Taking your breath, stealing your mind
And all that was real is left behind
- The Greatest show
With a key component of Halloween being that people don costumes and become someone else, I thought I’d play on that notion of an absence of reality and use it as inspiration for this year’s Halloween blog post…
IT STARTED WITH DISASSOCIATION…
The first difficulty I experienced in regards to reality, was when the abuse started in 2006 and I found myself constantly, desperately, trying to pretend it wasn’t actually happening and I think that a huge reason for this was that I’d known my abuser for two years before he started hurting me. It meant that everything I thought he was – all the things everyone else thought of him – was completely untrue. It was a lie. A cruel, deception that meant when he became the exact opposite, I was so shocked and surprised, that I questioned the entire reality of it! Partly as though he surely couldn’t be the same person, and partly because how could anyone do what he was doing to me?!
Out of panic and fear, whenever he called me or took me to his office, it was as though my eyes detached from my body and all of a sudden I was watching him hurt someone else. Some poor girl who couldn’t fight back. I just had to sit back and watch it happening from my new position on the ceiling – something which rendered my view ineffective when it finally came to reporting the abuse and the details of it, to the Police. It was kind of ironic that me detaching in that way, was very obviously a coping mechanism that my body had seemed to just naturally fall into, yet doing that, was actually hindering of me getting justice for the reason I disassociated.
As a result of me using this distancing as a tactic to – in my opinion – survive what was happening to me, I added another item to the list of reasons why I couldn’t report the abuse right there and then. I was so far from things that even through the pain and the bleeding, I struggled to recognise the reality of the situation. Like, sometimes I’d get kind of… electric shocks, of echos from things my abuser had said to me, and snippets of memories of the things he’d done. And when these electric shocks happened, I struggled to allow them the time and attention they demanded from me because I recognised that doing so, would be tantamount to accepting the abuse had existed.
The thought of that acceptance and reality check, made me panic. I mean, I’d be in my abusers office, watching this poor girl being hurt and all the while flickering glances to the window and wondering and contemplating whether I could jump from it. I don’t know if I’d consider that to be about me being suicidal in any way; more that it was about escape. I was just so desperate to be out of the situation and for it all to be over. However, suicidal or not, I recognised that the thought to jump from the window and the craving to escape, could become something a whole lot more dangerous than just a passing thought or impulsive and short-lived idea. And having this fear and worry for my safety, meant that I spent two years after the abuse physically ended in absolute denial.
THE ULTIMATE LOSS OF REALITY: HALLUCINATIONS
Some professionals came to the conclusion that because I had disassociated for pretty much the entirety of the six months the abuse lasted for, my brain had kind of cut bits off and so when I began experiencing hallucinations… well it seemed to make sense to a few people. But to me – the person actually going through this – it was a whole lot more complicated and confusing!
I had just finished a very stressful shift in my weekend job at a very busy and hectic retail store, when I heard a man’s voice almost whisper in my ear words which confirmed I was useless, and encouraged me to kill myself. I remember almost jumping in shock, and then looking all around the closed store to see that the nearest man was a good ten – twenty feet away so even if the random security guard had believed those things, he couldn’t have possibly said them as close and as hushed as I’d heard them. So, somehow, I shrugged it off and excused it as tiredness and stress… but over the following ten days it grew worse – the voice became louder, more persistent, aggressive, and intimidating. So that eventually, I found myself so desperate to escape and in such fear that it would never stop, I made my first suicide attempt.
I remember going to the psychiatric hospital after being sectioned under the 1983 Mental Health and given the medical treatment for the suicide attempt, and I saw so many other inpatients either muttering to themselves, talking to a specific empty space, or talking to others about their own hallucinations. And realising that I wasn’t alone in hearing this voice, I found the courage to tell a member of staff about it. Ironically, whilst some would say that talking about hallucinating should render you an inpatient, the staff saw it as a positive step forward – that I had finally started to talk about what I was going through – and so I was discharged.
As the voice escalated and continued to leave me feeling scared and alone, I made another suicide attempt; and when I refused to leave my Mum’s home to have the necessary medical treatment, a ton of professionals came to the home and sectioned me. One of those professionals was a Psychiatrist who had been my inpatient Consultant on the first admission. I remember him coming to see me in my bedroom at my Mum’s and he said “I think we need to try some medication for this voice you’re hearing.” And I remember feeling such a mixture of fear and relief that I thought my head would burst from the intensity of the contradicting thoughts and feelings.
From that second attempt, I can’t think of an occasion since, where I’ve not been on psychiatric medication, but over the years, the hallucinations have evolved. I mean, in terms of the auditory hallucination, I started to experience a number of different voices which I separated into different personas. There was a childish one, a manipulative one, a commanding one… And for some professionals, this perfectly evidenced the theory that because I had disassociated for so long during the abuse, my brain had sort of cut off different bits of me that were so isolated from myself on a whole, that I named them!
Then, I began experiencing visual hallucinations in the form of rabbits. It is with this, that I can understand the thought process of trauma playing a huge part in my mental illness because when I was little, I had two rabbits who killed their babies. So of course, maybe that has subconsciously influenced the hallucinations; but it has always felt that there was more to it… I mean, when they were there – the hallucinations – I was so completely confident of their existence that the only way to reassure or comfort me in those moments was to totally validate me in agreeing to ‘get rid’ of them (in ways which varied from pretending to own a net to catch them, and stamping on all of them!).
In 2020, my antipsychotic medication was finally increased I spent over 400 days completely free of hallucinations. And having had therapy to cope with memories of the trauma, getting rid of the voices and rabbits meant I no longer had a reason to self-harm or attempt suicide – so being free of that lasted for over 400 days too! Then, a few weeks ago, things came back and I was left having surgery after a suicide attempt. The Doctors agreed to increase the medication again and my head has gradually become my own again.
Though, even without the hallucinations, they have a long-term impact on you… I mean, experiencing something so scary and feeling so isolated because it seems as though no one can possibly understand or appreciate your experiences; will very obviously change things in your life. For me, having hallucinated, I now struggle to accept a lot of experiences and find myself regularly questioning my own senses and debating whether those things have actually happened. Even the mundane things like someone calling my name – I wonder if the voices are back.
ALL THE MENTAL HEALTH MYTHS
Before my first admission to a psychiatric hospital, I had heard absolute horror stories when I asked someone about our local one. I was told that ‘all the crazy people’ went there. That they’d be ‘dragged from their home’ and ‘locked up’ in there. Then they’d be held down and have to have this therapy that gave them ‘electric shocks’ until they were ‘normal again.’
So, you’d think that having heard those very untrue things, I’d have been terrified finally being admitted to a psychiatric hospital; but I was so poorly with each admission that the fear didn’t really sink in for a while…
In being admitted, I learnt a lot about how mythical those horror stories had been… Firstly, inpatients aren’t ‘crazy,’ they’re poorly. Secondly, yes; you could be taken from your home to be admitted (as. I was once), but that was never done in a malicious way as was implied in the story. Where professionals very rarely do take people from their home, if they have to; it’s always for the safety of that person and those around them. It’s not meant as some kind of punishment. Thirdly, yes; there are secure psychiatric hospitals and wards, but they are for the most poorly or high risk inpatients and again, are there for protection. Fourth, Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) very rarely involves someone being restrained in order to be given the therapy – in fact, it’s very rarely used full stop! In my years of admissions to psychiatric hospitals, I have met two inpatients who had/were having ECT. The first patient, I didn’t know very well, but I heard her regularly talking about suicide and constantly repeating herself to the staff. By her second treatment, she was a completely different person – in a good way! The second inpatient, I knew very well and she was given ECT as treatment for Depression and again, it helped massively and she went from being very unsafe to enjoying life and being discharged from hospital!
Aside from those scary stories, I think the greatest challenging myth or stigma I’ve had to deal with in my mental health journey has been around the misunderstanding of Personality Disorders. Now, I’ll be the first to say that I don’t think such diagnoses are the only ones which hold a stigma and discrimination; however, having two very different diagnoses (with the other being highly stigmatised in a very different way), I think I have a pretty good inkling of which can be the hardest to cope with. I mean, I’ve found that if I’m in a particular situation where I’m asked what my mental health diagnosis is, if I say ‘Personality Disorder’ first, I’m more likely to be branded a liar, if I tell them I have ‘Transient Psychosis’ first, I’m more often given a sympathetic look and taken more seriously.
I think that the difficulty with Personality Disorders, stems from the use of ‘Personality!’ Ironic; considering they changed Borderline Personality Disorder to Emotionally Unstable Personality Disorder – as though the issue was with the word ‘Borderline!’ I mean, I think it can be readily agreed that ‘personality’ is who you are. It makes you, you! So to say there’s something wrong with a person’s personality…?! Well, I kind of don’t blame people for shrinking away when they hear it.
With the Psychosis side of things; I think that it is more easily understood – in a way – and having some sort of understanding and education on something makes it so much more appealing because it’s suddenly a whole lot less scary and intimidating.
“I’M OK” & ATTENTION SEEKING
This infamous and very regularly used line isn’t just used by psychiatric inpatients or service users; it’s something which is used a lot in mental health/society in general. So many people feel the pressure to give a quick, cheerful answer when asked how they’re doing out of the fear of two things: Firstly, that if they’re honest they’ll be judged for that. Secondly, the worry as to how their honest answer would impact the other person. Would talking about their thoughts and feelings upset the loved one who was asking? Or would their honest feelings even be appropriate to share where the person who is asking is more unfamiliar?
When my mental health was probably at it’s worst, and I was living with my Mum, she used to say that if I was happy and excitable, she knew it was because I was planning to self-harm or to attempt suicide. Obviously her realisation had a few different impacts… It meant that if she has sussed out the pattern and the tell-tale signs, she was in a better position to stop me. And, it meant that when I was genuinely happy and excited and positive, it remained suspicious and worrying!
When I would tell professionals that I was ‘ok,’ their huge anxiety wasn’t purely based on that the lie meant I might be planning something unsafe, it was also about the fact that in shrugging them off with the ‘ok,’ they were unable to really offer me any help or support. I guess they felt kind of useless and losing control over the situation led them to do all sorts of things to get it back. Like, a lot of my admissions and being sectioned were largely because I wasn’t talking about how I really felt.
However, this refusal to be honest, changed dramatically when the professionals adopted the attitude that I was lying and purely doing things as a way to get attention. I knew that they’d fallen into this mindset almost straight away because they definitely weren’t shy on letting me know with their spiteful, degrading comments. In recognising their attitude, I found myself completely using it to my own ‘benefit.’ I took it to mean that I could basically say anything and everything about the real way I was feeling and the thoughts I was experiencing, and I wouldn’t be hospitalised or sectioned, or forced to have any kind of treatment.
At the time, I didn’t see this as manipulative because in my opinion, if they were going to make those comments and have that attitude, then why would I not use that to my advantage? I saw it as though they were asking for it really. That they were deserving of it. That if they were going to treat me poorly, then I would return the favour! And so I held no guilt whatsoever when the Police would use their ‘duty-of-care’ line and take me to be assessed in a psychiatric hospital where I knew full well, I would just be sent home – no matter what I said or did. And when the Police would feel frustrated, I really didn’t care.
That all seemed to change in 2012 though, when a suicide attempt left me on life support in Intensive Care and all of a sudden everyone was taking me seriously! To be honest, I completely believe that it shouldn’t have taken something so serious and so dangerous to make professionals sit up and pay attention; but I’m obviously so grateful they finally did. It’s just that the attempt could’ve worked and maybe they wouldn’t have had the chance to recognise their mistake.
Wizard Hat: Little Quests via Etsy
Pumpkins and props: Amazon