When I was in my early sixties, I was sure that I would continue being the person I knew myself to be. My passion for my work and my curiosity about the world and everything in it would not diminish. Ten years on I am just the same. However, I hadn't anticipated that other people would change in how they see me. I've now discovered that for many people being old means being incapable of speaking for oneself. They believe that all old people don't keep up with progress and that they easily get confused. Since you're not capable of speaking for yourself, there's no point in asking you what it is that you need. Instead, your would-be helpers give you what they think you need.

Thus a friend of mine, a contemporary, came home from hospital to find that her would-be helpers had decided to refurbish her kitchen. Gone was the stove where she had cooked the family meals. She knew its every quirk and foible. It was a family friend, a storehouse of memories. Now it was gone, and in its place a smaller object with buttons, mysterious signs and symbols, and a cacophony of strange sounds. As the would-be helpers explained, "Now you're on your own, dear, you don't need a large oven."

I've discovered that there's no one more deeply hurt and affronted than would-be helpers when I've told them that what they did wasn't what I wanted. How could I be so ungrateful when everything they had done had been in my own best interests? Fortunately I've learned how to stand up for myself against those who would defeat me by making me feel guilty. It's much more difficult to stand up for yourself and insist on being heard when you've been through one of those crises which results in your getting a psychiatric diagnosis.

Then, everything you say can be discounted by your would-be helpers. After all, you're mad and anything you say is likely to be a crazy fantasy.

This is what Sheila Harvey found when a period of psychosis brought to the surface a long buried memory of a terrible assault by her father when she was a small child. Sheila didn't keep this discovery to herself. She told her family and found that her sister Jenifer refused to believe her. Later Jenifer wrote, "I am not prepared to let my parents' reputation be ruined by a delusion, experienced at the height of an acute psychiatric episode."

Jenifer was married to a psychiatrist, so she and her husband could use the language of psychiatry to say, in effect, that Sheila's discovery was no more than the fantasy of a disordered mind, the raving of a mad woman. As much as she loved her sister and wanted to preserve family harmony, Sheila was determined to be heard. She wrote an account of her experiences in childhood and during her psychosis. She also asked all the members of her family to write their own accounts of that troubled time. Now published under the title of Sheila's Book: A Shared Journey Through Madness,[1] the book shows how differently the experience of psychosis is interpreted by those who are part of the drama.

What these different interpretations show is that, not only do we each have our own way of interpreting things, but that we choose the interpretation which best supports our favoured view of ourselves. If we like to think of ourselves as being highly competent and tremendously caring we can feel sure that we know what is best for other people. However, if those we have done good to then protest about what we have done, our picture of ourselves is threatened, and we feel first fear and then anger. Similarly, if we draw great comfort and pride from being the child of respected and virtuous parents, any suggestion that our parents were not the paragons we wanted them to be threatens our whole image of ourselves.

When we were small children there were a great many occasions when we were not listened to. Our needs and wishes were ignored, and adults constantly showed us that they were sure that they knew what was best for us. Again and again we felt the terror of the threat of being wiped out as a person. To survive we had to develop ways of defending ourselves. The most effective defence is to create an image of ourselves in which we can take great pride. Perhaps we pride ourselves on our qualities of competence and helpfulness, or on being the child of very special parents. Now we can feel sure that we know what is best for other people. Another most effective defence is attack. Older siblings criticise and humiliate younger siblings who then retaliate. Bullied at home by their parents, children then bully those children they see as being weak and vulnerable.

Because adults don't see children as persons in their own right who should be treated with respect, children grow up fearing that they will be annihilated as a person. They defend themselves against this with vanity and aggression.[2] This behaviour undermines all their relationships and leads them to fear those conditions of life where they could be seen as being weak and vulnerable, as in old age or severe mental distress. Until we learn to treat everyone, whatever their age or situation, with respect and dignity we will continue to lead lives which are far more miserable, meagre and fearful than they need ever to be.


1. Harvey S. Sheila. A shared Journey through Madness. Somerset Virtual College NHS Publications.Taunton.2003.
2. Rowe D. Beyond Fear. HarperCollins. 2nd ed. 2002.


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About Dorothy Rowe - Deceased

Dorothy Rowe was a clinical psychologist, well known for her work on depression. She was the author of 12 books, each concerned with how we create meaning, and was a frequent contributor to newspapers, magazines, television and radio. She died in 25 March 2019. Her website is www.dorothyrowe.com.au

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