The power of narrative

How is narrative so powerful a force for me? Yes, indeed I find that narrative is such an influence for good. There are several healing and therapeutic vehicles for empowering individuals in the world of wellbeing and mental health in this early part of the 21st century, and I would not disagree that these forces are several, and that each may have a positive effect on different people. I rank the power of narrative easily alongside notions of recovery, hope, choice, control, and even the concept of person centred service delivery and user involvement in mental health.

I think I really turned a corner with the closure of the old asylums in the UK, and also the fact that I had negotiated with the enforcers of restrictions imposed on me under the Mental Health Act, to have medication that was antipsychotic; that medication served that purpose and did not produce unacceptable side effects. However that was only the beginning of the story. My life developed then, from the 1990's onwards, despite an increasingly hostile environment.  Many service users became trapped in a dependency culture, that came about paradoxically just at the time when people were emancipated from institutionalisation thanks to the closure of the UK county asyums. There was no choice except to accept life as a dependent in the community, as there were no jobs for mental health service users, no matter what their skills or abilities, be they high-level or low-level, whether they be work experienced or not. Employers were unwilling to employ people with mental health problems, and the adequacy of community support in fact turned into another type of dependency. There were media campaigns to demonise mental illness, putting a link in the public mind between the danger of random acts of murder and mental illness. Totally unfounded stigmatisation and discrimination. Yet in that environment I turned a corner.

I regained a sense of self through narrative. At first I wrote a story of how a delusion grew in my mind perhaps three to seven years previously. I could remember all that went on as I lived through years of psychosis and vagrancy from 1986 to 1991. I could further relate those delusions to previous periods of homelessness and poverty during my time in and out of Victorian asylums, on the revolving door from about 1974 onwards. But my most deluded period was from my last days in work and into vagrancy, for five or six years previous to 1991 and my last hospital admission. It was then, in 1991, that I negotiated to have therapeutic medication and that enabled me to come to my senses, if that's the right phrase, in the community after my last inpatient time. The medication enabled me to live free of delusions, but I was at the same time able to remember the substance of delusions I had had during the revolving door time. Schizophrenia for me does not mean hearing voices or seeing shapes, people, or other visual hallucination. It means that I misinterpreted everyday events. This then became the backdrop for neglect and vagrancy. After community care arrived I was able to write down these perception disorders, these delusions. I wrote my narrative.

If I can explain how one of my major delusions came about, namely that the Soviets had won the Cold War and were about to arrive. I read the newpapers in Maidstone library every day, and formed the opinion that the Cold War was ending. That was correct. It was incorrect to believe that the US had lost. I read of the Helsinki agreement, the Strategic Arms Limitation and the Reduction Treaties (SALT and START). I read of the friendship between US President Ronald Regan and Mikhail Gorbachev, Soviet leader. Our own Mrs Thatcher was also a friend to both. This was a different level to armed hostility, such as with the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, the Berlin air lift of 1948, the building of the Iron Curtain in the 1940's and 1950's, and the Soviet military suppression in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. So things were winding down. What amounted to peace treaties were being signed, with Helsinki, SALT and START. This I read and appreciated. However, my last support had been working for an American company in the City of London and getting a mortgage from the American bank Citibank. This had ended in redundancy and repossession. So I assumed that all US support was no longer available in the UK. To add to this, Citibank closed their office in Maidstone, and an insurance office of the same ownership as the City company I worked for, also closed in Maidstone. So for me, the signs were that the Cold War was coming to an end, and American economic solidarity in the UK was ending too. What did that mean? Simple - the Soviets had won the Cold War. Why were they not here already? The reason for that was that they would only arrive when there was 100% acceptance of them, when perhaps red flags were flying from every building. Then they would arrive and we could be cleansed of our association with the US. That I awaited. That I believed was reality.

So I wrote down these stories after 1991. Under community care I no longer believed that the Russians were coming, especially after Yelsin was democratically elected Russian Premier in 1992. But I could remember all the erroneous beliefs I held and lived by whilst living in bus shelters a few years previously. I wrote them down longhand and Dave Harris, a member of staff at the day centre that supported me, typed them up. Thankfully I eventually developed an ability to type myself, hence this piece, and at that time I was incredibly indebted to Dave, and to Margaret Moss who ran the day centre and who gave me support and encouragement in principle to write my memoirs of delusion. After a couple of years doing this, she said to me : You couldn't have done that in 1991. Quite right, indeed I could not have. But then, in those early days of community care, I was able to unburden myself of these troubling times and the thoughts I had that drove extremism and vagrancy. This was an effort and a therapeutic process. I came to terms with delusions that I could then still not quite explain or quantify. By detailing all that went on, I could talk about those times. Narrative had become a key driver in my wellbeing. I could see where I had been, it became a part of my life to discuss those bad times, and I was able to share them with others. Mental illness no longer was the taboo. I could accept that I had been mentally ill and was able to describe it.

How this process has developed...After I had written a number of episodes of delusions (it was more than just, 'The Russians are coming') and Dave had typed them up, I put them onto a CD, as you did in the mid-1990's, and took that to the business centre in Bexhill. There Sandra made them into a book, and I could buy as many or as few copies as I liked, just had to give her a few days notice and they'd be ready at a cheap price. I could then send them round and it was especially pleasing to give a copy to Dave and to Margaret. Eventually that digital record was published by Chipmunka as 'The Durham Light and other stories', and it was good to be able to send a decent book to people I knew. This was good to do, and my newly-reestablished relationship with my mother (thanks to Margaret and my social worker Nigel Thompsett) was helped, by me being able to send her the book of what I had been driven by, at times when I had no contact with her. Narrative now proved to be a bridge to others important in my life. I even sold one or two copies through Chipmunka.

Today I am able to present another method of narrative. This is in digital form. Dave enabled me to properly use picture making software by Microsoft, namely Paint, and other software. These developed into digital cartoons, with a storyline and full coloured slides complete with speech bubbles. These narratives cover asylum life, akathisia side effects from the medication of the brutal regime in those places, my delusions, the criminal justice system, and paranoia. Dave even got me to use a hosting online website, and I have an inceasing number of cartoons of this narrative at Now these cartoons are in graphic book form as 'Side Effects'. So the whole process has come a long way technically and as a development for me as a participant in narrative perparation.

I now have a growing collection of service user narratives. I find they are real page turners. I read any new service user history avidly. John O'Donogue's work evokes perfectly the 1980's, with therapertic communities, squatting, mental hospitals, sporadic relationships, in and out of hospitals and homelessness, the dole and sickness benefit bureaucracy, and a whole load of excellent detail. Louise Gillett writes of an exhuberant and chaotic teen-age from a middle-class comfortable background. I can identify with so much of John's and Louise's work. Anthony Scally's work 'Eyebrows and Other Fish' is a terrific evocation of how schizophrenia can hit you at 100 miles an hour, with racing thoughts and just chaos. Rae Earl's biography is so good on that time when you're in the sixth form and on the verge of adulthood, with a degree of freedom and responsibility.  Rae's work has been turned into a TV programme, so I understand (not having owned a TV since 2003) and is so good when she touches on mental health - or is the whole thing really about wellbeing? I've been fortunate enough to contribute to compendiums of service user narratives, organised by Jerome Carson at the Maudsley (twice) and Alec Grant at my old University of Brighton. Each of my fellow contributors has something I can identify with, even those I do not get on with personally. Perhaps the most favourite volumes I have are Peter Chadwick's and Gordon McManus'. They are strong on the everyday service user topics and bring their lives alive. But they also break through to other intellectual levels with windows to: what is mental illness all about; is there meaning to be had from mental health and personal narrative? Peter's and Gordon's answers to those questions are worth reading, for me. It may take a bit of concentration, even for someone with a bit of academic training like me, but what they have to say is deep and meaningful.

So for me, narrative is therapeutic and cathartic to compose. It's a process, in the making of which diversion can be found from everyday cares. It's also an insight into helpful philosophical ideas. It can give a link to others whose experiences we have in common to some extent. It can allow us to think creatively and with intellect about mental illness, and to form useful opinions about what has happened to us.