I haven’t posted in a long while and as my mental health isn’t getting better I have been looking back at my personal history of depression and mental health issues and I hope to be able to finish and publish that post and that it won’t be relegated to my pile of articles I have started but not finished because I don’t have the mental capacity, the time to finish or because i have assessed that it is not good enough.
I am going a little bit personal here, more personal than I have in the past and i think it is going to be a descriptive post about my experience of mental health professionals.
Apologies in advance, it will probably be long.
I have been unwell in the past during one major breakdown that happened after a serious case of sexual harassment at work where my boss used pornography to sexually harass me. My employment in that company lasted five years during which I was so vulnerable I was not able to leave my work and my abusive boss – what I can see clearly now as a typical case of Stockholm Syndrome. It was my first serious job, I was 20 years old. I clearly remember making the conscious decision to dissociate as he was abusing me: “This is impossible, he cannot be doing this things, i am not there, this is not happening, this has never happened”.
After a few years of that, I started to develop violent somatic responses to the abuse I was subjected to. And in my early to mid twenties I was suffering from chronic back pain that left me unable to stand for very long, unable to sit at my desk, and unable to lie down in most positions. After years of suffering this physical pain, my body started to let me know in a different way I was unwell and something needed to be done. I started to have panic attacks in all sorts of places and mainly in closed transport systems. I lived in Paris then and was unable to take the underground, I had to stop and wait on the platform every couple of stops, breathe deeply, sit or lie down on a bench before I felt strong enough to continue my journey. It was absolutely terrifying, painful and debilitating experience. I was then starting my work day facing more abuse in that horrendous workplace.
When I mentioned it to the (male) GP I had at the time, the same male GP who had followed me for my sciatica problem and was prescribing me pain killers and anti inflammatory injections with no positive results for months, the guy looked at me, laughed and said: “Oh yeah ahahah, it happens to nervous people”. That’s it, chapter closed. It made me feel like an absolute piece of shit, having one’s pain and fear not acknowledged and not validated and then of course not treated made it even worse and it was another few weeks of terror and agony before I took the courage to mention it to my (female and wonderful) physio who was the one to acknowledge my pain and suggested I went to see a mental health professional. I chose a woman psychiatrist. She prescribed me immediate drugs to stop the panic attack symptoms (I was against drugs but took them very temporarily and stopped as soon as the panic attack stopped). I spoke to her weekly for one year and a half before I could recount the sexual harassment that happened. It took another six month before I was able to leave the abuser.
I left the country then, wanting to put as much distance between me and the horror. I also left the area of work I was working in and had been trained for. I was a graphic designer and on top of the direct sexual harassment, the work itself was an active and creative way for my boss to oppress me: In a men only team, who should he ask to Photoshop women’s sexualised bodies but me, the only female in the office. I never was able to work in graphic design again professionally. And since then, I never thought I was good enough to apply for any other creative job.
The main other episode of mental health I had was during pregnancy and birth. I started to cry daily in the first trimester of my pregnancy. I was painfully aware of the difficult professional and financial situation I was in at the time, and although I had been in (what I would have called) a stable relationship for more than ten years, the power balance changed and it was particularly visible in pregnancy where I found myself more socially and professionally vulnerable than I had ever been in the past.
And DH used that to his advantage (more on that on another post but in short he became emotionally abusive and controlling, had a fling with a work colleague when I was 6 months pregnant, became violent to a work colleague and subsequently lost his job when I was 8 months pregnant). If I look at the situation honestly, I have to say I was living in fear, when my midwife heard of it, she was visibly angry at him. I naturally took his side, like any other trapped women in a situation of violence would have done, Stockholm Syndrome once again. Nevertheless, even though the midwives I saw regularly were aware of my history of mental health my condition was never really noticed, I was finding difficult to talk when my history of reporting mental health difficulty had been dismissed in the past, I was not feeling entitled to any help, I denied to myself the fact that I was not well, I put a mask on. When I finally decided to seek out for help, I went through it via my GP who referred me to a CBT counsellor. The absurd conversations we were having are worth recording here:
Her: “so what’s happening, how are you feeling?”
Me: “I am crying all the time, I feel oppressed, I feel I have nowhere to go, now that I am pregnant, I feel patriarchy is closing in on me and all I see is closed doors and no opportunities, I am very worried about my future.”
Her: “You mentioned in the past you had a problem working consistently on your self employment? I think we should work on procrastination.”
I tell her I am oppressed by patriarchy; she said I have a procrastination issue. For the first time in my life I discontinued the treatment. I carried on having a painful pregnancy. I was manipulated and emotionally abused at home by my husband and encountered violent behaviour from men several times, behaviours that were motivated by my pregnancy.
And then birth happened. I wrote before I was never able to write about birth, in fact I never actually talked about it and for at least the first year all I could do if any of my friends was mentioning their birth experience was to run to the toilet and cry. I will write later about what I can only describe as a terrorising and traumatising experience, an experience of utter loneliness and complete lack of control and power, an experience of facing pain and fear of death entirely alone, an experience of lack of love, lack of care, lack of support.
I came home after a few days of institutionalised health abuse and neglect. After an emergency C-section and massive blood loss they wanted me back home within 48 hours. After I passed out and lost more blood while attempting to have a shower, I had to beg them to keep me another day as I was utterly weak and physically and mentally unable to cope. A perinatal mental health professional visited me and after a five minute chat assessed I was fine.
I was taken back home by a couple of my friends who I felt guilty to ask to stay any longer. I stayed by myself most of that day, waiting hours for my loving husband to come home.
The first few month of my baby’s life, DH who had recently lost his father, decided it was a good time to travel to his home country (thing he had not done once in our time together) and planned to set up a business there. I am not ashamed to say I begged him to reconsider his decision. I totally opposed it. I was traumatised, depressed, sleep deprived and stressed out, completely isolated not coping with a newborn.
I spoke to my GP about the situation in the sixth week check up we are supposed to have. I saw a male GP I didn’t know. When I told him how I felt he proceeded to guilt trip me for not coping: apparently I was letting myself go or something like that. Then he said I needed to be more supportive towards my husband, no matter about my experience, no matter about not copying, no matter about being let down while being in charge of a newborn baby on my own with no support network and in a state of what I was starting to see as PND. No, my husband’s well-being was to be my priority. Of course! He then advised me to get myself on Mumsnet to find some activities in the local area so that I could have something to do with my day. “Pick yourself up woman!” What an utterly pathetic little patronising shite he was, I will never forget.
Two weeks later was the eighth week check. I was seen by yet another male GP. Those GP practices are so impersonal, I hate not having someone I can see regularly that I actually know and actually knows me. Anyway, that fucker was going mechanically through his check list.
Him: “So how are you feeling generally?”
Me: “Not well, I am not coping, my husband is about to leave for a an unknowm period of time, he says he’s got plans abroad, I am not doing well, I am alone.”
Him proceeding to the next question like I have actually said nothing at all: “Do you take any contraception.”
Me is total disbelief: “I don’t see why I would need it, I am alone.”
Voila. End of.
DH left a few days later. He left me in utter shock and disbelief, he left me at my weakest darkest hour even though I begged him not to. He went away and I honestly don’t know how I survived those hours, those days of total despair and abandonment. Three years later, it is 6am and I am crying writing this. The mental shock was huge. I couldn’t and still can’t understand why or how anyone could do what he did to me and a newborn baby. Cruel, heartless, unthinkable.
My health visitor found me one morning in a state of total trauma when she did her home visit. I am so grateful she was there as she was the only one who saw how unwell I was and treated me like a human being. She spent a lot of time with me in these first few weeks and when the time the NHS gave me ran out, she referred me to the perinatal services at my local hospital.
I met a guy psychologist (against my best judgment – I was told he was fantastic, the best in the team and women loved him). I had one assessment with him. An hour in which I poured out my heart, I can’t see the point of going to mental health professionals to be guarded so I spoke about everything that came into my mind. You wouldn’t believe the stuff that came out of his mouth. He told me he would really benefit from having me as a patient because he had an interest in Feminism and would like to hear and learn from me. Yes, you read it right, no I am not kidding. How about you buy a fucking book and do some reading you fucking asshole! How unprofessional. I cannot understand why he thought it was an appropriate thing to think let alone to say to anyone he is supposed to care for. But that’s not all; when I mentioned to him about porn, how porn was used against me time and time again and how I had been groomed into watching it by male partners, his eyes light up and very keenly interested he asked “ooh, what kind of porn then?” And by very “keenly” I mean he was sexually aroused. He was a porn user and a predator.
In the utter state of confusion I was in, I still realised something was bloody wrong, I froze when i heard him speak. All alarm bells ringing in my mind. But i needed help so badly, it took me a week to make the decision to not be seen by him. A week! I hate to think how many women didn’t see him for what he is. I can’t imagine what would have happened if I hadn’t read all these feminist books about porn and would have fallen for him myself.
I then saw a woman. Very nice she was but also profoundly inadequate. I am struck by two things she said during the few weeks I saw her. I was recounting my history of sexual abuse and recalled a couple of cases that happened to me. Her response was: “This happened to you twice? Really? Oh, you have been so unlucky!” Talk about false consciousness. Where do you live, woman? This is the daily life of every woman in the planet. How anyone can be counselling women without any basic knowledge of female oppression and male violence is completely absurd.
A few weeks later I managed to get myself aware and strong enough to make THE only decision that made any sense, I decided to get myself out of this relationship. I made the decision with help from feminist friends of mine without whom I don’t think I would be here today. I made that decision to save myself, my sanity in the face of the abuse and neglect I faced from the man who was supposed to be there and not only wasn’t but was abusive himself. I made the decision, wrote a plan of action and started to act. That women counsellor totally freaked out and told me to reconsider my decision:
“Its a big decision, are you sure?”
Apparently she thought I couldn’t handle it. She suggested staying in an abusive relationship was safer. I had to be very strong and opinionated to stand up against her and for myself. I had to say “this decision is made, it took me a long time to get there and it was not up for debate”.
Needless to say, I never trusted her.
Several weeks later I moved out. I wish I was able to end that post here but unfortunately as I write more memories come to mind that have to be added to the story to give a full picture of the problem.
I had to register with a new GP and got assigned a new health visitor. To sum up, the health visitor dismissed my problems completely and although I was seeing her regularly it was always impossible for me to see her when I needed. On one particular occasion when I had been visibly distressed in public while i was suffering with incredible stress (thank you my local council for not paying my housing benefit for more than six months) and non-stop suicidal thoughts, I spoke to a wonderful woman at my local children’s centre. She said there was a special procedure they could put in place (I can’t recall the name of it now) to give my child some hours in the nursery so I could have time for myself to recover. The problem was, all the health professionals involved had to agree it would be necessary and helpful for me at that point. My health visitor replied negatively straight back without even consulting me at all. Fuck her, I decided I could do without her “help”.
And then my new GP, a very nice woman to whom I tried to explain the mental pain I was in, listened, believed me, acknowledge my pain… but the response once more was completely inappropriate. The only solution she offered me was to take medication. Long term medication. As stated before I have always been against medication, I was also breastfeeding and had no intention of stopping. I explained this, I explained there was nothing wrong with me, society was driving me insane and I didn’t see why I should take drugs strong enough to change the chemistry of my brain because I was oppressed. There were pages of side-effects to the drugs she was prescribing, for me and for my baby, and the oppression wouldn’t magically go away once I had popped the damn pill. She said there was “no way someone with your level of depression could get better without drugs”. She pushed the drugs onto me over and over again even tho I said “no” over and over again. She carried on for about a year. I stopped seeing her. I didn’t take the drugs.
After that, I saw a couple of women counsellors who were very good. The time I had there – especially the last one which I did alongside a self-run consciousness-raising group and a self-help program (The Artist’s Way – I recommend it) was particularly beneficial because it gave me time to think for myself and formulate issues and I had a lot of insights in those short few weeks. Then, the issue isn’t on the quality of care but on the quantity. Who can think 8 sessions is enough to get truly better? Who can think oh, 8 sessions didn’t work out so it wasn’t what she needed, let’s give her something else (CBT, drugs, group therapy, whatever). It is the continuity of care with healthcare professionals we trust that has to carry on if that relationship is successful. One cannot heal from a life time of patriarchal abuse in 8 weeks.
Last week, I realised very painfully that depression is not what I am suffering from. Or maybe it was not the only thing i am suffering from. After lots of reading, months of introspection and intense work on myself, after speaking to friends with knowledge and experience on the subject who have been able both to listen and advise, I realise I have symptoms of trauma. No one in all the mental health “experts” I have seen has mentioned this was a possibility once.
How in a system like this am I going to get the help and mental health support I need to get better?
In light of the physical and economical violence women face, in the light of the discrimination women face in motherhood, the increased violence from their male partner when they get pregnant, the deplorable conditions in which women give birth, how many more women have been misdiagnosed with PND or not diagnosed at all when they are in trauma from their birthing experience and / or male violence?
I don’t have a lot of brain capacity left for thoughts and analyses. I see the capacities of my brain declining, my memory is getting worse, I suffer from lack to focus, scatter-brain, regular panic attacks, blank brain that’s unable to process information or read for any period of time, overwhelming dark feelings and guilt and emptiness and uselessness, dissociation, recurring episodes where I am unable to do anything at all apart from keeping me and my child alive.
I see now all my mental health issues where caused directly by male violence.
I wonder if it the case for every other women who are suffering right now, my guess is yes.
In patriarchy, “all women face physical or psychic death daily” said one of my friends, she is right.
I see how the male institution which is the health system has consistently let me down, not listened to me, denied my pain, tried to numb me and silence me, consistently treated me like a symptom, ignoring the human behind the pain, I can see how the health system has directly caused trauma during childbirth.
Women are not human in Patriarchy, our sufferings are constantly undermined, our pain doesn’t matter, we do not matter.
Today as I am deciding to make the political act of sharing that part of my life, and as I am about to press the ‘publish’ button, all I feel is an infinite sadness and a blinding rage.