The Bedside Divide/How Things May Have Been Different

To calm my nerves about the fact that the replacement IB50 form has not yet arrived which means I may be money-less on the 4th, here are two pieces of writing about mental illness that I penned for elsewhere, but which were never published.   They were difficult to write, so don’t want them to be in the ether forever. Hope you like them. They are a little melancholy, really. Because they’re not written for this blog they don’t count as a new post, no, not at all, I am not, in fact, a complete flake, it is not I speaking to you, I am in the ether…

PS: In terms of the education thing, my wanting to study English was in part due to my desire to be a writer. Now I’m (trying to) pursue that without a degree. If everything goes tits, I think I will do an Access course and go to university. But who knows. At the moment, I’m focusing on other things.

Anyway! Cheerio, I’ll just leave these here.

The Bedside Divide

It’s now commonly believed that mental illness runs in families. Whether it’s nature or nurture responsible for that particular heirloom is up for debate.   Most people have a “mad” relative, be it the aunt who streaks at midnight or the great-uncle whose very name choruses hasty “ssssh”s across a room.  I’m lucky.  I have two mad relatives.  They’re my parents.

My dad suffered from depression and alcoholism.  The latter killed him in 2006, at the shamefully young age of forty six.  My mum has what I like to call, “Mentalism Unspecified”, a veritable rag bag of psychosis, depression, mania and general oddness. From a very tender age indeed, I thought nothing of finding my mum’s suicide notes stashed in the strangest of places.  Sometimes they were in the boiler, or a top drawer in the kitchen, hiding amongst dried up old pens and crumpled receipts.  Eventually, I learned just to put them back where I found them.   Living in our house, you grew accustomed to certain sounds; my mum hoovering at four in the morning, my dad crying, and the hiss of a can being opened the moment he woke up for work.

I didn’t realize that my parents suffered from mental illness until I reached my teens.  To me, they were just my parents.  Okay, granted that visiting your dad in a mental hospital isn’t really part of the “normal” childhood experience, but it was in our world.  My siblings and I were used to hauling our dad off the floor, soothing our mum’s
worries about rats living in the bath and listening to her somewhat tall (extremely tall, giraffe on stilts kind of tall, Stephen Fry up acrane kind of tall) tales.  We tried to cope- and care- as best we could, while, of course, being subject to all the ordinary, “IT’S NOT FAIR!” door-slamming adolescent rages.

It was undeniably traumatic at times, but I don’t feel hard done by. I love my family and we are all incredibly close and supportive of each other.  In turn, my family had to cope with my own encroaching mental illness. Because they knew, in some sense, what to expect, I was spared the jaw-dropping horror, the hysteria and the confusion often meted out by our loved ones when our marbles are missing.  There was often tension, annoyance and frustration (case in point; my mother bellowing that she was sick of me and my “marnick depression” and my “pills” when I was sixteen, but she was still the same woman who didn’t bat an eyelid when I found myself on the acute ward of the local loony-bin) but crucially, after a little while, there was acceptance and support.  I have been on both sides of the electrified security fence.  If I printed up business cards, the words, “TWENTY FOUR YEARS EXPERIENCE” would be garishly embossed above a photo of me giving two thumbs up.

So you think I’d be good at it.  You think I’d know what to say and what do when someone other than myself is in a mental health crisis. After all, I’d done it before.

Recently, a friend of mine took an overdose, which landed them in hospital.  In 2008, I spent a similarly charming afternoon vomiting and having fits, before rather lazily passing out on my living room floor.  I was discovered a few hours later and given the VIP nee-naw treatment.  I endured a barely-remembered evening getting acquaintedwith a little cardboard bowl that would have made a fabulous hat had I not insisted on throwing up into it every fifteen seconds.  My then-boyfriend stroked my hair, tried to make me laugh, and friends filtered in and out, with me too adrift to truly appreciate their presence, or their pain.

One year later, and there I was, the numb and dumb one by a hospital bed for the very first time my adult life. I wanted to be there for myfriend, figuring that I’d be good at this.  I’ve been there.  I’d beenthe one with the vomit-soaked sheets and I know what helped me.  I’d say the right, insightful things.   Be witty and wry, but sympathetic. Show him that I cared, and, importantly, understood.  And, given my inappropriate behaviour at times, maybe cheer him up with a spot of daring Vaudeville tap-dancing.

But he looked so small, so shockingly childlike, fists folded like a dead bird’s claws, eyelashes slick with tears, with no heed to the runny nose and horrorshow hair.  He drifted in and out of consciousness, waking only to spasm and sicken, then would descend once more into the sarcophagus of starched white linen.   I had dismissed my own trip to the emergency ward as shenanigans, because that was me, and that was normal for me.  Although that was my first time in hospital for a suicide attempt (the rest were just retching days off school, bleeding wrists tucked into pockets, ligature marks hidden by high necked jumpers, private, banal), I didn’t die, it wasn’t that bad, and it can’t have been that traumatic for those around me.

But stood there, awkwardly pawing at my friend, realizing I had absolutely nothing useful to say, with my heart twisting in my chest, I thought, “This is not right, and nor should it be”.   Just because so many people- my friend, my parents, myself- experience these things, doesn’t mean that it should be what we accept for them, or dismiss, or even think we can fully relate to because we’ve “been there”. Because when we’ve been there, we probably felt we were there alone.  But in those moments, when we don’t know what to do or say, we
should remember that they are our parents, our family, our friends.

In some ways, I find that being the one in the bed is sometimes easier than being the one by the bedside.

How Diagnosis Changes Everything

When I was a teenager, my best friend lived in Dublin.  Every so often, I’d take the two hour journey from my home town of Belfast and spend a few days with him.  I loved wandering through the wide, windswept streets, secretly reveling in the tin whistle siren songs to the tourists trickling by.  But my favourite place in Dublin was Trinity College.  All I wanted was to study English there.  I imagined myself as a louche Donleavy-esque character, burrowed amidst fusty, loved tomes in an expansive library, happily ensconced in the dual worlds of academia and alcohol.  I would stand outside and run my hands across its historic stones, and wish.  I even printed out a photo of it and blu-tacked it to my bedroom wall. And as ambitious as it was, everybody had faith in me.  I was one of those effortlessly brilliant and ambitious students who’d never got a B in her life.

Instead, I became very unwell.  I missed six months of school, scraped a few GCSEs and was then gently dropped from my A-level courses with the humiliating declaration that my “mental health was more important than my education”.  Then, on an impulsive whim I ran away to London.  Seven years later, I’m still here, still ill and have, of yet, been unable to reattempt education.

Throughout my teenage years, it was assumed, despite the fact I’d suffered severe bouts of mania, depression and psychosis since the age of twelve, that I was just an attention seeking adolescent.  Anybody with a “teen” in their age isn’t ill.  They can’t be ill.   At sixteen, there was some vague hand-gesturing regarding a, “mood disorder”.   I was prescribed a medication that affected my balance so severely that I spent a good few months living on the hall carpet after yet another tumble down the stairs. I stopped taking it and there were no follow up appointments.  Even as I dropped out of school, nobody took my alleged illness seriously, and eventually, that included me.  For the next four years, I was too afraid to see a doctor, convinced that I was wasting their time and that they would dismiss me.  During those years, I deteriorated.  I developed the difficult-to-treat rapid-cycling (in which a person has four or more episodes of illness a year) and it caused untold problems in my relationships.  I lost countless jobs, I had to perform the famous, “moonlight flit” due to the fact I couldn’t pay my rent, I self harmed severely and I began to drink heavily.  At the age of twenty- psychotic, jobless and bleeding from the throat- I was admitted to a psychiatric hospital.  It was only then that I began to receive help for my mental problems.  By then, it had been eight years since I became unwell.

What happened to me is not unusual.  There is, on average, an eight year delay in diagnosing bipolar disorder, in which time the damage in a person’s life may have already been done.   It can also be misdiagnosed as schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder or depression, so the person may not be receiving the right treatment.  In fact, using antidepressants to treat bipolar disorder misdiagnosed as depression can be downright dangerous, triggering mania in some patients.

Mental illness is often not diagnosed until a crisis point has been reached.  It can be for various reasons.  A person can lose insight into their behaviour and refuse to see a doctor, or, in the case of bipolar, they may experience hypomania which can cause someone to feel not only good, but great.   Or, like me, they can think that they’re just flushing NHS hours down the toilet by bothering a doctor.  Or, as revealed in a recent survey of psychiatrists, doctors are simply not recognising the symptoms of mental illness.  And obviously, they’re somewhat easier to recognise when you’re bad enough to be hospitalised.

Finally getting a diagnosis can be a relief.  When I finally received the less-vague diagnosis of bipolar disorder, once I’d gone through the prerequisite period of, “You’re wrong, I’m fine”, I was thankful, in a way, to knew that something ailed me, and I wasn’t just, er, going mad. It explained a lot.  But it was also a harrowing experience.  I had kind of hoped that the doctors of yore were right and I was going through a teenage “phase”.  To be told, with all the characteristic tactlessness that the psychiatric profession is renowned for, that it was likely I’d have to live with this for the rest of my life (ah, the “rest of your life”- a particularly frightening prospect for the barely-lived in twenty year old) rendered me as flat and amorphous as a dinghy with the air let out.  That this too would not, in fact, pass. Yes, it had messed up my life.  But it it had a hand in my personality, my behaviour.  Some people liked me the way I was.  And I wasn’t sure who that person was anymore.  If they would even exist anymore.

I had an image of my future.  I wanted to be carefree until I was in my early nineties.  An elegant writer, well-studied, well-traveled.  Quaffer of wine, that kind of thing.  Taking medication that would change who I thought I was, living a life relatively free of stress, avoiding alcohol, my main confidant being my social worker and being forever saddled with the stigma of mental illness hadn’t figured into it.  Simple things I previously believed would be joyful experiences- such as having a child- were suddenly terrifying.  I’d have to take medication, and even then, only certain medications because others could harm the child.  There would be the grave possibility that I would experience post-natal psychosis, since I am prone to psychosis.  And there is increasing evidence that some mental illnesses are hereditary. So great was my worry that it contributed to my decision to have termination earlier this year.  There were other factors, but it was a position I never imagined I’d find myself in, and sobering reminder of the realities of living with a mental illness.  I’ll never fully adjust to it.  And forgetting it comes at a high price- in my case, when I stop taking medication, I start to become ill.  I need to be aware to be well. Ah, fantastic.  All the pep-talking statements that mental illness only changes your life as much as you let it isn’t true.  You cannot be well by wishing alone.

In a way, you’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.  Not being diagnosed leads to not being treated, and being diagnosed leads to a whole world of change.  Whereas I’m glad I didn’t have, “MENTALIST” stamped across my head when I was fifteen, I do sometimes lament what I lost. I don’t regret where my life has taken me.  But I’m sad that I never made it to Trinity.  Things are different now

The Underclass

Look!  It’s the face of the underclass!

Oh wait, no, I meant this:

*Edit: for the purposes of this post, I’m going by what is portrayed by the media as an underclass, and not getting into the sociological ins-and-outs of it, since the former has more resonance with the public than the latter.

The above links to another sneering, dehumanising tale from the Daily Mail about a woman who has had her fourteen children taken away from her by social services.  She is a, “baby making machine”, with her life being, “rich material for a satire about the tragedy of the British underclass”.

It’s quite likely that she is, in fact, an unfit mother.  But she’s also a human being, not that you’d guess from reading that article, which also discusses how some of her children died like it’s just a little thing.  It’s deliberately one-sided, portraying her as an almost emotionless leech.  It’s skirted over that she has learning difficulties.  Don’t want to get in the way of a good story, eh?

The Daily Mail like to bang on about, “the underclass” a lot.  They are this century’s British, “life unworthy of life”  A quick glance over the spiteful comments from the Not so Great British Public confirm that at least a section of society wish “the underclass” could be sterilised, and, “she claims for hip and back problems yet can have fourteen kids!”  Yeah, she’s had FOURTEEN KIDS.  Why do you think she has hip and back problems?

You’ve seen the underclass.  They wear tracksuits.  They live in council houses.  They have kids.  They claim benefit.  They are scroungers, and at the bottom of society.    More liberal types like to think that this dismissive, scornful derision poured upon, “the underclass” is limited to hateful rags like the Daily Mail.  It isn’t.  Everybody who isn’t part of it views the people who supposedly are as beneath, be it with pity or with hatred.  The Daily Mail like to castigate them, the Guardian like to gather a few people in an interior-designed room to decide what’s best for them.  They are a mass, a writhing sea of featureless faces, all older than their time, in the black pits of economic deprivation.  They all have the same story, they all have the same future.   Born, beaten, breeding, dead. They are-en masse- stupid, ill, baby machines, useless and everywhere.  There to make the rest of society pat themselves on the back for how undeviant and worthwhile they are.  Middle class housewives who stay at home while their husbands earn are heroes, working class mothers who stay at home and claim benefits are scum.   You are hard working therefore worthy of life!  Make them pick up dirt in the street!  Reinforce that social model! DO IT!

When I read stories of people living in council houses smoking and claiming benefits I’m actively jealous because they have something I have never had and desired for most of my life; a stable home.  I’m on the council housing list and know I’m going to stay there for the next decade.  I can honestly see the appeal of having a baby and getting a council house because having a home is an absurd privilege, when it should be a right.

Tales of, “the underclass” enrage me.  Because I am the underclass.

Time and time again, I’ve been proffered the courtesy, “but”. It goes like this:

“I hate benefit scroungers”.

“Yeah, I’m on benefits, mate”.

“Oh, but you’re different.  Your problems are genuine.  You deserve your benefits”.

Why?  Why do I deserve the small amount of to live on that benefits are?  Doesn’t everybody deserve that?  Doesn’t everybody in the fucking world deserve to have enough money with which to buy food and clothing?  Why are my problems more real than Theresa’s up there?  Because I budget my benefits so that I can afford an internet connection?  Because I articulate them?  Is it because I have an education?

Except I don’t.  Consider me as the subject of that article-

“Seaneen left school with seven GCSEs…”

And if we want to go even further,

Seaneen was born on a rough council estate in Republican West Belfast, the third of five children.  She had a traumatic childhood lived in poverty.  Her mother suffered from mental illness and physical ill-health that meant she claimed benefits.  Her father worked as a low-paid laboratory technician before being forced into early retirement by his alcoholism.  He died at the age of forty seven from alcoholic liver failure.

Do you see what I’m getting at?  On paper I’m not out of place.  My mum will be on benefits forever.  My dad was an Irish alcoholic, the same kind despised and lampooned via the mainstream media.  He was not a middle-class whiskey drinker.  He was the man you’d pass on the street drinking White Lightning.   Social services had to step in a few times and tell my mum to send us to school.  Our house in Ardkeen was in the local paper when we moved out because the squalor was so bad.  There were loads of photos of women pointing at bits of filth on the wall.   I am not one of those crazy kids who lives in London on benefits while their rich parents sneak a few hundred into their bank accounts every month.  If I fall, I have no safety net other than my social worker being able to step in and help me.

It cuts two ways, because people think they’re doing me a favour by, “but”ting me.  That I’m not one of those nasty little poor people.  I dress nicely (in my second hand clothes), I dye my hair funny colours, I know people who are in bands and shit. Newsflash: I AM.  Every bit as much as Theresa up there.   As are a lot of the wonderful people I know who live on benefits and have done, and will probably always do, because they are too unwell to work.

I have been, at various times in my life, the crazy person who smells that you’d cross the street to avoid.  I am a mentally ill (oh, but I have bipolar disorder so I must be CLEVER and MIDDLE CLASS, right?)  person on benefits.  Like many of the, “underclass”.  It’s me too, it isn’t just people like Theresa.  You can’t pour vitriol over a whole section of society while quietly trying to exclude me from it on the spurious grounds that I’m quite clever, or something.  That I don’t wear tracksuits so I’m different than they are.  The difference with me is that I don’t live on a ghettoised council estate.  But fuck, I probably would given the opportunity.  I’m terrified of getting ill sometime in the future and losing my home.  But I still can’t afford my heating bills and I’m one severe episode of illness away from possibly being fucked for life.  I could be the “passive poor”, I could be, “the traumatised” and on paper, I would be. I function via numbing medication, I accepted a trade-off in my life. And if I’d had my baby, it might have been taken away from me, and I was aware of that.

But you look closer, or at least, you should.  My messed up dad nicked books from school for us to read, paper for us to write on, pens for us to write with.  Because of him, I went to the Good School, like my sisters.  Our horrible houses were so ill-kempt because my dad would often lose his rag and kick a door and because my mum was often too depressed to clean and we were lazy shits.  You read this blog and know me somewhat and I don’t think you’d ever associate me with those tracksuited haggard faces photographed even though I’m likely from a similar background and superficially in a similar situation.  I could be an exception.  And even if I was born, didn’t educate myself, enjoy books etc, had lots of kids and lived in a council flat, so what?   There are reasons why the “underclass” exists, why poverty exists, there are reasons for violence, there are reasons for “ignorance” and low intelligence (things ascribed to, “the underclass”) and blaming the individual in these little pin up pieces to remind everybody that some people don’t deserve to live completely ignores the wider problems in society that don’t start at the bottom, they start at the top.  They haven’t failed society; society has failed them.

The differences people try to point out with me are that I’m intelligent- but how do you know the clichéd image of the “underclass” are not?  A lack of ambition, or a lack of culture, doesn’t mean someone isn’t intelligent.  Intelligence isn’t just education, it is much broader than that.  It isn’t just common sense, too.  Even if they aren’t intelligent, then…so?  People are different.  Being middle class or upper class doesn’t make you intelligent, it just likely gives you access to more educational opportunities (and don’t get me started on nepotism…)  And what’s so wrong with not being intelligent?  What about kindness? Being happy?  Being giving?  Being funny?

Sometimes the middle class aspirations of be born, get a great job, have a nice house, toil, retire, die, seem every bit as ridiculous to me as the aimless ones so often ascribed to this peasant underclass.  The difference is perceived as “giving back to society”.  Every person gives back to society by their existence.  I hate this idea of social burdens.  It’s repugnant and extremely dangerous and it’s the one that lumps the, “underclass” into one homogeneous hopeless mass.

You might also be thinking, “How can you be part of some sort of underclass when you write a blog people read, won an award for play, have people interested in your writing?”  Again, people might separate me via the route of ambition, in that I have some.  They might separate me via intelligence, while forgetting I do not have much of an education, so “something” must make me “better” than your average council estate mother (and it’s always the women, notice, who are most vilified).  They separate me via my cultural interests, which buys into the repellent idea of, “high” and “low” culture.   But the blog is a blog, the interest in my writing may help me in the future but it doesn’t make a difference to my every day life in which I have intense difficulty actually writing due to my stupid fucking brain, in which I can afford very little, sit in the cold and claim Housing Benefit so I have somewhere to live.  It doesn’t negate my background, and it doesn’t change how it would look if you put all the cold facts of my life on paper, right now, at this moment in time.  Right now, at this moment in time, I look like a member of the underclass. I don’t particularly engage with the rest of society, either.   In the future, who knows, I might some wildly successful writer whom the Observer asks to pen a weekly column about my three golden-faced, honey haired children and the problems of fitting them all into my hybrid car and getting them off to their public school,  or maybe I’ll become a social worker and put my years of experience as a mental patient to good use, but that’s not the case at the moment.

I’m not playing Larkin Trumps (“they fuck you up, your mum and dad, but mine fucked me up more than yours”), or trying to either romanticise or vilify my background.  Nor am I indulging in self pity because I don’t feel that way, likewise, I’m not comparing myself to those who are in desperate situations (and many are, but they’re just “scroungers”).  Nor am I an asylum seeker, who I don’t know how they live in this country without feeling assaulted.  I’m pointing out that on paper means nothing, and that I don’t deserve any more or less respect than the “tragic” examples of the underclass plastered all over the media whose lives, desires and dreams we know nothing more about than is told by the journalist.  The lack of humanity people can feel stuns me.  To see a group of fellow human beings as a problem rather than as afflicted by problems.

Now I’m going to empty my ashtray in case a Daily Mail journalist comes round.

“Open Up” conference from the perspective of the sociologically inclined non-mentalist

EDIT:  I bloody well missed it!  Happy (er?!) three year birthday to my blog! That’s ancient in blog terms.  Hark, I hear a man approaching with a shotgun… RUN! RUN! RUN AND GRAB ALL THE CAKE YOU CAN CARRY!

EDIT EDIT:  I found the speech I made as part of the panel in my emails, but I deviated wildly from it.  Anyway, it’s at the end of this post after the cut.

I have my own extremely late thoughts on the Open Up conference, which was about how to communicate mental health issues through the media, but due to aforementioned feeling depressed thus tired, I haven’t finished the post. In short, I enjoyed it, it was interesting, it highlighted a glaring division in the mental health “community” (the problem of language- some people take massive exception to “illness” and to words like, “mental”, some are more in keeping with the medical model who want mental illness to be more normalised.  The issue of identity- if there is no consensus, we’ll just argue amongst ourselves, and what then?) and I hope to be hanging around at other such events.  As I was hanging around I met a few of my readers, so hello out there!

I found speaking nervewracking and I will post about it properly when I’m feeling a bit better (which I hope comes soon- I feel slightly better today) as it deserves some proper articulation.  I was glad to see that a lot of people made an effort to be there, coming from far afield. I still think Alastair Campbell is a tiresome, self promoting cockend. Do quote me on that.  There is no thread of discourse so interesting that he cannot turn it back onto himself somehow.  He even had a book signing at the break.  I admire Campbell’s openness about his problems, but I wish he was more inclusive in his promotion.

I think Mark from One in Four is a star.  Here was his opening speech:

Hello, I’m the editor of One in Four magazine.  I’m a professional.  I’m also a person with mental health difficulties.

There isn’t a division between people with mental health difficulties and professionals, be it professionals in politics, in the professions, in the media or in any sector.  You’d be surprised at the amount of charity, public sector and private sector professionals that we run into who have a mental health difficulty. It’s like a secret club, spread across workplaces throughout the country.  Some of the people you’ll hear from and meet today are members of this club.  I know I am.

This afternoon is about beginning to find new ways of talking about mental health difficulty.  More than ever, we need to be cleverer and more effective in getting across useful, meaningful and positive ideas about mental health difficulty.

Like a growing number of exciting and groundbreaking projects like Star Wards, Patient Opinion and Cool Tan Arts, for us in producing One in Four it’s about meeting people halfway and collapsing old divisions between those providing services to people experiencing mental health difficulties and those experiencing them.

One in Four is a grassroots project, similar to all of the other excellent and innovative projects created and run by people with mental health difficulties that are supported by Open Up, the part of Time to Change that incubates and supports grassroots projects.  But we’re also professionals.  The old divisions no longer apply.  We produce a magazine that is written by people with mental health difficulties from the point of view of what people need to know, not the point of view of what needs to be told to them.  We all face the challenge of not only making people aware of what mental health difficulty is, but also what it means.

It’s more important than ever that we get things right.  Just one little slip, one badly judged idea, one badly informed person and an individual can be made to feel worthless, forgotten, stigmatized or without hope.  People focus on information, but information is meaningless unless people know how to understand it and how to make use of it.

We all need to find new ways of moving people’s ideas of mental health difficulty on, of shaking up old understandings and putting in place new, positive ideas.  We need to finally remove the stigma of mental health difficulty and help everyone to see that mental health difficulty isn’t a list of symptoms and treatments, but a series of challenges that can be overcome and lived through.

The reality is that there is no ‘us and them’ when it comes to mental health difficulty. Any group will contain people with experience of mental health difficulty, regardless of how much it might protest that it does not.

It’s only through working together that we will be able to change attitudes, be they the attitudes of those that don’t experience mental health difficulty or those that do.  There is so much information available, and so many competing ideas that we must find ways of helping and supporting people that start from the point of view ‘what do people want to know?’  The only way we can do this is to shake off the idea that simply putting information out there in ever-increasing volumes is the answer, and meet people halfway by working with them to find out the best ways of answering their questions and meeting their needs.

It’s about all of us working together.  It’s about getting beyond the idea of thinking of people with mental health difficulties a separate group in society. It’s about working together, whether it’s with public sector organisations, the voluntary sector, the media or just in everyday life. People with mental health difficulties need to be at the heart of the production of messages about mental health difficulty.

It’s awful to be stereotyped by people who should know better.  It’s time for a new way of dealing with mental health in the media. At least one in four people will experience a mental health difficulty.  That means a quarter of the audience for any television programme; any radio show, any newspaper or any other public material will have experienced mental health difficulties in their lives, or will know someone who has.

If one in four of us experience mental heath difficulties, no one who produces materials for public consumption should ever use the excuse that they couldn’t find anyone to talk to about the issues or the best way to discuss them.  There’s thousands and thousands of us out there, just waiting to be asked what we think, what we’ve experienced or how something affects us.  Some of us run companies.  Other provide services.  Others are more than happy to give our time for free if we know it will make a difference.

We need to get beyond a culture of just complaining. We need to get beyond saying ‘oh dear’ or working ourselves into a moral lather. People with mental health difficulties need to work with, and in, organisations to make sure they get it right and producers and organisations need to accept that and make it possible.

We hope that this afternoon will mark the birth of a number of new ideas, schemes, ways of working and plans for doing just that.


So, it might interest you then to read the thoughts of my glamourous assistant Robert, who is- as is quite apparent from his manner of speaking- a sociology student.

He also blogs over at: Vaughan Vanquishes Vaughan (his “nice” blog- warning, CONTAINS ARSE), Sporting Deviance (his sociological sporting blog) and The Trap Box (the “nasty” blog.  Warning: contains visceral mentions of teeth).

He is also a Nice Man.

Hello. I am not Seaneen. I am, however, a Sociology student. And whilst I attended the Open Up conference solely in the capacity of giving Seaneen moral support for her speech, I found myself studying it, in academic terms.

I am particularly interested in how people organize and express themselves as groups, how they try to exert power & influence and the smorgasbord of things they believe in. All collective action is interesting in the same way, be it women’s lib, football hooliganism or a pop.culture scene. They exist and act in the domain of culture, lifestyle and symbols, not the old-fashioned rigidities of traditional politics. Changing language can be as powerful as changing laws, if not more so. It’s sometimes called postmodern politics. I would call it, simply; the way things currently are. It occurred to me that the Open Up conference was an event for one (or more) such group(s).

This was an event held largely by and for *enters lexiconographic minefield* mentalists/people with mental health problems/service users etc. I myself, if I may just jump into another minefield, am… normal/healthy/able/non-service user. An “unmentalist” perhaps.

I was very aware of my difference. You don’t notice not being in “a secret club” (as Mark Brown put it) until you’re there amongst them.A stowaway. Amidst this company I was The Other. Not in an extreme or difficult manner, in fact I quite enjoyed it for its strangeness & irony, and must emphasize the incredible friendliness of everyone I met. This was the, ahem, polar opposite to, say, being a Manchester United fan sat amongst the Liverpool hardcores.

But the sense of difference was tangible inside me, profound enough for it to be noteworthy. It was a polite Us & Them. The “normal” me as the minority Them surrounded by a majority Us. The spatiotemporality of my supposed normality was exposed. For a brief fascinating moment I actually had an insight into what it is that might make someone yearn for diagnosis/labelling – the precise kind of thing that for good reason so enraged Seaneen last week:

In fact, as a warning, I should like to predict that as this self-organizing “mental rights” movement(s) continue, as they win their discursive culture-battles, be prepared for more and more wannabes. Having something to believe in, something to challenge, something to change is an intoxicating feeling. People will aspire to the bandwagon as it gathers more pace. Prepare yourselves for some annoying buggers! But take it as a sign of success, perhaps, albeit one of the least desirable trappings.

Superstar speaker and self-promoter galore Alastair Campbell was, as one may expect from a former PM’s spin doctor, absolutely explicit in this being a cultural battleplanning meeting, emphasising the all-importance of (mass) media… He made reference to the fact comparable movements such as gay rights and black civil rights were “five or ten years” ahead (I would sy they’re further than that). “Have your arguments ready!” he demanded. In sociological terms, he was urging the listening audience – the group – to push their discourse to the vibrant globalised centres of knowledge/power.

There is serious business afoot, things are in motion. And this added to my sense of separation. Which is to be expected. But perhaps wasn’t quite the intended point…

For while I felt separate, it wasn’t because I found myself in a dynamically bizarre heterodox environment. It wasn’t. It was very normal. Normative. Homodox. A business conference in a business conference setting. Suits. Chit-chat. Pressing of the flesh. Mingling. They, those crazyfolk, were more normal than me in the presented aesthetics of the event. And this is a good idea. A good tactic. I’m sure. The general message was: mental illness is normal, even mundane, and should not be allowed to get in the way of anyone’s life, career, social life etc. Which is a message I support…

However. I have a right troublemaker who lives in my gut. Mr. Visceral. He was alarmed. He claimed that whilst challenging the dominant discourses about the mentally ill being dribbling axe murderes is no doubt useful & interesting, there is another discursive action going on. A deeper, more profound one. The active conformity to normality… the drab bureaucracy of the businesslike setting… the bending over backwards to accommodate an elite figure like Campbell…

Do we (as in all human beings, and gutpeople like Mr. Visceral) really want to carry on the social order as it currently is? This is something I, er, I mean, Mr. Visceral would ask of every group, every movement. From football fans to feminists… Motorway protesters to the mentally interesting…. Is the rest of the world worth joining as it currently is?

Rather wise words, there.

Here is what I said, roughly.  I deviated massively from this.  It’s long, so behind a cut it goes.

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