Mental health for all!
When first I received the invitation to speak I took the theme of the convention as a brief. I started looking at the phrase.
Mental health for all! A good, strong statement. Then of course I just had to put a question mark there, and this echoed my experience. I like the exclamation mark. It’s closer to a demand.
Today my talk will be completely subjective.
I have been publishing discussion essays for some time now, and I have always striven for objectivity and often include relevant scientific data and stats. But today I take a risk and speak of the lived experience without that objectivity.
So please, be kind.
Good morning. My name is Rick Thomson. I have been a successful, professional performing musician for 30 years, a youth worker for 15 years. I was tortured by my adoptive mother over a 14 year period and I was nine years old when I first attempted suicide.
Today I wish to reflect to you the experience of living through long term, developmental trauma. Today I speak for the adult survivors of child abuse. I like so many who have survived the experiences of severe and long term child abuse have developed complex mental Disorders. In my case the condition is called Complex PTSD. But these complex illnesses (that are a direct result of prolonged developmental trauma) cover a wide range.
I need to leave this stage this morning knowing that I did everything I could to reflect the experience of living with a treatment resistant or as is the case so very often, untreatable complex mental illness, that is the direct consequence not of genetics but the result of, on one hand, psychopathic viciousness and on the other a disbelieving and callous apathy.
I have consulted with many people who have shared experiences such as mine. I have asked them if they would allow me to use my own example with reference to their lives in illustrating our rather precarious position as living, thinking beings. Overwhelmingly the answer was yes. So I speak today not merely for and of myself but for many others as well.
You walk into your local coffee shop; you sit amidst the smells of exhaust fumes, perfume, cannabis, sweat, and burning hope and burnt out desperation. You feel the steps of a thousand feet, the icy wind plays over your skin. Pointless histrionics and snatches of nasty conversation reach your ears and it all matches perfectly with the images you see behind your eyes. With hands held, ever so tightly betwixt knees, you begin slow and barely noticeable rocking. It is a comfort. Such a simple comfort. It has been a hard day for you. Tics and twitches and not quite silent verbal explosions, and the distinct impression you can actually feel your own brain. Too many memories! A blistering cavalcade of lucid immersion into the past. Not by choice. Who would choose to again live through those beatings, broken fingers, burnings, slaps and punches, all while being interrogated for crimes not committed. No, it is no choice.
The present though snaps constantly at the heels. Chores to be done, shopping to be completed, dog to walked and offspring to be gathered up from school with a wink and smile and a “How was your day?” Homework, house work, busy work and all the time you mask even to those you love. Dinner is next on the list that never ends and whilst the beef in browning, socks and shorts and skirts and tops become folded by insensate hands and placed ever so neat into untidy drawers.
The meal is made and consumed by all but you at the table, with smiles and cheer and the occasional growl as a chop bone is dropped to the floor and old rover pounces, tailing beating a tattoo against the wall. Wife and child take to the lounge, the carpet daily vacuumed and fresh from the baking soda sprinkled and brushed into the pile. You wash up, wipe benches make tomorrow’s lunches all the time a chameleon coping. Attempted intimacy is again beyond your reach, you perform as if it is task, then mumble the right words and sadly roll over to try and snatch sleep whilst your companions, the memories, the frailty, dissociative and distinctive, never actually stop. Hands shaking, you see it again- Just a boy when it started, and though few suspect, still in myriad fashion it continues as you deteriorate…….. But you never break, still resilient to this day and hour and minute on the clock face.
Please open your eyes.
This was an illustration of me, some few years ago. And symptomatically I am far more acute now. And the cost has been very high. My wife left me, my daughter refuses to see or talk to me because she is freaked out by my dissociative episodes and my ticking.
Since the coping skills I developed as a child have of course completely failed. I am dissociative often, horribly and occasionally psychotically depressed, compulsively suicidal (which is only held in check by the self-directed prohibition that warns me, that if I complete a suicide it will ruin the life of my daughter, who is thirteen, and will cause enormous pain to the few people who know me well and love me in spite of myself. I cannot cause that level of harm to anyone. Let alone people I care for). That in the end the only trigger that will pull me from the brink, and it seems that one always heads for the brink.
I get confused and anxious in large groups of people, I cannot eat food in front of another person, I see intrusive images in my eyelids that are horrible and violent, I flashback, I experience intrusive thoughts and hypervigilance, melancholic weeping that has no discernible trigger and can last for weeks at a time, the ability to be spontaneous is often beyond my reach and I tic physically and more embarrassingly verbally. I also set the highest standards of thought and behaviour for myself. Very often these standards are unattainable and not quite rational and when I do not meet these self-imposed expectations, I am damning in my own condemnation. I may even physically hurt myself. I have learned to hate everything that I am. I assume blame where none is needed. I still, even after all these years of therapy I believe deep in my heart that I truly have no worth of any kind. I cannot believe that I have anything to offer anyone of any real worth. So I spend my life, quite ironically, faking it.
This illness has taken from me everything. And the thing that actually makes me angry about it all is that I was made into this by a monster and no one would come to my aid and rescue me!
I begged to be rescued. My own father passively enabled this woman to destroy any normality in my life and denied the very knowledge of it even to his death bed, though he was physically present for most of it
School teachers, church members and our parish priest all said “LIAR” and reported my words to my mother and the pain that was visited on my body began to overflow into my mind. I even went to the police when I was twelve only to be told I was too young to make accusations that I couldn’t prove. My own G.P. who knew my mother as an upstanding lady in the community actually slapped me in the face and told me I should be ashamed to make up such stories.
And what did this lead to? Well if everyone tells you, you are a liar and a faker, eventually that is what you believe. No matter the obvious criminality of the violence, I came to believe that I deserved everything that could be painful. Pain was every day, pain was normal and normal is as everyone knows is good. So when presenting to a psyche or counsellor I couldn’t help but to give them mixed messages. Suicidal behaviour is certainly extreme but because your masking behaviour is impervious and thoroughly convincing, then your extreme behaviour and the things you say appears at odds with each other and so it’s another case of times wasting lies.
It is attention seeking. I had no intention of ever using mental health services ever again, until I turned thirty three. I lost it. Everything turned to surreal crap.
I was admitted to hospital after a serious attempt of, self- harm.
A perceptive registrar noted that what was written in my files did not jibe with my current behaviour or aspect. And he said to me,” I don’t believe what’s in your files. I think we need to re assess and start again.” He was the first to ask me, ’what happened to you?” I answered simply because I was asked I guess, so I gave him a brief, passionless synopsis with plenty of jokes thrown in of my early life. He then sourced an excellent therapist who understood trauma and we have been working together now for 12 years.
The problem now is we are almost out of treatment options. I have in fact run out of jokes. Thus far my condition has proved to be at best treatment resistant, but since I prefer to be realistic the truth is that we that my doctor and I agree that up to right now my disorder have actually been untreatable. My doctor also agrees that I can’t go to hospital any more if I am at risk and require a place for safety now that the doors are locked in Queensland mental health units.
The experience is far more distressing being locked in. You take away my freedom of movement and my sense of having some control, how can I then be safe?
My experience is common to those who have suffered the similar levels of trauma and the same experience of unbelief. We also share in so many cases this “TREATMENT RESISTANCE” and often we fear for our very existence. And we don’t present at any mental health unit that locks up voluntary patients when we fear for our existence. We undergo the experience alone. Acute suicidality alone, what little control we have in our lives, we will not give away. No safety, no treatment leads eventually to bad outcomes. I have lot I could say on this subject, but time is probably, quite rightly, against it.
You all must know that we need better options.
The recovery model is something I can believe in if in my case, someone would actually interview me for meaningful peer support work because of my lived experience and transferrable skills. Look past the paper Interview me and see I am qualified. An external focus is my only real effective tool of management. And what I consider to be worthwhile work is that focus. So I need that focus. I need that job. That is my recovery!
I understand that through the wrenching and evil acts of violence done to me, my brain has certain neurological malformations; I understand what they are, where they are and how they interact and that they are a direct consequence of long term developmental trauma. I explain to myself that it is only natural to feel sadness or grief or anger for the things done to me but rationalisation has no impact at all.
I am isolated, often self-isolated as one fears that one is somehow contagious. There is also that voice in the back of one’s mind that says “YOU DO NOT DESERVE TO BE WITH GOOD AND KIND PEOPLE!”
But I am more than the sum of my illness. I was powerless in a brutal situation but today no one will ever be allowed to brutalise me again. Nor will I allow it to happen to others once I am aware of it. So I acknowledge the reality of my brains dysfunction and I try to accept it’s relevance in my life today, but again these rationalisations do not change a damn thing. Symptoms are still rife.
I have a pseudonym I inhabit as a professional performer Harry Gilbeys, and I suppose I “bite my thumb” at all this as Harry climbs onto a stage to perform with the band. I guess too, I find strong focus in the subjects I write about and publish in discussion essays to challenge the thinking of sector professionals and promote ongoing realistic discussion.
For so many people who have survived child abuse there has been little or no support. Not from childhood through to adulthood. We take for granted this enlightened period in very recent history, but only a few years ago, I can tell you, I was shunned by every psychiatrist and mental health sector worker I came across. Nor is my experience unique. Talk to survivors thirty five years old and over, many will say the same thing. Most of us were called attention seekers and more often than not liars. It has happened so consistently, for so many, for so very, very long that most have chosen to disengage from the mental health sector completely. Too often Complex Mental Illness sufferers go it alone and live hour to hour, day to day and episode to episode.
The thing you must truly appreciate is that survivors of this kind of developmental trauma, live brave, stoic lives striving to push through the morass of symptoms. Having to be constantly resilient, because we mask, we are high functioning by appearance and therefore must be hi functioning. This is due to that well based fear of non-acceptance. We hold down jobs, we raise children, we establish homes, we continue to live. All in an internal atmosphere of isolation, depression, anxiety, anger, suicidality, dissociation and just plain mortal difficulty. And we die young!!
This just isn’t good enough. Have we not suffered enough? Every single day is a battle. That is not melodramatic. It is a fight to simply not lie down and give in. The people I know are not only strong and brave and impossibly, ridiculously and resolutely resilient but also they are also against all training, the kindest, most considerate, caring and most often utterly selfless people you could ever meet. It is not fair that they can find no relief.
We must, together, find a better way.
Perhaps appreciating a glimpse of the challenges faced will allow for a truer understanding of the depth of the effect of these illnesses on an individual’s life and maybe if empathy is worth a damn, prompt more focused research into solutions for this disaffected population.
I have interviewed and spoken and shared with scores of survivors in all around the country on the subject of their severe long-term developmental trauma. Most have been diagnosed with Complex disorders that defy treatment. We are all aged 30 odd years or over, I have found only a handful of people over the age of sixty, and NONE of us have experienced any meaningful or effective therapeutic intervention.
So! I ask you. Find us a robust and effective alternative. The price that we’ll pay if you don’t will be the complete loss of hope and many of us fear that the loss of our existence will follow. It is really that serious!