I will never forget a story my father once told me, a psychology lecturer in his heyday, who worked at Nottingham Trent University. But he taught me a lot about self-worth and its importance in mental well-being.
The story went something like this:
John went to work each day and no one ever said anything nice to him. His boss constantly criticised and belittled him, but because he was a loner, his colleagues too, took delight in humiliating him. John took it on the chin and didn’t complain. Deep down, all he wanted was a bit of recognition, a pat on the back when he did something right, instead of people putting him down. This was a repeat pattern in every job but as a single man, he had no family to go home to and pour his woes out.
Then came a night he took a walk along the beach, wondering what to do to change his life. He wanted to reach out. Pulling out his cigarettes, he stopped a passer-by and so desperate was he for human contact, he asked for a light. The stranger surveyed him coldly, shook his head and turned away. But to John it was the final straw, another snub on top of a lifetime of abuse. Regrettably, he had a knife on him that night too, and stabbed the man in the back.
The ‘stroke bank’
The whole point of this story was that Dad was trying to explain a psychological term known as ‘the stroke bank.’ This concept was introduced by Eric Berne in the 1960s, a Canadian-born psychiatrist and developer of transactional analysis. A ‘stroke’ is defined as a unit of human recognition; any human interaction that meets our need for positive contact, be it a kind smile, a nod of the head, or a compliment.
I tend to think of a ‘stroke’ as being like stroking the family pet, a gesture of affection. Yet, a person’s stroke bank can run low, as was clearly demonstrated in John’s case. It got me thinking people can only take so much crap in society until the final blow tips them over the edge. This reaction might be extreme; the consequences terrible. Yet, learning about psychology from Dad helped me to understand people better; and I truly believe the better we understand mental health and its importance, the more balanced and happier a society we can be.
I know what it’s like to be miserable in the workplace. I know people who are bullied at work, including a close family member. He does at least have the love and support of a family, but what must it be like for those who have no family to turn to, people who are lonely? These are the ones who end up suffering from severe emotional damage.
Promoting awareness through my writing
I’m no psychologist, but growing up with Dad gave me insights into the subject. What I do enjoy in life though, is writing, a form of creative expression that’s helped me overcome some of my own stress and anxiety. In 2020, I finished Lethal Ties, a psychological thriller focusing on the long-term effects of childhood trauma and sexual abuse. I wanted this to be a thought-provoking, suspenseful read; a story of three kids who met in a children’s home and one mysteriously vanished.
This book required lots of research, mainly through talking to people such as those who worked in fostering, those who had fostered, police inspectors who handled cases of child abuse and a friend, Dan Jones, who had worked in children’s homes. But in 2019, Dan put me in touch with a man who grew up in care. Listening to Graham’s story, I was moved by his plight. An unhappy teenager, not only did he gravitate towards other troubled youths and get into drink and drugs, but ran away from home and experienced being homeless, until social services intervened. In fact, his account was so similar to that of one of my characters I was inspired. I even injected some of the dialogue into my own novel.
But there is a sad twist to this story, which brings me right back to the importance of mental health.
The reason this became more important to me is a result of what later happened to Graham. What I did not know at the time was he suffered from bipolar disorder. I will never know the facts, other than we were in lockdown, but one morning I heard the tragic news he had taken his own life. Apparently he was quite vocal about male suicide and even when I interviewed him, he confessed to trying to kill himself. But I never imagined this would happen. All I thought at the time was ‘what a really interesting, nice guy’. He came across as confident, an extrovert, laughed a lot and had a way with words that delighted me. I didn’t get back into contact again, thinking he wouldn’t want to be bothered by me any more, or at least not until I had finished my book; but, sadly, I never got a second chance. If only I had been a bit bolder.
We all have days when depression, anxiety, and panic attacks hinder us and cloud our judgement – a topic I’m desperate to raise awareness of through my writing.
Everyone says people need to ‘talk about their problems’ and that ‘a problem shared is a problem halved’. We all want to pay lip service to a great cause, put statements on our Facebook posts for example. So, how many people are prepared to listen to what others have to say? Because this is the key to improving mental health. Everyone has off days, sometimes we all need a shoulder to cry on, a friend we can rely on. So can you be that friend who makes a difference? Because talking therapy works.
Whether the ‘Stroke Bank Story’ my father told me all those years ago was true or not, the story stayed with me; that for someone who might feel worthless and has had a lot of knock backs in life, all it might take is one more negative trigger to tip the balance the wrong way.
Helen Christmas is the author of Lethal Ties, her standalone psychological thriller, published in April 2021. You can learn more about her work on her blog.
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