Extract from Openmind 111, Sept/Oct 2001
I woke up to the Today programme as the story of Sarah Lawson's death was being told. A version of it anyway. Half-asleep, my first thought was "Oh no, it's a field day for the lock-em-up brigade." Over the morning, I got angrier and sadder and more frightened. The media were taking perfectly seriously the proposal that "the mentally ill" were better off dead and even that it was OK to help them on their way. The world was going mad again, and this time it most definitely wasn't me.
When Marjorie Wallace appeared on the lunchtime news I got focused enough to phone the BBC and complain - "This is tasteless and inappropriate and why don't you ask someone from Mind for a balanced response?" I'm sure I was by no means the only one.
Two days later I got a call from the Mind press office - would I be prepared to go on the radio myself and talk for five or ten minutes about my own experiences? They knew I had some strong opinions on compulsory treatment. They told me Judi Clements would be there. I'd never been on the radio before. I said I would.
The weight of responsibility is not just a metaphor. I actually felt it land on me....Here was the bottom line: I am going to make absolutely certain that I do not make a prat of myself. First: for my own protection. Second: because I'm a representative (albeit an unelected one). Third: because Mind trust me not to.
Ground rule number two: I don't do emotional striptease. There are appropriate settings for deep personal disclosure and, in my opinion, live phone-ins are neither the time nor place. Besides, I can remember a time when I thought the media were spilling my innermost secrets, and I wouldn't want to start feeling like that again.
Ground rule number three: I am making no comments on anyone else's personal situation, especially when the person is unable to tell the whole story themselves....
I was introduced to the producer of the programme and later the presenter. I couldn't believe how nice all these people were. Not what I expected from 'media types' - but then I should know about stereotyping after all. In the background I could hear the last half hour of the programme before ours. Then, a trailer. Judi Clements being the sweet voice of reason. Brian Alexander, the presenter, issuing the invitation: "Has the mental health system failed you? Call us now and tell us your views."
Then, we were on. The panel was Judi, a GP with psychiatric experience on the telephone from Cardiff, and me.
It was OK, it really was. It was a boost to my self-esteem and an important lesson in trust. (I'm still not too good at trusting people.) And I was pleased I got through it without major disasters, even if defensively.
But I was a little disappointed in myself afterwards. I told myself - with the debate at this level, maybe it's enough to just have someone who admits to having been psychotic on the radio talking intelligibly and reasonably optimistically.
But I could have said more.
I could have said: I am the other side of the coin to stories like Sarah Lawson's. I've been desperate enough and hopeless enough following bad experiences with the statutory services (and stigma, and prejudice) to take a big enough dose of psychiatric drugs to kill me.
But the people who found me dialled 999. And the ambulance arrived soon enough to get me to A & E which wasn't too far away. And it was a Sunday morning so the traffic wasn't too bad. And the young registrar they called down from ITU persevered with the resuscitation when some people might have given up. And my body fought back when complications set in. And the staff on the medical side were so professional and caring and respectful that I started to believe it might be worth living after all. And my friends and family rallied round and visited me and brought me cards and flowers. And I started believing in myself again, so I had the strength to start telling the psychiatric people how I wanted and expected to be treated. And even though it was a terrible struggle to begin with they started to treat me with a bit more respect. So I started to feel better about myself and better about a world which was starting to treat me better. And four years later I'm just happy to be here.
And that's what I wanted to say. But live phone-ins are neither the time nor the place.
Sandra Smith is a pseudonym.