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My Mental Illness – A Survivor’s View

Trigger Warning: this article goes where my brain chooses to take it. I’m along for the ride just as much as you are ..(Image from Pixabay. No attribution required)

I’ve never felt particularly stigmatised by others because of my mental illness, largely because part of me has always known that my mental illness wasn’t caused organically. Not by lesion, not by a basic malfunctioning, and not because of a traumatic physical injury to my brain. My mental illness was introduced/imposed by others. I’ve certainly felt judged, but then, has not everyone?

The trouble for me, and possibly for some other Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse as well, is that there is nothing much wrong with my brain at all. It has done the job it was designed to do at a reasonably high level. It has ensured my survival well into my 70th year.

So good on you brain. I salute you and your capabilities and all that. What an amazingly resilient thing you are. There is not a breath of cynicism in that statement. I mean it.

But why am I choosing to write about mental illness right now? My own mental illness right now? Why not politics? Why not love? Why not some quirky matter that my writer’s muse is often attracted to pursue simply for the fun of it? Fact is I’m writing about mental illness in this moment simply because I want to.

Trauma. Abuse. The malicious withdrawal of love by designated care-givers. Mental illness. The possibility of self-harm or suicide. An inevitable connectivity runs through all those words.

Childhood and trauma. Young brain/minds. Opening up to the wonders of this world, large-eyed with curiosity. Dependent on adults for love and nurturing. Betrayed. Abused.

Childhood Traumas did not implode my brain at the time. Because of repeated unwanted experiences my brain was re-wired so successfully back then that it has been stuck in survival mode for the last six decades. My brain did not know it was stuck in survival mode, and since my brain is me, neither did I until fairly recently. I’m supposed to have a modicum of intelligence, thoughts of such stuckness never entered my mind.

This stuck in survival mode thing largely explains why I always try to live at elevation, on the top of hills. I love to have a bird’s high view of things. That’s not just about having great views, bonus that they are, but it is also about having a clear view of the paths predators might take. Yes, part of me knows full well that there are no wizened dirty old priests clambering up the slopes intent on their intentions, but with my brain stuck in survival mode such clarity rarely gets a look in. Probably explains why I don’t like curtains as well.

Might go a long way to explaining also why I never physically turn my back on people. Why corners feel so attractive. Why I could not trust the fact that most people meant me no harm. What annoys me about that one is that it robbed me of the ability to turn my back in scorn on a number of particular politicians I have met. I’ve seen a number of people do the scorn-turn thing and I imagine it must feel delightful to express oneself in such a succinct way.

Also, some people, diagnostic type people, posit that my inability to clearly read emotions and signals on the faces of other people (that one always seems to get me into generally forgiven trouble with the appreciated female friends in my life) is possibly one of my, in their view, born with autistic traits.

Maybe so. Maybe their observation of the working of my brain is clearer than my brain’s understanding of itself. However, even in survival mode, my brain thinks that this trait was imposed, something to do with the fact that the perpetrators who abused my child-self always started with smiles and god-rapture on their faces. Perhaps my brain learned, as part of the re-wiring, that it could not any longer trust what it saw, and therefore it chose the survival mechanism of no longer bothering to look.

My mental illness feels like riding a bucking horse bareback. Sitting on the horse of living without the stability of saddle or stirrup or rein to forge a coherent path. Getting triggered, spooked, jittered, blind-sided, and continually bucked back into ptsd, depression, poor me boo-hoo mode, and other sadnesses and addictions, and the overwhelming need to simply do what it takes to simply just survive. That’s what the brain does to a person when the brain is stuck in survival mode.

Over the last few years, and especially over the last year or so, some pretty good technicians (psychiatrists and psychologists) did their best to map out the existing wiring diagram of my brain, and therefore of me. They and I fully understood that my brain had finally made a conscious decision to fry all circuits and pull the plug on itself .. that’s called suicide in non-wiring terms.

So they tested various circuits and found, surprise surprise, that the survival circuit was stuck in hyper-vigilance mode and had been performing so uber fast for the last six decades that the over-heating had reached a point of .. well, a supernova comes to mind. Big explosion and then a quick balloon-fart down to nothing.

Amazing technicians that those people are, they dug around in their tool box and came up with and applied the remedial tool of Talk Psychotherapy. The experience of that year long psychotherapy was like having an OBD2 Scanner plugged into my brain (one of those electronic on-board diagnostic things that mechanics plug into your car’s computer to diagnose and hopefully re-code annoying faults).

Of course nothing is just purely singular and it took a lot of effort from a number of directions to get any sort of remedial re-wiring happening inside the circuits of my brain. I turned up once a week for a year despite the it is all too hard excuse that can be used to simply run away, and the psychiatrist turned up every week and the psychologist once every month despite possibly their own human reasons for occasionally needing to run away too from all the raw revelations.

In other words psychotherapy does not just magically happen. It is hard graft, hard work, uncomfortable, and it takes a long time, a very long time, and total commitment from all concerned. A couple of visits to a psychologist and all’s good doesn’t come remotely close.

My brain cannot tell the reader or another Survivor why the process of psychotherapy changed some of the wiring circuitry. All it can say is that a dab of solder here, and a bit of a bend in the Survival Wire over there, and a lot of internal sweat and toil and realisations and acceptances, did something. I’d say praise the lord for all that but it would sound silly coming from an atheist.

My brain well recognises that since the psychotherapy finished I have consciously, and for how long I do not know, stepped back from Survivor activism on my own behalf. Serenity has appeared in the paddock and I see no harm in taking that particular horse for a bit of an extended canter in whatever direction it chooses to take.

Regrets. Interesting word that one. Some regrets are well earned, much can be learned from having them. Some other regrets though are just so much maudlin mush, but they, always seen in retrospect, contain the far greater lessons.

By my rough reckoning it was six years ago that I found the oomph to stand up and find my voice as a Survivor. It set me on a path, a journey. I spoke about Survivor matters. I wrote about Survivor matters. I self-identified publicly as a Survivor and held aloft in shaky hands the banner of Survivorhood. I published a book called JAGGED. Ha .. it was all so bloody scary .. had no idea what I was doing, or why I was doing it, and I assuredly had no idea what the future would bring.

Sure, I sought acknowledgement from an abusive institution. I sought an apology, a suitable level of compensation, a public statement that I was a good fellow wronged, I wanted to be repaired. I also wanted to see a small measure of revenge realised .. why not, at the time I felt that such revenge was deserved. The beauty of life, the most wondrous thing about life, is that it sometimes seems to accidentally protect us from our greatest follies,

I thought that one of the biggest mistakes in my life was to enter into civil litigation against the Catholic Church. I realised none of my objectives to any great extent. The process broke my will over a number of years. It dragged me to the depths of, and exposed the breadth of, my mental illness. It is hard to claim ownership of an imposed mental illness. I ended up in mental health wards under suicide watch on a number of occasions. I curled up into fetal balls. I stared at walls. I didn’t become a caricature of the mentally unwell, I was the real deal. Gosh – doom gloom and darkness and hopelessness and self-pity reigned in my land.

And then my brain woke up …

One of the best things I have done in my life was to enter into civil litigation against the Catholic Church. That process broke down the old me to the extent that all I seemed to have left was my mental illness. All of the coping mechanisms, and maskings, and other desperate strategies to simply get through life were gone, totally shattered by the litigation process and the aftermath of that. It led me to observing my own mental illness. It led me to observing and owning my own mental illness. It led me to an understanding that, though imposed, my mental illness was mine to deal with. It also led me to asking those three most esoteric questions that self can ask self. Who is doing the observing? Who am I? What do I want?

Navel-gazing and narcissism are luxuries that have no place when one seeks to find what remains of self. Either stay splattered on the floor or get up and do something about it. Either stay wallowing in the imposed crap or find a way to cut through. Do something, drop pride, ask for professional help. I’m talking about real shit here.

As it turned out, I did not have to ask for professional help, it was offered to me before I could ask. Psychotherapy, and much more, was offered to me. Ha .. I now know with surety what people mean when they say that person is a basket case .. I was a big cane one, leaky as a sieve, had no idea what my purpose as a basket was supposed to be .. never let it be said that the mentally ill are bereft of humour!

I’ve already spoken about the benefits of the psychotherapy, and the resultant re-re-wiring. All that came about because I fell apart and someone offered real help. On the surface it appeared to be a simple thing – throw a psychiatrist and a basket case into a room for a year, throw in a psychologist once a month as well, stir vigorously, ha .. stand well back and hope for the best!

In my opinion the best was achieved, the best that could possibly be achieved was achieved. I learned much about self, and much about, and from, those who were helping me.

The last six years have been quite a journey. They have taken me to deeper depths and greater heights than I ever thought I was capable of experiencing.

I cannot provide advice to any other Survivor. The decision to litigate or not, to seek redress or not, or to choose to do nothing at all, is a decision that only you can take responsibility for. With love I say to you that we all create our own future journeys.

So, do I consider myself to still carry an imposed mental illness? Do I consider myself to be fully healed? Good questions.

I can give those questions only one answer.

To my brain a mental illness imposed in childhood has at least one similarity with the type of grief that is imposed when a loved one dies. Both concern the loss of love. Both create a hole in the heart/spirit. Over time the hole can manage to partly self-heal, or can allow itself to be helped to partly self-heal, and life can move forward and be lived. But any hole within birthed by either the unexpected loss of love, or the malicious and deliberate withdrawal of love, never fully heals or goes away and remains part of the overall fabric of who we are. None of that means that we cannot go on to experience happiness and love, because we can.


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  1. Max Gross

    Thank you

  2. Warren


  3. Carl Marks

    Not a nice picture, as many victims come out and describe the scarring processes of abuse and PTSD.

  4. leefe

    I had a long screed written up about childhood trauma and cortisol and the permanent affects they have on brain function; about hypervigilance and autism and interpretation of body language … but you probably know all that already.

    So, all I can add is the atheist equivalent of thoughts and prayers: may your health continue to improve, may you keep finding enough beauty in life to make its continuance worthwhile, may you find peace and happiness and fuck those arseholes who hurt you.

  5. Canguro

    Nicely written, Keith. You have a lovely gift and capacity for expressing yourself and your circumstances in words that don’t dwell in the superfluous or are too minimalising of the actuality of the very real consequences of early childhood trauma.

    In your case, institutional aetiology. In mine, domestic, within the family environment, both parents; real terror, physical and emotional abuse, an elder brother who shed his stress downwards, via the pecking order, traumatic dissociation at a very early age, a suicide attempt around the age of 7 or 8, complete isolation, fear, detachment from ‘reality’… as you well understand, these experiences in our arising early years have life-long consequences.

    Good for you, with the hard yards you’ve put in with the therapeutic community. I worked, in my mid-twenties, for three years as a psych nurse in a government hospital; not a pretty place to be, to be witness to the worst of human suffering; dementia, depression, psychosis, schizophrenia, all of the phobias that ravage our intellects and souls, suicidality, murderous rage and more. I quit, after graduating, even though at that age I was unaware of my own ‘issues’ per ECA. Drugs & alcohol kept me numb, as they do for the large proportion of adult survivors.

    Like you, not until my seventh decade before the penny dropped. But not six years in the chair, only three, but enough to get a good handle on the damage done. I’m ok with it now… over the often-occurring inner monologue that urges to just ‘be done with it’.

    It’s a tough gig, being human. We wish for the best but we can’t control the external circumstances.

    Thanks for your post. Timely.

  6. paul walter

    Cang fleshed it out, in its grey utter toughness.

    It IS a long trudge…

  7. Anne Byam

    A wonderfully written article Keith … and to realise that you are improving is just great.

    Hang in there, and keep up the good work you are putting in for your health and happiness. That is fantastic.

    I wish you all the very best for the future.

  8. wam

    Taking charge of the brain is a big positive step, Keith,
    It will compliment your strength.
    For the last 10 years of the 20th century everyone, but one, knew I was dysfunctional and dangerous.
    The circuit breaker was lying in ICU with a fistula in my jugular then two weeks in ward 7A with no nephrons. The need for calm control became paramount and doctors orders became of supreme importance.
    My kidneys renewed their activity, my brain was under control and my family became visible again
    Even now, after 20 years, I cringe internally when incidents of my sickness well up and I wonder how I didn’t kill or be killed.
    Keep strong, Keith, your words are being heard.

  9. Phil Pryor

    Best wishes to you, Keith, as life itself is something of a dangerous experiment. You are doing well to contribute to a valuable conversation topic, where many might share and learn. Good luck.

  10. Keith Davis

    To Michael, Carol, Max, Warren, Carl, Leefe, Canguro, Paul, Phil, Anne and Wam (g’day Wam)

    Because I live in Hermitsville, and because of my natural inclination to avoid full interaction with the outside world, I often forget the power of the comments section on The Australian Independent Media Network.

    Some of the comments, both on AIMN and a couple of social media platforms, that flowed on from the publication of My Mental Illness – A Survivor’s View have touched me deeply. You get me, I get you, we both understand each other.

    Sure, when I write an article about anything other than abuse, it is ego driven and seeks a zillion likes and shares. A zillion likes and shares has never happened to me of course .. ha .. maybe Eating Tomatoes in Portugal has something to do with that .. I only mention that lemon of an article now and then because I think it sends Michael into a happy chortling fit.

    When I write about childhood abuse though .. different world. It comes from a place of raw focus where ego/likes are fatuous ephemeral things that have the substance of dissipating mist.

    When people respond and relate their own lived experience of abuse or trauma it tells me that I am part of a Tribe. Not a Tribe that I or anybody else willingly chose to join. Yet, out of that Tribe arises a wealth of trauma-informed knowledge. Out of that Tribe is now arising a younger generation of Survivors who are articulate and fierce in their public quest for real change.

    I am not the first/last Survivor/writer who has or will appear on AIMN. This platform is not just only a very powerful political beast. It has other hearts that open up and allow the exploration of other, at times uncomfortable for some, paths. In that respect it shows true intent where ‘I Believe You’ is concerned.

    I’m not a rich man, if I was I’d throw heaps of bucks in to keep AIMN flourishing and growing.

  11. Terence Mills

    AIMN is a treasure in Australia’s [not so] free speech galaxy.

    I have recently discussed withThe Conversation their habit of shutting out comment on some very topical and interesting articles and issues from authors who have a deep insight to their given subjects. In recent days The Conversation has published several informed articles on the amazing revelations captured by the James Webb Space Telescope but in none of these cases did The Conversation permit comment or discourse.

    Their reasoning being that they have limited resources for moderating comments (as is the case with AIMN) and their fear of defamation
    claims. Their solution : to shut down comment altogether beyond certain selected articles.

    AIMN remains one of the few online blogs in Australia that hasn’t been impacted by cancel culture !

    Freedom of speech and communication is probably more important now than it has ever been and we need to protect it, ideally with a Bill of Rights.

  12. Michael Taylor

    Terry, whilst we have a small team of excellent moderators, I think a lot of credit should be given to the commenters. We are honoured to have so many mature and respectful contributors, as evidenced by their thoughtful comments.

  13. Michael Taylor

    Keith, I am such an admirer of your bravery and honesty, and of you as a person.

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