I am delighted to welcome Jean Davison to my blog today. I have been
following Jean’s blog for some time, but only recently got round to reading her memoir: The Dark Threads. At the age of 18, Jean, like many intelligent teenagers, was confused about religion and other issues. Feeling the need to discuss these with someone who would listen and offer guidance, she went to see a psychiatrist. The result was five years in the mental health system, including two stays as an in-patient in an antiquated institution. This was the 1960s and ’70s.
I must admit that when I started reading Jean’s memoir, I thought it wouldn’t add anything to what I’d learnt by reading Jean’s blog. But I was wrong. It’s the detail that brings her story to life. The short, unmeaningful conversations that provided no basis to her being diagnosed with schizophrenia. The interaction with other victims of an outdated system.
How has the experience changed you?
Initially, very much for the worse. It played havoc with an already shy personality, worsened my depression, triggered long-lasting feelings of anger and bitterness, and perhaps brought on what today might be called post-traumatic stress disorder.
Even now I sometimes wake up screaming (fortunately, rarely) from the nightmare of being in great danger, such as from a white-coated man bending over me ready to interfere with my brain. Recently I was anxious about having to go into hospital for a minor operation under general anaesthetic for a physical condition. I wonder if my memories of ECT (electro-convulsive treatment) and the whole dreadful hospital experiences have made me more fearful and distrustful of hospitals, doctors, general anaesthetics and medical procedures, than what perhaps I would otherwise have been.
On the other hand, maybe in the end, it was the experience, the desire to overcome it, which helped motivate me to change my life and go on to do things I would never have thought I could do. I entered the mental health system as a teenager, not yet fully formed, so I will never know how I would have turned out if I had not seen a psychiatrist. Although I would not, with hindsight, have chosen to go down that road, I do feel I have learnt much of value from my experiences. I hope I have learnt to be a stronger, wiser, more understanding person. Without my experiences, I wonder if I would ever have stumbled upon the reserve of inner strength that enabled me to reach out and achieve the richness of my life today.
High Royds and the other asylums/mental hospitals have now closed. Does that mean that nothing similar to your experiences could happen today?
No doubt a lot has changed for the better. High Royds was a big, Victorian-built institution. When I was there (late 60s and early 70s) there was a strict, authoritarian regime, with many of the staff openly displaying attitudes that would be unacceptable today. As you say, those old type of hospitals have now closed down. With the emphasis on community care, I don’t think a teenager like the ‘18-year-old me’ would be admitted as an in-patient today.
However, it’s important to say that people today are still having similar experiences to mine because many of the same issues do remain. A psychiatrist is trained to look for, and expects to find in a patient, symptoms of ‘illness’, and is, therefore, likely to see them. People accessing the mental health services, past and present, are pathologised with a diagnostic label and treated within a medical framework, often with dangerous mind altering treatments which may not be appropriate for their problems. This can cause a person to become more embroiled within the psychiatric system until they get stuck.
I’m not saying a medical approach is wrong for everyone. But supposing a person’s circumstances need changing, not their brain? I can’t see the sense in bombarding a person’s brain with powerful drugs, and electric shocks (ECT is still used today) to ‘treat’ what might be social problems, ‘human life’ stuff, or ‘normal’ reactions to traumatic experiences? People are still being damaged, as I was, by a system that is supposedly there to help them. Unfortunately, the issues raised in ‘The Dark Threads’ are still very much relevant today.
What you describe in the book as shyness, you’ve since said was probably social anxiety, something I know a little about (!). How do you cope with it today?
It’s not as big a problem as it used to be, but I do sometimes find myself battling with the same feelings of being unable to initiate or join in conversation when with people I don’t know well. In some ways I’ve come along in leaps and bounds, even become able to give talks to large audiences – but then I might revert back to my old uncomfortably quiet self when it comes to chatting at tea breaks.
I do find it frustrating and upsetting to think that, after trying so hard for so long, I still keep feeling and behaving as if I haven’t really overcome this shyness or social anxiety or whatever it is and sometimes just can’t get through a barrier that holds me back. I cope by reminding myself of how far I have come and of all the positive things in my life now. I have a lovely husband, several close friends and a good social life; so much to be thankful for.
And I have to tell you, the part I most identified with in the book was about talking to professionals and thinking, “Is he saying that because he means it or because he wants to see my reaction?” I think the fact that I’m thinking it affects my reaction and causes me to do the thing he expects me to do, and then he holds it up as “proof” of whatever it was he wanted to show. I’m not sure if that makes sense, but if it does, do you agree?
Yes, it does make sense to me and, yes, I do agree. I’m sure that the way we think (rightly or wrongly) that someone might be seeing us does affect our reactions to them and, consequently, often reinforces their thoughts about us.
When I first saw a psychiatrist I thought during the interview that he was prematurely and negatively evaluating me (I was right about this, I learned later). Thinking this made it harder for me to be relaxed and respond spontaneously to him, which, in turn, made him see further ‘proof’ to back up his first impressions of me.
The rest of the questions come from my friend, Gill.
Despite all your achievements and evident abilities, do you still worry about your “treatment” having caused permanent damage?
Yes, to some extent, and I know that might seem an irrational view because of all I’ve achieved since. Obviously the treatment hasn’t made me unable to function at a reasonably high intellectual level or I wouldn’t have been able to obtain a first-class degree, nor did it make me lose the ability to hold down a responsible job and go on to lead a happy, constructive life. I do think there was the danger of this happening if I had stayed in the system longer, and I believe I am very lucky.
But is there still some damage, perhaps more hidden or subtle? It’s hard to say as I don’t know how I would have been if I had not had the treatment. I do have difficulty in finding my way to new places, and it often takes me a while to remember faces so I sometimes forget who is who when watching films (though I can’t remember whether or not this was the same before my treatment!). I sometimes forget what I’d just been thinking about or what I was going to say, but friends my age tell me that so do they. I honestly don’t know if any physical damage remains. [Some of those things can also be symptoms of social anxiety.]
As far as psychological damage is concerned, again it seems to be not much, if any, now. I do still have anger about what happened (to me and to many others) but, hopefully, I am channelling that anger to use constructively, so it’s not altogether a bad thing.
Do you still struggle with the existential questions of your youth?
Yes, I do, but they don’t bother me as much as they used to now that they aren’t mixed up with all the anxieties and confusion of being a teenager. I find it easier to accept the not knowing. I can still get hung up on questions about what a human being is and what I’m here for and what life’s all about, but then I can more easily laugh at myself for tying myself in knots with unanswerable questions. I can put the questions aside to get on with the many enjoyable and interesting things that are going on in my life.
I know now I’m not alone; that many people, today and throughout history, have struggled with these same questions. I might (who knows?) have been less worried about these questions when I was a teenager if they hadn’t been pathologised by the psychiatrist who quoted my words ‘Who am I? What am I?’ in my case notes as an example of ‘thought disorder bizarre in nature’.
Do you think there’s any form of counselling or therapy that might really have helped, had it been available, or any of the newer types of medication now available for depression and anxiety?
A more holistic approach and being given information about options may have been helpful instead of being immediately shunted down the path of the medical model. I remember how I longed for someone understanding to talk to, so I do wonder if counselling could have helped. I think perhaps what is today called ‘person-centred’ counselling might have helped; a non-judgemental, empathic counsellor with qualities of genuineness and warmth.
The newer types of medication, lowest effective dose and only for a short time, would probably have suited me better than the kind of medication I received. However, I do believe it would have been far more helpful for me to have never been prescribed any medication at all in the first place. I wish I could go back to 1968 and change things and see if I am right to think this!
Thank you, Jean, for agreeing to come here and for taking the time to answer our questions so clearly and thoughtfully.
If you have any other comments or questions for Jean, you can ask them here in the comments or contact Jean directly.