1. Bitterly regret (something one has done or allowed to happen) and wish it undone.
“she might live to rue this impetuous decision”
Noun (mass archaic)
1. Repentance; regret.
‘with rue my heart is laden’
2. Compassion; pity.
‘This is music of longing, menace, and rue, often spiced with mordant or grisly humor.’
Sometimes fragments from conferences come back to me many years later. Some words or a conversation that have been trying to make themselves heard to me, or were waiting for some context or moment to slot into place. This little exchange is one that popped into my mind recently and I know that by some slow transmutation, the metamorphic pressure of sorrow, that the thought is now different than it was before.
I had gone to a meeting about compassion, which is an idea which interests me. Perhaps at that time I had not realised that this idea that is so central to so many religious and spiritual traditions had been colonised by people who think they are interested in mental health, when their expertise is actually in mental illness. I suppose that mental health professionals should be interested in the idea of compassion. At the core of my being I know that compassion helps, so it seems to me to be what mental health professionals should be offering. I guess I just think that every structure that the people working in mental health have created and continue to create work against the possibility of compassion. If all the structures are designed to increase distress and reduce compassion, that didn’t happen by accident. I had come to the conclusion that mental health professionals should be really called mental illness professionals. After all, recognising and creating mental illness seems to be what they are good at. So, I wasn’t expecting to see any people who worked in mental health there and it was to both my surprise and my horror that I found during the first getting to know you exercise that I was sat at a table with a nun, 5 Mental Health Nurses and a couple of Mental Health Social Workers.
I went and got myself some coffee.
Some days I am not on form, some days I don’t bring it, some days you can tell are going to be hard, too hard, too hard. Some days are hard because you just don’t want the gifts they have brought you.
I laid down my rules as part of those first introductions.
“Stop. I don’t understand your question. I am a learner, doer and teacher. Your categories- service user, professional, carer, they don’t really mean much of real use.”
They were not quick learners the lot at my table- this statement earns me a quick comforting touch on the shoulder and a patronising, “It’s OK, She doesn’t want to say”. I did want to say and furthermore to anyone capable of listening, I had already said, very clearly. I had said, without any ambiguity, that their way of seeing the world was not my way of seeing the world and I did not and would not accept their heirachies. I disapplied myself. Nevertheless, they self-assuredly asserted their right to impose their worldview as the only one possible.
I lay down my rules at the first hint of an assummed agreement on diagnosis.
“I don’t belive in diagnosis. It is your system, your thinking, your beliefs, your hate. A science with no evidence. A story that suffocates other aways of understanding things. Outside of your world, where you make immense pain small and limited so you can cope, there are many different ways of understanding.”
I lay down my rules at the first attempt of anyone on my table to talk about their work and ‘revolving door patients’. “Of course they come back. If you harm people- and I think you violate human rights as part of standard practice- and don’t help them, they will still be hurting when they leave and they will still need somewhere to heal. Mental Health is all that we have come up with as a society for great hurt, so, of course that failure of care returns to you.”
I lay down my rules at the first attempt one makes to lay a claim to caring.
“I don’t know what you mean by care. Forcing your worldview on people is a form of violence. Forcing your worldview on people kindly is just kindly violence. If you don’t feel you do that, you haven’t been paying attention to the ways coersion works in your system.”
I lay down my rules just because I have another rule to lay down. “People who have experienced sexual abused are unlikely to heal if they are anywhere near you. What you have is scientific name calling, and the main point of that is to deny experience even while having to recognise the reaction to that experience.”
At one point the presenter is talking about a lack of compassion not being anyone’s fault, because we all have glitchy brains. He is taking the approach that we should accept any feeling we have step back from it and especially for those in a caring role, take a compassionate approach to ourselves in order to understand it better. It’s only when we don’t do that that we go wrong, and it can be considered our responsibiity to take seriously our need to find ways to be compassionate to ourselves. This seems right to me. Only that whole idea rests on people noticing that they are lacking compassion. And just as I have never met anyone who wasn’t the hero of their own story, I have certainly never met a professional who didn’t think they weren’t, somehow, the nicest person when they compare themselves to a carer or a patient.
I want to learn more about what compassion is. At the same time, I find am not interested in the views of anyone in the room. I don’t want to learn what these people can teach me. I have heard their stories of brutality wrapped up in sweet ribbon and candy paper before. The tang of acrid iron turns in my throat. “I met someone who worked on a ward, as nurse. He seemed nice and sweet, kind. He said that the person he had worked with had tried to kill themselves with a ligature. All I said was ‘That is difficult.’ He couldn’t receive it -that impulse I had to connect with him also meant he had to connect with his feelings- and hers. His response was ‘She did it to get my attention, because she didn’t want to be discharged that day.‘ That is not compassion, that is not even doing sounding nice. If you cannot receive compassion from others it is a catastropic isolation from what might be sustaining. When you have trust professionals with people you care about, but they are too cut off from themselves to care, it is an unforgiveable betrayal.’ The presenter thinks it is not professional’s fault, because we all have glitchy minds. I am not interested in fault. What use is blame? I am interested in why they are so good at not noticing their own inability to connect and in why they don’t change things.
We have to write a letter from our compassionate selves. While the whole group is attending to the task, I stare at the page thinking what to write. I cannot make sense of it.
“A letter?” The words meant for me are not a surprise. I can feel the presence long before I hear the words. I can feel the puzzlement she is eminating. These words are meant for me so no-one else can hear them. Well at least I am not the only one who is confused! When you can talk to someone why would you write to them?
“That’s interesting.” Amusment now.
“We could see each other through each others’ eyes.” I beam back. Her emotional tone moves towards cautious interest, welcoming the idea. We agree tacitly, that we will come back to that idea later.
I decide if I am going to have a conversation with my compassionate self, that I had better not be anywhere near mental health professionals. I value her, Rue, but she is pain. With one eye on the outside world, I decide that my inner spiritual experiences are not something limited folk like nurses and social workers are likely to be able to cope with. I am safer far away.
In the toilet, Rue and I talk.
I hate them. She is in touch with the digust that is in each cell, how that feeling of emnity works through me in the same way iron filings respond to a magnet, orientating themselves against the social structures out there in the world, and the people who create and populate them, in a great tectonic force of repulsion.
There is mearest shift of her presence that let’s me know what she is thinking.
I know that stopping connecting like they have just makes me like them. I know that this same feeling, that pushes us all away from one another is the one they can’t process and what makes it possible for them to do the things they do. I know. Exhausted rage from me, because I know, but I knowing isn’t understanding or being able to live with that understanding with ease..
There are no short cuts… a whisper of sadness from Rue. She can’t make this easier to do and she grieves.
I don’t want to. I am stubborn now, but she remains connected to the desolation, the forces tearing me apart; the seismic shift toward connection caught in torsion with the force of repulsion. All I feel is abhorrence.
You know the way. I‘ll meet you there….the barest fleeting sense of sound as she is gone.
I come back in the room. The lecture continues. As we leave one of the psychiatric nurses talks to me about a situation at her work. She had remonstrated with other professionals she worked with about restraining an woman on the ward, explaining to them that this was likely to be harmful as the restraint would remind the woman of the sexual abuse she had experienced. I am stone. Her words slip off me. Another nurse holds out her hand. Now I can see the compassion, in the way the nurse moves, the way she supports her colleage, strengthening the established role. The ways she comforts her for the actions, encourages her to disconnect, takes the discomfort and distorts it making her the lonely hero of the story because she has the courage to do it, “Patients need it. It’s like personal care, people need it, but they can find it traumatising.”
“She probably didn’t need it.” I state, as stone speaks, unmovable, strongly veined with bitter iron. The way the world is, is the way the world is. The silence is uncomfortable. I can’t even be bothered to point them to the evidence for my assertion, that it is usually nurse’s actions that precipitate these incidents. Instead, I talk about the Retreat at York, where one of the nurses has worked and that she preferred because there was less restraint practiced there. I tell them that this is not an accident, as it was set up to counteract the brutality of psychiatric culture in the 16th Century after a wealthy Quaker merchant died in a madhouse. That settings where there is more restraint are also, therefore, not an accident.
Afterwards the regretful nurse speaks to me again. “I think I feel angry like you, when I see them kick out, scream out, and I can see it seems like sexual assault again to them, I am angry with the other nurses.’
‘Yes,’ I say, ‘I am sure you assaulted her again.’
Siltstone, mudstone, claystone, the particles are too fine to see, and are hard to analyse, so it is hard to know what makes them up. They are soft and crumble easily. The iron you can see, as if it is oxodised it is yellows and reds the more fully oxidised the redder. The black you can see, too, for carbon. Maybe some green stones from the plant matter that lay on top as the particles are pressed down. Perhaps all the particles have been sifted as they drifted down gentley, forming layers according to size at the bottom of an ocean, or lake, before the weight of the water crushes them together and the action of the Earth uplifts them to land. As I walk home I feel that pressure, deep inside. I can feel the bands of thoughts, being forced into layers, unable to move, only able to change. Do you carry on with personal care I think, as a nurse, in general, if someone says ‘No’?
I try to sleep. That night, or maybe for many nights, a heavy weight presses on my breastbone as Rue meets with me. There is nothing to see in the night, no dreams, no memories. There is calyston stopping the mouths of the dead. In the past pressing people with heavy stones was a way to torture them, adding one great stone at a time until the cavern made by the ribs of the chest gave way and the insides were crushed. My heart too would be smashed into my spine, but I fear my heart is gone as only an emptiness remains. Some terror and digust is too big, it is not possible to stand back and observe it, it is you.
Through that slow action of sorrow and compassion, the ache of seismic changes, Rue breathes in with me, breathes out with me, breathes even while I am not able to. She is the kernel of tight pain at my centre.
She was interesting, the one that came to you because she was in pain because she did not agree and didn’t know how to disagree, but did it anyway.
The presenter was interesting, he startled you by really receiving your polite offer of a drink, with his attention.
It was interesting how hard they had to work to comfort themselves about what they had done.
It was interesting how they respond to power.
It was interesting how it is possible to take power.
It was interesting the other one, the one you forgot, who offered you comfort, noticing your terseness was pain.
Rue’s thoughts are handprints on my heart, anchoring me to this world and holding me where my attention needs to be. The ancient need to make a mark in a hallowed space that says, ‘This is me’.
And from this comes small, folded gneiss of understanding.
In the culture of mental health nurses this is how they teach one another, hold one another to the job, hold one another through the job. They have to reinforce each others beliefs to keep on doing it. They do it that way because they find hurting other people hard, which means they were offering one another submission, not compassion, because they do not know what compassion is against the level of pain their patients experience. True, too, perhaps, that they do not know their Rue very well. I do not know how anyone could stand that. What if their Rue does not talk to them- how could they learn how to stay with pain until you learn you can bear it? If they do not stay with pain until they can bear it, how will they be able to watch it change as they bring their presence to it? They’d have no anchors to hold them to where their attention needs to be.
But some pains are
a lifelong ache.