Keir provides training, consultancy and therapy via beamconsultancy.co.uk
One of my favourite ways of helping people is the day therapeutic community. I got a chance to work in one around 2010, a time when I held (pretty tightly) some of the more stigmatising views people express when talking about ‘personality disorder’. I joined for a year and left most unwillingly after 2 and a half. I spent 5 hours on a Monday in a group being genuine with people. I worked with experts by experience and saw those who I’d thought of as being manipulative and attention seeking being brutally honest and utterly self sacrificing. Aside from the change the group made in me, I saw people who had been on the verge of death from self injury move into lives where they could care for themselves and allow others to love them. It was a powerful transformational learning experience for me and it is with much pain and despondency that I see this way of working move into the shadows, eclipsed by DBT and other 3 letter therapies. In a world where services for those who hurt themselves tend to be easily forgotten or overlooked, 2 of the day therapeutic communities I was part of either won or were the only mental health team shortlisted for the NHS Wales awards. Both these services have now closed and it feels palpably ironic that services can be both celebrated and praised for their excellence while also marginalised and unsupported. Perhaps one of the reasons people find therapeutic communities hard to support is that they are difficult to understand. The lack of direction can be uncomfortable. The idea of patients having full control of their group can be terrifying – especially to organisations that try to eliminate risk. In many ways the only way to understand how a TC works is to see it. In the world of social media I’ve always hoped for someone to write an account of their time in a TC to give people an indication of what it feels like. When I voiced this on twitter one day the marvellously articulate @shadesofsky offered to write that very piece. A few months later here it is, a powerful account of what a TC can feel like. I hope people read this and think of TCs as an option. I hope commissioners and clinicians read this and remember that recovery isn’t only spelled DBT. I hope people can remember that the NICE guidelines say we need to give people a choice. Finally, I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I did.
It’s 4pm on a rainy Tuesday afternoon. I’m a member of a Democratic Therapeutic Community for people diagnosed with Personality Disorders. I’m sitting, curled tight on a sofa that’s nearly collapsed in on itself, trying not to do the same. My knees held fast against my chest, my hands are tearing at my hair.
I want out. I thought that this was one place I was understood, but I was wrong, wrong, wrong. I am always wrong. I myself, am wrong. I want out.
I am crying, hard. I’ve left the community meeting in despair again. Run away, because someone said something that I couldn’t handle. I don’t like it here. My anger is too intense. I can’t stand conflict. I am too full of anger. The whole community hates me. I am too messed up to be put right. I need to leave.
It’s 4pm on a rainy Tuesday afternoon, 15 months and 500 miles away from that Tuesday afternoon. I am remembering what I used to be like, when I was starting out treatment. Even after spending 12 months in the preparatory group, I was still a crumbling wreck. Brittle, the psychiatrist said. I would snap at the slightest thing. Cry. Self-harm. Stop eating. Nothing – not courses of CBT, years of counselling, exercise, book prescriptions – nor medication had worked to change my mental health. I was volatile and lonely, with a self-esteem on the floor. Not that you’d know that from the outside. When I started in the TC, I worked multiple jobs, more than full-time hours, teaching; researching. Striving. Pretending to the world that all was OK. Trying to run faster than the emotional maelstrom baying at me, without success. For the past few years, life outside work had been getting messier. And I was terrified that I wouldn’t be accepted in the TC. I had never belonged anywhere.
The TC, (group therapy for 15 hours a week) had offered yet another treatment option. Therapists from different health backgrounds, work with service users, as equal members of the community. Each member joins via a case conference which identifies the things that they would like to change in therapy, for a period of 18 months. I was voted in unanimously. I wanted to work on trusting others; on kindling a sense of self-worth, on handling conflict without falling apart. And on not needing to work so hard. But a few months in, I was crying more, breaking down more often. I had returned to the self-harm, that I’d been obliged to stop for a period of four weeks, as a condition of entry to the community. I felt intensely disliked. I was utterly unlovable: rotten to the core, my inner voice whispered. I’d given up working many of the hours I was doing. But I felt more depleted than ever. And I still felt rubbish.
The community held me to account for my walk-out. I had to explain what had led me to leave; how I felt; what could stop that happening again. I had to face the reality of how getting overwhelmingly distressed and leaving the group had left others feeling. It was not comfortable. It left me feeling like I wanted to leave for good. But I didn’t. I kept going back because people would notice if you weren’t there. I went to group after group after group, day after day.
TCs are set up to work like a microcosm of life outside. So, the idea is that with a small number of therapists and service users, each person will end up re-enacting the patterns of interaction that they use outside. And, within the boundaries of the TC, those patterns are examined and reflected upon, and changed. There are endless boundaries in a TC. Twelve months into treatment, I was still discovering them. But I like structure and routine. After breaking the rule around no self-harm, I was put on a contract “to not cut”: and haven’t broken it since. The strict timings of opening and closing community meetings, the definite rules around contact with community members, the accountability for my actions, were keeping me contained. I struggled against flexibility; around times when the boundaries were deliberately broken – even by therapists – times that left me feeling like a small, lost child again.
Held by the boundaries, a few months into treatment, I was beginning to open up. Each week, the TC divided in half for “small group” – a time to test thoughts with a smaller number of people, look at events that had happened that week in more detail, or to share something new with the group. The feedback here was also painful. I was prickly, clipped, even condescending at times. I worked hard with the group to explore reasons for that. I was encouraged to take responsibility for the way I was acting – but not to blame myself for it, either. There was a reason – perhaps a wound that I was protecting – that was beyond my conscious experience – and that was driving my behaviour. The more I understood my knee-jerk reactions, the better position I was in not to resort to them.
TCs don’t just consider interactions in the present. They consider their history, too. One way of doing that, in the TC I was a part of was psychodrama. Acting out the past. One time, I was nine years old, on the playground again. S — was standing in front of me, with J— and B— beside her. J—‘s family don’t want to buy a copy of the school class photo’. That was my fault, because it’s not a class photo’ because I’m in it, and I was not supposed to be in that class. I was in the wrong class. In the days before PhotoShop, S— and J— wished that they could scratch me out of it. So do I. I wished I could erase myself completely from everybody’s lives. Everyone hated me. Even my teacher standing less than a foot away didn’t respond as the slap S–struck across my face echoed over the playground. The whole world hated me. In the psychodrama, I fight tears, fight for control, as this scene is laid before me. I must stay in control. I must not cry. I am not nine years old. S— is not about to hit me for calling her a name, in despair because nothing else has made her stop. I’m OK. Really. I’m OK. The echoes of my present thought patterns are there. Surely, I’ve processed stuff that happened over 20 years ago. It wasn’t not your fault, S —. You were nine. The adults let you down. So the therapist says. The TC offer a different perspective on the past. I have to work hard to believe that what happened when I was a child was not my fault.
We spend time each week going through the Structured Clinical Interview for Diagnosis II. Each and every trait of personality disorder. And conduct disorder. We work as a group, reflecting whether we think we have the trait, and get feedback from the rest of the TC. As expected, I meet the criteria for EUPD. But I also meet the traits for Avoidant Personality Disorder, too. I intensely fear rejection. I am scared to let people in, unless I can be certain that I will be liked. So I distance myself instead, most of the time. It’s safer that way. I have some fairly rigid thinking, too. I like boundaries: I find flexible interpretations of the rules harder to bear. Knowing the traits is useful.
In Objectives (PsychEducation by another name) we go through model after model to try to explain our distress. I consciously try to apply my experiences to each one, to make some kind of sense of the mess. Radical acceptance, concepts from DBT, help me most. Seeing each emotion as a guest at your house. Trying not to slam the door on it, but to invite it in, instead, to get to know it better. Mentalising, too. Thinking of all the other reasons why that person didn’t reply to my message, that aren’t about them not really wanting to be my friend. The world brightens after a realization like that.
The TC has a creative hour each week, too. I relished these. This was something I could do. I was allowed to write about how I felt, and that I could do. I wrote letters. Letters to my ex-partner in prison. Letters to my four year-old self. To myself. But writing is easy for me. I am challenged to use a different medium. I recoil. I’m less certain of myself in the break times as well, at first. I prefer to go where others aren’t. Hide on my ‘phone. Others might not want me to be hanging out with them, anyway.
Around ten months into treatment, things start to change, measurably. I have drawn a rose in the creative session. And the rose is in bud, and delicate, but it is growing, and I am beginning to believe that it will bloom. I have started dating. I think I can trust someone else that much. I am more accepting of the bad bits of me. Some things still get me. Using ableist language is one very quick way to get me riled. But maybe that’s useful, too, if I can use that anger in a helpful way.
A few months before I leave, I start applying for jobs again. And I get one, to dovetail with my leaving date from the community. Apart from, as much as I wanted to leave, three months into treatment, I don’t want to leave now. I have made firm, secure attachments to members. They have seen me scream and cry, and they still come back to me. They know the authentic me, and they still seem to want me around. But they encourage positivity in me, too. They are excited that I have a new job, in a new country. A new place to live. They wish me well. And I leave. I am now not allowed to contact them until they are discharged. I miss them, even a couple of months later. And things have been stressful with the job and the move, and I crave the structure of the TC to hold me safely again. I am frightened that I’m going to be no good at being an adult. But I am acknowledging that, rather than hiding at work. TC was tough. Leaving it was heart-rending. I am scared of life beyond its boundaries. But TC has given me the determination to make the most of what I have; to look forward to the future. I believe that the best is yet to come. And I can’t wait to live it.
@shadesofsky is certainly worth a follow on twitter.
Keir provides training, consultancy and therapy via beamconsultancy.co.uk