By Lawrence Butterfield
Key Themes: PTS, post traumatic stress, depression, recovery, mental health nurse practitioner
An open, honest, and revealing account of one man’s personal battle to de- stigmatize mental illness. Sometimes poignant, sometimes humorous, but always painfully honest, it is a journey covering nearly 30 years of working within the mental health care system. With frankness Lol recalls his childhood and coming to terms with his fathers mental illness, and the stigma he felt himself. Lol describes his “escape” from rural village life in the north east to move south to start afresh. He trained to be a psychiatric nurse in order to understand more the condition his father suffered from, and then dedicated his life to caring for others and de-stigmatizing mental illness. This book looks at the creative ways he has addressed stigma within his own profession, schools, employment, and the media.
About the Author
Lol Butterfield is 47 and lives in the North East of England. He is married with 2 children. Following a serious car accident at the age of 7 he felt his whole world had come to an end. The accident resulted in emotional and physical scars that profoundly impacted on his childhood confidence and self esteem. As an adult, Lol experienced depression himself. He then used his own personal experiences and extensive knowledge as a qualified mental health nurse to educate others and demystify mental ill health. He became a member of the SHIFT Speakers Bureau to raise awareness and tackle stigma in the media. His passion for his work, and endeavour to positively promote mental health issues, has received recognition at a local and national level. This is his story.
Chapter 1 – A Northern Childhood
My childhood was unremarkable in many ways and on reflection not dissimilar to that of many other working class children growing up in the industrial North East of England during the 1960’s and 1970’s. I am the youngest of three children, with an older brother and sister. My birthplace, Staithes, is a small fishing village nestling beneath high cliffs looking out to the North Sea. Staithes is synonymous with one man, Captain James Cook, who lived and worked in the village before setting sail to discover Australia. It becomes a tourist haunt for many during the summer months, either to sunbathe on the beach, or to ramble along some of the scenic walks in the area such as the Cleveland Way.
As a family we were not poor as such, but neither were we rich. Our small coal fired terraced house was sandwiched between similar houses on a large council estate. It has changed little from the time when I grew up there all those years ago. All the houses were coal fired heated with no central heating. During dark winter evenings nobody would be able to distinguish the village from a distance as the smoke emitted from each chimney would blanket it in smog.
There was a strong sense of community growing up in the village. Everybody knew everybody else and help was always at hand if needed in a crisis. In many other parts of England I believe this community spirit has now gone. Doors are no longer left unlocked and crime is on the increase. People are not as trusting as then and who can blame them. We lived at the upper part of the village which is separated by a very steep bank. Most of the upper property was council owned and the lower part privately owned.
The lower part overlooks the sea and consists of many small cottages all huddled together. It is the lower part all the visitors flock to each year to visit with its picture postcard scenery and history. A small beck runs through the village where I spent many days of my childhood throwing sticks and stones into the water and searching for eels. The beck is overlooked by many dilapidated pigeon lofts and allotments, all synonymous with the culture and heritage of this part of the country.
Childhood was relatively uneventful until I reached the age of seven when I was to dice with death in an unexpected way. I was hit by an intoxicated car driver whilst playing on our local green one dark December night. One minute I was excitedly running away from a friend who was chasing me, and the next I was lying in a crumpled heap on the side of the road.
Covered in blood, and in shock, I wondered what had happened. I remember trying to make sense of it all. Following the impact I found myself lying at the rear of the car surrounded by neighbours all wanting to help in whatever way they could. My friends stood around bewildered, all crying and wondering what had happened, wondering if it was somehow their fault. By chasing me had they forced me into the oncoming car?
Somebody brought me a blanket to protect me from the winter chill and hypothermia. It all seemed so unreal. I remember others all gazing at me from their doorsteps, all looking concerned. I waited for what seemed like an eternity for the ambulance to arrive. I lay covered in blood and my skin was punctured by dislodged pieces of grit, the result of being dragged along the road.
My left hand was torn to shreds, though I felt no pain. I was in a state of shock. If anything I was embarrassed by all the attention and feared being reprimanded by my parents for all the fuss I was causing and not following the green cross code.
My recently bought jeans were covered in blood and dirt and I recall feeling so guilty for soiling them. Blood was oozing from a puncture hole under my chin caused by a sharp jutting edge of the exhaust pipe. For a short distance the exhaust pipe had dragged me, like a rag doll, helpless along the road.
As a precondition that I would go in the ambulance and allow myself to be taken to hospital I sought assurances from my mother that I wouldn’t have to have any injections when I arrived there. She assured me that I wouldn’t. She lied. The last I saw of her that night was when she fainted onto the road overcome by all the trauma.
As I was being stretchered into the ambulance I remember looking over at all the shocked faces watching from the front doorsteps of the houses, or peering through gaps in the curtains. The whole estate seemed to be watching my every move, no doubt all worrying what would become of the little lad from number 26, just round the corner.
This was a near fatal accident and I spent 3 months over the winter period, including Christmas, in hospital recovering and having surgery on my injuries.
As a consequence of the accident various parts of my body were left heavily scarred, mainly my left hand and shoulder, and under my chin. I became emotionally traumatised and psychologically damaged for quite a while afterwards. This wasn’t helped by the repeated playing on the ward of “Two Little Boys” by Rolf Harris which was the number one record at the time!
Whenever I hear that record the memories always come flooding back. My accident was a hugely significant event in my life that was to affect me for many years to come.
I would have regular vivid nightmares about the accident, reliving it in my dreams. The car was replaced by a large tiger chasing me for some unknown reason. I still cannot fathom that one out, but I am sure a Child Psychologist could, given the opportunity of getting me on the therapist’s couch.
I experienced post traumatic stress disorder. My left hand became horribly disfigured from extensive skin grafting due to the excessive tissue damage. I felt ashamed about showing my scars to anybody, particularly my hand which was the most visible and unsightly. I wasn’t a particularly confident child and this confidence level was further damaged. I felt like some kind of circus freak. Such was the extent of my scarring and my own exaggerated perception of this. My paranoia and over-sensitivity went into overdrive.
On the day I was to have the bandages removed from my hand and see the extent of the skin graft, and the resulting scars, I froze on the spot. The nurse stood at my side with a mirror. I sat on a wooden chair. Every time I moved my face to avoid looking at my disfigurement the nurse would strategically angle the mirror to ensure I would see it sooner or later. We played this cruel game for a couple of minutes until finally I relented and looked at my hand. I cried uncontrollably and the nurse hugged me to comfort my pain. I have forgotten many memories from my childhood, but this one remains vivid to this day.
I became so obsessed about my hand that I would eat my school dinners with my left hand behind my back for fear of putting the other children off their dinners. I didn’t want to alarm them. I was overly considerate about not wanting to hurt or offend others, even to my own detriment. It was acceptable for me to not eat my own dinner as long as I didn’t put the others off theirs.
The flexion and strength of my left hand would never be the same again, and my mother was warned that I may eventually have to have my hand amputated. Only time would tell. Thankfully this didn’t happen. The scars may be unsightly but I still have the use of my hand, albeit with limitations. It became known as my “gammy hand” thus taking on a character and identity of its own. So everyone, especially family would refer to my hand as the gammy hand. In winter when the cold was biting it would change colours, a bit like a chameleon. Part of my hand would be blue and other parts red. This would draw even more unwanted attention and make me feel even more self-conscious.
For years afterwards when someone momentarily glanced at my left hand I would then be asked the same question; “How did you burn your hand?”. I then found myself reliving the experience of the accident by having to correct their assumption. The less sensitive people would look aghast and grimace upon seeing my hand. That reaction would lower my self confidence even more. The more sensitive would remark “It doesn’t really look that bad”. This never fooled anyone, least of all me.
Adults as well as children would respond like this. After a while I became used to it. It came with the territory. In time I came to accept my hand and all its deformity. I was once told as an adult that it gave me a sense of character, it was unique to me. You can say that again. I took that as a compliment.
I excelled at nothing as a child and just seemed to “fit in.” Academically I was never at the top of the class but I did enough to get by. I enjoyed playing football but was rarely picked for the school team. On the one occasion I was selected for the school team I was so overawed by the whole occasion I seemed to freeze in the middle of the pitch. It was pouring with rain and I stood bedraggled wearing an oversized pair of shorts and shirt. I remember the shirts were a throwback to the 1950s and this was the early seventies.
My legs were so thin my mother nicknamed me “sparrow legs.” Sensitivity was never her strongest point, despite already having a complex about my hand the jokes were often as biting and piercing as the north easterly winds we were accustomed to.
I was substituted early into the second half as I was at that point making no positive contribution to the game whatsoever. I still think that the Manager picked me out of pity as I recall harassing him for weeks beforehand to be selected! I would probably have faired better in goal but too much catching of the ball would make my left hand painful. I had many friends as a child and a good sense of humour, one which I exploited to keep friends and attract new ones also. I played the joker most of the time which always went down well with my peers. I haven’t changed much, still very self-deprecating and playing the joker.
I did possess good communication skills and a keen sense of survival. I was fairly streetwise. I was caring, although somewhat over-sensitive, and in many ways as an adult I still am. Some of these attributes were invaluable, particularly the communication skills, when avoiding situations such as local gang warfare, or escaping the local bully. This was the industrial North East in the Seventies where no prisoners were ever taken alive.
During one local football game my friends and I were ambushed on the way back to the coach. One of my friends was being overpowered and found an iron bar. He used it to good effect to defend himself, for days later he had an air of confidence and invincibility about him. He strutted along telling everyone he met how he “filled in” the thug who was holding him on the floor. He even shaved his head to play the part. This was during the rise of the far right, the National Front, and shaven heads were synonymous with aggression at the time. All to the sound of Slade and the wearing of Doctor Marten boots. The North East in the seventies seemed such a depressing place to be at times.