Artwork by Zoe Shier
I was touched by Katharine Sacks-Jones’ blog post for the Huffington Post, which was titled ‘Where Is The Support For Women Who Choose To Talk About Their Mental Health?’
I think her post raised many important points, such as that one in five women suffer from common mental health disorders as opposed to one in eight men. Of course this can be also down to the culture of silence placed on men regarding mental health, but that is a matter of its own post entirely.
Still, talking doesn’t salvage all. Despite that girls and women are believed to be ‘very good at talking’, Sacks-Jones points out that poor mental health among women and especially women is increasing at an alarming rate.
One particular segment of her post in particular struck a chord inside me.
“More than half of women who have a mental health problem have experienced some form of abuse,” Sacks-Jones writes.
Even though nobody knows for sure, I’m sure that the abusive relationship I was in a few years ago was one of the main triggers to my depression. The traumatic experience led me to block most of it for a long time until all the hurt had contaminated my mind to the extent that it could no longer be ignored.
“– we see women having to relive horrific experiences in referral after referral, passed from service to service, new face to new face. It is rare to see the same professional all the way through the therapeutic process, so it is unsurprising they keep asking the same questions.”
I can definitely vouch for this. From the moment I started speaking to professionals about my experiences, thus began the repetition. To doctors, to psychiatrists, to different members of the crisis team, to nurses, to counsellors. Let’s take into account that these are some of the most hurtful times of my life I’m talking about and saying the words never becomes more pleasant. I don’t care how nice these people were about it, I shouldn’t had had to go over it so many times.
I have no clue why all of those people kept notes since nobody clearly had time to fucking read them. No matter how many times I relayed even the vague outlook of my situation to members of the same faculty or team, I still had to start over with every single new person.
My path to honesty regarding the abuse didn’t start too well either. The first professional I ever admitted to that the relationship had been abusive (at that point it was too raw for me to talk about it and even saying the words ‘everything wasn’t normal’ felt like I had laid my soul bare), told me to read a book titled ‘Women who love too much.’
I looked the book up online, and it was about women who start relationships with ‘bad boys’ in hopes of changing them. I was hurt to the core. Was this what this woman thought of me?
The situation was nothing like how my ex-boyfriend had behaved. I thought I had started a relationship with a kind and caring person, and as soon as we started being together he started acting horribly towards me. Never did I think I was going to change anyone, he was the one who changed.
Despite the fact that I had spoken as openly and honestly as I could at the time, my words had been completely misunderstood. I was so ashamed, humiliated and angry that I stopped going to counselling and stopped talking about the subject altogether.
We know how well that went.
Throughout telling and re-telling my story I’ve come across a variety of reactions among medical professionals, ranging from positive to completely unacceptable.
The most horrifying time was during one of my evaluation meetings while I was in hospital. I was called to a room with the consultant psychiatrist, a GP, a nurse and a nurse-in training with me sitting in the middle of the room alone on a chair. Even though I’m sure they didn’t mean it to be like that, it reminded me of a court hearing.
When the topic of my past abuse came up, the consultant psychiatrist, a man, asked:
“Why didn’t you leave?”
To this day I have no clue what that has to do with my treatment or diagnosis. I didn’t know what to say. I felt every person sitting around the edges of the room looking at me.
“I was scared,” I finally said, trying to control my trembling hands.
“But you mentioned that there wasn’t any physical abuse”, he said, looking at his papers.
Now someone decides to look at the fucking notes. My cheeks burned with shame, my stomach was churning and a black lump of cry started forming in my throat. It was that book again. Again I wasn’t understood.
Let me get this out of my chest, listen anyone who has been lucky enough not to have been in an abusive relationship: If someone tells you something often enough, you will believe it. For two years my ex kept telling me that everything was my fault, had I or had I not done or said something, nothing bad would ever happen. Leaving requires courage which I didn’t have because my confidence and personality had been crushed to dust.
And now this man was asking me in front of all these strangers why didn’t I leave since he wasn’t beating me up.
“It’s not that simple,” I finally managed to say.
“So did you leave?”
“No, he left me.”
“I think you have a problem with rejection.”
It was such an astounding statement that for a moment I had nothing, but then the anger grasped my heart with its scorch.
“I had a problem with being abused”, I spat at him.
He said nothing to that. I was so furious that I couldn’t stop hot tears streaming down my face. After writing something down he told me I could go back to my room. Nobody came to check whether I was OK. About an hour later I was given a wad of papers about Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD.)
As soon as I read through the characteristics I knew it wasn’t me. None of them fit me, except things that were common to other disorders, like depression and suicidal thoughts. But based on my ‘fear of rejection’ this consultant psychiatrist had decided I had BPD.
Of course I disputed the diagnosis from the get-go. I had no problem with any diagnosis as long as it was the right one and this wasn’t. Not only was this psychiatrist convinced that he knew me better than I knew myself, I would have nurses come talk to me and tell me how he was right and I was wrong. I would get so angry, scared and frustrated that I couldn’t do anything but cry. I still get anxious when thinking about it.
I was horrified. My family was in another country, I was locked up in this facility straight from a horror film where people were telling me I had something I knew I didn’t. It was like returning to the state of complete and utter exasperation I was in when my ex-boyfriend would tell me something and I’d be trapped between conflicting thoughts and emotions, a state of blind terror. I would like to remind that because of the abuse I was more fragile to being told that my perception of reality was wrong as my boyfriend loved telling me I was crazy.
“There is no point in getting upset,” one nurse sitting on my bedside told me impatiently.
I told her to get the fuck out.
I was finally diagnosed with moderate depression but it didn’t come without a fight. I argued anyone and everyone. A constant stream of visitors spoke against my supposed inability to form stable relationships and my devastation upon losing my dog seemed to be the final kernel that moved the scales that I was able to experience emotions.
Even though I was ill and afraid, I still had to find the strength to fight. What if I hadn’t? It’s not easy to stand up for yourself against a person of authority. I’ve been raised not to be afraid of such things but not everyone is and it still didn’t make the task any less daunting. I saw so many people at the ward, men and women, who had no-one to fight for them, no-one to stand in their corner.
It’s a tragedy nobody ever hears about.
Despite all of this, things turned out quite well for me. I had been attending counselling through a local charity before I was hospitalised and was able to see a counsellor at their local branch near the hospital, and she was lovely. I relayed my experience with the consultant psychiatrist to the head of the ward, and she was absolutely livid on my behalf. The psychiatrist faced disciplinary action.
Regardless, I still feel anxiety when thinking back at that evaluation meeting and the absolute horror of being surrounded by people who kept telling me I was wrong like some horror film replica of the abuse set in a mental hospital. Had the right people behaved professionally it could’ve spared me from further distress, trauma and sorrow.
So I do agree with Ms Sacks-Jones, who co-chairs Women’s Mental Health Taskforce, which seeks to improve the support women currently receive with their mental health.
As it stands at the moment, speaking out doesn’t deliver us all.
Link to Katharine Sacks-Jones’ blog post: https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/its-good-to-talk-but-it-is-not-enough_uk_5afec03ee4b07b47743de46a?utm_hp_ref=uk-mental-health