Own oxygen mask first

Projecting my own vulnerability

For 17 years I worked in mainstream mental health services. I qualified as a social worker in 2001, got my first job in mental health in 2002. I wanted to make a difference!

Having grown up with a fair amount of traumatic experiences myself, I felt I had something to give. And while that is true, I know I have made a difference to some people’s lives, it has taken me a great deal of soul-searching and looking at my own stuff before realising I was also projecting my own vulnerability into the people I was working with. After lots of time working through my issues, I realise now I genuinely do have something to offer. However, thinking of the metaphor of the aeroplane about to crash, I needed to put my own oxygen mask on first!

Rooted in my own unresolved trauma

It may have been youthful naivete or idealism that led me to becoming a caring professional. Or maybe my desire to become a ‘carer’ was rooted in my own unresolved trauma, and the feeling that I had to care for others within my family- particularly my mum and my disabled sister. I’m not sure, but I have, over the years come to question time and again my desire to become a social worker, and the idea that there is some fundamental difference between me as a professional, and the people I am working with. I mean, obviously we are all different, with different life experiences, perceptions of life and hopes, dreams, goals. What I mean is, the distinction between being a professional or a service user has blurred. I’m both! I think I may have been trying to prove to myself by entering services from the professional side that I had it all sorted, I’m managing my life fine and I don’t need ‘help’.

More able to admit to my own vulnerabilities

I was fortunate, I managed to land jobs where decent support was available, with thinking people who had all gone onto further training in more psychotherapeutic approaches. Within two years of starting my career in Social Work, I began to feel more trusting, more able to admit to my own vulnerabilities, and so began seeing a therapist myself. I have continued to seek my own therapy throughout my career. I still do see a therapist, and it is still at times painful, frustrating, aggravating, but also rewarding, revealing, enriching and has enabled me to find more of myself, who I am and what I stand for. Crucially, it has enabled me to find love, love for myself and as a corollary, love for others. It isn’t an easy journey to make. I have been through some fairly extreme states of mind and emotional turbulence myself, when facing my own demons in therapy. At times, I’m sure if I had presented to A and E or a Crisis Team, I could have been labelled, or even had treatment forced on me.

I became disillusioned with mainstream services

In more recent years, due to cuts in funding and what I call the ‘corporatisation’ of the NHS I have not been so lucky in the jobs I have been working in. I became disillusioned with mainstream services, the labelling, enforced treatment, the lack of recognition by most of my colleagues of their own vulnerability. I understand why this is so – it is damn hard to face your own pain and work it through. But in not taking the time and effort to do this, it results in the kind of treatment we see in many mental health services. I am not suggesting that people who work in services don’t have the best of intentions, just that they are working in a paradigm that separates people as being ‘well’, and therefore not in need of recognition, support or containment themselves (the mental health professional) and those who are deemed ‘ill’- the patients being treated, who are seen as more vulnerable, more in need, labelled as unwell due to behaving in ways and expressing things that are outside of the cultural norm.

We are all unique individuals with something to offer

I have been working hard to get training in psychotherapy. Having benefited so much from this myself, I have seen how things can be done differently. Psychotherapy at its most effective recognises everyone as valuable, having their own pain and trauma, but also their own strengths, abilities and talents. We are all unique individuals with something to offer.

I have become more and more upset with some of the practices of the medical model. Probably the most upsetting thing I experienced recently was someone in a so-called catatonic state who was about to be enforcedly given ECT. It was soon after that that I had a sudden revelation- would I want to be a patient of the service I was working for? – the answer a resounding ‘No!’. I resigned from the job I was doing for a mental health trust and am now starting out on my own offering psychotherapy.

We are all vulnerable, flawed, fallible humans

I am not convinced by any DSM diagnoses, they simplify and reduce real human distress, objectifying and ‘othering’ people in states of emotional turmoil, brought on by trauma, oppression, abuse, the overwhelming nature of society. But that is what they (diagnoses) are, descriptions of human emotional and mental states, not illnesses. They are states that anyone may go through given enough pain and emotional trauma. We are all vulnerable, flawed, fallible humans and at times need someone there to hear us and see us, truly see us in our distress. To have someone sit with you in a state of raw emotional pain can be one of the most healing gifts one human being can give to another. Having experienced that kind of loving response, I am pleased to be able to offer this to others. I am not claiming to be perfect, quite the opposite – I don’t have all the answers, but what I do have is the patience and compassion to sit with people in their distress, and assist in making sense of and meaning from their lives.