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Fiona

Age at interview: 57
Brief Outline: Fiona’s 28 year old son has a long history of self-harm, which started when he was 9 after sexual abuse by his father. Fiona supported him through problems with drugs and alcohol and was relieved when he recently said he no longer wanted to die, though she is constantly vigilant.
Background: Fiona, 57, is divorced with four children aged 35, 33, 29 and 28. She works in Mental Health, helping people to live as independently as possible. Ethnic background: White.

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Fiona’s youngest son had a troubled childhood. He was seen by the psychiatric service for anger issues and was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. At the age of nine he cut his thighs with a knife and told his mother that this was a way to show people how much he was hurting inside. Fiona then discovered that her husband had been sexually abusing her children. He was sent to prison and Fiona struggled to cope with large debts and three young children. The family were referred to psychiatric services but the children soon refused to attend and Fiona felt she was being accused of non-co-operation because she was suspected of having known about the abuse. Her 12 year old daughter took an overdose because she felt responsible for the breakup of the family after she had disclosed the sexual abuse. Fiona did not seek treatment for either of these self-harm episodes because she was frightened that her children would be taken into care.

Fiona’s son became involved with local drug dealers when he was eleven, and got into trouble with the police. He was expelled from school and became addicted to drugs and alcohol. He took several serious overdoses and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. He has also threatened to jump off high buildings, and recently stole Fiona’s car, intending to drive off a cliff. Fiona herself was treated for depression. She continued to support her son through various rehabs but she says that as soon as things start going well for him he can’t handle it and takes a massive overdose. He had gone to Australia where he had a small daughter and a good job, but on three occasions Fiona had to fly there when he was in danger of dying from drug overdoses. The Salvation Army helped him return to the UK, where he spent two years in a Christian community for addicts, which Fiona says has helped him recover.

The effect of her son’s suicide attempts has been devastating emotionally. Fiona has also suffered financially through supporting her son. Although her workplace was supportive at first, she is anxious that her new job may be threatened if she has to take a lot of time off. Sometimes she wishes that her son would succeed in killing himself because then all the stress would be over, but immediately feels guilty for thinking that. She herself has felt so emotionally drained that she has had thoughts about ending her life, but tells herself ‘Stop having your pity party. Sort yourself out.’ She feels she has to keep up a brave face to the world, and is thankful for her sense of humour. Fiona’s other children have cut off communication with their brother because they are angry about the trouble he has caused their mother. She thinks this is partly a protective mechanism so that if he dies they won’t be so affected. She told her ex-husband about her son’s suicide attempts and his response was to blame her for being ‘an emotional wreck.’

Fiona’s family live abroad and are not supportive of her, suggesting that she cut her son off. She is reluctant to talk about her problems with many people, but does have some friends who understand and are supportive. Sometimes she feels very isolated and would like to be in contact with other parents who have had similar experiences. She is a Christian and has found her faith a source of strength.

Fiona’s original GP was helpful, as she was involved at the time of the sexual abuse and understood the situation, but she has now retired and Fiona feels that her current doctors think she is attention seeking and blame the menopause or just offer to increase her antidepressants. She felt unsupported by the clinicians treating her son, who stressed the importance of confidentiality and did not give her advice, in contrast with the Australian doctors who talked to her about her son’s condition.

Fiona tries to understand the reasons for her son’s behaviour – he idealised his father and finds it very difficult to come to terms with his abuse. As a male, it is difficult for him to talk to his friends and he feels a failure as a man because he can’t handle his problems. She says he feels guilty for the trauma he has caused her and wants to escape from the mess his mind is in. She is comforted that her son knows she loves him unconditionally and has told her that this has kept him going. She is relieved that he seems to have changed recently and has told her that he no longer wants to die, though she is constantly vigilant and still feels anxious when the phone rings in case there is bad news.

Fiona advises other parents to get support where they can, from a good GP or professional body. She says ‘just keep telling your child you love them, and realise that there will be all sorts of emotions, including guilt and anger. It’s hard to talk to people because you feel a failure, but you are not alone, and it’s not your fault’. She advises clinicians to be more open, and not to jump in and judge. They should let people know it’s safe to talk, and really listen to what is said rather than ticking boxes. Both parents and clinicians should listen to the child and see them as a person, not as a problem.
 

Fiona found it difficult when doctors changed their minds about her son’s diagnosis.

Fiona found it difficult when doctors changed their minds about her son’s diagnosis.

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And then the cycle, one of the cycles that my youngest son gets into, I mean he was diagnosed with bipolar. Then they told him it wasn’t bipolar. It was just the ADHD and so he’s had sort of various inputs and medications and things but it’s just such a mish-mash because you see one person and they say, “It’s definitely this.” And you go, start going down that road and then they turn round, you see someone else and they say, “It’s absolutely not that, it’s this.” So you’re constantly trying to battle with the medical world, as well as all the trauma that’s going on. And one of his cycles is he will sort of sort himself out, get on a more even keel but as soon as everything starts going really well for him, he can’t handle it. He’s not comfortable with that so he will create chaos, either by taking a massive overdose. 
 

Fiona is not sure whether genetics played a part in her son’s problems.

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Fiona is not sure whether genetics played a part in her son’s problems.

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Yes and in the family, has there been anyone else anyone who’s had serious mental health problems? You said he’d been diagnosed with bipolar.

Yeah, one of his uncles is a severe depressive, chronic depressive. Who’s also tried to commit suicide a couple of times. His father’s side of the family have many strange issues. I mean there’s a, his father is one of five boys and all five have had fairly major problems in their lives but again, it’s not something I can talk to anyone about because the immediate response I get is, “Well, that’s because you don’t like his father.” It’s nothing to do with that. This is the fact.

On my side of the family, I’m not aware of any sort of mental health issues, other than my own. I mean I know I have a, [tut] brain switched off now, addictive personality, which is obviously drug and alcohol people, it’s addictive personality so and with the depression, chicken and an egg. Was I, am I a depressive person or are my life circumstances made me a depressive person? So my youngest son obviously, has my genes and his family genes and I don’t know what’s previous in my family. My nephew, my son’s son, my brother’s son became an alcoholic and became very obese. I and he’s had a stomach bypass so, obviously, there’s something there as well but there’s genes obviously, on my side but my previous family, you know, my grandparents and things, I don’t know.

So is there some genetic disposition? I don’t know. All I know is I have to get through each day and live with what’s here and try not to think because it’s, I think it would be quite easy to blame it on, “Well, it’s because of this, it’s because of that.” And I’ve got enough of that with my own guilt, you know. I should have done this, shouldn’t have done that.

Yes.

Without trying to think, you know, was great granny at fault.
 

Fiona thinks it’s harder for young men to talk about their problems.

Fiona thinks it’s harder for young men to talk about their problems.

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I think it being female it helps me to talk. Men are not so good at talking on the whole. That’s a generalisation but and I think that’s one of the things that’s so difficult for my son because his father was very much, you know, men don’t cry, you know, men don’t this, whereas I’ve always enforced in them or reinforced, whatever the word is, actually, it takes more of a man to cry and he does at times.

But he’s again, this is part of his battle, sort of, you know, “I’m obviously pathetic. I’m a bloke and I can’t handle it. So let’s just end it because people would laugh if they knew I can’t handle it.” And it’s like, “No, they wouldn’t.” You know, “Don’t think like that.” But it’s very hard because he is male and you know, this is some of the conversations, “Well, you’re a woman. You can go and talk to a friend and feel better. Who can I talk to? I can’t talk to my mates because they’ll go, ‘oh come on.’ You talk to psychiatrists and they’re ticking boxes half.” This is his conversation.

“They’re ticking boxes half the time. They’re not really listening to what you’re trying to say. A lot of them, their answer is, ‘take this tablet, take that tablet and it’ll numb the pain and you’ll get through it and be strong enough to live.’” and that’s what is very hard with it is there is no answer. 
 

Fiona’s son phoned her from Australia to tell her he had made another suicide attempt. She tried to make him see the effect his suicide would have on his daughter.

Fiona’s son phoned her from Australia to tell her he had made another suicide attempt. She tried to make him see the effect his suicide would have on his daughter.

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So his suicide attempts have been one of them when I had to fly to Australia was he did actually phone me that he was in a hospital, in a hotel room, he’d rented a hotel room. 

He said, “The battery is about to run out. I’m just phoning to let you know I love you, mum. This is what I’m doing.” And then the battery died and I just sat, because I mean, Sydney is a big area in Australia and I knew he was in Sydney somewhere but I didn’t know what to do. So I was just waiting for a police call to say, “This, we’ve found this body. This is the last number. Do you know who this person is?” 

But, as it happened, I got a call, in fact, from his ex-partner to say she’d had a call and he’d actually, on the hotel room, internal thing, had phoned and said he’d just injected himself and they’d called an ambulance. So she phoned and said, “He’s in intensive care, you know. Can you get over here.” So those, you know, he’s been very serious when he’s done it, which, as I say, is purely, in my case, by the grace of god I believe he has, you know, he, because the things he’s done. He’s never actually jumped so he’s never sort of broken anything but he has been on buildings and I have talked to him for an hour and a half on, at times, talking him down and just trying to sort of just get him to hold, you know, hold on to the fact that would he want, you know, his, look what his dad has done in his life. Would he want his daughter growing up knowing that her father had killed himself and feeling the guilt that he goes through?

Because, even though she’s very young, she’s three at the moment, she would find out about it and she, because children do, would think it was something to do with her. 

And sort of trying to get through the complete mania that that seems to get into their mind when they want to kill themselves and it’s, because they’re past thinking about, it’s no good you know, “Do you know what this is doing to me?” I never tried that because I don’t think that would have worked so it’s trying to touch something in him.
 

Fiona’s son ‘fooled’ the psychiatrists into thinking he was fine.

Fiona’s son ‘fooled’ the psychiatrists into thinking he was fine.

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So I put out another thing and he was actually sectioned [kept in hospital under a Section of the Mental Health Act] so he had a psychiatrist and things assessing him and I saw them and I said, “I don’t want to teach you to suck eggs but he will say everything you want him to say, [ba ba ba ba ba].” And they were like, “Oh yeah, yeah, you know, here we go, mother knows best.” And I said, “No, you know, believe me, I’m not saying I want him permanently sectioned but please just be aware. I’ve seen his patterns with other psychiatrists and psychologists and I’ve had a couple of them say to me, ‘we can’t deal with him because he he can second guess us.’” And sure enough, he, they decided he was fine. There was no problem with him and he came out, they let him go and didn’t tell me that they were letting him out and he went straight out. He phoned me. He said, “Fooled them, mum. They don’t think there’s anything wrong with me. More fool them.” And then tried to steal cars so that he could carry on with his drive down to Southampton. He was at a pedestrian crossing, pushing the button so the cars had to stop and trying to get the drivers out so he could take their cars. 

So [sighs] you know, he, I don’t know, he needs help. He needs more help than I can give him but I don’t know where to turn for it because he runs rings round the professionals.
 

Fiona’s son said he didn’t want to die any more after his stay in a rehabilitation community.

Fiona’s son said he didn’t want to die any more after his stay in a rehabilitation community.

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So, institutionally, nothing has really helped him or helped us. What did help him was he went into Betel, which is like a it’s a Christian community. It’s sort of rehab but it’s a Christian community and that’s where he sort of really turned around a lot and it’s run by ex-alcoholics and drug addicts, who are recovered, for alcoholics and drug users and it’s absolutely brilliant. They have no drugs at all, I mean as in legal drugs. People go in and for two weeks or however long it takes, they do cold turkey.

You’re with somebody twenty four hours a day, which is fantastic, because in other rehabs you’re not. So they have like a buddy system here and then they integrate you back into society so you, you’re always in twos, so you’re never alone to be tempted and then they start doing things like leaflet drops. They’re a charity so they get all their money by doing work. They work in gardens. They’ve got furniture shops and things like that and so for my son, he was having his rehab but learning to integrate into society, which in another rehab you’re not. You’re in this bubble away from the world and then you’re put back out in the world with not really any support other than, “Well, we’ve got these courses or these drop-ins if you want to.” So it’s all left to you. With Betel it’s they’re with you. You’ve got somebody with you twenty four seven and as you get stronger and more recovered, you then become what they call a responsible and take on people. And they can all relate, it doesn’t work for everybody, nothing does, but it works for a huge amount of people because, when they sit with somebody going through cold turkey, they know, when the person says, “I know what you’re going through.”

Yes.

That they do and this is something I’ve always said to my son, “I can empathise. I can see the horror. I can share the pain but I actually, have no idea what it’s like to have such a craving or to go through the cold turkey because I’ve never personally done it. So whilst I can support you, I don’t really know what you’re going through.” And that that really helped him and that’s what got him much straighter. As I say, for two and a half years, he was in there for just over two years, then he came out. It’s a, you can be in there as long as you want or as short as you want. Some people go in, can’t handle it, out within a week or two and then often go back in and they’ve got, obviously, the ones that have come through and are now full leaders have been there for years. So that was the most helpful thing for him.

And when was that?

He came out of there November last year but before that, there was nothing really that worked or helped him because, as I say, even though we got him into both private and public rehab places, it was such an unreal world and, like I say, it works, might work for some but it certainly didn’t work for him.

Because all it did was take him out. They either kept him so drugged he had no idea if he was Arthur or Martha or, as he openly says, he played the game knowing he was there for six weeks, walked the walk, knowing the minute he came out, he would contact his people and go back and would then have access to killing himself, if, he’s always had this thought. It’s always threaded through, until February this year was when he turned and said, “You know what mum, I don’t want to die anymore.” 
 

Fiona said the child psychology service wouldn’t let her attend her son’s treatment sessions and didn’t discuss anything with her.

Fiona said the child psychology service wouldn’t let her attend her son’s treatment sessions and didn’t discuss anything with her.

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We were going, we went to child psychology in [town] and he went to sessions there. I had to drop him off. They wouldn’t let me go in on them and very unhelpfully, they would not tell me anything about it. I know I know about all the confidentiality and I used to say to them, “I’m not asking you to disclose. I’m asking for advice. Is there anything that’s been disclosed in there that I need to change because if I’m part of the perpetuating problem.” And it was just like, “No, we’re not getting anywhere and we’re not going to discuss anything.” And so that didn’t work because he soon stopped going to that. 
 

Fiona thinks people will be more open with therapists if they know they will be treated as an individual and not labelled.

Fiona thinks people will be more open with therapists if they know they will be treated as an individual and not labelled.

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Not everybody fits in a box. So try and let the person know that you’re not going to label them and put them in a box, that you’re actually going to hear what they’re saying and tell them, you know, reassure the person that you’re looking at them as a person. They might have anorexia. They might have bipolar. They might be an addict but they are a person with this problem. They are not that problem.

Yes.

And I think clinicians often, because they need a label, they need a box, so that they can treat it. They can give it this drug. They can do this treatment. Find it very hard to look at the person and not instantly categorise.

Yes.

So try not to do that because they will find more people will talk and be open if they know they’re coming, “This is me. I’ve got these problems.” 
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