Yesterday, quite deliberately, I entered a discussion on Facebook about a placard used in a protest on Saturday. I don't live in Stafford and I think that some people saw my comment as an unwelcome intervention in their group. But, as other "ticker" watchers will know, sometimes you see a friend participating in a discussion and you want to click "like" on their comment but need to join the group to join or you see things with which you disagree, fundamentally, and become itchy with the need to join in. So I asked to join the group and once that request had been processed, I posted my comment.
Obviously, this blog post is going to be spectacularly meaningless without reference to the placard in question. I don't own the photo ... and don't want to identify those who made it (who I'm certain had no intention to offend). So I've taken a screencap of the sign in isolation.
Firstly, I am jolly proud of myself for not allowing myself to score points from the poor punctuation of the sign or the slightly hilarious decision to censor the word "piss". Instead, I wrote this:
"As someone who has been sectioned, I find the placard upsetting. Sectioning isn't to do with being "locked up" for being "mad" or putting forward "nonsense"; it's to do with very real health problems that can endanger one's own life (which is the reason why I was sectioned; I was no danger to anyone else).
Stafford Hospital is a very important cause for which to fight and it's possible to fight for it purely on its own merits, without this casual stigma.
For what it's worth, I very, very rarely admit to having been sectioned in public because of the misinformation, perpetuated in signs such as this, that somehow it means you have been "utter madmen" or dangerous.
It's not about political correctness or clearcut issues of offence vs. tolerance. To me, it is about taking an experience that is one of the most deeply distressing thing that can happen to people, including patients at Stafford Hospital, and turning it into a joke."
But even though it made me feel vulnerable and criticised, I'm not sorry that I joined in the discussion. I am pretty open about my mental health. Most people who know me know about my anorexia and know that I've been hospitalised for it. But I only rarely talk about New Year's Eve 2010: the day I was sectioned. And this sign helped me to see why. Because it articulates, however crudely, the prevalent view of sectioning. It's about locking up madmen. It's about keeping the "normal" people safe from the "crazy" ones. Or the bad ones. It's Broadmoor or Ian Brady in Ashworth Hospital.
In reality, sectioning is, for most people, miles away from that. The irony for me was that I had been asking for help for the three years prior to being sectioned. Unfortunately, because I had been left to face everything alone in Cambridge, by the time I saw the consultant in Birmingham, I was very poorly. I didn't refuse to go into hospital. But, once I was there, everything was too terrifying. The anorexia was alive and well; I was not.
Just after arriving, I had to go into lunch but couldn't even touch the sandwich because I was afraid of the margarine on my fingers and the feel of it on my hands, let alone contemplate those textures, the fat, the taste, the everything, in my mouth.
Panic attack, running from the room, sobbing in a meeting with a nurse and dietitian. They explained that (with knowledge from previous admissions of how much I struggle with facing food) if I hadn't managed to eat within 24 hours, assessment for section 3 would be put in place.
Later that afternoon, there was a community meeting and other patients, much further along in treatment, were planning a rehab outing to Nandos and the next "takeaway club". Another panic attack, fleeing to my room, needing to flee this place altogether. Needing my dog, needing his love, knowing he'd be wondering where I was. All I could tell them was that I didn't need to be there, that I'd be fine at home. That I'd be fine as long as I didn't have to face all this food, as long as no one was making me eat. That being here would make me poorly.
I can't remember much at all about what happened until the next afternoon. I remember people telling me that I needed to say that I would stay voluntarily. But I knew, knew without a doubt, that they were wrong and I would be better if I wasn't there, if I was home with Benji, if people weren't trying to give me all this terrifying food. A nurse who I'd known for 12 years, now the unit manager, sat with me and tried to engage with my rational brain. My parents were called in (sectioning needs a closest relative) and tried to explain that I had to say I would stay there. Why couldn't I say I would stay there? I had to talk to a social worker. She had long hair. She was nice. I've no recollection, whatsoever, of what was discussed. The doctor on call had been Dr R's trainee on my last admission; he reminded me of the time I beat him at Scrabble.
I don't remember the moment that It Happened. I don't remember being told that I was being held under Section Three. I don't remember trying to leave but being unable to put my shoes on because I was too confused to put them on the right feet (a nurse told me about this months later; he said that was the moment he knew that sectioning was unavoidable and that the Linda he knew wasn't present).
It was probably more distressing for my parents because they weren't too poorly to understand it. They were witnessing their daughter, who had recently completed a PhD, being detained under the Mental Health Act. And this was all happening on New Year's Eve, universally a time of parties and celebrations. I can't even imagine.
So yes, to me, casual juxtaposition of sectioning and madman isn't even offensive: it's painful. And it's not even that I don't have a sense of humour about my experiences. I'm often told that I'm the queen of black humour. But that sign is as stigmatising as the bloody costume with a meat cleaver. It equates mental illness with being dangerous. I have no access to relevant statistics but I imagine that the majority of sections take place because of risk to the individual's own safety, whether through risk of self harm or suicide or because anorexia is driving someone close to death. The implication that those of us who mind about these things need to lighten up or get a sense of humour pisses me off. And I may not be 2000 pregnant women but you still don't want to piss me off.
Edit: if you too have been sectioned and would like to help inform a new code of practice, take a look at this storify by @_sectioned