In Day One of the Hearing Distressing Voices Workshop training, I had the awful but insightful experience of roll playing a professional mental health worker. It disturbed me deeply but also fascinated me, and I wrote this poem in my lunch break to try and capture as much as the experience as I could, so that I could reflect on it later.
The context of that role play is that the other workshop participants, those service providers and mental health staff who don’t have a personal experience of voice hearing, are trying to do tasks and engage with these pretend services, while wearing ear buds that are pouring ‘voices’ into their ears from an Mp3 player.
Myself and the voice hearers have been asked to pretend to be doctors and treat them as mentally ill patients – to be polite and respectful but filter everything they did through that framework and to maintain professional detachment in our manner. In some tasks we were actually delivering real psychological assessments (to determine their capacity and state of mind) that are used in residential and inpatient services today.
Role playing the doctor
I was nice
I made eye contact, smiled, shook their hand
Used their first name, didn’t touch without permission, didn’t sit behind a desk, didn’t ask questions about sex or trauma
But I also pushed then through,
Subtly dehumanised them
Didn’t give normal feedback signals
Respond to things they said
Treat them as intelligent adults.
And at the end I wanted to cry
I wanted to throw up
I wanted to run around the room and beg everyone for forgiveness and to know that wasn’t me
I wanted to be touched, to be hugged, to hear the voice of my loved ones
I wanted to be made human again.
My voice was screaming “I hate myself”
My hand was ticking violently in front of everyone
I was rocking
Swaying with nausea and exhaustion and intensity
The most terrifying aspect of it
The darkest part
The most triggering thing
Is that it was…
So fucking easy to do.
I had a quota to get through
I had to reduce wait times
I had to get people through assessments as quickly as possible
I was totally secure in my knowledge that I was one of the good practitioners
I was one of the nice ones, I smiled and was polite and respectful
I was exasperated by how many of them there were
How unwilling they were to cooperate
How unwell they were
How slow at tasks
Constantly needing me to slow down, repeat myself
Everyone was filtered through a single paradigm –
Did they make my job easier or harder?
They disobeyed even simple instructions
They treated me as the enemy and the bad guy
They allied against me
They were unhelpful in directing their own recovery
In need of guidance
Nothing like me or the other doctors.
They tested extremely poorly
The ones who tested better were often more aggressive and hostile
Clearly less unwell
Probably too high functioning for the program.
And I was totally outside of the drama
They got angry, frustrated, hurt, petty
But I was completely secure
Armoured in professionalism
Nothing they did could actually hurt me
They simply didn’t have that power
They could irritate me or trigger a little warmth
Share a moment of connection if they talked to me with the right mix of respectful gratitude and equality
But they were like children
I saw the whole picture and they knew nothing
Nothing about the service, nothing about themselves, nothing about mental health or treatment
I was the expert and I was here to try to make them do the things I knew would help them get better
They were mostly an impediment to this process
And they couldn’t make me feel anything, anymore than a 3 year old screaming “mummy I hate you!” had the power to devastate
They just couldn’t.
So they were in the muck
Hopeless at caring for themselves
Full of needlessly intense feelings
No capacity to see the whole picture
To appreciate my role or how hard I work for them
It was a thankless job
And they were often degrading to me
But fortunately I’m very secure in the knowledge that I’m doing a good thing in the world
I don’t really need their validation
It’s gratifying when it happens but it’s not necessary
And I’m so glad I’m not like them
So glad I can look after myself, shower, dress well, cook, clean, hold down my job, my relationships
I’m very blessed and I know it
There but for the grace of god…
I’m glad that I make a difference in their lives
It’s good to be able to give back to those less fortunate.
*More discussion in the comments