I first met Shelley when she was on stage in Toronto performing her one woman show “Hold Mommy’s Cigarette”. That is significant because you don’t often meet someone when they are on stage – quite the opposite – you meet a persona.
With Shelley it was the real deal. The raw, unfiltered version of herself as she tells the story of her traumatic childhood filled with abuse and loss; and her subsequent suicide attempt and re-traumatising experiences in the ‘care’ of mental health services.
It’s a familiar tale and yet I have never seen anything quite like it. It left me shaking and unable to speak. I laughed and cried in equal measures; and I felt as though I had been run over by a truck by the end. It taught me more about how it felt to be a child in that environment than years of training and clinical experience as a psychologist in children’s services. It made me feel sick with anxiety and overwhelmed with hope. I knew in that moment that she could change how we think about mental health; and she could change how we think about childhood all at the same time.
I reached out to Shelley immediately – thanking her for telling her story and providing me with the tiniest insight into her life. It had felt such a privilege. She generously reached out to me in return. Of course, as I got to know her better I learnt what I already knew. It was a sanitised version made just a bit more palatable for an audience who mainly want to be entertained. It was eloquent and filled with humour; alongside the occasional punch in the stomach.
Shelley had spared us the minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day, week by week, month by month, year by year detail. We knew that her father had died by suicide; that she lived in fear of her step father’s abuse; and that her mother struggled with her own trauma, dying of cancer as a young woman. She didn’t quite say that by the age of 7 she had already been hospitalized 5 times for abuse, malnutrition, stomach pumping from ingesting poison, a broken nose and…..the list goes on.
What Shelley did manage with extraordinary skill was to get people’s attention. Many hundreds have seen her play and I have only heard overwhelmingly positive comments about how incredible the experience is. I have seen it four times now – it would have been more had I not moved back to the UK. It puts people in touch with their own experiences of childhood; and helps them to open up about it and make sense of their own stories. It has, quite literally, saved lives.
Additionally though, it gives children a voice. It hits people between the eyes with why we have to tackle inter-generational trauma if we are to come anywhere close to making a difference to the mental health of future generations.
However, it also highlights just how complex this endeavour is. As a 7-year-old on stage Shelley knows something is not right but she does not know what. As a teenager on stage Shelley is terrorised one moment, and singing into her hairbrush the next. She adores the mother who lets her down the most; and craves attention from the grandmother who sees her as another mouth to feed.
Shelley captures this complexity with extraordinary sophistication. Of course she does. She lived through it. She, quite literally, survived it. She told me she wrote the play in just a couple of hours. She effectively vomited it out.
It is this complexity that has to be brought to the foreground in children’s services if we are to develop truly child centred approaches. Children’s rights, child centred practice, young people’s advocacy and parliaments that give children a voice go a long way, but they will only go so far. Especially for the most traumatised children in our society. How can a child advocate on their own behalf when their biggest priority is getting a smile out of their father; or at least not risking getting a slap from him?
Shelley, and other survivors of trauma, are best placed to help us work out what would have helped most, and what we should be doing more of now. In her play she talks about a teacher’s kind words and a doctor who spotted something unique in her ability to make observations. “Have you ever thought of performing?” was a question that led to a small ad in the newspaper for an improvisation class, that led to – well so much. But most of all these small acts of kindness, and acts of noticing, led to hope for a different life.
These connections were ‘accidental’ rather than designed into the system that is there to help, and happened in spite of rather than because of the ‘care’ she received. I am sure that Shelley could suggest so much more of what we could do better. But, and this is the important but, don’t expect her to turn up to a meeting on a certain day at an allotted hour some time in the future. Don’t expect her to feel at ease in a hospital setting or social care office that that might set her back months. Instead, ask her when and how she wants to share her ideas; and then ask her again when even that proves too much.
Shelley has been invited many times to perform her play – from school mental health campaigns to professional organisations. Often she can, and she pulls it off to standing ovations night after night. Often she can’t, and cancels last minute, ‘letting down’ audiences and theatres and sponsors – and anyone else who doesn’t understand trauma and how it grips hold of you when you least want it to.
This is one reason why the trauma voice is lost in the neat world of service delivery. And this is precisely why we need to try harder to create services that really understand that this is the reality of living with trauma. It is not neat, it cannot be packaged into a care bundle, it does not respond to appointment diaries. It can lay dormant for months and even years, and then take a stranglehold when you least expect it too. No wonder traditional service delivery models find it easier to label it as ‘failure to engage’.
Shelley. This is for you to read on your darkest days. When you believe you are worthless and have contributed nothing. When you are convinced that you have failed and have let everyone down. You may just have unlocked the key to why services need to completely rethink how they ‘deliver’ care. And you may just have helped that teacher or doctor or social worker realise why just one word from them can transform someone’s life. You have certainly helped this psychologist.