My Journey to Becoming a Critical Mental Health Nurse (Part 1)

The following story is by Joel Waddingham, one of the founder members of the Critical Mental Health Nurses Network. This is the second personal story we have published, but whereas Karen’s story draws upon many years of nursing experience, Joel’s is that of a student nurse who has come to nursing after working for a number of years in other fields. In presenting such personal writing we once again want to uphold the importance of such narratives in the creation of mental health, of ourselves as nurses, and value what this particular narrative can show us. In conjunction with other kinds of writing, we feel that these accounts should be allowed to shape and alter our sense of what may be meant  by ‘critical mental health nursing’. Please feel free to post comments, which Joel will read. We are also hoping to hear from readers who may want to share their own stories. Joel may write more at a later date about his experiences as a mental health nursing student. Both Joel and Rachel Waddingham will be attending our conference on the 9th of September.

I’ve just completed my second year of nurse training, but my journey began many years ago. I’ve always been known amongst friends and family for being both a deep thinker, and a little eccentric; I have a natural tendency to dig deeper and resist the status quo. I had the “6 Cs”, as we all do to varying degrees, but I believe my questioning nature was key to developing them. I would rather show than explain how I feel this happened, so what follows is narrative, rather than analysis.

My parents split when I was three, and in a decision practically unheard of in the seventies, custody was awarded to my father. My mother’s lack of emotional stability was cited as the main reason, something I was more reminded of by people other than herself. I accepted this and got on with growing up. What seemed like an outward course leading away from childhood began.

At six, I focused on details and knowledge; at the beach, I would gaze into rock pools at tiny crabs, my nose inches from the surface. I asked questions that adults sometimes had difficulty answering. Although I may have seemed destined to be socially awkward, my upbringing was the responsibility of my maternal grandmother, and these were her glory years of hostessing. Her friends were from an older generation than my parents, and some of them had answers to my strange questions. Bafflingly, some of them answered with questions of their own.

I treated breaks at school like one of those cocktail parties. I drifted, having conversations where the opportunity presented itself. This approach to socialising continued into secondary school. By the time I finished school at eighteen, I had begun to see that my career path might not be like those of my small group of friends. Unlike them I had studied in both arts and sciences, had no urge to go to university, and had no plans beyond playing guitar in a band. I continued reading: histories, biographies, and popular science.

I moved in with some friends and spent eighteen chaotic months experimenting with life. One friend had been hearing the voice of God and believed unusual things. He divulged some ideas in our conversations. He was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia not long after, and later told me I had been extremely helpful. Looking back I simply recall being interested in what he had to say. Eventually I was drawn gently but firmly back to the family home.

I began an apprenticeship of sorts in manufacturing, learning fast and ending up doing any spare job they had. After seven years, I was made redundant. I went to Australia, Mexico, and New York. One night, at a bar in Mexico, a yoga teacher and massage therapist told me: “Joel, man, you gotta get into massage.” This made sense; I was good with my hands and up for a change.

I trained with a progressive and holistic group, often being forced out of my comfort zone, but ending up feeling more confident for it. I worked part-time for a physiotherapy clinic for nine years, getting some long-term clients and building relationships with them, eventually learning to do the same with clients I saw far less often. I discovered working wholly for myself was not something I was well equipped for, and supplemented my income with another technical job.

During this time I met the woman I would end up marrying, through my friend with the schizophrenia diagnosis. Rachel was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder; they had met at a hearing voices group. She was taking three separate types of psychiatric medication, and regarded herself as “schizophrenic”. By the time we were married this had changed: Rachel had met many people who had resolved their problems without medication, or in spite of it: these people had found that their experiences (diagnosed as “psychotic”) were linked to their emotions, which were in turn suppressed by antipsychotics, preventing them from moving forward with recovery. Rachel eventually decided to withdraw carefully from medication. She was almost paralysed by the flood of returning emotions for a few months, but we worked together to improve her coping skills, and she returned to work. She has not taken medication since; nor has she needed it.

Rachel was considering therapy to help her work with her voices, as was I for my own issues. I had always assumed I had a bad temper; I would occasionally break things or hit myself. I apologised for things that were not my fault. If my boss at my technical job got impatient with me, I became extremely anxious. Rachel was the first person to show any curiosity about this, and thanks to her, I started to question it myself. I began seeing a therapist, and continued until he and I agreed that I was ready to finish, in June 2015, six years after starting.

My apparent outward course from my childhood turned out to be a long elliptical orbit. I returned to my memories and discovered how much my parents’ difficulties had affected me. I had long ago reconciled with my mother, but now something deeper occurred as she, Rachel, and I discussed my therapy on occasion. We became mother and son, in some ways for the first time.

In 2011 Mum developed cancer. She was dead within a year. Even though I was sole heir, her will specified the diaries she had kept religiously from the age of fourteen were to go to me. Two years later, I read the portion detailing the first three years of my life, before the separation, and discovered the extent of Mum’s emotional problems. She was brutally honest to her then-secret diaries; She had struggled with rage, far more than I had, and from not long after my birth, I was subjected to it.

Unlike later experiences involving the divorce, I had no memory of this, but it explained my anger, my automatic self-blame, and the inexplicable terror I sometimes experienced. I had been so familiar with it that I never thought of it as terror, but now saw that I had carried this sense of helplessness and mortal danger from infancy, created in response to an all-powerful raging giant. The diaries explained more than I would ever have hoped to understand; this was Mum’s final and most valuable gift.

Rachel now sees her experiences as a dissociative response to her own childhood trauma, much as I see my own experiences as dissociated emotions derived from mine. While Rachel’s plight in the mental health system, and that of others, is part of what drives me to question its current functioning, perhaps greater is my belief that there is no fundamental difference between Rachel and myself; there is a good reason she has had so many diagnoses, and it’s not that she’s had all those “illnesses”. It’s that the illnesses are false distinctions that could never fully explain her experiences.

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