Over the summer I was lying in bed above a cycle hire shop in Krakow, Poland when I heard a ping on my phone. I was feeling happy that morning because I was on holiday with my family and, in spite of the weakness of the pound, our budget was stretching further than I’d anticipated. I read my alert: “A Disorder for Everyone!” book launch event in Birmingham the following month. I saw the list of speakers and within seconds, I was sold!
This was the third Drop the Disorder event I had attended and I always find it is money well spent. I treat these gatherings as my little gift to me; a nod to self-care if you will. On arrival at the venue in central Birmingham I wandered around an array of stalls in the main hall including RSVP, The Freedom Project and the Mayday Trust. Sally-Ann was also there with her beautiful woodwork engraved with words of inspiration. At a previous event I had heard Sally-Ann as she courageously shared her painful account of the harm she experienced after being labelled with a psychiatric diagnosis following her disclosure of child sexual abuse and exploitation.
The atmosphere was buzzing as people chatted over coffee before taking their seats. I immediately felt at home as if I was ‘with my people’. It’s a sense of unconscious connection which puts me in tune with my emotions. I wondered how long it would be before I cried!
Truthful ways to help make meaning of distress
I sat on the back row and the woman dressed in a beautiful flowery dress next to me beamed at me before saying: “I really dig your trainers”. I shared with her the photos on my phone that I’d taken on my walk to the venue that morning before a hushed tone descended upon us. Jo Watson, organiser of these events and editor of the Drop the Disorder book was introduced and took to the stage. I’m really drawn to Jo’s manner and her message. There’s something humbling and authentic about the way she comes across; it emerged that she didn’t think she’d be good enough to pull off editing a book; it took the publisher to convince her over a cheese sandwich! But there is also an iron grit to Jo; a determination to advocate for those who have suffered through psychiatric labelling, to challenge the culture of such diagnosis, and to strive for kinder and more truthful ways to help make meaning of distress.
It is this call to action which underpins “A Disorder for Everyone!” and brings people from all walks of life together in a day of high energy and hope. Lydia Gribbin kickstarted proceedings with her epic performance of the poem ‘Call to Action’ which is the introduction to the Drop the Disorder book. Then, one after the other speakers who have also written chapters in the book shared their knowledge, ideas and personal experiences. Dr Lucy Johnstone, who is the back-bone of the movement, talked us through alternatives to the diagnostic model of distress. She spoke about trauma-informed formulations and the Power Threat Meaning Framework, which she co-authored with Professor Mary Boyle. Exploring how power operates in our lives is key to understanding how power puts labels over stories and how bio-medical models are examples of the use of ‘ideological power’. We were reminded of the restorative power of truth-telling or, as Pete Sander’s put it: “we’re not made of atoms, we’re made of stories.”
This was clear in Lisa Thompson from RSVP’s talk who writes chapter 13 of the Drop the Disorder book. Lisa shared her heart-breaking story of her grandmother “Nana Gina” who survived rape as a teenager but, due to her toxic shame, didn’t tell anyone for seventy years. Lisa touched on transgenerational trauma where ‘things are passed on without words’ and the drive of her own history in developing trauma-informed approaches for people who have experienced sexual violence.
There were other moving personal stories including from Chris Coombs who described himself as a ‘suicide attempt survivor’. Chris was born with cerebral palsy and as a result had endured years of invasive physiotherapy to try to ease his pain and help him walk. He described the disconnect of those that manoeuvred his limbs perceiving him purely as a dysfunctional body rather than a human being with feelings. He writes further about the interplay between disability and mental health in his brilliant blog: https://memyselfanddisability.wordpress.com.
Sue Irwin had the audience on their feet, and many of us in tears, when she bravely and beautifully shared her deeply distressing survival story. She writes further about her experiences in chapter 15 where she also reflects on how Drop the Disorder has given her a sense of belonging that has been missing for most of her life.
Sharing felt safe
There was so much to take in and we were only half way through the day! The woman sitting on the other side of me mirrored my thoughts and feelings as we described how moved we were and the resonance such accounts held for us. “What brings you here?” she asked. So often in different circles I might offer a caged answer as to my own back-story but here, with a complete stranger, I felt safe. I shared the story of my mother, her constant suicide attempts and how our relationship was all but obliterated by shame. I told her how my mother never felt safe enough to speak about what happened to her and how her distress came to by seen as behaviours synonymous with mental disorders for which she was heavily medicated. I told her how during her lifetime I didn’t have the experience or intuition to understand but, after she died, I came across hundreds of letters she had written and her medical notes. And then I told her that coming to these events helps me process, it helps me feel calm, and it helps my poetry. The woman listened to me with an open-heart and then she shared her own story. Afterwards we swapped emails and I felt joy at making another connection with somebody who “gets it”.
The afternoon began with the effervescence and intellect of Professor Emmy Van Deurzen. A Philosopher and Counselling Psychologist whose books on existential therapy I have greatly enjoyed. It was fascinating to hear her take on how we might best understand the human plight. Van Deurzen spoke about her own upbringing in the Netherlands and the impact of a serious traffic accident at the age of ten years old. She writes about this further in chapter 5 as well as the neglectful treatment of patients at the psychiatric hospital she worked at in France in the 1970s. She ends her chapter by describing how she “learned to accept their madness and find their humanity” and how it was by listening to their stories “…and by helping them to find clarity and distill their wisdom that I learned by profession”.
Epic book launch - Epic book
Therapists Jenny Taper and Jamie Tipping kept the energy levels high as they incorporated some audience participation in their talk. They challenged the narrative of diagnosis and disorder in counselling training and through their simple experiment were able to determine that nearly all of us met the criteria for “Postnatal Depression” – men included!
Author of ‘Tales from the Madhouse’ Gary Sidley shared more on his chapter in ‘Drop the Disorder’ on why words can harm mental health.Then it was the turn of Professor of Clinical Psychology, John Read, who developed this further. To some it may seem a little insensitive to incorporate humour into discussions around trauma and diagnosis but I am a great believer in the therapeutic power of humour; my mum, for example, was the first to laugh at a good joke! John Read got the tone just right when he described the funny deviations from social norms and the common behaviours of an early 1900s illness that later became known as ‘schizophernia’:
“Go with a lighted cigar into church”
“Love ugly people”
“Laugh on serious occasions”
Dr Jacqui Dillon also brought an air of humour to the stage (she’s a very entertaining woman) in spite of sharing a very real, raw and painful personal story of sexual exploitation. Dillon is hard-hitting in her message as she described the way in which she reclaimed her rage through finding her own survivor mission. Such a sentiment was echoed by Akima Thomas who developed on the idea of resistance, rebellion, resilience and recovery.
‘Drop the Disorder’ is published by PCCS books and I was able to buy my copy at the event. I gather it is the fastest selling book in the publisher’s history and is already starting to be used in university counselling and psychotherapy training. “A Disorder for Everyone!” Birmingham was an epic book launch event. I came away with more knowledge, connections, ideas, poetry and, above all, hope. When I look back at that summer morning lying in a Polish bed and hearing my phone ping, I thank myself for making a very good choice.