By Evangeline Del Cisne
I am a survivor of childhood abuse, as well as multiple abusive relationships in adulthood. Lately, I’ve been thinking about how my experience of seeking help became just another trauma for me to heal. As soon as I left my abusive household, I started to experience symptoms of PTSD; panic attacks, flashbacks, night terrors, and severe social anxiety. I knew I needed to seek help straight away, and referred myself to the NHS for a psychological assessment. Little did I know this would be the start of some of the most difficult years of my life. The initial assessment took months to happen, and at first they misdiagnosed me with BPD. I was then told I would be put on a 1-2 year waiting list for long-term therapy. During this period I was severely suicidal, lacking any kind of social support apart from my fiancé, and offered no buffer services.
I had also been declared unfit for work by my GP, so I was essentially in a state of limbo, waiting for a letter from the NHS that never came. Two years later I contacted the service I’d been referred to and asked if there had been any progress. They couldn’t find my details—apparently there had been an administrative error and they’d lost them, which meant I had to go back in for another assessment and be placed back at the end of the waiting list. I was absolutely devastated, and I was offered no consolation or any real apology. It was very clear to me that these people simply didn’t care. When I went for my second assessment, they gave me the correct diagnosis of Complex PTSD, and then sent me back on my way.
Another 2 years of no support, no buffer services, and no real care. In total, I waited 4 years for help from the NHS—help that never came. In the end, I set up a mutual aid fundraiser on Patreon to cover the cost of private treatment so that I could start as soon as possible—and that wasn’t an easy task either. I spent most of my days unable to get out of bed, leave the house, cook, clean or really do anything but lay there crying. On top of this, I was experiencing chronic physical pain from my untreated trauma symptoms. Looking back on this period, I wonder what it was that contributed to the total lack of care I received from the NHS, and from the other people around me. I would often try to write about my experiences on Facebook to break the stigma of mental illness and of being a survivor, and I would also try to ask for support.
People either ignored my posts, or attacked me and said I was “attention seeking”, or “weird”. The message was loud and clear: I wanted too much and I was saying too much. At the time I really needed a community of people to rally around me, bring me meals, come round and clean up, take me to the park or for a cup of tea—basically just demonstrate that they care. None of that ever happened, and sadly still hasn’t. Some people were even angry at my attempts to fundraise for myself so that I could finally get treatment.
As I look back over these years, I wonder if it’s because I wasn’t a very “sympathetic victim”. I would often get strange comments from therapists and acquaintances alike about how I dressed. One therapist told me I shouldn’t complain about street harassment because I was clearly “looking for attention”. Other assessors would remark that I “looked fine”, or when I said I was signed off work would reply “lucky for some”. Before I got my diagnosis I was working as a model, and I was never shy about showing skin. I enjoyed dressing up and getting my hair done, but the way I dressed and presented felt like a real hindrance to getting any help, or even any sympathy.
My whole experience of recovery has been marred with misogyny, misogynoir and respectability politics. I’m simply not the type of person that others deem “worthy” enough of support. I also found that many people simply want to try to save you and dictate how your recovery should be, rather than walk alongside you. I experienced many people telling me to take psychiatric drugs (which I never did, and never wanted to do) or to try certain therapies or ring certain phone lines. When I told them I wasn’t interested in those things and asked them to do things I actually needed, these people would get exasperated and disappear.
I’ve found that people want to see victims of abuse as one-dimensional and in need of saving, but to honour our multi-dimensional nature as human beings might highlight the fact that anyone can be a victim of abuse, and that we are not some subcategory of human beings that you can separate yourself from by behaving in a certain way. Many people still believe that the victim has brought abuse upon themselves, and I believe that’s a huge reason so many people have such a lack of empathy towards survivors. What we’ve been through highlights issues people simply don’t want to look at.
It’s been about a year since I’ve been getting private treatment, thanks to my mutual aid fundraiser. I’m doing music and art therapy, somatic experiencing, micro-dosing, shamanic healing and I get regular massages for my chronic muscular pain and inflammation. I found that even traditional talk therapies in the private sector had a lot of prejudiced therapists who had a severe lack of knowledge about trauma and how to effectively and safely treat it. In my 4 years of waiting, I became somewhat of a DIY trauma expert. Every ounce of my time was taken up by reading books on the subject, watching talks and lectures, taking courses, and reading articles. I also came to learn about the racist and colonial history of the psychiatric movement as a whole, and have since distanced myself from the medical industrial complex.
I wanted to believe the NHS could help me, but I quickly grew tired of the western medical model of treating mental health. People who have suffered abuse and trauma are pathologised, and it’s seen as though there’s something wrong with the individual and not the society in which we live. I was frustrated at the lack of justice for the perpetrators, and how there was never any attempt to change or even address the systemic problems that allowed the abuse to happen in the first place. I decided to take a decolonial approach to healing, and gained so much wisdom from indigenous approaches to healing which emphasize community support, joy, nature and finding purpose. They know that to heal trauma we quite literally need to shake it off physically through dance and ritual, we need to reconnect to ourselves and those around us. Trauma lives in the body, and these intuitive somatic practices offer so much healing.
I felt people’s judgments as soon as I decided to do away with the western model. And I almost felt that they thought I shouldn’t be complaining if I didn’t go along with it. Being perceived as mentally ill is already a huge stigma, but being seen as mentally ill and not cooperating with standard treatment is a whole other thing. The western mental health system is very carceral: people who suffer with their mental health are often perceived as irresponsible and needing others to make decisions for them—Britney Spears’ conservatorship is a prime example of this. I even worry about having a good day with minimal symptoms in case someone tries to discredit the validity of my suffering, or try to make it seem like I’m overreacting because I’m experiencing happiness for once.
I’ve found that taking my recovery into my own hands has been the most healing thing I’ve done. When you experience trauma, you are out of control, and that feeling of not being able to control your environment or even yourself lives on years after the event is over. Regaining some control and autonomy over your choices is crucial, and people should be encouraging that, not trying to make decisions for us or pretend they know what’s best.
My healing journey as of now is truly and completely my own. No one dictates to me how I should heal. I have found infinitely more healing in microdosing mushrooms, being in nature, painting, and simply feeling my feelings than I ever did in a cold, sterile therapy room. Although I do wish I had more community support and more empathy, and I still struggle, at least I can choose to share my voice and let others know they are not alone in their experiences.
Recovery should be accessible to all, and community support should be a given; but until it is, I know survivors will keep forging their own paths and their own recovery routes in the face of insufferable trauma, stigma, and prejudice. May we continue being disobedient survivors.
Evangeline Del Cisne