Tell Rufus May that "doctor knows best" and he would have
a few words to say about it. When just 18, he said a psychiatrist
diagnosed him with paranoid schizophrenia and told him he would
have to take medication for the rest of his life.
May, who was suffering from delusions, was admitted to psychiatric
hospital. He did take his medication for a while, but became so
upset by its disabling sedative effects that he started to refuse.
It was then that he experienced psychiatry's powers of compulsory
treatment, when six nurses pulled his trousers down to his ankles,
pinned him to the ground and injected tranquillisers into one of
May was left traumatised and unable
to trust his doctors. So after his discharge, and against all advice,
he never returned to hospital. Instead, he went to live in a squat
and, despite his confused state of mind, came off all medication.
He eventually got a job as a night security guard at Highgate cemetery
in north London.
Thirteen years on and May has not taken anti-psychotic medication
since. May is now a clinical psychologist and is using his experience
of being a psychiatric patient to challenge the traditional medical
model for treating those who, like him, are diagnosed with severe
"When I was a patient I felt
misunderstood and written off," he says. "I thought I
was treated cruelly. When I was forcibly treated and injected, it
felt like rape."
May, who still suffers nightmares
of being readmitted to hospital and being compulsorily medicated,
channels his anger productively, arguing that as long as psychiatry's
medical model continues to understand severe distress as rooted
in biology, rather than experience, thousands of patients will be
denied a fair chance of recovery.
With psychiatry's compulsory treatment
powers, and a tendency to confuse the withdrawal effects of medication
with symptoms, May fears vulnerable patients quickly become dependents.
And, as it was for him, May believes that too often the mental health
service handles patients inappropriately right from the beginning.
Before his admittance to hospital,
May had been living in a "day-dream fantasy world" to
escape a dull job as a draughtsman. He entertained theories that
he was a spy and the television was broadcasting messages to him.
When he was referred to two psychiatrists, they both listened as
he told them his perception of the world. They scribbled notes.
But not once did they question him about his views.
May was in and out of hospital for
the next seven months - long enough to feel treated like a "social,
moral and genetic outsider". But it was different when he joined
the squatters, with whom he could share his bizarre thoughts without
being seen as relapsing.
He came off his medication without
professional help and managed to see through the surges of mania
and restlessness which accompany withdrawal. But he was still too
afraid to return to his psychiatrist. So he used his friends, and
those he met at community centres and churches, slowly to rediscover
his social skills and confidence.
After a number of casual jobs, May
embarked on a psychology degree and, in what became a remarkable
recovery, finally trained as a clinical psychologist at the University
of East London. Yet throughout six years of study, he never revealed
his past diagnosis.
This secret led to some tense encounters,
particularly when May went to do placements in hospitals close to
where he had been treated. He would bump into nurses and other patients
whom he knew from his own patient days. "I remember one meeting
when I saw it dawn on a nurse's face that he recognised me,"
he recalls. "Afterwards, the nurse told me not to worry and
said my diagnosis was confidential and he would not tell anyone.
I felt like an undercover agent spying on psychiatry. I had become
the spy that I was in my delusions."
It was only after May had qualified
that he "came out" to his colleagues about his schizophrenia
diagnosis. May is now into his second year working as a clinical
psychologist in Tower Hamlets, east London. He prefers to use a
more "collaborative" approach when treating those diagnosed
with psychotic illnesses. The first thing he will do is, quite simply,
talk openly with patients.
"When I was a patient it was
believed that talking about psychosis made it worse," he says.
"But I prefer making sense with a person about their experience."
May has spent much time reflecting
on what happened to him and believes his problem could have been
more accurately defined as a severe identity crisis triggered by
the breakdown of a relationship. "I believe that time, rest,
low levels of short-term medication and discussing my experiences
would have been the quickest route to a restoration of good mental
health," he says.