Paint me with a thousand stripes
And let my life heal in my face
Paint me with a thousand stripes
And let my life heal in my face
Cold now are the fires that smoked real
Lives to choke sweet forest air.
Still the rancid taste of human
Cruelty fills the buildings there.
Terrified, we turn away our
Thoughts, or blindly stop and stare:
Helpless in the gaze of haunted
Children in tough soldiers’ care,
Sick to tears to think that those who
Stoked the flames had human hearts:
Human hearts and minds and bodies
As they pushed the dead in carts.
Chimneys puncture clouds and scream
Of school kids taught to hate,
Masking acts of humbling kindness
Bravely hid behind that gate.
People gave their only warmth, their
Last crust, or a smile,
Just to help another to
Survive a little while.
Even in the deepest horror,
Love found ways to sing her song,
Urging us to speak with courage
When we feel that things are wrong.
Auschwitz holds a mirror to the
Worst and best of human ways,
Standing tall and calling us to
Kindness: now, and all our days.
Every inch of everyone
Became, from baby softness,
Tough and marked by times to come.
But, if we treat each one with love
And treasure their uniqueness,
Then all will grow the legs to run
And heart to love their weakness.
To those who cannot be themselves,
I ask you to listen:
(Not to those with certainties
Or clear cut ways to be)
But to the place your eyes reach;
Wild paths your feet long to tread;
And the call and leap of
Rhythms you have not heard.
Close your eyes and go!
For many also dance
To their own song.
And, in your lost exploring,
You will find
Hands outstretched in love to
Hold your own.
Why the fear
Of Not Being Here?
Scuffed and tightly-filled, keeling
Over, heels propped up to support
Bags on knees, screens, tapping fingers
Nails bitten to white jagged cliffs
Or long and smooth: rendered strange
And cold by time and money.
Sandals play glass slippers: cracked,
Betrayed by earthy brown between
Caked, painted gold. And, in thick air, the
Hiss and click of headphones plays a
Nuanced soundtrack like an itch.
Urban heat: dark rounded veins shout
Angry calls and foreheads weep.
Holding sticky rails, old friends have
Happy rows and, with sweet noise, earn
Bitter gazes from the tired. Foot
Squeezed rucksacks, grin like thirsty
Dogs and jostle handbags: over-friendly.
Rocking to and fro, stumbling,
Graceless in our work-creased day clothes,
We are held together: jumbled
Bits and pieces in old drawers. But,
Like keys and crayons muddled:
Each, when found, will open doors.
Out of nowhere, magic phrases
Whisper stardust in my ears
And the days of growth and study
Flood my mind despite the years:
Books, that long ago forgot to
Hold their pages close together,
Still possess that spit of youthful
Fire that casts a spell forever.
My value is innate.
I know I cannot lose it.
I will not give it up.
It is not mine to give.
My worth is at my core.
I do not need to prove it.
I cannot give it up.
It is not mine to give.
So I can look you in the eye
And hold your gaze across our tears,
Across our differences and years.
For every person holds from birth
A rich, unchanging,
Roots crushed by asphalt, Iris stands her ground.
In everything hopeless, hope can be found.
Coloured noisy shirts
That jostle brightly:
On wet icing,
Trace the long stemmed field
In well-worn wheels of
In every hard-pressed heart
A different song is sung:
One that moves
Light feet or knows
The beat of mournful drum.
Young ankles turn on
But just for now, from
Far off, their sunny
Sport brings smiles
To tired faces:
Pale and lined from endless
Office hours. Their gaze
For some, this light will
Blow out here, but not
For all. A
Bold white spark is
Thrown on restless kindling;
Nervous legs will come
Feet, unused to trainers,
Will regain their bounce
And eyes that
Lost their starry
Faith will glow once more.
Watering can, little shoes,
April sun, baby blues,
Wet socks, soggy flowers,
Tired eyes, long hours.
Chubby cheeks, half-formed words,
Drone of cars, songs of birds,
Deepest love, smothered rage,
Silent protest, mother’s cage,
Eager eyes, sticky hugs,
New to nature, eating bugs,
Scraped knees, mummy kiss it,
‘When it’s gone,’ they say, ‘you’ll miss it.’
In fresh air, short of breath,
Should he nap? What if: cot death?
Filled nappy, teatime tears,
Guilt, resentment, shameful fears.
Fences, hedges, walls divide
So many of us trapped inside,
Feeling we are not enough,
Scared to say we find it tough.
I find it hard. How do you find it?
Do you ever wish you could unwind it?
Do you cry on cold baked beans
And plug your babies into screens?
Join the club. Come and share.
There’s others like us everywhere.
When we hide our fear and pain,
Depression smugly smiles again.
We saw humanity itself,
Cut into flesh and bone,
Of young and old:
That love and love’s self-righteous fire
Ignite the icy flame
Of hatred cold;
That cowardice and bravery
Alike can end in tears,
Or beauty hold;
That jealous rage and parents’ love
Are sibling seeds to sow
The end of days.
Competing vanity of gods,
Like clouds in still water:
Our mirrored ways.
The tide is changed by whim, or turned
By heartfelt quest for truth,
But wet it stays.
In Homer, just as now, we live for show,
And miss the mad adventure as we go.
The richness and the poverty of all
Is in the savage beauty of her fall.
Fierce garish horses trotting
Up and down with groundhog rage;
Paint chipped and reins long-handled,
Chasing nothing in their cage.
There’s something in the chiming
Tinny clatter of the songs
That speaks of childhood toys and
Rocks like parents’ well-loved wrongs.
And so she rides again, enduring
Sickness all the while,
Because it isn’t home without
That raw nostalgic bile.
There’s no use telling her to
Change the route of her old horse
Because she’s bound, with it, to
Take the same old dizzy course.
If only we could stop it:
Take her arm as she stepped down
And show her all the other ways
To play in this wide town.
If only we could stop it:
Take her gently by the hand
And show her she could live a
Life much sweeter than she planned.
A life that feels so strange at first
Without the seasick dance,
But one where love and happiness
Will grow with half a chance.
Now in the nightmare lights
We just slide by in coloured streams.
She slips from rescue reach,
Like whispered words from fading dreams.
If you woke up, still you, but gay,
You’d be the same in every way.
No less rich or strong or bright,
No more wrong and no more right.
You’d still feel joy, excitement, fear;
You’d still grow older every year.
You’d still know love, and cherish those
Who wiped your tears and kissed your nose.
You’d still have interests, hobbies, jobs.
You’d still feel grief’s chest ache wrench sobs.
The only difference might well be
In who you love: the they, she, he.
And yet you, Sultan, have declared
That those, who only love have shared,
Deserve to die.
And when they do, they must feel pain:
Bone-breaking, cracking, smashing rain
Of stone that flies until you fall.
Until there’s no love left at all.
I see you; but I do not see
Your heart and your humanity.
In the crunch tight
Heat creep of my fear
I sway to ill face,
No space, breathless.
You, the faceless,
Walk past, wondering,
Not wondering, in
Your high-ground flow
Of real life; no
Knife, no need to feel
Pain to stay sane, too
Busy to hurt.
You and your friend
Chat, laughing with red
Cheeks, dogs tasting run
Joy, chase toy, free.
I ache with wild
Eyes, mute cries, searching
A parched place, stumbling
And sand blind, lost.
Patter of fur paws,
Small claws, follow my
Right side. Our two worlds
My mind tide. You,
Just a small dog, look
With your brown eyes, see
Through my disguise.
Water for dry
Lips, first drips, beat skips,
Knowing that you know:
Feel, care, somehow.
Just a few short
Steps, with you at my
Side, then, sharp, a shriek,
Call, throw ball. Gone.
Walk on, still in
A dark land: sounds grand,
But it’s a crass shop.
Sharp drop, tools that
Are missold: too
Old, broken and tacky.
Bright paint and cheap glue
Making them seem
New. But now your
Brown eyes, steady and
Soul kind, pierce through my
Heart rind: unwind the
Pain bind. I have a
Smug in the trappings; wisdom and time,
Smile like a child’s plastic jewel.
You finger our lives.
Gilded treatment hides the reaching rot,
Leaving only musty cloying
Damp to warn us off.
Smile and smile and still be a villain:
Hidden in clothes of congruence.
Wolf walks in wax wool.
Delicate footwork skates thin ice.
Mask slips; screech within
And fall into the pain of unloved skin.
No I could never wash myself enough.
I do not wish to be a British girl
And yet I’ve had the good of empire wealth
Hard won by others’ hands and others’ health.
So in complicit luxury I kneel
And kiss the feet of those we used to steal.
In sweaty filthy dark we chained you down
In service to our tastebuds and our crown.
We trod you underfoot with polished heel
And gave you numbers so as not to feel.
No ‘sorry’ now could ever bring to life
Your children or your grandpa or your wife.
No ‘sorry’ now could ever make you feel
The way you did before he made you kneel.
No ‘sorry’ now could ever bring back days,
Or clothes, or food, now lost to British ways.
No ‘sorry’ now could take back words that stole
Your childhood; spray paint insults take their toll.
No shame, or guilt, or ‘sorry’ now could clean
Our monied hands of their blood-sugar sheen.
And even now I sit in candied bliss,
In clothes that maybe felt the slaver’s kiss
And drink my tea and wonder where it grew
And if the one who grew it got paid too.
We tend to think of slaves as those who died
Long long ago, brought here by whip and tide.
But slaves are kept in farms and brothels here
They live today in pain, exhaustion, fear.
No I could never wash myself enough.
I do not wish to be a British girl.
And yet, if I’m to take rich empire gains,
Then I must wear its rancid greedy stains.
It is not much to pay for what we took,
So I will hope to hang from history’s hook.
I do not wish to be a British girl,
Great Britishness: it makes my white toes curl.
Eaten into dark beams,
The breath of those
Both strange and same.
Beer-soaked wood is sticky
With long tired relief
Of workdays old
And in the grimy folds
Of cracked-seated chairs
Sit our short lives.
Warm light, as though flame-shone,
Enfolds us like a
Mother’s happy myths.
Amongst the heated noise
A shared mad question
Of our purpose
Hangs and waits in amber
Whilst we laugh. For some
It waits through tears.
And left to feel the vain
Weight of knowing first,
The pub endures:
Feeling in its bricks, which
Crumbling hold, the quick
Of mortal joy.
For still we come to play,
And maybe always.
Finding in her years
The truth of our days.
My pen is stuck on a January day
When the splurge and flat of clouds
The edge of thought. Twiggy trees, sad and brown
Stand defeated. Words which once
Flew are caught.
A new year and we will, should, must feel the
Bounce and flip of stomach hope.
But if you
Can’t, then swim through last year’s deadlines of the mind:
Lost to urgency, tar-stuck
In artist gloom.
In all the rustle scrunch of Christmas wrap
We dropped our threads and now search
For split ends.
We watch The Briefcase Ones who stand tall in
Their stripes and see our slow start
Through their business lens.
But since this only highlights business cracks
Against the sky shard metal
Of the funds,
It fails to show the human need for art.
Paint’s perfect imperfection
And so, uncertain, we must take our time
And know that meat is richer
And more tender for slow cooking.
We turn our minds but gently
To the page and trust it will
Hold riches for the looking.
My child is the loudest child in all our blue-green world.
He shouts out with his chin up and his ten tight fingers curled.
He calls with every neck vein taut and both his arms up high.
We ask him to be quiet but he can’t see why.
Why would he say it softly when it’s such fun to make noise?
To stomp around and crash about is one of life’s great joys.
Why would he hum it quietly when roaring sounds much better?
Why tiptoe in the shallow end, when splashing makes you wetter?
Yes my child is the loudest one in all the Milky Way.
Just when you think he’s finished, you find he has more to say.
He sings with great aplomb and smacks the beat against his thigh.
We ask him to be quiet but he can’t see why.
Why build a castle carefully when you could bash it down
Or read a book to daddy when you could tell half the town?
Why leave a person sleeping, when you could wake them up?
Imagine all the fun they’d have, if they’d just give sleep up!
Yes my child is the loudest child in all the universe
And when you try to silence him, it only makes it worse.
We tried and tried but we gave up because we were so stressed
So we decided to join in and set a noisy test.
We got up well before my son with saucepan lids and spoons,
We wore gold bells and whistles and we played some jolly tunes.
We borrowed Grandad’s tuba and some strings from Alf next door,
We got Aunt’s Edith’s double bass, some timps, some flutes and more.
Aunt Anna sent eight speakers, which she used for punk rock gigs,
And Grandma brought her cockerel, seven donkeys and the pigs.
The massive engine came from Godfrey: he likes mending jet planes
And Clive our builder joined us with a band of all terrain cranes.
That day we made a splendid racket all before the sun rose.
We sang and played and drove around and stomped away our woes.
It wasn’t long before my son was begging us to go.
He promised he would always whisper, if we’d stop the show.
But something strange had happened. The music had a hold.
Our limbs felt fast and flighty. Our hearts beat brave and bold.
So one after another, we took off down the street,
A strange, eclectic carnival of hooves and wheels and feet.
Astride his growling engine, bearded Godfrey crooned melodious
Behind him frolicked Grandma and the pigs, thick-skinned and odious.
Atop Clive’s cranes, the tuba blared the tune both strong and wrong
And seven donkeys eed and oord a descant to our song.
But, suddenly, we saw ahead a child we knew before,
Who stood in train pyjamas with a frown by our front door.
Once loud, now mute, his downturned mouth appeared to still be saying:
It was time to stop our noise and end our early morning playing.
‘I’m sorry, son,’ I mumbled from behind my saucepan lid.
‘I never knew how to have fun but it’s clear that you did.
You’ve shown me how to discard all my stressed-out adult ways.’
You’ve taught me how to smile again and dance through all my days.’
At that, my loud son found his voice from somewhere deep inside,
Addressing all the people who had come from far and wide.
He said that he was sorry for the past din he had made
But that it thrilled him to the core to see our odd parade.
The whole town hugged and sang aloud a new and hopeful song
And, arm-in-arm, my son and I skipped happily along.
Now, two weeks on, the mayor says every grown-up has to spend
Six hours a day with children, being driven round the bend.
In these mad hours, the children choose the games, the toys, the volume.
At their command the stairs will be a handmade duvet log-flume
And when the little darlings want to make a glitter carpet,
Create slug-slime, form a rock band or bet on the stock market
That’s just what they shall do and not one person can say no!
For that half-day, the grown-ups have to let their rule-books go.
But for the other half a day, each child will learn to play
In quiet ways, or reading books or making things from clay.
If mummy wants to meditate or daddy wants to write,
Each child will let them do it, with no shout or whine or fight.
If granny wants to water-ski and grandad wants to bake,
Each child will watch in silence eating cake around the lake.
And so I’ve learnt to party, to cavort and jive and caper.
Then afterwards I sit in blissful peace and read the paper.
Back when we thought in black and white we couldn’t see each other.
But now we think in happy grey: a loud son and proud mother.
For many people in England, talking therapy is something you have to wait weeks, months, even years to receive on the NHS. For others, however, paying for therapy is an option. But when you go looking for private therapy, how do you find it? What are the potential pitfalls or advantages of shopping for a therapist? I am not claiming to be a great expert in the subject, by any means, but my experiences of receiving therapy and studying to become a therapist have given me some thoughts on the subject, which I hope might be helpful to other people.
When I first needed therapy, I didn’t know anything about it. I had no idea that there were different models to choose from or, more importantly, that therapists vary hugely in their natural competence and their training. I have now had various therapists who have received different training and work very differently to one another. More than one have been genuinely helpful and one in particular has supported me in transforming my life to be richer and more meaningful. The more I have learnt about the field of counselling and psychotherapy, the more I feel that it is a world that needs to be explained to society. There needs to be transparency about how to access therapy and how to choose the type that works for you. If you have the luxury of choosing your therapist, then you need to know how to find a good one.
• Shockingly, there is still no government body that regulates therapists or counsellors. This means that people can set themselves up as a practising therapist without any qualifications. They may not have received any therapy themselves and their motives for helping may be dubious. It is therefore very important when you choose a therapist, that you do it through an accrediting body, such as the BACP (British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy) or the UKCP (UK Council for Psychotherapy). It is also advisable to ask to see the therapist’s qualifications when you first meet them; any therapist working within the ethical guidelines of these bodies will be happy to show you their qualifications.
• I am going to use the words counselling and psychotherapy interchangeably. Although there is debate in the field as to the differences between these terms, to all intents and purposes they are forms of talking therapy which do similar things. When you choose a therapist, it is more important to look at the therapist’s experience, qualifications and what they say about their own practice, than it is to worry about the terminology they use.
• The therapist themselves and the relationship you develop with them are key to the success of therapy. Choose someone who seems to ‘get you’ and with whom you feel comfortable.
• No therapist can ‘cure’ your mental health problems by themselves: the best results in therapy come when the client works together with the therapist and commits to the process. For this reason, try not to give up straightaway. It can be scary starting with a therapist: after all, you might not have shared your feelings with anyone before, especially not a complete stranger. Plenty of people do give up after one session. But it’s worth giving a new therapist a few sessions to see if you might be able to work together.
• The therapeutic process can be cathartic, reassuring and helpful. Sometimes, however, you might have to feel uncomfortable emotions in order to truly process them and this can be scary. If you have developed a good relationship with a therapist but it starts getting too heavy and painful, you might want to walk away. But try, instead, to share this with the therapist. They are there to provide a safe space for you to explore these difficult thoughts and feelings, so if you’re not ready to do that, it’s ok to say so.
There are many different types of talking therapy- too many to mention here but I will attempt to describe some significant ones.
• At the moment, the NHS mostly recommends CBT: Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. This is for a number of reasons. It is partly because it has been shown to be effective in certain clinical trials and partly also because it is a time-limited form of therapy, which is therefore cheaper for the NHS and easier to structure because they know how many sessions each person will get. If you haven’t tried CBT before, it is worth trying it. It is particularly useful if you do not wish to talk about your childhood experiences, but you do want to learn some new strategies for improving your wellbeing. I can only talk for myself but I found CBT really helpful for my OCD and for my anxiety but much less effective when I struggled with severe depression. However, different people respond to different types of talking therapy differently. The key is to be curious, try things and see what works for you.
• Psychodynamic counselling explores the way in which your childhood experiences have formed an unconscious pattern of feeling and behaving that continues to occur throughout your life. Expect a therapist who might be reserved and does not give much away about themselves. Possible positives: if you’ve had enough of advice or had your fill of structured sessions with homework to do, then this might be for you. The therapist is likely to sit back and listen a lot, giving you space to explore your own problems and find your own way out of them, with the goal that this should be an empowering experience. Possible criticism: strictly psychodynamic therapists might seem cold and unfriendly. Sometimes it might feel like there is more of an unhelpful power dynamic in this sort of counselling- with a reserved expert quietly analysing and a patient at the receiving end of a mysterious treatment.
• Humanistic therapy was developed as a backlash against the more deterministic outlook of psychoanalytic and behavioural approaches. It takes an essentially optimistic view of humanity: that every individual has intrinsic self-worth and that every human has the capacity for personal growth and fulfilment in life. Possible criticisms: may take longer to see results than with CBT. Possibly easier to avoid the most difficult bits of your past, which might need dealing with at some point. Possible positives: you are likely to find a warm, welcoming therapist, who treats you as a fellow human, struggling with shared human difficulties. Also, if you develop a good therapeutic relationship with your therapist, then you will feel safer and more able to take risks to explore difficult stuff in your own time and when you’re ready.
• An integrative therapist will draw on lots of different models to offer you therapy that is tailored to your individual needs. Possible criticism- jack of all trades, master of none. Possible advantages: will not make your complicated human situation fit their rigid model. Should not come with a preconceived idea of what exactly will help but work collaboratively with you to help you understand your difficulties and ascertain what you want to achieve through therapy. This is my preferred model and the one that I am studying, since I believe it gives me the best opportunity to treat each person as an equal and an individual.
There are so many other models and they are all interesting but I know that it can be overwhelming to have too much choice. If you need any more information, these pages can be helpful:
I wish you the very best of luck finding a therapist. Good therapy is out there. When you find it, given time, it might enable you to transform how you feel about your life.
Seems so strange: the way we all
Expect perfection once a year.
Resist change: stay neat and small.
No self-reflection welcome here.
Play the game by the same rules,
Your place set in our house of cards.
Do the same: frogs to home pools,
Tricked by the past’s power. Bauble shards
Mirror us in distortion.
New angles to shine: double light.
If only we had their truth:
Their way to sparkle: broken, bright.
No need to fit the old mould.
Rather build beauty in new skin.
We can find warmth in the cold
If we allow our real selves in.
To find love we must accept
Ourselves and others in true form.
Do not fear to be different.
For that is how babes all are born.
In the dank and mulchy winter chill
Slump the sunken cheeks of England’s child.
One who danced to school and dawdled home
Now sits hunched, her eyes both wide and wild.
How to hold her dignity and faith
Now she hides her shoes in sleeping bags,
Frightened of the faceless few who come
Late at night to look for clothes and fags.
Once she had a teddy and a home,
Tried to learn her lessons, do her best,
But, like all of us, she made mistakes.
Hers were not forgiven like the rest.
Where to go when daddy shuts you out?
Who to tell when mummy lifts her hand?
What to do when gifts from those you trust
Become code for sexual demands?
Better: in the tunnel by the tube.
Better: disregarded and alone.
Better: facing danger on the streets
Than to suffer in your so-called home.
Children sleep on sofas and in tents
Scared of shelters they have never seen,
Told of dirty rooms and scary folk,
Kept from help by those who’ve never been.
Many were in care: a safety net,
Where they tried to build themselves a space.
But their eighteenth birthday marked a change:
Leave and work. A new child needs your place.
Now our girl has been let down too often.
England’s child has got nowhere to shower.
Snuggles down inside her cardboard coffin,
Colder every minute, every hour.
There is a fantastic, thought-provoking BBC documentary on the iPlayer in its second series at the moment: Ambulance. It leaves me with enormous respect for the work of paramedics and an overwhelming sense of the human potential for suffering. However, I am incensed by the treatment of mental health patients in crisis.
Over and over again, viewers watch these patients being ferried to A&E, which is completely the wrong place for them. A&E can be a very triggering environment at the best of times, with traumatic injuries coming in, distressed children, angry people waiting, tears, frightening sounds and long delays. To somebody for whom the basics of daily life are overwhelming, A&E can be a suffocating, frightening space. We must stop sending people to A&E when they are experiencing the intense psychological pain of a mental health crisis. Those people need specialist care from people who understand their difficulties. You wouldn’t send someone with a broken leg to the dentist. You wouldn’t send someone giving birth to an optician. The current system is senseless and broken. It causes great harm to patients and enormous frustration to the paramedics stuck helpless with patients they don’t understand and can’t help.
If none of those reasons are enough to convince you to provide proper resources for mental health, then consider the insane expense to the NHS. Currently we are sending ambulances over and over again to the same people, so we can take them into A and E, where they become frightened or disillusioned and leave, or are offered an endless waiting list for therapy. The patients go home to continue experiencing the same problems. They feel unsafe and call again the next day, the next week, month and year at huge public expense. People who reach out for help and don’t get it are going to look for help elsewhere: perhaps the permanent quiet of suicide, perhaps drugs, alcohol, smoking, food, violent abuse of their loved ones, the list is endless. The cost to society is endless. The cost to our humanity is endless.
We must start taking mental health seriously and treating everyone as we would wish to be treated. Because the reality is: it could be any of us struggling next time, left running in a hamster wheel of panic and sirens. It could be any of us.
Without compassion, society cannot function.
Please read with care: the following content could be triggering.
I am fed up with people being reckless with their use of words around mental health. I want to share some particular examples with you. They are symptomatic of a deeper lack of understanding in society about the link between language and shame.
A few years ago, I overheard the following conversation in my kitchen. My friend (let’s call her Daisy) said, ‘Today, a girl at my school tried to kill herself.’ She rubbed her eyes and cleared her throat. ‘It was awful. I had to go with her in the ambulance.’ Daisy was understandably shaken up. She added, ‘Thankfully, she later came around.’ I don’t know what I expected my other friend (we’ll call her Lucy) to say, but it definitely wasn’t what she said. She replied, with energy:
‘Well, I hope the silly girl was ashamed of herself.’
Daisy looked confused and shifted her weight. ‘Yes. I’m sure she was.’
Of course she was. Of course she fucking was.
I have tried for so long to understand how someone who is normally kind, like Lucy, could say such a hard thing. I have come to the conclusion that what she meant to say was that the suicidal girl had been thoughtless and nearly caused her loved ones great pain. But Lucy has completely misunderstood the causes of suicide and the way to help someone who feels suicidal.
The girl who tried to die was ashamed before her suicide attempt. She was so ashamed and full of self-loathing that she went against every animal instinct to cause herself pain and try to take her own life.
Suicide is not silly. It’s the very opposite of silly. Silly means frivolous, flippant. Silly means dressing up as the donkey called Bottom, or baking pancakes shaped like llamas. Silly doesn’t mean cutting your own skin or swallowing endless pills with the hope of inducing irrevocable liver damage to yourself. If we want to understand her decision, we’d have to ask the girl herself why she felt that life was hopeless. Why did she feel that it was more painful to go on existing than to face the gaping void of death, the pain of cardiac arrest? We’d have to ask her.
But I’m pretty sure it wasn’t out of some silly whim. And I’m pretty sure she was ashamed beforehand and now she is even more ashamed. And that judging her, and shaming her again, does not help.
Why is it that people who are normally kind and generous behave like emotional fascists when faced with suicide? It’s not just suicide: it’s self-harm, addiction and eating disorders too. Visible emotional pain terrifies us. Our knee jerk response is to alienate the person in pain, to judge and shame them, so that we do not have to feel our terrifying shared humanity.
Yesterday, I sat next to a girl in a coffee shop. Let’s call her Fiona. Fiona was on the phone loudly discussing her mental health problems with a friend: anxiety, suicidal thoughts, OCD and alcohol addiction. She was expressing huge frustration about the lack of understanding she had found from GPs, friends and the general public. At one point, she looked around the coffee shop and expressed her loneliness. She commented that lots of the people there might be suffering but that no one talked about it.
At this point, I couldn’t stay quiet any longer. I passed her a notepad, on which I’d written: I have severe depression and anxiety. I was nervous she might find it intrusive but it was a risk worth taking in the hope of reducing her sense of isolation. As it happened, she looked at me warmly, squeezed my arm and enthused to the friend on the other end of the phone that ‘the lovely lady next to’ her had just passed her a note. When she got off the phone, we had a conversation about our shared experiences and coping mechanisms. We swapped numbers. It was a life-affirming moment for both of us about the human ability to reach out and feel connected to each other.
One point from my conversation with Fiona particularly stood out to me. Recently, she had found herself in the grip of an eating-disorder again. She had sensibly reached out for help. She wanted to tackle the feelings before they got a strong-hold and became totally debilitating. At this point, when Fiona was so vulnerable, the situation required praise for her courage in confronting her illness. She needed a system to make her feel safe and show her there was hope. Instead, what she received from the doctor was the unbelievable line: ‘You’re not thin enough to have an eating disorder.’
Imagine the damage: the potential for shame, the deterioration in your mental health as a direct result of this ignorant, throw-away comment. The stupidest thing is that the only natural response to this would be for the patient to go away and lose lots of weight in order to get help or prove her illness. At that point, fundamentally the doctor would be responsible for causing the return of a life-threatening condition.
The most alarming thing is that this is not an isolated incident. I have lost count of friends who have been told that ‘unless they’re suicidal’ they can’t see a therapist for at least two years. Are we now at a point where we are encouraging people to self-harm, as it’s the only way to access basic support? Even if people don’t make a conscious decision to do that, it is deeply unhelpful to people that support is out of reach until you are desperate. Like cancer, prevention of many serious mental health problems could be greatly improved by early intervention and treatment.
I have a friend who was suffering from severe depression at the tender age of seventeen. Her only real ‘coping’ mechanism was self-harm and she desperately needed some expert help. One day she was so ill at school that she felt unsafe, so she took the mature decision to speak to the doctor about getting help. Many teenagers would have bunked school, got drunk, taken drugs, had some risky sex, been violent, or taken another rash decision in these circumstances. But no. This girl called her father and asked him to take her to see the doctor.
The response from her GP was hugely irresponsible. He said:
‘Shouldn’t you be at school?’ After giving her a speech about being over-sensitive and over-dramatic, he sent her away with the unbelievable words: ‘I hope you’re not going to go away and do something stupid, like hurting yourself now?’ An incredibly damaging, belittling line, even from someone with such little compassion. Perhaps, through his thick, cyborg skin, he had felt the faint waft of an emotion we humans like to call guilt.
Fortunately, my friend was with her dad, who quite rightly marched in, gave the doctor a furious speech and made him write a letter of apology to his daughter. But even this is not enough. That doctor should not be allowed to work until he has learnt some basic counselling skills for dealing with people who are suffering from painful emotions. He is irresponsible and could have caused this vulnerable child to come to great harm. In fact, with the help of some empowering, empathic counselling my friend came through this time of great pain. She is now studying at university to become a teacher in a school for children with special educational needs. She has great value to society. She has great value to all of us who love her and could have lost her, thanks to the emotional immaturity of this one GP.
It’s wonderful that mental health is being discussed and that the stigma is (very slowly) lessening. But we must, as a priority, start educating people about the way in which language can induce shame or, on the flip side, be therapeutic. The way we talk to people in crisis matters. The way we talk to people about their normal everyday feelings has an impact too. Our choice of language can show we understand or that we don’t care. It is one of our most amazing tools, distinguishing us from animals, enabling us to form societies, help each other and make progress. But with that enormous potential for shared human development comes a responsibility. When we discuss our feelings and those of others, our words must be chosen thoughtfully and with compassion.
Hi, I’m Amy and I’ve started this site to share some of my writing. You should expect: lots of poetry, fiction, rants, thoughts about mental health, vague attempts at sketches, ideas about feminism, responses to the news and a general eclectic mix of stuff in which you might be interested. I write because it find it therapeutic. Hopefully some of it will resonate with you in some way, even if you disagree with me on things. Thanks for reading.