This is a made-up children’s lie of a story, a miscellany full of figments, half-truths and misremembered things.

After the unnecessary violence of an unnecessary section, which happened after unnecessary neglect, which happened because institutional psychiatry is based on coercion and violence, which happened because institutional psychiatry has as its purpose the shutting down of emotion and the disavowal of adversity and abuse, after all that, this might be what the children remember about what happened to them.

A sensation: My sibling is taken away from me. They have to use force to do it as I am not letting go easily. I am certain that it is not safe to let a small person go with violent adults, or the people who called them, or the people that they then turn to for further assistance. As they take her, I know I have failed to protect her. As she goes, my insides are ripped out. I am clutching my knees to my chest, my arms crossed over them, crouched over myself in order to create my own body boundary. My stomach goes first, the separation wrenches my stomach out up through my lungs and through my throat. My lungs are drawn after it and my throat follows, dragged ragged. A red clot rises from inside me, like an ink stain, it rises up blotting out everything around me, rising increasingly hard and fast as if propelled outwards from me with the force of an explosion, pushing away and repelling the whole world- a bright, red wound.

An impression: I am somewhere where it is cold. The light is green, but it is a dark green. Higher up there are brighter green, gold lights. They are square, there are also longer, rectangular gold slivers of light. I am floating up through dark, heavy weight, but then I drown again. I float up but don’t make it. I am suffocating or falling, I might never stop being dragged down. I seem to rise again but the bright red blot rises with me. The red blot rises faster than me and breaks the surface before I do. The whole world is a red stain. Then blackness is forced over me. It seems this has happened over and over again.

A packing away: An awareness of a threat has been growing. It seems adults are saying ‘too long’, ‘has to stop’. The threat from their attention seems immense. It seems imperative that I stop doing whatever I am doing. I am still. I am still inside the red stain. As I rise I follow the trace of the blot, and pull on it like a thread, like a thick knotted rope, hauling it in. I wrap it up like a parcel, winding it in on itself, stuffing it together, rolling it back. I pack the great billowing force down, swallowing it, pressing it down like a great inky origami, infinitely folded, push it back so it fits somehow into a cavity under my heart and between my ribs. I shut it in a soul shaped box, so tight there is no air, so tight it suffocates. In the place of the bright red wound, there is an immense sensation of emptiness and heaviness. This is how you kill part of yourself in order to survive. The adults seem satisfied, the threat recedes.

For years when I feel that sensation I take myself away from others because I know I can survive the experience, but I don’t know if I can survive how other people will treat me when I am vulnerable. I remember that moment of defencelessness when I am shut in on myself and shutting the world out as one that invites attack. Years later, I learn that when I that sensation overtakes me, I seem to others immobile and unresponsive, but screaming, a raw whimper that fluctuates in volume, but does not stop. It lasts hours, days, until I am exhausted. The rest of the time I experience the sensation of emptiness and heaviness. I seem fine, but a bit distant. Even later, I also get the opportunity to learn that healing is being held, of being warmed for the hours, days and months of the scream, until the raw red clots and congeals, until the wound becomes a scab and the scab an angry scar.

Every word of this account is about what happened to me being a deliberately inflicted injury, one socially sanctioned and one committed by adults nominated by my society as caring.

We need to recognise that what we so often reward and praise for children is dependence, docility, compliance and obedience- qualities that get around the need for the adults to care or create communities that can recognise and meet their needs. We need to recognise how we act when we don’t get that tribute from them, when they stop being silent and use non-violent methods to express their resistance. Domination, coercion and silencing should not be our stand-by response, but it is.

Humans need to relearn the power of ritual. They need to learn how to keen and how to bear to witness. We do need our communities to learn the cost of trying to silence people speaking truths. The adults, the violent, helping adults try and silence it all the time, as they cannot bear these things to be spoken, so they put their easy stories in the empty hollowed out space left when a small part of the soul is packed away.