Intensely thought-provoking, gently comforting & deeply moving day

The joy of making new connections

On Friday I finally got to attend a Disorder for Everyone event – the 11th, in Edinburgh, and I’m very glad I did.

Whilst the day got off to a slightly unusual start, as I somehow ended up helping out with registration – with lots of people asking me questions I couldn’t answer, being in fact, like them, simply a delegate myself! -, I found it an intensely thought-provoking, gently comforting, and deeply moving day. I met a few friends and colleagues there unexpectedly, met some people in real life I had until then only known on social media, or simply heard of, and had the joy of making new connections. The team were welcoming and friendly, and the atmosphere was remarkably relaxed for such a packed and informative day, which generally tends to enable me to absorb more of the information I receive.

Paula Williams AD4E blog

Taking a phenomenological approach

As a member of the Drop the Disorder! Facebook group almost since it started, and as a politically-minded person-centred therapist, trainer and supervisor, in some ways this event was preaching to the converted with me. I already have some issues with the current psychiatric diagnostic system and believe in the need to take a much more holistic view of people’s difficulties and suffering – to take into account the systems and contexts we all find ourselves in and how they impact on our lives. I also specialise in working with people who have experienced trauma, having come to therapy via a volunteer role helping to run an online support group for survivors of sexual assault and abuse, and arrived in the world of therapy with the idea that most of the things our group members were struggling with were coping strategies and/or perfectly understandable responses to what they had been through – or rather, what people had done to them. An idea that I quickly realised was not necessarily shared within the profession. As a person-centred therapist, I also hold dear the importance of taking a phenomenological approach, of respecting that the client knows their own life, their own circumstances, their own pain, best, and that my job is to accompany them on their journey, where they want to go, and to bear witness to their story.

Building on existing foundations

The event then, was for me building on existing foundations. Which is not to say I found the day easy. Not at all. From Jo’s rousing introduction, with its immediate wake up call, delivered underneath that slide from A handmaid’s Tale saying “Don’t be sorry. Please don’t be sorry. Please do something.”, making me question whether I am doing enough (probably not), to Jo and Sally’s poetry – making me feel by turns angry, amused, moved, admiring and a whole host of other things -, to Matthias’ humbly-delivered presentation from the aptly-named Fringe sessions, the Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas, which made me think and left me with the image of the iceberg and how little the mental health professions really see of what is going on for someone.

Please don't be sorry

The tea break was much needed, especially as Lucy’s session before lunch was a whirlwind of information – all of it fascinating. I noticed lots of other delegates furiously scribbling notes and wondered for a moment whether I should be doing the same in order to capture what I felt was truly important input, but then I remembered that I would have access to the slides later and allowed myself to immerse myself in listening and thinking. As is already clear, the elements of the impact of trauma, and of systemic oppression and socioeconomic factors were things I already am on board with, but I confess to being brought face to face – throughout the day but first of all in Lucy’s presentation – with my own inconsistencies and incongruences about diagnosis. It was an uncomfortable moment because I was well aware that it was a case of what Jacqui later elaborated on when she drew on Judith Herman’s work and talked about doublethink. This was my own particular doublethink, and as is so often the case, I recognised that it was a simple case of “when it suits…”. To elaborate – or to put it bluntly, to own up -, it’s worth mentioning James’ presentation here; I had a brief chat with him in the morning when he told me what his presentation was going to be about, and I realised I was already familiar with some of what he was going to talk about, having read the book “Making Us Crazy” (Kutchins and Kirk, 1997) when it was recommended by one of my own tutors back in my training in 2005 (I’m very grateful to have been taught by tutors who suggested books like this), and especially the chapter on Self-Defeating Personality Disorder.

I found myself reacting with much less shock to the things James told us than other delegates around me were doing, but only because I already knew some of it. This is important to my own doublethink experience because I know about that, and was given even more detail in James’ presentation, so I know how shaky the ground is on which our diagnostic system is built, and all the reasons it isn’t fit for purpose. I believe that. But in my personal life lately I’ve been struggling with someone’s extreme behaviour, causing all sorts of trauma for a growing number of other people, and the only way for me to make sense of some things that are very difficult to understand is to grab onto a label… Hypocrisy, I know. And so first Lucy but then the rest of the presenters all held that mirror up to my face and made me look clearly at that – which was challenging but of course valuable, and which also made me think about just how easy it can be for us to latch on to those diagnostic labels as a life vest when we feel like we’re drowning.

Recognition that we are all intertwined

Lucy’s workshop on the Power Threat Meaning Framework was extremely useful for me; I have been hearing about it – with excitement and hope – since before the launch, and have been sent copies of the short version, but have resisted reading it because it is long and looks like it needs a level of concentration I haven’t made time to give to it. What I really needed was a straightforward introduction to whet my appetite, and that’s exactly what I got – with context and history. It seems like a framework based on common sense, coming from a positive perspective rather than a pathologising one, and shifting that focus from the individual, decontextualized, towards recognition that we are all intertwined with others and with the systems in which we live.

At lunchtime I got to spend time with other delegates and share thoughts on trauma-informed best practice and the impact of social, political and economic factors on people’s lived experience, and in the afternoon break I connected with Katy from PCCS Books, discovering that not only are we in the same field and with plenty of connections in common, we are also almost neighbours, and then it was back in for the last part of the day – and perhaps the most harrowing: Jacqui’s presentation, and Jo’s poem.

Words really matter to me

Jacqui’s presentation affected me on many levels. Firstly, Judith Herman’s book was the first book on trauma I ever read, when my therapist told me to read it, and it made so much of my experience fall into place. It holds a dear place in my heart and I recommend it to clients and friends myself all the time. Secondly, the thoughts on the importance of the words we use fit with what I have been pondering and talking about a great deal lately. One of my trainers once gave me some feedback that included the words “You use language in a very precise way, Paula, and not everybody does, which can lead to misunderstandings sometimes”. I didn’t really understand him at the time but I think I do now, as I realise I can be very literal and my friends can sometimes struggle with that (though it can also just amuse everyone, like when I told a doctor recently that the day I was allowed to start learning to walk again after a serious accident and the physio said I was to out no more than about 20% of my body weight on the injured leg, I got quite stuck trying to figure out how I could work out what 20% of my weight would be, and the doctor laughed and said “yes, you really are very precise in language, Paula – most people would have understood that to mean “just a bit” and not worried about the actual proportion!”). But words really matter to me; my life has been built around communication – I studied languages and linguistics, and then trained as a therapist. So Jacqui’s emphasis on the importance of the words we use fitted right in with my own view but also helped to deepen and expand my thinking.

The call to speak our own truths

And finally, the call to speak our own truths. The thing I wrestle with most of all. I have contributed a chapter to a book on people’s experiences of mental health issues that will be published next year, and ever since writing it I have been anxious about putting it out into the public domain. I listened to Jacqui speak so honestly about her own experiences and I thought about how difficult I find it to speak about mine. I thought about the first post that appeared in my Facebook feed asking me to just write Me Too…and how I agonised about writing those two small words. And Jacqui’s presentation put me in touch with my anger (not than anger was far away at any point during the event; I think we should all be far more angry!), because she said something along the lines of “Telling our stories is a political act”, though I don’t remember exactly, and of course what she said was filtered through what I was thinking about at the time. Whatever it was she did say, that was the message I heard, and I thought, yes, I used to absolutely believe that. And I’m pretty sure I still do. But more than that I used to believe it, I used to do it, and I did it believing it was a political act, that it was important to speak out, to have our truths be heard regardless of whether people like it or not… When I ran that support group for survivors of trauma, I understood the importance of speaking out and I was passionate about it.

Pretty in your face really, now that I recall. Anyway, my anger arose, during the presentation, when I thought about what changed that for me, what made me go from that passion and fire to this anxiety about a chapter in a book nobody might ever read, and it was this: I decided to volunteer at Rape Crisis whilst thinking about whether to train as a therapist. A safe space for survivors, a feminist organisation, that believed in our voices being heard and in supporting people to speak out. And during the training, following a discussion of the famous Susan Brownmiller quote (also I now know quoted in Judith Herman’s book) where it became apparent that the trainers hadn’t read Susan Brownmiller’s book and I had, and during which, in confidential training and in a purely factual way to illustrate a point of discussion I disclosed something of my own experience, they kicked me out. They told me I couldn’t continue the training and work for them. I made a formal complaint, during which I said I believed I had been let go because I had been honest about what happened to me personally, and during the investigation that followed, the two people involved admitted that that was true. I was kicked out of volunteer training at Rape Crisis, in spite of my years of experience supporting survivors online, because I spoke out – in a boundaried environment away from service users – about my own experience of sexual violence.

Kicked out of the place that was supposed to be the safest place of all. I’d like to say that was back in the dark ages but 2003 isn’t all that long ago. And from that moment on I have found it very, very difficult to uphold my own values in speaking out, to live those beliefs I have. It had never been easy, but after that it became next to impossible. I have spent a lot of time in the shadows since then. And I chose a career then where it is easy to justify that silence as being just what’s expected, of the need for boundaries, of hiding the personal… Because my experience at Rape Crisis taught me that if people know the truth about me I will be shunned, ostracised, and banned from helping people in the way I do best. And unlearning that is a long, slow struggle.

A day that reassured me

So Jacqui’s words touched me deeply, in a still-raw place, but in a way that brought the light of flaming torches into the darkness I’d retreated into. She reminded me to not just know what I know, which is to not let anyone else define my reality for me, but to actually come back out into the light and live it.

And just as I was trying to manage everything that came up for me in that, all the intensity, along came Jo and her incredible poem! I’ve seen video of Jo performing her poem before but it’s even more powerful when she is standing in front of you, looking at you, and you know she is talking to you, to every single one of us. What a way to end a day that touched me professionally, intellectually, emotionally, personally. A day that reassured me that I am not alone in the way I feel and think about these issues, and that reignited my passion and fire.

Article written by Paula Williams.