“An identity would seem to be arrived at by the way in which the person faces and uses his experience” – James Baldwin
Identity is a funny thing. Most of us go around feeling confident that we have one, but rarely feel the need to look inside and define ourselves absolutely. On a personal level, I am happy to see my identity as a fluid thing. I’ve been pigeon holed enough to last a lifetime. Still, the way in which I see myself has had a massive impact on the way I make sense of my experiences.
In my life I have seen myself as a victim of many things – trauma, a robbery, my uncontrollable brain chemicals, the mental health system … there have been so many things that have felt out of my control.
My sense of myself as powerless, violated and vulnerable runs through the themes of my voices and psychosis. The alien – a manipulative and terrorising presence that came from within me – threatened to take over my body (the ultimate in powerlessness). The belief I had in being part of an government experiment effectively prevented me believing that others would be able to help (compounding the helplessness I already felt).
If you see psychosis as carrying messages relating to an individual’s life story and the way they feel about it, my psychosis screamed VICTIM. Still, the deeper the psychosis took me, the more powerless I became. I lost friends, my independence and – at times – my freedom. The more powerless I became, the deeper I fell into psychosis. It was a cycle that seemed impossible to break.
Once the medication had helped to squash some of my experiences, the powerlessness remained. I felt unable to take control of my life and – believing myself to be ‘mentally ill’ I felt lost. I saw my parents, the doctors and the medication as being the only thing standing between me and complete madness. The idea of myself as part of the solution just didn’t compute.
If I look at myself as a survivor rather than a victim, I have a completely different take on events. Rather than my voices/visions/psychosis as being evidence of the overwhelming impact of my trauma/brain chemistry/illness – I can see them as a creative way of coping with experiences that would have otherwise overwhelmed me. They are a strategy that I can be proud of, rather than a problem or flaw.
As a survivor, I have the opportunity to recognise the impact of my life experiences without being a victim. I can hold on to the reality of what I have been through whilst recognising that this is in the past. I have ultimate control of how this affects me in the present. Those who have hurt me have no power except that which I give them.
As a survivor, I have ownership over my life and my history. I write my own narrative, rather than letting other people create it for me. I make my own choices – good and bad – and can take responsibility for this. It’s my life, I’m the one who has to live it.
Moving from ‘victim’ to ‘survivor’
Making the transition between victim and survivor hasn’t been easy for me. Entering the mental health system when at my most vulnerable compounded this. I was given a technical sounding theory that explained why it was that I was flawed – my brain chemistry, an illness. It’s such an appealing theory that moving beyond it has been slow and, at times, painful.
Step One: Recognising others as survivors
My first big step on this journey was recognising the potential for others, in a similar position to myself, to become survivors. Seeing Ron Coleman talk at a conference back in 2001 helped me with this. I recognised his stories and knew he’d been where I still found myself, yet he was travelling the world and living his life. He was a victor, not a victim (to quote his own book).
Step Two: Recognising my positives
At first I saw these bright lights of recovery as separate from myself. I was flawed. Their story did not apply to me personally, as inspiring as it was to hear. During this period I was lucky enough to get support from Network for Change (a Leicester voluntary sector organisation) who gently helped me to become more active in their project.
Between Network and the Hearing Voices Group I attended, I started to realise I had something to offer. I began to recognise some of my skills (training, music and being with people). Having people hold on to these strengths and abilities, even when I tried to distance myself from them, was essential.
Step Three: Gaining a fresh understanding
As long as I saw my brain chemistry as flawed, it was hard for me to truly take control of my life and see myself as anything other than a victim. The Hearing Voices Movement (the work of Coleman, Smith, Romme, Escher and co) helped show me that my experiences could be understood more easily by looking at my life. With support, I began to see the meanings and metaphors in my psychosis. It wasn’t easy, and in truth I’m still working some of it out, but it gave me a way of moving forwards.
Step Four: Dealing with it
I was always very resistant to developing coping strategies to deal with my experiences. I opted out. Nothing seemed to work, so anything I tried was more of a half arsed attempt than a serious endeavour. Internal powerlessness is the enemy of coping.
Through my involvement with the Hearing Voices Group, I started to feel obliged to make an effort. Other people were dealing with things as bad, or worse, than my experiences – my ‘you don’t know what its like’ rebuff held no weight there. I started to recognise the things I was already doing to deal with my distress, and over time got better at building on these.
Over the next four years I developed a toolbox of strategies that helped me get through training courses, gigs and social events. I wasn’t perfect – but I had more of a life than ever. I even had friends!
Step Five: Becoming Rai
Weirdly enough, one of the most important steps for in moving between victim and survivor was stepping out of it altogether. Despite being in a better position than I had ever been, I still thought of myself as a victim of illness. It was with a stroke of luck or genius that I applied to study with Access To Music in Leicester in 2004. Over the next few years I became known as Rai Studley – a gigging singer songwriter. I wasn’t known in terms of my history of being a patient of the mental health system. More than this, my madness was actually the root of much of my creativity. It was a bonus.
Step Six: Putting it all together
The final step has taken a couple of years – it has been a process of putting each piece of the puzzle together, standing back and letting myself see what I have created. For a while I wasn’t ready to look – I still felt ill underneath it all and felt a bit of a fraud. It was as if the carefully crafter structures were built on quicksand which would swallow it all if I looked to closely.
Over time, and having survived some pretty full on times of distress and madness, I started to realise that this is me. It is MY madness. It makes sense. I’m not ill. I don’t need other people to ‘fix’ me. The Hearing Voices Movement gave me a choice. After a number of years within it, I’ve finally used my right to make it.
I choose to be me. A survivor. A musician. A wife. A supporter. An artist. A trainer. A daughter. A geek. Psychotic. Creative. Introspective. Caring. Flawed. Strong.
My identity remains fluid. I am not limited because I am a survivor – I am spurred on to find new experiences, new challenges and new understandings. Life is opening up for me. At the age of 32, it’s about time 🙂