Sensitivity

One of my friend’s kids is very quiet and shy. He likes to think things through, so he is quiet while he makes sure he has thought things through properly.

He finds school hard, he finds change hard, he finds break hard, he finds talking and assembly hard, he finds going to new places like the Zoo hard. He finds them all hard. He finds it hard when a friend doesn’t want to play with him or when a friend is sad and these things play on his mind a lot. His mind is very full of fears and worries. One of the reason I think he finds them hard is that he seems to feel that there is more to process out there in the world than other children. He can also think about what might happen and as he has a very good imagination, he can come up with lots of potential worries. This makes him constantly on edge and very anxious. People don’t always notice him, so they don’t think to encourage him to have a go and support him to be successful. The way the world is they tend to notice when he hasn’t done something he should have done, hasn’t followed an instruction or hasn’t paid attention. Then people get cross and he feels they shouted at him, which makes him freeze. Let’s be honest, it is likely that they did shout at him. The shouting makes him more anxious, of course, because he can’t do the thing they want him to do and now he knows he might get into trouble for it.

It’s very easy to see that the world is not set up for people who need a bit more time, a bit more explanation and who value human connection over being busy or doing things.

There has been an offer of support and therapy and Talk. It’s one thing to say he’s got a lot of worries and fears; everyone thinks he has a lot of fears and worries. It’s one thing to think that he might find it easier to be in the world if he didn’t such strong responses, ones which floor him. It’s another thing to call this an Anxiety Disorder.

What are we habituated into as a society when sensitivity to the world around you and other’s distress is a disorder?

We seem to create social spaces which discourage sensitivity, just try using the word as a compliment when someone has asked for a change or adaptation they can cope with better. It is not supported, it is policed. It is policed by disapproval; by not giving it space; by everything being too loud, too fast, too bright; by expecting everyone to need the same thing; by mainly providing opportunities for competition and conflict rather than co-operation. Finally, it is policed by calling the sadness, or worry, or other troubles caused by not valuing sensitivity, a disorder.

Once, when we were enjoying the view at the top of a mountain, a friend observed to me that usually air had no smell. The sharp ozone and the cold had startled him into noticing something he usually didn’t notice. I thought it was probable that air did have a smell, but that as we breathed it all the time we didn’t notice unless it changed. Perhaps sensitive people are always in touch with the different ways the air smells; in tune with the emotional reasonances this has, for them and for other people; and engaged in considering what the differences in smell might mean from different perspectives. Perhaps they notice very early on when the air is bad.

I think the bigger problem with the world is that we are systematically desensitised. We have constructed a world that does not allow us to experience the full range of emotions that are part of the endowment of being human. It seems to me that central to this exclusion from the fullness of our own souls is the inherited taboo that excludes us from wonder. If we are desensitised we cannot be open to wonder. Wonder helps us live with uncertainty and the terror of the unknowable.

Without wonder, how can we experience awe? Yet it seems to me that it is awe that gives us perspective on ourselves, that gives us both the grounding and the drive to comprehend impossible things and survive. Awe allows us for a moment to hold together the shadows and the light by welcoming the dark too, rather than holding ourself back from the overwhelming experience of the world.

Without wonder, how can we experience reverence? The sense that outside ourselves, as well as inside ourselves, are experiences that we should allow to have their creative space.

Without wonder, how can we experience the sacred? An impulse, such a vital one, to attend with our whole presence and gentle attention. This hard gift has at its heart the knowledge that we have the power to violate, that we may indeed transgress, yet we have still been entrusted and we are worthy of that trust.

Wonder beckons us, invites us towards new experiences, asks us to be curious, to explore. Without wonder, where would we get our questions from? And of course, without wonder, how could we come out of our daze to even notice these things?

Our enforcement of our taboo reduces those troubling, too big experiences. They reduce the experiences, which because they transform us, show us the risk of annihilation. Instead the world becomes small, manageable, predictable- prosaic. Yet when we have a habit, we often don’t think. Like a road we have travelled down many times before, we can start out on a track, suddenly get where we are going and not know how we got there. Then when we are caught in a trance, anything can become OK and we can’t even stop to think about how not OK our everyday prosaic world is, because we barely notice it. Our inner life becomes limited and we are left with an illusion of safety, one which doesn’t protect ourself or others from extensive harms.

There is no problem that does not bring its gifts in his hands. So I want to break the taboo, I want us to allow sensitivity in, I want us to embrace it as a gift. There is no gift whose power doesn’t cause us to need to take care, to take trouble over it. I want us to develop a commitment to learning how to listen to sensitivity, how to stay connected to it’s pain while honouring the strength it brings us.

Although I believe as a society we will only really get the benefits of sensitivity when we can all embrace this capacity, I need to continue to listen to that part of myself rather than the other messages out there, which invite me to distract myself and not pay attention, because the loss of any one part of who I am is too catastrophic. I have to continue to where I am going to. Maybe I will meet some of you there.

The Alibi

The Lost Thought

I felt a cleaving in my mind
As if my brain had split;
I tried to match it, seam by seam,
But could not make them fit.

The thought behind I strove to join
Unto the thought before,
But sequence ravelled out of reach
Like balls upon a floor.

Emily Dickinson

Twitter it seems is a place of many voices, most of them arguing. When I am feeling sad and angry and combatitive I join in. Recently, I read a repost of quite an old paper put up by a psychiatric ‘nurse’. This sentence caught my eye:

The standard professional response to voice hearing has been to label it as symptomatic of illness and to prescribe anti-psychotic medication (Leudar & Thomas 2000).

Followed by this one:

Mental health nurses, like other professionals (Leudar & Thomas, 2000) have traditionally been trained to reinforce reality with service users who hear voices and, more specifically, not to attend to these experiences (Martin 1987, Lyttle 1991).

It really got me thinking.

When I was between 8 years old and 12 years old, I was bullied pretty badly. Other people had people to play with at lunch and breaktime- no-one wanted to play with me or sit next to me. Some forms of bullying are really about denigration and the things which are said are so blatantly cruel, they are almost not believeable. I was lucky, because I had friends out of school, so I didn’t quite believe those bullies. One of these friends (let’s call her Milly) I was particularly close to, because my Mum had been friends with her Mum for a long time and they visited every weekend or so, sometimes staying over. I liked her Dad too, he made funny jokes that he made up himself (‘Why don’t nettles sting this month? Well you see months aren’t real so they can’t get stung.…’). We had other things in common like having younger siblings who were very ill and she was one person I could talk to about this. Even though she was a couple of years older than me, she was being bullied too and sometimes she showed me the pinch and bruise marks. It wasn’t all about that, we made creative things together like pressed flowers, a den in the garden and a bigger one in the field out back. I showed her my worm garden and where the blackbird’s nest was. Her house was amazing and she had a pet rat that she let me feed. Excitingly, when I visited we went swimming in a pool that had real waves in. When she stayed over we shared the big double bed in the spare room, shared a midnight feast and talked late into the night about books we liked. It was good to have someone to share things with.

One time I had something to tell her, because I had worked out that the mean girls at school chose to say the unkind things. One of them had said, ‘What shall we choose? Shall we play with her today- or leave her out?‘ I had had a moment of understanding that being rejected was not an inevitable reaction to me because I was so disgusting, but something the other person had control over and when they made that choice what they were getting out of it was power. On the way back from the shops, Milly and I lay in the field in the sun listening to the crickets. Today we could not be bothered to chase them so we talked about the bullies and choices and power. We were so late back home we got into trouble.

At some point Milly’s sibling died. Things were very quiet when she came over then. When we went to the shops there was a sad silence and when we were alone together things seemed foggy and slow, like swimming under water. On the way back, we lay on the grass and looked at the sun. At some point she said she heard her a voice calling her name, so we talked about that. I actually don’t remember it being a big deal. I remember asking who it was, what it said, what she felt about it.

I know that he called her name and wanted her to come and find him because he was lonely and missed her. I said I thought she missed him too. I had assumed it was her brother, so we talked about that possibility.

I know that he said that she didn’t have any friends and nobody wanted her, so she could come and be with him so he wasn’t so lonely. I said I would be lonely without her.

I wondered about how we could help him feel less lonely now he was dead. It was a puzzle.

I was a bit worried that Milly would find a way to join him, as she didn’t feel she had any friends most of the time and because she missed him. I didn’t know if you could just open the door to the place the voice was coming from and simply disappear through it. Or maybe her brother would be able to come and fetch her.

It never occurred to me either that her experience was strange or to tell an adult. I was a secretive child who read a lot of books.

This is another quote from the paper:

‘My training was definitely you don’t talk about the voices. But now I think it’s an idea that you should let clients talk about them. I don’t, some clients want to talk about it and I think it’s unfair if you say to them sorry no we don’t really talk about…things like that, for fear of it becoming worse’. Siobhan who had been a mental health nurse for 22 years said.

I look at that quote and think about courage. I am sure that nurse was frightened and lacked the clarity of thought to know how important it is to know who had taught her that fear and what power it gave them. If you don’t look at that you never even get to the point where you wonder whether what you are told is true. The nurse held on tightly to her worry, so it stayed hers. I don’t think I was courageous, I just think I saw the possibilities of the world differently. If powerful things like death could happen which were so painful and surprising, then why not hearing the voices of the dead?

We didn’t see Milly for a while and I couldn’t work out why. In spite of me pestering for her to come over my Mum was suddenly against it. Milly had been a friend in a world that was lonely and hostile. I missed her. A few weeks later there was a phone call from Milly’s Mum. I picked up the call as my Mum was in the bath. ‘They’ve taken her!’ (Who had taken her? Why? Where had they taken her?). I worked out it was Milly they had taken, decided the situation was serious and got my Mum, angry and complaining, out of the bath. After which I was decisively shut out of the room, the door closed with a firm, certain ‘click’.

Later, I was told that Milly was not very well and was in hospital. Then that was ‘it’. Further questioning went unanswered. Requests to visit went ignored, though I was allowed to write a letter. I kept writing but didn’t get a reply.

Even later, we met up again. I was very excited. Milly was very, very fat. She was very, very slow and lethargic. She was not how I remembered her. We played with her rat, which was definately a new rat. Later we babysat while the adults went out.

She talked about the hospital, which didn’t seem nice or likely to help someone get better and I said so. She didn’t seem better, but I didn’t say that. Milly stepped outside to have a cigarette. She seemed so much older than me and very different. She told me about annoying the adults, going into each others rooms when you were not meant to, smuggling in cigarrettes when you weren’t meant to, being searched for them under your clothes. Hiding behind the bins to get away from the nurses following or watching you (What they even went with you into the toilet?), of how angry the adults were when they caught you, of being rude or not following rules deliberately to get the adults to have to force you physically into your room, or out of the communal areas. Physical restraint, surveillance and control.

She talked about death a lot and how she wanted to be a forensic examainer. It seemed a bit gory to me. I asked her if they had helped her come up with a way to help her brother be less lonely now he was dead. She looked surprised and furtive. I wanted her to know that I remembered the conversation from before she went into hospital. I wanted to know if he still called her to join him, but she clearly did not want to talk about it this time. I felt sad about that- maybe we weren’t so close anymore- but what can you do? She changed the subject pretty firmly by offering me chewing gum. I took the chewing gum to show I could break the rules too.

Voice hearers universally responded that an increase in medication was the standard help offered. ‘Well I don’t get any, what she would do is that she would probably tell me to see Dr Q, to get an increase in medication or something perhaps go up to 40 mgs or whatever’.

I always wondered about that look. The quick look of concern, the curtain drawing down between us. At that age I wouldn’t have known about the effects of medication on weight or on energy levels. I wouldn’t have thought the adults would have been so unable to work out the problem either, or that their response would have been so intrusive, alienating and incomprehensible. I wouldn’t have known hearing voices wasn’t a safe thing for her to experience and that talking about it was pretty much banned. I wouldn’t have been able to allow myself to fully realise that trying to work out what was going on with the voices, perhaps finding ways for her to look after her brother even in death- if that was an accurate understanding- would have been beyond the adults problem-solving ability, or that even addressing bullying would be beyond them.

Voice hearers saw the care they received from CMHNs as limited in its range with a clear emphasis on a medical paradigm. They reported access to the doctor, adjustment of medication and sometimes talking and reassurance as responses offered by their CMHN.

Not so long after that Milly’s Mum wanted her to go back into hospital, but Milly killed herself first. My Mum went to the funeral and I had to write something nice about her. I can’t remember what I did write about her, but these were the parts I didn’t write. I didn’t write this story.

Some other parts of the paper have quotes about how many voice hearers value being able to talk about what going on for them, how it can take the confusion out of the experience and how it can bring clarity.

My take is that psychiatrists and mental health ‘nurses’, the adults who frightened her, and wouldn’t let her talk about what bothered her, who changed her into this foreigner that I barely remembered, were less help than a 12 year old. I also think they killed her. They took a problem that made sense: a child does not want to be in this world because they are being bullied out of feeling that they have a life worth living and they feel responsible for the death of their brother -a problem that seemed to have some possible solutions- and made it into one that had no meaning and was not resolvable. An illness called schizophrenia that could not be cured. One where the actual problem was irrelevant and could not be discussed.

So I think they killed her, but no-one sees it like that. They see it as a very mentally ill girl killing herself in spite of their best efforts. That’s what happens when society is prejudiced, it provides a watertight abili to a murder.

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.

Chapter 1- We are all surrounded by voices…

There are so many messages in the world; murmurations and susurrations, humming, whirring and buzzing: intimating suggestions, declarations, demands, wishes, hopes, entreaties…

In the repository of goods and people that was the city market place the volume of activity overwhelmed the child. Chris could see all the stories of the human world in their multitudes; the cooking smells, sudden impressions of the decorations on clothing, the metre of steps, groupings of stalls, unexpected convergences of people, obscure cries and calls. At some points these suffused per so completely that there seemed to be no boundary between per and the abundance, yet at others felt so unreal, so remote that each detail was preserved as an endless series of detatched, precise instants.

Anything could be bought in the market place, for the makers were skilled at crafting objects to enable complete delight. Anything could be sold or acquired – if you could pay the right price. Marvellous blooms that could summon lost children home, sumptuous fur coats that would protect against the deepest cold, shoes that never rubbed blisters however far you walked, brooches that changed colour if a lover lied to you, compasses that led to an adventure- all sorts of inventions of ingenuity and vision. In the human marketplace however, one person’s satiation is another’s painful confusion. Slaves could be bought too, for whatever use their master saw fit for them, servants struggled under innumerable burdens, dancing bears heaved and laboured. People who could not afford the produce mingled with those who could have everything they wanted.

For those who knew how to look these hidden things could easily be brought into view. You needed to have been born with one specific powerful capacity: a little known type of magic. The inability to lie. This child did, unexpectedly, did not know how to avoid seeing. Being unable to avoid seeing is a terrible deformity.

Chris was confused at how many things the multitudes in the market place did not see. They saw the brooches, but not the people making them; they saw the cloaks but not the skinned animal carcasses discarded and ignored; they saw the people-sellers gaudy and ornamented, but not the people they sold… When the child brought per attention to the people nearby, per saw the hot smoke resting on the adults’ faces, thick vapours cloaking their veiled eyes, trailing around the soft contours of their faces, leaving damp traces of condensation congealing on their lips; per saw delicate webs of slick tendrils weaving between eyelashes ready to trap unwelcome images; per saw scales of skin creeping through the people’s eyes, scabbing over the eye socket and eyelid; per saw splinters of silver flecks crowding the iris until they spilled over, relentlessly filling up the pupil with a reflective gloss, like the mirrored surface of a dark pool. The filtered, unprocessed images that could not reach the adults’ eyes floated about the square, still disengaged from their origins, occluding what was going on. The lost images, unseen, filled up the marketplace, creating a procession of insubstantial chimera. A scattering of small children’s teeth formed a necklace that attached iself around a woman’s neck, although she remained oblivious. Animal bones formed an intricate framework which was picked up and carried as an umbrella by a well-dressed banker, as, looking up at the heavy clouds above, he darted up from drinking a coffee from a cup. Spectres of the invisible people who had made the shoes or served people’s needs drifted around, following the buyers who had the things they made, scratching at the chains that bound them to people who had stolen or bought them, pulling uselessly at the scales or cobwebs or smoke in front of the buyers’ eyes, struggling to get them to see. Barely audible above the everyday noise was a dry soughing as the unreal brushed up against the real.

The wean also saw other things, terrible things that were undeniably parts of the real people; revealing secret lives of pain and hope, their bodies spoke loudly in an uncertain language of their inner worlds. In the man with a cavity for a chest per glimpsed the dull, throbbing redness of his beating heart where the weapon of his self-criticism had pierced the sterum, crushing the bone. His whole torso shook with carrying the enormity of the injury, even as he exchanged gossip with housewives, bagged up groceries or chatted up eligible daughters. Although in secret he continued to tinker with a private invention which he hoped would bring him fame, respect and riches, he knew that he could not get it to work, but nevertheless kept trying to breathe life into it during lulls in the crowd. At times, the child stood watching the birds with the wicked razor beaks that were still slashing at the man who’s suicidal feelings had led to the sellers in the marketplace finally chaining him to the wall of the hut behind the bar to stop him killing himself, the furthest away place they could find. Were the birds the cause of the wish the man had to die, or the consequence of the brutality of the isolated hut? Chris did not know. Certainly, the birds were not telling as they occupied themselves single mindedly on gorging themselves on their still-living feast. At other times, per crouched in the crease between two stalls, carefully, silently, avoiding the river that accompanied a man whose daughter had drowned years before. Per did not want to get drawn into the sucking weir that followed him as so many people did. The child had seen the lost, surprised expressions on people faces as they re-emerged when the threat had passed over them. It seemed that some remained drowned, never to resurface. Chris, alone and cold, stared at the unclear blue figure hovering over the back of the recently married women, its hands on her shoulders. The girl’s protective grandmother, gently checking her cherished granddaughter. On good days, per cautiously drew close to the slight girl who was at the same time a light, whose flame was always accompanied by a fear that cut through pers numbness, because it seemed so bright against such a dark sky.

The wean moved around the market place, never touched or touching the images or the people, immune to both the real and the unreal. Sometimes it seemed one or another might have seen per. They reacted by yelling, raising a fist or turning away, yet they did this with a sense of futility and confusion, as though, once they had started to ferociously respond they couldn’t, quite, completely realise what it was that had set them to such an energetic attempt to repel a threat. Once it seemed a dog ran to the length of chain to bark at per, before yelping and hiding in its kennel. Later a cat, arch as well as impertinent, slowly, deliberately looked per up and down. Then all its fur stood on end. It hissed and slipped off.

Suddenly next to per, in the middle of the market place Chris felt a flurry of corvie’s, sensed a involution of feathers, arms, wings, hands, talons, nails, a staff and bright eyes which resolved itself into a strange figure. One taller than it actually seemed at first, moving fast, yet limping and uneven in it’s gait. The wean had seen her before, travelling purposefully in whatever direction she chose on her self-imposed tasks.

“You and your Dragon companion could sit with me”. The figure’s bird eyes are intense and coruscating.

Inexplicably, Chris recoiled from the touch of the eyes which could see so acutely, as the gaze itself felt like it drew into form some insubtantial part of her. Wait! As a metamorphosis always carries itself to its conclusion once the conditions for it are right; like a spindle, once started draws the fleece into yarn, like the magnesium once lit explodes in a flash, like the ice forms on the surface of winter lake, the transformation had happened. Raw, newborn per stood firm on the ground of the marketplace, feeling suddenly solid and permanent, muscles anchored to bone through tendon and sinews. Yet, less tangibly, there was also another manifestation. At first a light pressure, like the brushing of a moth aginst a window, which increased relentlessly. Implacably it gained mass and substance until it became a distinct impression on the mind. Each sense compelled to register the immense presence as though its very existance produced a weight that could not be endured. Chris froze, the ancient response of a prey animal aware of a predator. However, there was no hiding – this entity was one that was already acutely aware of per, although it was so alien that perhaps any hunger it felt could only be satiated by the fiery death of distant suns. The membrane that formed the line of separation between two different types of being that had somehow become bound together was now delineated. Here there was a great talon around per heart cradling it tenderly and there, another, resting its point finely against the thread that held per soul to per body. The sinuous lines of the fury’s body followed the convolutions of per gut, the collossal limbs unbelievably intertwined with pers, the lungs taking corrosive breaths along with per. Subtley, per experienced per mind terribly fused with the Dragon mind. Zie’s eyes looking through per eyes created a perception that blended the things of this world with the visions seen from the other one. The dry, hot, empty land where Dragon lived.

Steady, steady the child lowered per breathing. Chris looked back at the Maimed Pilgrim, staying steady by locking onto her face while immersed in surviving the embodied sensation of being both a child and a myth. The child developing a comprehension of how to be a chimera. Calmly, the Maimed Pilgrim looked back, adjusting her weight on the staff as the burn on her face and one side of her body made her stiff . She settled herself, the twisted arm held into her shoulder, the two smallest fingers tight and spasmed into her palm, calmly ready to stay and wait as the child located perself in relation to the Dragon.

The child grasped onto the Maimed Pilgrim, a sailor embarking on a thousand mile journey looking out over the stern of a boat, seeking connection to land even after travelling on and on and out of sight. The staff was a setting point, the marker that connected the real and the unreal. As the child eased into the pause, per felt the intricacy of the way that per and the Dragon grew together. It was certain that Dragon was too much part of per to be fought, too much part of per to be removed. Disconnecting from the Dragon could only take per mind, take the oxygen from per lungs, the nourishment from per stomach, the strength from per limbs. Indeed, it was questionable whether such a separation could even be done. Yet the Dragon was a powerful God, so much stronger than per, giving visions to per eyes, wrapping per in its embrace and taking per away from the real world. Remaining peaceable and not struggling was effort. Holding perself to perself and not being erased was effort.

“Good, Good”, approved the Maimed Pilgrim.

But this was a child who could see for perself. Chris looked closer and longer at the Dragon. Dragon relaxed its hold. Involuntarily, per muscles relaxed too, per intestines stopped gripping, per heart beat more freely. Then, without warning, the wean’s mind was assaulted by the impact of all the images per had seen and all the events per had experienced. All the emotions that went with them, which had been attenuated, assaulted per at full force. Pain billowed up Chris’ spine and impacts of long forgotten attacks rocked per body; assaults from buyers, rejection from stallholders, the deep scoring of the finger marks of the forgotten people. Per insides were conflagration. Per bones combusted. Per thoughts were embers. The heat devoured air.

“Zie is a terrible God”. Per gasped out through charred lips.

“A Small God, maybe.” The Maimed Pilgrim was stabilised on her staff, counterbalancing the weakness of her burnt side against its strength, unperturbed.

Then the daunting moment left, the terror was gone, leaving an image of a vast desert whipped into a frenzy by a strange wind, accompanied by a fading sensation of the resuming of tension in lithe limbs.

“I am either lost in the numbness or lost to the Dragon.” In trembling and dread Chris looked to the only person who might have the wisdom to untie that impossible knot.

“Companions need balance. One way or another.” Then the Maimed Pilgrim was off on her interminable progress, leaving the child with the inadequate clue.

“I’ll meet you there, I’ll meet you here.”

It’s complicated

When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they mean they’re getting worried that they won’t like the truth.

Carpe Jugulum by Terry Pratchett

I was just thinking about some phrases that professionals use on Twitter that stop me in my tracks. I think that they were phrases that similar people used when I was forced to be in contact with them when I was younger and they were involved with my family. Invariably when I was a child certain phrases made me angry with the officials. ‘It’s complicated’ was definately one of them.

It’s a peculiar thing but I seem to be saying online what I used to say in the past. I think I was better at being clear when I was younger because I had not had all the experiences of bullying and callousness that I later learnt anyone in the ‘care or ‘health’ systems were collectively capable of. Now I get distressed more quickly because all those old feelings come back and I have the experience to notice old patterns and predict how the conversation will go. Feeling defeated and overwhelmed with hopelessness happens more easily when you have lot of experience of what is likely to happen.

‘It’s complicated’ is the response I got from when I was 12 yrs or so onwards to observations I made to the officials who were meant to be helping my parent, or had to find something to do with me because of the situation, like:

  • forced treatment is not treatment it is abuse and unless someone is being actively violent there is no justification for it
  • if someone is hurt by what you are doing you have to stop
  • many interventions in the psychiatric system are about behavioural control and are not used to help someone get better; including seclusion, restraint, medication and detention
  • the function of psychiatric nurses are to deliver medication either through voluntary means, increasingly coercive means or force however well you wrap it up in nice talk, otherwise their social support and healing role could be done by someone who could be kind without threats
  • if you detain someone in a context where they are likely to be further damaged, such as the current mental health system, then you have chosen to be responsible for that damage whether you directly inflict it or not, being a ‘cog in the wheel’ is not a defence against complicity in Human Rights Abuses, actions being state sanctioned is not a defence against Human Rights Abuses
  • the mental health system is confused about whether it is a service to promote healing or to enforce social control
  • you cannot be a Dr and a prison govenor; you cannot be a nurse and a prison guard; you cannot be a health system and enforce social control
  • it makes no sense to say someone is ill and has no responsibility then make them responsible for their behaviour when you don’t like it
  • if you separate me and my sibling you are not showing ‘care’, you are displaying power and doing harm. I will never trust you again because you are not trustworthy and I do not forgive.
  • if you come into my house with violence and say it is help I do not in any way have to believe you or do what you say
  • if I could resolve this situation without brutality and force you adults are failing and showing your true colours every time you resort to it
  • I have done nothing wrong, you cannot force me to leave this house and go with you
  • You have the power to make me go into care or separate me from my brother, but not the courage to accept the consequences of the damage, you expect me to take that difficult bit from you

What is particularly obscene about the response ‘It’s complicated….’ to these sorts of observations is that I clearly understood the tensions in the various systems that made it impossible to navigate them safely. Every one of those statements already acknowledged things were complicated and each comment is evidence that I was deeply engaged with interacting with people in the system to highlight those inexplicable processes. When anyone started their response with ‘It’s complicated…’, the unspoken things I actually heard them say were:

  • You don’t understand you are too stupid
  • I can’t change it and it’s my job to make sure something happens
  • I don’t understand what’s going on myself
  • I don’t want to understand what is happening better because if I can remain blind to what is going on things will be better for me
  • I don’t want to implement your solution
  • I can’t do anything about this
  • I won’t do anything about this because the personal cost to me is greater than I wish to pay
  • Know your place
  • I don’t care
  • I don’t have the skills
  • I don’t want to change
  • I don’t like you
  • It’s not my responsibility so I am not going to do anything
  • How dare you challenge me
  • Don’t expect a service that claims to help you to change so that it actually helps you
  • I don’t want to acknowledge that your society doesn’t care about you and so as a direct reflection of that this service and everyone in it doesn’t care in any meaningful way either
  • Stop being difficult
  • I want you to believe in these systems because it’s all I’ve got to offer you

Every so often people who already knew that the system was complicated and had their own ideas about how the tensions played out in any given situation came along. Generally these people didn’t say, ‘it’s complicated’. Unlike most officials they didn’t accept things and they were not pushing back on all fronts like me. Generally these people didn’t respond to me by saying what they were doing and justifying it again by repeating themselves, trying to force me to agree with the status quo. These people tended to give me better explanations for the way people were. Even more importantly they were able to follow where my thinking was going. I felt that these people had a capacity for radically imagining how the world could operate differently and the courage to take steps to move towards that world. Most officials seemed to be unable to cope with the idea that things could be different and seemed stuck at the point where they could only make sense of concrete, easy to understand things like a written procedure. Sometimes the phrase meant ‘there are a range of factors working here and these are what I understand them to be.’

I didn’t think things were really that complicated. From my point of view each and every adult had more power than me and each and every adult was using that power to hurt me and my family. That was a choice each one made not to help. All they had to do was think my sibling and I were worth enough to choose to hear that they were hurting us and to have the courage to stop. After all I was expected to stop hurting them by not being upset, by not asking questions, by understanding how difficult it was for them, by doing as I was told, by accepting that the way things were was for the best. The fact that this made my situation complicated didn’t matter. ‘Complicated’ is a mask for a lack of empathy and an assertion that the person highlighting a concern or a tension doesn’t get to define what the problem is. It always preceeds a statement about how nothing is going to be different. It is an excuse of inaction. ‘Complicated’ is a matter of power.

I think ‘it’s complicated’ is perhaps true. It was complicated for me because many people can’t see their role in the system clearly, it was complicated for me because many people can’t see the irreconcilable tensions in the system, it was complicated for me because people lack integrity, it was complicated for me because many people are ideologically blind, it was complicated for me because people have chosen to be indifferent, it was complicated for me because officials don’t understand trauma, it was complicated for me because avoidance or denial of pain distorted thinking, it was complicated for me because people like power trips and enjoy being unkind, it’s was complicated for me because systems pit people against one another to maintain power.

An important thing I learnt to remember is that complicated service systems are set up to keep themselves going. They make each person in that system untrustworthy because each person is limited by the system. Individuals can seem well intentioned, capable and skilled, but their limits are set by the system they are in. Intentions are a poor barometer of whether an individual will act helpfully, or of when they will stop being supportive. Survival for an vulnerable person in contact with a complicated system requires learning very quickly the system limits in order to predict the actions of the people in it. Those system limits are not what people claim the system is offerring- the limits are the gap between what you imagine might help and what you discover you can reasonably expect. Understanding the system limits requires imagining the best possible system and bearing the disappointment of being in receipt of the one the officials accept.

Really, when the officials said, ‘It’s complicated‘ it just meant, ‘It’s too complicated for me so I am going to keep on making it simple so I can cope with it. Stop complicating things for me.’

Most staff are well-intentioned

And then Jack chopped down what was the world’s last beanstalk, adding murder and ecological terrorism to the theft, enticement, and trespass charges already mentioned, and all the giant’s children didn’t have a daddy anymore. But he got away with it and lived happily ever after, without so much as a guilty twinge about what he had done…which proves that you can be excused for just about anything if you are a hero, because no one asks inconvenient questions.

Hogfather by Terry Pratchett

Most staff are well-intentioned‘ is a phrase which comes up over and over again. A tweet has just come up which, for instance, says ‘excellent blog on how, even with the best of intentions, we still often let down sexually exploited children’. This phrase is beginning to make me extremely angry.

The world is a dangerous place, even though for the most part many people do not experience it that way. The dangers and its harms it holds, like its joys and blessings, are not equally distributed. It is a more threatening place for some than it is for others. Nevertheless, each person is vulnerable, to adverse events or acts of cruelty that may affect them alone, or touch upon a group that they form a part of.

What comes to me out of these sort of thoughts is a sense that our joint humanness is founded on our need to trust in one another, in ourselves and in the world. Surely, when people have had their trust betrayed, our collective humanity is re-established only by rebuilding that trust. Therefore, in order to be fully human, and to create a world where we do not accept atrocities, we must dare to make an honest attempt to heal the harms that do happen, even if that attempt does not work out. Surely, if we do not reach out to one another we are all discarded in a terrible aloneness. Indeed,each and every one of us are lost, even those who seem safely marrooned in the world where danger has not yet touched them. These people also remain exposed to the possibility of what might happen or what others might do, although they may remain unaware of their own vulnerability, or heedless of the risk that they may well be alone with what nightmares may come should others not help them at their point of need7.

So, although I agree that when we are faced with the most difficult and intense experiences of human life we may, in our total disorientation, not know how to avoid doing harm, I outrightly reject the glib phrase ‘most staff are well intentioned‘. I think that phrase is one that seduces everyone into not expecting too much. I think it is a phrase which asks us to accept that; as horrors exist which profoundly distort human relationships, as these forms of brutality should be completely intolerable within the human community, it is also intolerable for us to expect those who choose to offer help to focus their minds on those cruelites. It is a phrase which doesn’t just understand that it is hard to stay with pain, but which requires us to be too understanding of our instinctive tendancy to find ways to block comprehension.

Captain Quirke was not actually a bad man: he didn’t have the imagination; but he dealt more in generalised low-grade unpleasantness which slightly tarnishes the soul of all who come into contact with it- rather like British Rail

Men at Arms by Terry Pratchett

This delibarate and delibarative blocking of sensibilities and responsibility is far too infrequently questioned in public discourse about a range of institutions: prisons, refugee detention centres and mental health. Mental health is particularly problematic as it claims to be about help and support, unlike the other institutions which are, perhaps not overtly, declared arenas of inhumanity and punishment. I read a tweet by Allen Francis about mental health care, which went like this:

Worst career moment. 50 years ago I had to watch a therapist induce vomiting in a man watching gay porn to ‘cure’ him. We’ve come a long way.

and in a comment which explicitly links abusive behaviours by staff and previous traumas, in the second chapter of The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel Van der Kolk writes

After she refused to eat for more than a week and rapidly started to lose weight, the doctors decided to force feed her. It took three of us to hold her down and another to push the rubber feeding tube down her throat, and a nurse to pour the liquid nutrients into her stomach. Later, during midnight confession, S. spoke hesitently about her chidhood sexual abuse by her brother and uncle. I realised then that our display of ‘caring’ must have felt to her much like a gange rape.

These respected people were taking part in actions which they now choose to recognise were causing physical and psychological distress in situations where their patients were utterly powerless. This is a betrayal of trust, a further example of human cruelty. They do not strike me as people who enjoy the experience of power play for its own sake. Yet they undertook those actions, and judging by their writing, to varying degrees do not accept those actions as ones that they were actively responsible for. This behaviour is not the mental life of someone with ‘good intentions’; it is the mental life of someone who can make the suffering of others just distant enough that they can live well with the violence that they themselves enacted.

I expect people who are entrusted with the care of others to do more than engaged in a complex form of dissonance where they disengage from their own actions, while simulataneously acknowledging that they took them. I am remembering a time when I said something harsh to a Mental Health Nurse on Twitter who had previously commented that he had been involved in forcing injections of medication when people were in psychiatric detention in the past. I also remember that people comforted him after my comment by passing their opinion that he was a ‘good nurse’. I wonder what atrocity would be beyond a ‘good mental health nurse’ and what brutality woud be beyond the limits of our acceptance. It is not possible for me to believe that mental health nurses are ‘well intentioned’ when I trace with diligence the convoluted path of the ways they talk about what they do; the evasions, the blaming, the disavowals of their own actions, the focus on my feelings about accepted practice, the request that I empathise with their position, all having their effect of obscuring their behaviour.

I think it is probably true that sometimes people are disorientated and do not know how to help, but we should not lose sight of the convenience of creating a mutually re-inforced fiction by repeating the mantra “most staff are well intentioned“. If we are looking for comfort, and at times the searing contact with what we as people are capable of doing drives us to need solace, perhaps we should say, “I need to believe that most staff are well intentioned, or I, myself, could not carry on”. If we are looking for progress towards a better possible future, which is to say looking for path that leads us to mutual support, we have to demand something that is more accurate and true, if not subtle. In such circumstances, we might risk making a challenge- we might be brave and state that most staff- like most people, are indifferent. That is, while not actively punitive, they:

  • choose not to see that people are harmed by their actions
  • choose not to see that people are hurting because of difficult life circumstances or events
  • believe that not seeing is the same as not knowing
  • can warp their mind into the belief if you do not know, you do not share in the complicity

If you say “most staff are well intentioned“, check in with what you really mean and expect me to ask you what it is you have glimpsed that horrified you to the extent that you wish you had not uncovered it. What was the void that in spite of all your attempts to reseal the facade, you cannot quite unsee?

Accepting behaviour as ‘well intentioned‘ is not demanding enough, given the nature of the damage that humans are capable of doing. To accede that this is how the world is, is to argue fervently for a fatalisic acceptance that any harm that comes to any of us, in the mental health system or in the wider world, is an inevitable outcome of human limitations. It is an act of submissively concurring with the idea that all of us are alone in a far too dangerous world.