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She didn’t do what was nice…

“You taught me to be nice, so nice that now I am so full of niceness, I have no sense of right and wrong, no outrage, no passion.” Garrison Keillor

I remember when my parent was in hospital I was always being asked to be nice. Be nice to the nurses. Be nice to the doctors. Be nice. My mother knew exactly how I felt about the staff. She wouldn’t talk about how they were treating my father and so why I had a problem with the workers behaviour was ignored. She would admit that she thought they weren’t that nice, but wanted me to be nice to them anyway. She had the ultimate punishment if I tried to explain why I was upset at the way people were treated by staff in the ‘horrible place’. She could say I was not being nice enough and she could refuse to take me with her when she visited. “If you can’t be nice, it’s because you can’t cope. Everyone will understand that it’s too much for you, I won’t take you.” Learning to be nice, I guess, is about experiencing what it is like when people with power find very reasonable ways, that sound nice, to not be nice at all.

What I learnt was that people can hide a lot behind nice words. Nice words are like smoke, confusing and blurring what is really there.

Esme Weatherwax didn’t do what was nice. She did what was needed.

The Shepherd’s Crown by Terry Pratchett

I read a lot at that age, not having too much in common with my friends and it was a good escape. I knew that ‘nice’ really meant ‘accurate’ as does ‘subtle’. I decided that I was being very nice as I was being accurate in what I observed and subtle in how I behaved.

“He fell,” the Nurses said, when I pointed out bruising on his upper arm.

“They fall a lot, the patients here,” I said.

“Well, a lot of them are very old,”.

I did think that about 50 years old or more was VERY OLD. “He didn’t get bruises like that if he fell at home.” I felt stubborn, looking directly at something that was happening that I could not quite see, but somehow being pushed away and back by niceness. Persistance felt like some sort of victory.

When people fall the bruising is all down one side where they landed, not on one or both sides at the top, with finger marks. I noticed. I drew a picture of the outline of the body and marked the bruises on it. Over time, there were lots of little diagrams like that in my notebook.

I sat in the Day Room and noticed the absence of the nurses (Why was I in the day room on my own? Who knows… Mum might have been with Dad?). I sat in the Day Room and noticed Patients sitting staring into space. A lot of people had strange movements in their limbs and were drooling, when they walked they shuffled, but then again, nobody moved or spoke much. It was oppressive. I didn’t write anything down in my notebook about that, as there wasn’t much happening. I just guessed this was how the illness progressed. Sometimes the harm is so thoroughly hidden that you can’t see it.

I did notice some other things. I noticed that the nurses only turned up if someone started making a lot of noise and movement, then they turned up en masse and the person was removed very quickly. I wrote it down in my notebook.

Sometimes patients were in the Day Room, sometimes they were not. If you asked after them, there was never any answer about where they were, from Nurses or Patients. I thought this was weird. I would have thought people would have said, “Oh, they went home”, or, “Oh, they were in their room, so don’t bother them”. Sometimes it feels like something is up, but you can’t note anything in your notebook.

Once I was in the Day Room and called out ‘No’ when one of the nurses tried to pull someone up by the wrist of one arm. I knew you could do damage handling someone, especially that particular patient who seemed frail, that way. As I moved quickly across the room to show the Nurse how to help someone up, a lot of nurses turned up, looked at me, told me to be quiet and to my relief went away. I felt frightened. Did these people demand absolute silence? Why was it quieter than the school Library? If I made too much noise, what would they do to me? What did they do the patients when they made too much noise? I wrote it down in my notebook.

I was with my Mum and younger sibling. Dad’s room was in a mess, sheets all over, bed pushed away from the wall. He sat in the corner, being very quiet, he didn’t seem to be ‘with us’ though. He was a very tidy person so the room puzzled me. The person he shared a room with wasn’t around either which was unusual. Mum quickly sent me and my younger sibling out. I wrote it down in my notebook.

My younger sibling caught some Nurses talking to our Dad. They had found out that if they saluted him, he stood up and saluted back saying, ‘Captain’ and they were laughing. Dad thought he was back in the army, which he had hated and where he had especially disliked his Captain. He told me that he had survived the army by doing what he was told and keeping his head down. This was one of the stories Dad had told me often, usually in an effort to get me to keep my head down, which he felt would be a good life skill for me to grasp. I wrote it down in my notebook.

Over some time, I came to some conclusions:

  • there were no activities and nothing to do, even though there was an activity schedule on the wall it never changed. Patients looked blank when I talked about it.
  • there was a kitchen for families and patients, but it was always locked for some reason
  • the door to the garden was always shut and locked so everyone was always inside
  • the nurses turned up if there was any sound at all and never came alone
  • when people had more strange movements in their limbs they were more likely to get up and call out, then many Nurses turned up at once and took them away
  • the bruises on my Dad all the time were not consistent with a fall

One day I found a Psychiatrist in the Office, I had been looking for one but Psychiatrist’s seemed even more scarce than the Nurses. The Nurses had told me the Psychiatrist was in charge when I asked questions, as they thought I should speak to him, not them a bout any concerns I had. I hoped he could change the things that were bothering me. I showed him my notes. He took my book, flicked through the pages and said, very gently “Well, it’s up to the nurses how they do their job. I prescribe the medicine, they give it. Don’t you want your Dad to get better?” My Dad didn’t seem to be getting better, he seemed to have suddenly got a lot worse. The Psychiatrist left, taking my book with him. His answer was more puzzling than my observations though. In my teens I didn’t understand what medication and treatment could have had to do with a silent day room, an intolerance for even a normal amount of noise, poor skills in handling and lifting, no activities, persistant patterns of unexplained bruising, a closed garden, a shut up kitchen, intimidating gangs of nurses and messy rooms.

When we got home my Mum was fierce. In a rare moment of clarity, she held me by the shoulders against the front door and shook me.

“Why did you do that? You’ll make it even worse for him.” she hissed. “Be nice.”

Then the clarity subsided back into silence and stories about how the way they were treating him was necessary and helpful. I could see one story sliding out of her mind as she shook me and the easy story rising up to take its place.

Many years later at Univeristy my friend who was studying psychology and I had an argument one evening about schizophrenia, the dopamine hypothesis and anti-psychotics. I learnt then that brutality enforced by law is based on a highly contested viewpoint. The extent of the lie and the extent of the abuse that the lie can allow hit home, the image of the Day Room and the patients, the meaning of what the Psychiatrist had said and fragments of memory came together and pushed me away from the world. I was aware that my friends were talking, trying to get me to give them my attention but I repelled the society we lived in away from me and as I did so their voices became distant as did the lounge I was in. I couldn’t be there in the world we had made, so I went away. I didn’t respond to anyone for several days while I processed the answers to the questions I had been trying to ask in my notebook. When I came back from wherever my mind had been driven to, there was a row of mugs of cold tea outside the door of the spare room where my friends had put me, my best friend was lying next to me reading and some anxious whispering was going on in the lounge. I didn’t really have anything to say about it when I came downstairs though, as there is just not really much to say about a lie that big and that catastrophic.

It’s well known abuse causes trauma. Psychiatric patients are traumatised by inhumane and degrading treament when they experience it and some survivors talk of this experience as torture. Witnessing abuse also causes trauma, in everyone that witnesses it, including those who take part in abuse. It was the State and its Officials who traumatised me. I won’t call them Mental Health Professionals, I am absolutely certain that until they sort out the coersion and Human Rights Abuses underpinning their professional practice, that they don’t deserve it. They have not earnt the right to the word ‘health’ or the word ‘professional’.

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 schitzophrenia 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.


One of the hardest lessons in young Sam’s life had been finding out that the people in charge weren’t in charge. It had been finding out that governments were not, on the whole, staffed by people who had a grip, and that plans were what people made instead of thinking.

Night Watch by Terry Pratchett

Sometimes when I am interacting with professionals on Twitter, as I respond, I suddenly remember where I first had that thought and the situation that gave birth to it. In some senses, professional responses are just very predictable. Yet, I wonder how much I am repeating old situations and whether I could do something new. Indeed I wonder, looking back, whether I can think of different ways my 12 year old self could have handled it.

I remember how it felt to be a 12 year old thinking about the rights of the police and officials to enter and arrest people, to use violence and force, of adults to order that another is detained, and to use force while that person is detained. I remember not understanding why using state force to terrify frightened people whose behaviour is annoying and troubling, but not dangerous, made any sense at all. I remember thinking about things in the hope that terror would become less terrifying if I could put a shape around it with concepts and words. Making sense of state-sponsored brutality is never an easy option, making sense of state-sponsored brutality in a context where what the officials actively claim is being offered is compassion and care is impossible, but I needed to do it. I could see the limits of the professionals’ thinking and it was evident that the one thing that they would not be able to do was listen to me: instead they would patronise me, telling me I would understand when I was older; or try and play power games, inappropriately reversing the roles in the situation by asking me what I would do if I had to make the decisions they had to make; confuse me by simply repeating what they had said before, but with subtle differences; attack me by suggesting that my motives were to try and harm the family or because I wanted to stop the medics making my Dad better.

Mostly I thought the adults were very confused, or hypocrites, or both. I had also found that questioning them didn’t really get you very far as you ended up going around in circles, not getting any further towards answers to very urgent problems. After my parent was sectioned I was extremely frustrated with adults’ inability to give any sort of coherent account of what they were doing and why they were doing it. I was delighted that I could give up on the adults completely when I found that the library at my school had books which gave better answers than real people. Real people seemed to have an amazing ability to be evasive or choose not understand my questions, books, however, had answers, and then left me to my own resources to work out what my questions were. In my opinion any early adolescent who reads Every Good Boy Deserves Favour by Tom Stoppard; 1984 by George Orwell; The Contract of Mutual Indifference by Norman Geras; Ekman in Jerusalem: A report on the Banality of Evil by Hannah Arendt and The Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela to try and make sense of the behaviour of the officials in their world, is questioning every underlying assumption of every institution in their society by taking a long hard look at the common processes which operate against human dignity and respect. I felt then, as I do now, that that form of attempting to address troubling questions is much more exhausting than the ‘take your feelings out and look at them’ approach that professionals seem to think is reflective practice. As I read the books I formed the view that the anguish and loneliness I experienced happened entirely because the adults had always been or somehow become immune to suffering, were very insensitive to the pain they inflicted on others and were happy to blindly carry on doing what they were doing because they had bought into an ideology or personal morality which allowed them to abdicate their individual responsibility. What I saw happening to my parent and to the other people I knew in the mental health system was about control, power and dominance, and very much less about care, even if that confusing diametrically opposed package was wrapped up in softly spoken words. I was not sure what was motivating the adults to behave in this way though: whether it was for the sheer sense of joy in harming others or as a way of managing their own fear or pain. Around that centre was the need not to know, not to be a part of it, not to see the pain in case it hurt you in your turn. However, although the books told me that the adults had not learnt any personal lessons about the processes of dehumanisation and indifference from history, I also knew that I couldn’t find the history I wanted. It was many years before I realised that people who experience mental distress have historically been so marginalised that they don’t have a history that can easily be found- and certainly not one that could be easily found in a secondary school library. The stories linking madness, trauma and human rights were present but unexamined in books that tried to engage with other events that are present in our current social consciousness, such as Colonialism, Genocide or Apartheid, just as the repeated lessons which can be learnt from those events are still not yet accepted as our collective responsibilities to one another as human beings.

I took some things from reading those books though. I learnt that the word ‘because’ is not magic, that if I didn’t want to fall into the same intellectual, spiritual and emotional death that the adults had succumbed to that that it was imperative to listen to the explanation that followed that word. The resistance is to notice that the space after the ‘because’ is where the adults try to trick you into their collective blindness. Explanations that are not compelling are often lies. Explanations that are confusing are often lies. The tactic is to say why the explanations are not good enough and to point out the different ways the adults are explaining things are indeed just ways of repeating the same thing. The other tactic, when you are exhausted, is just to say that you disagree. This is very powerful.

I learnt that the word complex doesn’t really mean that things are impossible to understand, it can mean either that someone doesn’t want to explain or that they lack the skills to be able to explain it. Crucially, however, ‘complex’ so very often meant that what the adult was trying to get me to believe was in the most absolute sense not possible for them to explain, because the justification was not even coherent to the adult themselves. The resistance is to understand the excuse of complexity is not true. The tactic is to refuse to accept that anything is too complex to explain and make the adult explain it.

I learnt that just carrying on asking the questions sends you round and round in circles, feeling disorientated, exhausted, frustrated and confused, but makes the adults angry. That led to more learning. I learnt that if you ask a question and someone gets angry, you are on the right track. There is a reason why they are getting angry and trying to hurt you. I learnt that the feeling of confusion in itself is the clue that something is not right here. Confusion is what people who are doing harm feel when you ask them to look directly at the consequences of their actions, but it is also a strategy they use. It acts to stop your behaviour, to stop you thinking, to stop your questions and it gives them opportunity to take control. The resistance is to notice who or what is causing the confusion and work out what the effect of people being confused is. The tactic is to name and carry on naming the institution, organisation, person, or concept causing the problem and what they get out of people’s responses.

I learnt that the people in charge just denying there is a problem is very powerful, a good argument is ineffective and presenting the best evidence can be just ignored if it doesn’t fit with what people want to see. Ideological blindness is a true blindness, as it renders people unable to learn and able to change. I found tactics: I learnt that just stating that I was in disagreement might not change anything, but it did give me a space to stand in that was not invaded by the view of the world that they were trying to impose on me. Disagreeing was resistance.

I learnt that if I disagreed or asked questions, there were consequences. People who are doing harm because they find it satisfying, because they are thoughtless or incompetent, or because they are choosing to be a blind bystander will do anything to find ways not to be put in touch with the outcomes their actions. I discovered that they do this because they were afraid and could not bear it. They were angry because they needed my abject fear, my acquiescence to feel safe. If they needed my fear and needed me to be very afraid, that meant they were reliant on me for their feelings of power, which made my questioning more powerful than they were. In the shifting sands of trauma, I discovered that the balance of power was not where anyone expected it to be. The resistance is to learn to feel your own strength in the space where the people causing the harm do not know that you are strong. The tactic is to plan to avoid people with those needs as much as possible and, if I had to be near them, give them as little information about my thoughts and feelings as possible.

I learnt that you will get hurt by the anger of people who have power if you speak up, at the same time as I worked out that you will be hurt by what they are doing even if you do not speak out. I realised that they do not consider this a potential source of power: the people causing the harm do not realise that once someone has grasped neither speaking up nor remaining quiet is protective, they have lost a lot of the power they were relying on. The resistance is to hold on to an understanding of different bases of power. The tactic is to struggle to find a way to speak.

I learnt that what I felt in these situations was powerlessness and rage. Powerlessness is the level of fear that steals your words because it takes the ability to even think about the things that are happening. Rage is what happens when you learn that even when you disagree, the terrible thing is going to happen and keep on happening anyway. I discovered that our societal response of dismissing strong feelings is a gift to those who cause harm. Powerlessness and rage, the very emotions abusive situations cause, are the ones used to show that the person experiencing the harm directly or as a witness, is not worth listening to. I realised the resistance is to listen differently if we want to stop the harm: we need to hear that fear and rage are caused by something. The tactic is to refuse to be distracted from the harmful actions by people’s focus on the emotions shown by the person harmed.

I learnt the professionals will find ways to hurt you because its easy; it is the easiest thing is for them to carry on as they were, the harder thing is for them to change. I learnt they could carry on forever and that I could not. I learnt that nothing I did would stop it happening: it will just make it harder for it to happen. The resistance is to not be stopped. The tactic is to choose your battles.

I learnt that some people try to get you to identify with them, either with their emotions (Do you understand how hard this is for me?) or with the difficult decisions (What would you do in my situation?). I learnt this is a distortion of the professional relationship and a trick. Of course it is a trap- they studied for years to learn their job, they know all the facts, they will always have an answer about why they couldn’t do anything that you might suggest and it will distract from the concerns and criticism that you bring. I began to resist by noticing when they tried to trick me into doing their job by reversing roles and I developed the tactic of making it clear to them what the roles should be reiterating what my role was in that situation, that it was their job to listen to the concerns raised and address them not mine.

I noticed when they were patronising me and this just annoyed me. Anger, I found, helps with resistance. I told them that the issue was not that I didn’t understand, but that I didn’t agree.

I noticed that sometimes when I did this some of the powerful adults said ‘sorry’ and tried to empathise with me. I learnt this was to meet their needs, not because they were genuinely sorry and willing to change things. Resistance was not to accept a meaningless apology. Wisdom was not to think that empathy was anything but a ploy to undermine my opposition. If they were still doing the same things and they had not changed, their sorry did not mean anything; resistance meant refusing to absolve them of responsibility for all the harmful things that they had done and were still doing.

I also learnt to keep my own notes when I was with professionals and not ever, on any circumstances to give them to anyone.

In the end I learnt that none of this works when you are reliant on professionals to change things. That changing things from the position of relatively less power was not possible. That for me then resistance was about being silent and compliant and doing what was necessary to get them to go away, which was easy because they were not interested in me. I learnt that in good well-behaved children who are doing well in school, rageful silence is not noticed. Being invisible is a form of resistance.

And on Twitter, it seems to me I am still pretty much saying the same things, to pretty much the same professionals.