Author and mental health campaigner Michelle Torez writes about her experiences with mental health services, the inadequacies she’s found in the system, and what has helped get her through these difficult times. Michelle has worked with the Compass Project, part of the Offender Personality Disorder Service, which has now merged with the Discovery Project.
CW: Talk of suicide and self-harm.
This article is about holding on to the last ounce of hope with your fingertips and finding some happiness even in the most horrific situations. Writing has saved my life. Writing has kept me alive.
Up until the age of twelve I lived with my father – my mother was never a part of my life and I’ve only ever met her once. She has serious schizophrenia. I have always felt an outcast from society and the “odd one out”. I still do to this day. At secondary school I was heavily bullied, had few friends and always felt misunderstood. I preferred my own company rather than playing in groups etc. At twelve years old I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism and in the same year of 2006, I was arrested for carrying a knife and put into secure mental health services where the onslaught of awful abuse started. This is when I started to rely on my writing as not just a hobby, but as my lifeline, my only way of survival, my only way of coming to terms with what was going on all around me.
Writing didn’t need any fancy “contraband” equipment and I was quickly able to escape into a world where I wasn’t being abused or being kept locked away in a small cell-like room.
Locked away hundreds of miles from my father with no mobile phone or laptop, the only way I could communicate most of the time was through letter. I had to learn to express myself on paper and learn quickly. I was moved from unit to unit around the country like a parcel until I was twenty as part of an NHS scandal that got uncovered. In one unit in Newcastle, Roycroft Clinic, I was subjected to tortuous abuse from staff daily. I was subjected to sexual abuse, physical abuse and sheer cruelty on a daily basis. I witnessed staff sexually abuse patients right in front of my eyes, hot water being thrown at a fourteen-year-old girl, people being starved and people being told to “just speed it up and kill yourself”. All around me was a feeling of hopelessness, a stomach churning feeling of desperation. I was never safe. Most days I saw people get attacked and people hurt themselves. No smartphones, laptops or modern technology was allowed. Forget going down to the fiery pits of hell with the devil, that place was hell and I had to live there for five long, painful years. I was forced to realise at such a young age that what humans can do to each other is far scarier than any supernatural entity. They denied me of any education as well, even though I was eager to get one. Luckily many, many staff members got sacked and arrested following a huge police investigation and the articles from the papers surrounding this are still available to read today.
Whilst living under such harsh conditions I entered survival mode. I quickly realised that since I couldn’t control what was happening all around me I needed to control myself and the way I was viewing the situation. So, I thought about what I actually did have and that was time. I accepted the situation for what it was, which is the first step. Instead of using each day to try and fight against what was happening, I spent as much time as I could every day writing. I turned a negative into a positive. Although it sounds like a simple thing not worth a mention, it was the thing that actually kept me alive. Writing didn’t need any fancy “contraband” equipment and I was quickly able to escape into a world where I wasn’t being abused or being kept locked away in a small cell-like room. I was able to mentally escape. The staff couldn’t get me there. The thing is, you have to give yourself a purpose in this life, a motivation to continue living. No one else can give you this. I started to wake up each morning with the drive to get to work on my writing. I came up with such realistic characters I could almost hear them talking the manuscript back to me, they became my friends. I set myself tasks and each week submitted work to magazines. I gave myself a routine that I enjoyed. I ended up writing hundreds of poems and short stories and I ended up winning various awards and getting published numerous times. I was free. Maybe not physically, but mentally I was. In my writing I could go wherever I wanted to go and I could do whatever I wanted to do.
Fast forward to 2016, a particularly bad year for me. My friend took her own life. On top of this, I was living on my own in a tiny flat next to people who used to leave heroin needles in the street, I couldn’t get any form of employment or even any help to do this no matter where I turned and I was so lonely. During this time I often felt suicidal and under the instruction of my GP and other people, used to ring the crisis team hoping to get some support. Sadly, half the time I couldn’t get through and was simply placed on hold for stupidly long periods of time, ranging from ten minutes to two hours and on the occasions that I actually could get through, I got through to a tired, fed-up sounding person who casually told me to make a cup of tea and go to bed. I went on to cut my arm and wrist so deeply that they needed multiple stitches and I’m now left with permanent scarring for the rest of my life. I took multiple drug overdoses, one resulting in a four day hospital admission on the Resus ward. I ended up going to prison for contacting my own crisis team, dragged to court and then given various criminal convictions for ringing them when I wasn’t in “genuine enough” need. I guess narrowly missing my artery with a carpet cutter wasn’t serious enough. It seemed as though the Humberside police, CPS and Hull mental health services wanted me to die or got pleasure from watching me suffer. The authorities printed my photo, name, age and street address in various newspapers saying that I’d “wasted” vital services’ time, which made me feel even more alone. The online articles are still available to read to this day. This is the reason why I changed my name to what it is today. After this, I couldn’t stay in Hull much longer and I no longer viewed the place as my hometown. I wrote various complaints but never got any responses.
I’m actually making a living from the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do in my life.
In September 2017 I moved to Bradford for a fresh start, but within three weeks got sexually assaulted by a flatmate. In December 2017 I got offered a council house in Leeds due to all of these circumstances. I took it up and decided to move away for good. Within a few weeks of moving to Leeds my father became extremely ill and then another friend of mine took their own life. Just one traumatic thing after the other. Sadly, just as before, I was punished by the mental health services for asking for help. Due to contacting the Leeds Crisis Team, in January I got arrested and in April 12th was sent to court and charged because the member of staff was claiming that I wasn’t ringing for a “genuine reason” yet again. Yet another criminal conviction just for wanting help that will stay on my record for life, hindering my chances of ever getting employment.
It’s 2020 now and I’m starting to really feel free. I have published two poetry books that are selling well on Amazon and I’m actually making a living from the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do in my life: write. I can now afford new clothes, things that I fancy from Amazon, I can easily afford to travel and I’m hopefully starting my driving lessons soon. It goes to show that if you stick at something and really put your mind to it, you can achieve your dreams. I write to raise awareness. I write about the things this corrupt government don’t want me to. I write about people being told to “get on with it” by crisis teams and disabled people’s benefits being slashed, leaving people to starve to death. People are liking my writing and sharing it far and wide. I am gaining thousands of followers on all of my social media platforms. I will never stop campaigning for a fairer system. Horrific things are still constantly happening, people are still getting turned away from mental health units and killing themselves shortly afterwards, people are losing loved ones and not getting apologies. The unwell are getting culled like foxes. Suicidal people are being told to go to A&E only to wait for twelve hours to be given a printed-out sheet of paper with the same number they rang on, yet the government expects us to just put up with it and not speak out. We all deserve so much better. Since I couldn’t get a job being a support worker, I made it my job to inspire and help people and it’s working. Over the past few years so many people have reached out to me via social media to tell me that I have inspired them and helped them not give up! Let me tell you, the feeling I get when I see messages like this is the best feeling in the world it honestly is.
I write today because:
a. I get pleasure from it and believe I’m good at it.
b. To inspire other people.
c. To “get out” the dark feelings inside of me so that I can move on, writing has become a sort of therapy for me.
d. To try and get a bestseller on the shelf so I will be a millionaire, self-sufficient and recognised worldwide!
e. To raise awareness of how awful the system is and drive change for the better
I’ll end this article by quickly talking about my first short spell in prison, where I spoke in length with a woman serving a life sentence for murder, with eight years left of her sentence. She wasn’t shy about revealing that piece of information either, she revealed this casually over a game of cards and coffee as if talking about the weather and, because I was new to mindfulness at the time, I was taken aback with amazement that she didn’t look depressed. Nope. This woman looked really happy. She oozed confidence; she was smiling, joking and maintaining steady eye contact with me. She spoke of marriage, she spoke of going to university, she spoke of getting stupid drunk and not being able to stand up. She was free in her mind and she said something to me that I’ll never forget as it is sums up why I write brilliantly.
“They can put bars on my windows but they can’t put bars on my mind.”
“They can put bars on my fucking winda’s but they can’t put bars on my motherfuckin’ mind.”
Was how she, so eloquently exactly put it and that statement says it all really. You can be hopeful anywhere: in a palace, in a prison. You will see what you want to see, whether you see the negatives or the positives. You can either see the beautiful speckled light rays of the autumnal sun, or you can mourn the dead leaves on the floor. Ultimately, you really are in control of your own happiness. Whether you complain about the past for three hours or watch a film with a hot chocolate, time will still pass. You can either live in the past where all of your bad memories or mistakes lay, or you can look forward and live for today by doing things that make you happy. Life is shit and I’ve had an awful start in life, but I urge you to use your time wisely because time is so precious. I use my time writing. Writing is my life, it gives me so much hope and it gives me a reason to stay alive. I hope that this article has inspired you and I really do hope that you find your reason to stay alive. Don’t give up.
My Website: https://www.michelletorez.com
My Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/mtorezwriting
My YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/michelletorez
My Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/michelletorezcares