Over the last few days I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about lived experiences. Particularly, being an expert through lived experience in the mental health universe. The thing that triggered this was a blog entry on the Asylum Magazine website. It was a satirical information leaflet for an NHS community mental health team – a rich ground for satire if ever there was one…seriously, there’s a reason why our Health Secretary will one day be knighted for services to rhyming slang – these services are completely underfunded and under-resourced despite often being staffed by people doing their best in a completely untenable situation.
We all have our invisible lines for when comedy and satire go to far and become inappropriate or tasteless or for whatever reason unacceptable. For myself and many other readers, this was when it went on to satirise the NHS use of survivors, describing them as ‘trauma porn stars’. Now, most of the online backlash that I saw on the twittershpere was (quite rightly) from those either with experience of, or working with people who’ve experienced such horrors as rape, sexual violence and childhood sexual abuse. That term and it’s implication that somehow survivors were flaunting themselves for all to see with their stories and experiences is incredibly toxic, harmful and flat out reckless. It should be noted at this point, that the authors engaged with the critique, accepted the points made and have since removed this part of the article. I only mention this, because that kind of grown-up response is so rare these days that I feel it’s worthy of mention, and that’s a rather sad state of affairs! You can read the amended article, complete with apology and explanation here.
Now while it’s impossible to put all of the toothpaste back into the tube and people have been justifiably hurt by this, it may be the best outcome we could hope for. So that’s the end of the story right? Well sort of. Because I want to talk about what this incident highlights and represents. The fact that so many survivors of what I’ll call ‘inconvenient truth’ experiences – things like mental health crisis, sexual violence, abuse, oppression, homelessness and extreme poverty – are given the strong impression that, whilst our experiences are now just about acceptable to speak to professionals about (if you’re very lucky), to talk about them openly to the public at large, is something that is to be carefully rationed and dispensed through a very fine media filter. In recent times I have done a couple of media appearances talking to Channel 4 and the BBC about suicide, student mental health and my experience of attempting one and not having much of the other! It is almost 11 years to the day that I attempted to take my own life while at the University of Reading. That alone is a fact that boggles my mind and causes me to reflect on many things, not least the joyous fact that I’m still here, but I also have one small voice at the back of my mind that tells me that because it’s a long time ago – maybe I should consider that it’s time to step away from any form of telling my story. At it’s worst, this self-doubt tells me that I’m only putting my head above the parapet for attention. I can tell you that this particular voice is quelled immediately by the emotional bombsite of the aftermath of any media work I do. And I’ve done enough speaking on this topic to know that this comes with the territory for me. Yet it comes back almost every time I am contacted about speaking on suicide.
Such nagging doubts don’t come out of nowhere. They come from a culture that puts all sorts of rules and regulations on negative experiences and emotions. There is an innate protectionism in this. If survivors like me are allowed to keep banging on about this as and when we feel like it, and more worryingly, then allow more survivors to come forward to share their voices, then society may actually have to face the fact that there are horrific flaws in the way we go about things both structurally and psychologically. And that something may actually have to be done about it. It’s the reason that those in grief are so often made to feel that they should have ‘moved on by now’, or that people’s recovery from these experience is trumpeted above all other facets of their story. One of the most striking things when I look back on the interviews I’ve done over the years, is how quickly people ask about how I got better. Now on some levels that is completely understandable, and I don’t wish to underplay the significance of recovery and that part of why I do these pieces is to help people who may recognise something of my story in their own situations, but all too often it becomes the focus, and people ask as if hoping for me to turn round and give them the one magical cure that worked for me and will change the world. Recently, I’ve taken to answering the question of what to do when faced with a suicidal person with: “let them tell their story”. I’m not saying that this will always work, but it shifts the focus onto the individual in distress and validates it. Because in such a recovery focused culture as ours, the reasons that someone gets to that place, or has to go through other horrific experiences are all too often lost.
Survivors, experts by experiences, black belts in the dojo of life – however you see us – must be allowed to tell our stories, but we must be allowed to do so in a situation that accepts those things as whole – and not just the sugar-coated recovery happy endings. One of the reasons that I felt it was important for me to start talking about suicide as an attempt survivor, was when I heard a statistic that approximately only 1 in every 30 attempted suicides is completed. That must mean there are lots of survivors who feel they cannot talk about that. So if I feel able then I will. I had hoped that in the 7 years or so that I’ve been speaking openly about it, to help others to come forward when they are ready. Not a lot has changed on that front in that time, progress is very slow, but that means that I shall keep speaking. So that hopefully, one day, there won’t be a need for me to do so.
I want to step away not because I feel I should stop because people will wonder if I talk for personal advancement, suspecting that I’m some kind of ‘recovery pornstar’ but because suicide will no longer be such an inconvenient truth.