‘Continuing the Conversations’

Here is a small excerpt from the epilogue of the book ‘Continuing the Conversations’. This section was authored by Cheryl White.

There is another theme that I would like to mention about the past, before turning to consider the future. It relates to irreverence. The development of narrative ideas was a part of a determined and committed challenge to existing ideas in the mental health system. At the same time, there was irreverence and much laughter. Michael was somewhat zany, and I think this had something to do with our social backgrounds. I grew up on a farm and my brother, Peter, was the first person in our family ever to finish high school. Michael came from a working-class family, and his sister was the first person in his family to finish high school. Social work and the mental health field was a fairly middle-class occupation when we entered it,and we didn’t really relate in the usual ways. We were bold, we were raucous. I would say that we were even a bit crass at times. And there was a lot of laughter. The fact that we were outsiders to the middle-class professions meant that Michael would often flip things around. When he was a consultant within psychiatric hospitals, it was commonly thought that people who were hearing voices, people who were experiencing psychosis, had nothing to offer. They were not seen as people who could speak to their own experience. They were not seen as people of integrity. Instead, they were seen as “the other,” to be hidden away. When Michael was working at a state psychiatric hospital, the ways he related to people were different from the usual “professional” ways. There is a particular story that illustrates this.

In order to get to the psychiatric hospital, Michael used to walk from home across a park. One day, while walking, he lost the button on his pants and they came undone. It became a real problem to hold them up as he was walking. He eventually made it to the psychiatric hospital, however, and sat down to meet with Sam, who was a “patient” in the locked ward because he’d been hearing voices. The family therapy team was sitting behind the one-way screen. The conversation they shared went something like this:

Michael: Sam, do you ever have fears about something happening that you don’t want to have happen?

Sam: Of course.

Michael: And do you ever have nightmares about things you are afraid of?

Sam: Yeah, sometimes I do.

Michael: And have you ever had that situation where the nightmare then actually happens? It comes true? The thing you are really worried about actually happens?

Sam: Yes, sure. I know what you mean. That’s happened to me quite a few times.

Michael: Well, have you ever had that nightmare about your pants falling down around your ankles?

Sam: Yes I have!

Michael: Well that happened to me coming here. I lost my button and my pants started falling down.

Sam: [At this point, Sam became quite concerned.] Oh, I know what that’s like, to have this worst dread that could ever happen to you, and you think it’s going to happen . . . and then it does. What did you do?

Michael: Well it was bad, and I still haven’t got a button. I’m

sort of covering it up now. What do you think I should do?

Sam: You know what? I’ll go back to the ward because I’ve got a pin for you.

Sam then returned with a pin and the consultation continued, building on the momentum and camaraderie that had been created. Meanwhile, the team behind the screen was enchanted because this interaction had flipped the usual power relations. The person who was living with voices was suddenly making a contribution to the therapist and literally helping him to keep his pants up. To Michael, this was a normal, dignifying, and re-grading conversation. But it was completely counter to the professional culture of the time. Inviting and acknowledging the suggestions, ideas, and contributions of “patients” was profoundly irregular at that time.

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