It’s a memoir about my experiences of psychiatry in the late-sixties and early-seventies, which shows the dangers of psychiatry rigidly applying the medical model to problems that have causes other than ‘illness’. In a wider sense, it’s about social and political issues that affect many people today. It’s about a psychiatric system that is still badly in need of changing.
Why did you write The Dark Threads and try for publication?
A mixture of motives: therapy/catharsis, to speak for myself instead of others speaking for me and to help me make sense of what happened. I wanted to share my story because I felt I’d something to say worth saying, which I hoped might help, or at least interest, others and raise questions and more debate about important issues. The many textbook perspectives need balancing with the often marginalised voices of those on the receiving end. I felt I had been silent and silenced for too long and I sought publication of my book to add my voice to those who are speaking out, as individuals and collectively, against oppression.
How did you get it published?
It took a long time. I thought I’d made it when I was taken on by a well-respected literary agent, the late Maggie Noach. She was wonderfully encouraging and enthusiastic about my manuscript, but, unfortunately, didn’t manage to place it. Unagented again, I left it in a drawer for a long time before trying other agents and then I tried sending to publishers directly. At last, the independent publishers Accent Press said YES!
Who is reading it?
It’s not only for people with a professional or personal interest in the subject. I have had good feedback from a wider ‘general’ readership, as well as from mental health professionals, tutors, students, former and present service users and their carers and friends.
How honest and truthful is The Dark Threads?
Truth was of the utmost importance to me in writing my book, but I don’t believe anyone can write a memoir that is 100% literally true. Memory is inevitably fallible, and interpretation of events is bound to involve subjectivity. I worked hard to write a truthful account. To enable readers to experience vicariously how it felt for me, I fictionalised some minor details, the ‘props’ if you like. For example, if I couldn’t remember for certain the colour of a bedspread but wanted to mention it to help bring a scene to life then, yes, I guessed the colour. I did this knowing that if I got the colour wrong it wouldn’t distort the core truth of the scene I was trying to convey. I also changed names and some identifying details to protect peoples’ privacy, as stated in my ‘Authors Note’ at the beginning of my book.
I wrote my book with scrupulous honesty and, as far as I know, the important details I’ve written about are as true as anyone’s version of reality can possibly be. I carefully checked my memories with my old diaries, journals, case notes, the recollection of people who knew me at the time, and so on, aiming to achieve as high a standard of factual accuracy as I could.
What was it like for you to write about painful experiences?
On the whole, I think it was good for me, but definitely quite difficult and painful at times. As I say in ‘Give Me Back My Words’, a piece I wrote for the anthology ‘Doorways in the Night’ (Local Voices, 2004): I ‘sometimes felt that dredging up the past to write about it was dragging me down. I felt pushed and pulled during the writing process. I wanted to remember, forget, speak out, remain silent. Many times I asked myself why I had started to rock the boat when I was peaceful and happy. But I knew it was something I had to do.’
What else have you written and what are your future writing plans?
I’ve had some success, albeit modest, with articles and short stories. My articles have appeared in Openmind, the HCPJ (Health Care, Counselling and Psychotherapy Journal), provincial newspapers and small press publications. I’ve been short-listed twice in the now defunct Real Writers Short Story Competitions, and one of my stories reached the short list for Mslexia.
I’m now writing more fiction and I’m trying to move away from writing mainly about mental health. There’s a whole world out there! I’ve almost finished a novel and I hope to find an agent. It might be best if I don’t say much about my works-in-progress. I’ve sometimes talked too soon and it made them more difficult to write.
Okay, let’s get back to your experiences described in The Dark Threads. Can you explain something about how your illness first manifested itself and why you decided to see a psychiatrist?
I’m not sure that it was an ‘illness’, though I’m not saying there was nothing at all wrong with me. Obviously a teenager wouldn’t seek psychiatric help if they weren’t feeling mixed up and depressed enough to think something might be seriously wrong. I was confused about life, bored, shy, unfulfilled, unhappy at home and at work. These feelings sometimes overwhelmed and I desperately needed someone to talk to. I didn’t expect drugs and shock treatment.
How did the treatment make you feel?
The Electric Shock Treatment I had as a teenager was a terrifying experience, leaving me with fears of permanent brain damage. I was subjected to the standard treatment for schizophrenia, ie. powerful, neuroleptic drugs, and these made me feel dreadfully drowsy and depressed. I felt like my life was over. It was an effort to keep going through the motions of living when really I just wanted to sleep all the time.
After five years in the system, you came off medication and fought yourself free. You must have had a lot of strength and courage to do that.
No, I don’t think so. It was a combination of desperation and luck. I was terribly naïve about medication. In an earlier unsuccessful attempt to come off, I hadn’t a clue about the right and wrong way to do it. I knew nothing about the dangers and horrors of withdrawal effects before I experienced them. To increase the chance of a safe and successful withdrawal, people need appropriate help and support from someone with expertise. I didn’t have that but I was fortunate in the end. Those who do not, or cannot, come off their medication have no less strength or courage than what I had.
What is schizophrenia?
I understand the standard medical definition is that it’s a serious mental illness, a brain disease. The ‘positive’ symptoms are said to be audio and visual hallucinations and various forms of delusional beliefs. The ‘negative’ symptoms are social withdrawal, flattened emotions and lack of motivation, interest and spontaneity.
You were diagnosed with schizophrenia (simplex). What is this?
Schizophrenia simplex is seen as a form of schizophrenia where the so-called ‘negative’ symptoms are manifested without necessarily ever having the so-called ‘positive’ symptoms.
How did you feel when you found out from your old case notes that you’d been diagnosed with schizophrenia?
Amazed, angry and misunderstood, but at last I could see that it was this diagnosis that had dictated my heavy treatment. I could agree that I’d been socially withdrawn with flattened affect and lacking in motivation, especially in the hospital, but I feel this was due to my shyness, my circumstances and the medication. I had no idea I’d been diagnosed with schizophrenia until I read my case notes many years after I had got out of the system. By this time, I’d long been living a happy, medication-free life.
Do you find there are still misconceptions about schizophrenia?
Yes, and held by both the medical profession and the general public. There is the widespread belief that schizophrenia is a scientifically validated brain disease and that here is this illness called schizophrenia which can be diagnosed objectively. These are misconceptions, in my opinion. There is also, of course, the belief that most people with this diagnosis are violent and that the public needs to be protected from them. The media sometimes fuels these misconceptions.
But surely the public have a right to be protected from dangerous people with schizophrenia such as Christopher Clunis?
Yes, of course, but most people with a schizophrenia diagnosis are not dangerous. The public is more likely to be in danger from drunken drivers than people with a schizophrenia diagnosis.
What do you think would have been appropriate treatment for your problems?
An holistic approach. Being listened to with empathy and understanding. Being given options other than the physical treatments.
Why do you feel The Dark Threads is relevant today?
Psychiatry is still very much medically orientated. This approach can be extremely damaging to those who don’t fit neatly into the medical box. One size does not fit all.
What message would you like to give to people working in the field?
Listen to what clients or patients are saying. Be open-minded. Don’t assume that whatever they say indicates symptoms of illness. See the person, not the label. I would like more openness and honesty from psychiatrists so that treatment is with truly informed consent. I would like to remind them to ‘First, do no harm.’
What would you say to someone who is thinking of coming off their medication?
I’m not medically qualified and I’m not into giving advice. Individuals and their circumstances differ. What might be right for one person is not necessarily right for another. I can only repeat what I said in my ‘About’ section, which is that a well-informed, personal decision to stay on or come off deserves respect. I do believe that taking psychiatric drugs is dangerous to health, but withdrawing can be too, especially if not handled carefully. Although coming off against medical advice ultimately worked for me, it is risky. In an ideal world, nobody who wishes to come off their medication would need to attempt withdrawal without the supervision of a caring and informed medical professional and a good support network of family and friends. Please see my Links page and look under the heading of ‘Coming off psychiatric medication.’
What would you say to someone who is worried about their mental health?
Is there someone you can talk through your options with to help you decide what to do? If you’re reading this now and you’re in that situation, please see my Links page for some of the organisations that may be able to help you.