Stepping in

This morning I was walking to a nearby hospital with my wife. I was there to offer her support, because she was nervous about having a routine test done.

We had our dog with us. The plan was that I would continue to walk the dog in the park beside the hospital, while my wife underwent the brief test.

As we neared the hospital, we heard an unusual, loud noise. It sounded like the call of a howler monkey. My wife and I both reflexively looked up into the branches of the nearby trees, then laughed because we knew we had both thought the same illogical thing. We began to wonder aloud what had made the noise. Then I noticed.

Near a low hospital building a young woman was being held by the wrists by a young man. Then she started to scream, “Get off me! Get off me! Leave me alone!”

I decided to intervene and I asked my wife to stay back and phone hospital security.

As I approached the couple, I noticed that there was quite a lot of blood on them both, but mostly on the young woman. My instant reaction, I’m embarrassed to say, because of my OCD was, “Ugh, blood! A source of human contamination!”. Thankfully, common sense thinking immediately replaced the kneejerk intrusive thought. At least one of them was injured. One or both of them could have a weapon.

They were both visibly distressed. My approach didn’t stop the young man from holding the young woman firmly by the arms. With both hands. No weapon in his hands.

I started to talk to the guy in a calm, measured tone. “I don’t know what’s happening here fella, but the lady looks upset at being held, so maybe back off a couple of feet”

“It’s not what it looks like sir. It’s not what it looks like”

“Sir” seemed an odd and unthreatening way to address me. Even so, I remained alert and cautious.

“OK, but I still want you to back off to let things calm down”

He let go of her and took a couple of steps back.

“You don’t understand. It’s not what it looks like. You don’t understand sir”

I then managed a first proper glance at the woman, while remaining vigilant near the young man. Most of the blood was on the young woman’s arms and jacket front. The blood was coming from very recent cuts on her arms. Not deep cuts, so no immediate danger of fatal blood loss. No evidence of stab wounds. Any blood on her face & jacket was transferred or spattered from her arms. I noticed extensive scarring further up the young woman’s arms. I then understood what was happening.

“Please sir, let me help her. You don’t understand, I’m trying to help her”.

The young man was very upset. Covered in blood spatter and his own tears. I scanned him for injury. He looked unharmed. Injury to him? Why would I check that? Because I had been in his situation many times with my first wife. Whenever she was self harming with a knife, she would try and slash me as I tried to take the knife off her.

Oh shit! I had my back to the woman as I remembered this. I hadn’t checked her hands for weapons! Stupid stupid bastard! I was so busy worrying about the man being the armed one. I instinctively took a step backwards into a defensive posture and scanned the young woman. No weapon, but she was very agitated and distressed.

“Are you OK?”, I asked her.

“You don’t understand man. I’ve lost my phone. I need to find my phone. I am so fucked up and anxious man. I don’t have my meds with me. I need my meds. Where’s my phone…”

She turned her back to me and started to pick through the contents of a hospital dumpster. The distraught young man, overcome with the stress of the situation, had slumped, sobbing against a low wall.

“I can’t find my phone. I need to find my phone…”

The woman was scrabbling through the discarded paper waste. She may have been looking for her phone, but I suspected that she was also looking for a sharp object to cut herself with. I didn’t touch her. I couldn’t touch her, not with so much blood on her, though I would have done so if she had tried to self harm again. I tried to start a conversation.

“So, how come you guys are so upset?”

She stopped searching and turned towards me. “You wouldn’t understand man, nobody understands”

“I think I understand”

“WHAT WOULD YOU KNOW ABOUT BEING MENTAL?” – loudly, aggressively.

I stood my ground, despite the blood spatter coming from agitated hands”

Quietly: “I do understand. I have OCD & PTSD. I’m under the care of the community mental health team. I’ve tried to die by suicide before. I understand your difficulties.”

“Oh… Oh right…” Her stance became less confrontational. Her shoulders dropped and relaxed a little. She started to talk to me in a flood. I won’t detail what she said, because it might reveal her identity. She is entitled to her anonymity. She was engaging with me; I was listening. She was still very agitated, but starting to calm down. I eventually replied.

“I understand. You are very upset. You need help…”

“WHERE CAN I GET HELP?! NOBODY WILL HELP ME!”

“We’re close to the accident and emergency department of the hospital. If I go with you, I can help you to ask for help from the crisis team. I’ve done it for myself. They’re good people. They helped me, they can help you too”

She was considering the idea. She was calming down. I glanced across at her male friend who was continuing to sit on the ground, sobbing uncontrollably. He gave me a thumbs-up sign.

At this point a police car pulled up and two young police officers, one male, one female got out. The male officer helped the young man to his feet, started to talk to him and checked if he was injured. The young woman immediately tensed again as the female officer approached. I reassured her and she relaxed a little. The policewoman was fantastic and straight away put the young woman at ease. I was no longer needed or useful.

I walked over to the young man and the male officer. The man was explaining the situation. He was still visibly upset. He was doing his very best to help his friend, to prevent her from harming herself more seriously. I felt so sorry for the guy. I gave him a hug, despite the blood all over him. I explained to the policeman that I was just a passer-by, a random guy, who had stepped in to help the young woman in distress. I recounted some of the details of what I had witnessed and suggested to the policeman that the young woman was genuinely in need of immediate crisis team intervention. I wished the young man good luck and left in order to walk my wife to her appointment.

I cried a little as I walked the dog round the park. It’s tough to see other people in distress, but I’m glad I was able to step in and in some small way help two other human beings who needed it. I was glad to see some early crocuses in flower in the sunshine. It cheered me up.

I met my wife when she finished her appointment and we started to walk back home. In the distance, the two police officers were walking with the young couple towards A&E. I wished them all a thought of good fortune.

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A Prescription For Murder

Wow! What a title! Sounds like an Agatha Christie novel or a cheap horror movie. It’s actually the title of a BBC Panorama documentary which hypothesises a link between SSRI antidepressant medication and an increased propensity to commit violent acts. 

Is there a link? Statistically yes maybe. A very tiny percentage of people taking SSRIs experience psychosis as a side effect, but statistically more people are killed as a result of trying to put on a pair of trousers. So why is there not a documentary about trouser deaths called Leg Ends Of The Fall? I believe it is because of the manner of the respective causes of death. 

Accidental deaths caused by embarrassing wardrobe malfunctions would be uncomfortable, voyeuristic subject matter. You don’t kick a man when he’s down through no fault of his own. So what’s the difference between that and someone who’s mentally ill through no fault of their own?

It’s because violent mentally ill people are juicy subject matter. A ratings winner. The subject retains a ghoulish car crash fascination. The notion that mental illness equates to violent, dangerous derangement is deeply embedded in the public’s psyche. Why else were lunatics locked in mental asylums, strapped in straitjackets, if not to prevent them from being a danger to others?

There are many variations of the escaped mental patient urban myth, with invariably innocents being slaughtered by the rampaging, almost supernatural human monster. The thing cannot be reasoned with; it is beyond reason. It is animalistic, bloodthirsty, evil. Something to be hunted and killed on sight. 

The factual reality is that mentally ill people are more likely to be a victim of violence than the general population. Only 3% of mentally ill people ever commit a criminal act of aggression. That means that 97% never commit an act of aggression. The person a mentally ill person is most likely to harm or kill is themselves. Suicide is the biggest cause of death in men aged 20-49 in the U.K. and the biggest cause of death of teenage girls worldwide. 

What then is the basis for a 21st century documentary about mentally ill killers, that lingers over gory details? According to Shelley Jofre, the BBC reporter who made the documentary, it is a public interest story. I see that it’s a story the public will be interested in, but is it in the public interest?

The Panorama programme claims that the incredibly rare side effect of SSRI medication causing psychosis, potentially leading to aggression and violence, needs to be more widely known to both the general public and to people taking SSRIs. The problem with this argument is that family doctors and prescribing psychiatrists already weigh up potential side effect risks and discuss them with patients before prescribing. And there are many possible side effects from taking SSRI medications, the most common of which include weight gain, sedation, fatigue and loss of sex drive. The average person taking an SSRI has been informed by their doctor of likely side effects, thoroughly read the leaflet that comes with the medication, probably read up some more about the risks on Wikipedia and discussed the risks with other people taking the same medication. The vast majority of mentally ill people are already very well aware of the potential and actual side effects of taking SSRI medications. 

What about the wider population? Don’t they deserve to know the danger too? If the 40,000,000 prescriptions for SSRI medications in the U.K. every year are going to trigger a nationwide bloodbath, don’t the public have a right to be warned? Therein lies the central weakness in the programme’s premise. 40,000,000 SSRI prescriptions per year already in the U.K., no mental patient slasher movie apocalypse as a result. 

I don’t deny that there are records of isolated cases where an SSRI may have contributed to a tragic incident. But is the potential danger both proven and statistically significant enough to warrant making an hour long documentary about it? What about the much more prevalent side effect of an increased risk of death by suicide among teenagers when they first start taking some, but not all, SSRI medications? That kills more people. Surely that’s more newsworthy?

The unpalatable reality is that few care about mentally ill teenagers killing themselves. It’s dull TV, compared to bloodsoaked rampaging mental patients. Real Hannibal Lecters lurking in our midst. 

This perpetuates the myth that mentally ill people are inherently violent and a well behaved one is just one waiting to explode in a killing frenzy at any moment. Drugs are supposed to suppress this huge danger, not enhance it. A dribbling, sedated, locked up mental patient is the only safe one. 

This is of course total nonsense. One in four of us will suffer a mental illness in our lifetime. The vast majority of people will be treated with a combination of medication and therapy. Out in society. Not locked up. Normal, but unwell people, not dangerous in any way. 

What are the likely outcomes of the documentary being aired?

There is a small possibility that a handful of people who are taking SSRIs and experiencing psychosis as a side effect will realise what has been wrong and seek help and advice from their doctor. This is a good thing. 

Something which is much more likely is that some mentally ill people currently benefitting from taking SSRI medications will stop taking them, to avoid the remote possibility of becoming violent. The benefits of that medication will then stop. Clinically depressed people will slide back into the abyss. People with anxiety disorders will retreat back into tormented Hell. Some of these people may well take their own lives as a result. The documentary could possibly cause more deaths, not fewer. 

Then there is the stigma issue. Some think that the term “mental health stigma” is overused. In the face of the ongoing tide of derision, fear, mistrust and demonisation of mentally ill people, I can assure you that the term could be used much more indeed. Just like black people and gay people have had to stand up and say enough is enough, mentally ill people are now standing up to be counted. 

My name is Patrick. I suffer from clinical depression, severe OCD and PTSD. I am a mentally ill person, a loving husband, a good father. I take a high dose of Prozac, an SSRI medication. It helps me to function normally. I’m not an unquestioning fanboy of Prozac. I have side effects from taking it, but I’m zero danger to anyone. Enough is enough. The unwarranted stigma against all the ordinary people just like me has to stop. This documentary will perpetuate stigma and prejudice. That is harmful and dangerous. Much more dangerous than a rare medication side effect. 

Hell and faith. 

I have a faith. I believe in God. I don’t believe in Big Angry Beardy Man In The Sky. I believe that God is good. More specifically, God is the capacity for good within people, enacted in their lives. I believe that evil is the absence of the capacity for good. I believe that Hell is the absence of God. 

I have been to Hell. I have called out to God in the greatest extremes of my mental despair and he hasn’t replied. He wasn’t there when depression was doing its damnedest to kill me and three times nearly succeeded. I was on my own. Hell is the absence of God. 

I’ve thought about this a lot since. How can I still have a faith when God has never been there with me during the darkest moments? Never. Not once. And they were very dark moments indeed. I’ve heard the old “God moves in mysterious ways” bollocks:

“Maybe He was there all along, guiding you and you just didn’t realise.” 

“Maybe God’s answer was that you were strong enough to get through it yourself.”

“Maybe there was someone more deserving of His attention all those times. Think of all the starving babies in Africa. Aren’t you being a bit selfish?”

All bollocks. God wasn’t there with me. I was on my own. I prayed, but it was a monologue into the void, with no reply. I had to go on alone. I had to believe in myself and trust myself. I had to help me. Yes, those were my footprints in the sand; Jesus wasn’t carrying me. 

This sounds like shouty, bitter, former-Christian-now-Atheist ranting, but it’s not. I still believe. I still have a faith. I still thank God when I experience good things. I still pray informally and often. But why? If I had asked a close friend or family member for help under those circumstances and there had been zero reply, I would have cut them out of my life from that point onwards.  Why haven’t I booted God into the middle distance?

I have always had a questioning faith. I believe that blind, unquestioning faith is no faith. Yet this question is a biggie about the continued existence of my faith at all. It’s a fair question. Do I have an answer to it?

God is good. Literally, not descriptively. Substantially. I see good in my kids. I see so much good in my wife. I see good in my dachshund. I see good in nature. I see good in people’s actions towards each other every day. Doesn’t this mean I’m a “glass is half full” kind of person? A kindly, optimistic, naive soul who always sees the good in things? Not at all. My World view can often be bleak and cynical. I have experienced the very worst of man’s inhumanity to man at first hand. I know how cruel and indeed evil human beings can be and I literally have the physical and mental scars to prove it. 

Am I just stupid and stubborn then? Refusing to relinquish yet another dysfunctional lifelong core belief? Am I so feeble minded that I need a “made up sky fairy” to guide my moral compass, for fear I would run amok without its steadying guidance?

On this point I can firmly say no. I have OCD. A common type of OCD obsession is Religious OCD, where the sufferer experiences obsessions and extreme incessant anxiety for having unholy thoughts or not being religious, faithful and pious enough. I have never ever experienced this. My moral compass is true. I don’t need to be a Holy Joe, going to church twice a day, to know that I am a decent person, living my faith through my actions. 

Seeing the capacity for good being enacted in the world is my evidence of God. There is a lot of the lack of the capacity for good – Evil – in this world too. That doesn’t surprise me at all. It saddens me. 

I have my own capacity for good. To have a living faith is to use that capacity for good to the common benefit. I’m no saint by any means. I don’t know the words to all the hymns (and I mime the words anyway). I don’t go to church services enough. I rarely feel worthy to receive communion. (Facts, not OCD religious thinking). But I live it. Quietly. I am there, even when God isn’t. The capacity for good within me is there. Godliness, not God. I make God present by using that capacity for good. I don’t believe in an omnipotent, omnipresent being. By definition, there’d be no evil if there was one. Sometimes we are on our own, like it or lump it. 

Depression dulls the senses. It stops you from experiencing. It stops you from being. It stops you from doing. If you do nothing, your capacity for good sits idle. God is not there. He cannot be. Depression isn’t evil, but it is Hell in its true sense. Hell is the absence of God. 

I have been lucky a few times in my life to be able to make God present for others in their darkest hour. Not in a preachy, self aggrandising, bible waving way. Quietly. Just by being there, listening, holding a hand, offering a few words of support, letting them know they aren’t alone in Hell. God is the capacity for good, put into use. God is good. 

Reclaiming Christmas

A couple of days ago @me_bpd posed an interesting question on Twitter. “Have you suffered childhood trauma at Christmas & do you still celebrate Christmas?

My answers were “yes” and “yes”. 

It got me thinking. I have a few friends on twitter who, for one reason or another no longer celebrate Christmas, as it is a time associated with bad experiences or events. This makes perfect sense to me. Why go through the motions of celebration, if you’re not in a celebratory frame of mind?

So why was my second answer “yes”, not “no”?

Christmas was always a time of drunkenness, conflict and violence from my parents. So basically like any other day of the year, but with tinsel. One of my earliest memories is of Christmas 1973. My mother (heavily pregnant with my sister, who would be born a week later) and father, both very drunk, beating Hell out of each other, and also me every time I tried to get between them to break up their brawling. My dad also knocked me out of the way as he threw the Christmas tree off the balcony of our 7th floor flat in Johannesburg. I remember watching the tree fall from where I lay. I went onto the balcony and looked at the white artificial tree lying in the street below. It was already being scavenged by people heading towards the train station to travel back to Soweto. 

The physical trauma I suffered that day has melded into the great mass of trauma I experienced over the years, but the mental trauma of my parents “killing Christmas” marked me permanently and profoundly. From that point onwards, I became The Guardian Of The Tree. I was already suffering from what I now know to be severe OCD, but this wasn’t and isn’t an OCD “thing”. I don’t obsess that my family will definitely all die a horrible death if a few baubles are misplaced. Take note, all you assholes who are “sooooo OCD” about decorating your Christmas tree. You really are not OCD sufferers. Count yourselves lucky that you aren’t. 

Imagine what it takes to make a three year old think, “I am going to take back Christmas, be its protector and ensure its safe continuation”. I was an old head on very young shoulders. So protecting Christmas became my responsibility and when my sister was old enough to understand, I schooled her in its importance and she began to share this sacred duty. We scrubbed the hearth for Father Christmas, we decorated the tree, we took ourselves to church. 

This was an early act of defiance against our degenerate parents. Christmas was a tiny spark of magic which we would not let them extinguish. Kids need a little magic. Neglected, abused kids even more so. To be factually accurate, our parents did buy a few cheap presents and dad made Christmas dinner, but we were The Protectors Of Christmas. We resurrected it and we kept it alive. 

This wasn’t Miracle On 34th Street or The Polar Express. It wasn’t symbolic or mythological. It really was about keeping hope, faith and magic alive. The alternative was despair and capitulation to the grimness of the only reality we had ever known. 

I had to stop briefly to recompose myself after writing that last paragraph. 

So this is how we continued. Through tribulation, carrying the embers of hope from one year to the next, reigniting the flame of Christmas from last year’s dying spark. 

Then on December 26th 1985, the season was punctuated by more trauma. My mother and father had by then divorced. My sister and I were living with my dad. My dad invited my mum for Boxing Day lunch. Being alcoholics, they were both completely drunk well before lunch was even ready. Inevitably the arguing started. My mother was schizophrenic, but refused to take any medication for her condition. When she drank, she became disinhibited. She then often became violent. Sometimes extremely violent. Out of control violent. This was one of those times. 

My sister had already telephoned my dad’s brother because things were getting dangerous. By the time he arrived, I was putting myself between my parents, as I had done so many times since the time I could first stand. I was taking punches and kicks from them both as they tried to injure each other. My uncle restrained my dad by the arms and pulled him back. I tried to push my mother away too, into the bathroom. She smashed the bathroom medicine cabinet mirror with her fists and used two daggerlike shards to start slashing through me to get at my dad. She managed to stab into my head several times and slash my forehead and left cheek. My head and face were bleeding badly. Blood was running into my left eye. My mum’s hands and arms were covered in her own blood from where she was gripping the shards of mirror. I managed to get hold of her wrists, so that she couldn’t slash any more. She was a small woman, but when this berserk frenzy was upon her, she was frighteningly strong, beyond reason and almost unstoppable.

My sister had opened the front door and my uncle had subdued my dad in the living room. I managed to drag my mum down the stairs by the wrists and push her out of the front door. My sister slammed the door shut. My mum, still deranged, hacked at the wood of the front door until the two shards of mirror were embedded in it and she couldn’t remove them again. 

From this point I don’t recall much, apart from cleaning my wounds and putting plasters on them. I didn’t go to hospital. I never went to hospital with such injuries. There was a lot of blood spatter on the walls. My sister and I cleaned that up. My uncle calmed my dad down and helped him drink himself into a stupor. 

And yet I still celebrate Christmas?! Why?! Why would anybody want to still celebrate Christmas after that?!

Because it was mine. Mine and my sister’s. It was a thing which we protected. This, though slightly more extreme than usual, was just more shit, different day. It was unfortunate that it happened during Christmas, but it could have happened any day of the year. 

The physical scars eventually healed. I am always amazed at my physical healing ability. All of the injuries my mother inflicted upon me over the years are almost invisible to the eye now. I know where they are and when I point them out, other people can see the scar tissue or indentations. I am grateful that I don’t carry the physical scars more visibly. 

The psychological scars are etched more deeply. But that is something to discuss on a different day. This is about Christmas. My Christmas. My sister’s Christmas. 

Into adulthood and then parenthood, I have retained my role as The Protector Of Christmas. The role has become more elaborate as the number and quality of Christmas decorations increased and improved. It now also includes gift buying, entertaining guests and food & drink preparation. It has never been a responsibility the way my OCD compulsions are a responsibility. I don’t fear catastrophe if I don’t complete the tasks perfectly. Things do however have to be done properly, in a certain way, to a very high standard. Doing Christmas properly is IMPORTANT. It can be stressful, as I am a perfectionist, who places too much importance in the symbolism of certain things. I am OK sharing out the workload among the whole family, but I have indoctrinated them all to do things “properly”.

I enjoy the prelude to Christmas and the holiday season itself. I still struggle very much with having larger gatherings of extended family as guests. I’m not good with large groups of people or having anyone other than my core family unit in my house. My ideal Christmas day is an early church service, followed by a day at home with my wife, daughters and dog. And maybe a walk on the beach after Christmas lunch. I’m not keen on the gross commercialism of modern Western Christmas, but I do love choosing a few presents with love, thought and care. Sometimes quite a few presents. 

In an odd way, I am grateful that I have had such attention placed upon Christmas. My Christmas has meaning, worth and significance. It is not made of plastic, assembled in China. What was born out of defiance, has softened at the edges. The kids do most of the tree decorating now. They do it well, with a little gentle guidance from me. I enjoy the traditions. The traditional traditions and the traditions I have invented myself. 

That is why I said “yes” and not “no” to the second question. I have reclaimed Christmas from when it was stolen from me and kept the magic alive.