Review: Stephen From The Inside Out, by Susie Stead

Publication date: 2 Apr 2021
Category: Biography / Memoir
Paperback price: £9.99
Page count: tbc
ISBN: 978-1-911293-68-2
E-book price: £3.99
ISBN: 978-1-911293-67-5

Stephen struggled for most of his life with severe mental health issues, endured 25 years inside British psychiatric wards and never felt acceptable outside, in the ‘normal’ world. People found him difficult and demanding yet on the inside was a man with wide interests, deep longings and an integrity that would not be compromised, whatever the cost.
This is his story, inside and out; a story of grave injustices, saints and bigots, a faithful dog, a wild woman, a fairy godmother and angels hidden in plain sight.
It is also the story of the author, Susie, who started off by wanting to ‘help’
Stephen ‘get better,’ and instead found herself profoundly challenged by a
friendship she did not expect.
Idiosyncratic, unorthodox, tragic, yet at times hilarious – this book not only tells a compelling and important story but will be vital reading for anyone who cares about mental health in our contemporary world or who might just be open to a different way of seeing: from the inside out

Review

Thanks to the author and publisher for sending me a copy of this book and to Anne for organising the blog tour.

Susie Stead met Stephen in 2000 while he was an inmate at an asylum (sorry, mental hospital) and out on day release at a drop-in centre for mentally ill people. He had been hospitalised for 25 years. Over the next 18 years they met regularly and navigated many complicated situation. During that time Susie was a vicar’s wife, mother, teaching assistant, a playwright and Stephen’s unofficial support worker and carer.

Stephen is not his real name, he lived his last decade convinced that ‘they’ would come and take him away to hospital again after he finally achieved a level of independence. He was terrified of being sued if he complained about the way he had been treated in hospital. He was scared of people stealing from him. He was a talented poet. He loved his wife, Mandy, and their dog Charlie. He smoked constantly and held grudges. He lived in a flat that hadn’t been cleaned in nine years because he didn’t trust cleaners.

He was also late diagnosed autistic. Many of his problems in life came from being badly treated for his autistic traits and misunderstanding of his behaviour. He struggled with emotional regulation, which got him into legal troubles. I know a few people who can tell similar stories. I might ask them if they want to borrow the book and add notes. I’m sure J could tell us some stories of the abuse in mental hospitals and I know JJ could, because he’s already told me things that are horrendous. This book alludes to, and sometimes details, abuse in the 1980s and 90s, but it still continues. That’s what happens when you have underpaid, under trained uncaring staff in under-resourced care and psychiatric services. I have a lot of empathy for Stephen, his life was messed up by ignorance. I recognise some of his behaviours as things I do – restaurants are hell.

Susie, I’m not so sure about. She comes off as a bit Christian-hypocrite in the early chapters when she meets Stephen and wants to help him. She is self-aware enough to know it, and later develops a better understanding of herself and Stephen, and recognises her own needs, so I suppose I can forgive her. She tells their biographies in parallel, and how they came to meet and how she becomes a major part of Stephen’s life, and to know herself as she gets older. She finally realises that she is in fact writer, having written drama for over twenty years at this point. Part of that process was writing this book, recording Stephen’s life and poetry. Knowing Stephen forced Susie to face her own problems, the unhealthy coping mechanisms she’d learnt from childhood and as a ‘Christian’.

This book is a record of Stephen’s life and their relationship as friends, an in memorium, and an indictment of the mental health services in this country. If you want an idea of what being autistic is like, and how hard navigating the mental health system is, I recommend this book. I found it easy to read in terms of flow, but hard to read emotionally. I have sunburn because I didn’t notice the pain until it hurt a lot.

This book is also a record of Susie Stead’s journey from vicar’s wife wrapped up in church life to an independent mindfulness teacher and therapist. I enjoyed her journey of self-discovery and freedom.

Minor issue: Stead uses the NAS definitions and understandings, and consistently says we struggle with empathy.

No, we don’t.

We have different way of expressing empathy. Neurotypical people are weird about stuff like this, we’re always deficient, even when it’s things like a strong sense of justice being a deficit (no, really, look it up). The relationship between moral judgment and cooperation in children with high-functioning autism | Scientific Reports (nature.com) is from 2014 and apparently because autistic children are less judgemental that’s a problem.


About the Author

Susie Stead is an award-winning writer with an MA in Dramatic Writing and twenty years’ experience writing and producing drama and short films, including collaborations with people with lived experience of mental illness. She is also a freelance accredited mindfulness teacher. ‘Stephen from the Inside Out’ is her first book and she was mentored by Kate Clanchy MBE, whose recent memoir won the Orwell Prize.
This book is part biography, part social history, part autobiography and comes out of a long-term connection with Stephen, who she first met when he was under section on a psychiatric ward.
Susie lives for the moment in East Oxford

5 Comments

    1. Hi Rosie, this is Susie, the author of ‘Stephen from the Inside Out’. Thank you for your honest, thoughtful and personal review. Although I didn’t enjoy being named a ‘christian-hypocrite’, I’m glad that you noted my journey into greater self-awareness 🙂 Also thank you for your remarks about empathy. You’re right, I picked up what theory I knew, mostly from the National Autistic Society and have only recently understood that autistic people feel empathy in a different way. I was aware that Stephen had intense sensitivity in ways that I didn’t. I wonder if you can recommend a good site to look at, as an alternative to the National Autistic Society? I have been appreciating the ‘Lifeinautismworld’ instagram blogger. Also, where is that stuff about a strong sense of justice being a deficit?!!! Thank you again, Susie

      1. Hi Susie,
        Sorry, I’m not very tactful. I meant in the early chapters about how you met Stephen, you came across as a bit of a hypocrite. I’ve met a lot of so-called Christians who think they’re helping but they’re doing stuff for their own egos. I don’t think you’re that now. I meant it when I said you had self-awareness. You know that you had the condescending attitude when you first met Stephen and have developed a better understanding. I’m not great at expressing things sometimes. Especially if I write the review in the first day after reading a book I was deep in to, my emotions are very immediate. I think I’m probably in trouble with Anne for being too blunt.
        NeuroClastic is a good site to look at for more information, from and Autistic perspective. If you’re on Twitter, Ann Memmott and Pete Wharmsby are great to follow.
        Oh, there was a study done last year I think about autistic people and right action. In the study the autistic participants did the right thing whether they were being watched or not, while the non-autistic participants were more likely to do the right thing when being watched but not when they were alone. It was about helping animals or giving to charity, I think. According to the researchers this means we’re deficient in some way. Can’t find it right now, but I do have this one from 2014 that concludes something similar: https://www.nature.com/articles/srep04314
        It’s utterly ridiculous and really insulting. I does sort of explain the parlous state of society when being a decent person is frowned on though.
        Best wishes, Rosemarie

  1. Hi Rosemarie, I actually like your bluntness. Its one of the things I really liked about Stephen. It would sometimes hurt but it was much better than fake ‘niceness.’ I feel like I’m speaking with the real person and that I have more permission to be real myself rather than being ‘polite’. It also makes your review interesting because it feels like you’re really engaging with the story and with Stephen and my journeys. Thank you. And thanks for the suggested websites and people to follow 🙂

    When you said about the study and how autistic people would do the right thing whether they were being watched or not, I totally recognised Stephen in that. He had such a strong sense of justice which was nothing to do with how other people saw him. I had a quick look at the article you sent from 2014 and they write: ‘HFA (high functioning autistic) children judged harming others as significantly worse than TD children. This indicates that HFA children might have more rigid criteria for what constitutes morally naughty actions. This might be because HFA children are more rule-oriented when it comes to certain behavior because of their disorder. ‘ They use negative language – so HFA children are ‘more rigid’ and ‘more rule-orientated’ because of their ‘disorder’ when the big question is: why are TD children more ok about harming others?!!

    Best wishes
    Susie

    1. That’s pretty much the response of the Autistic community when the paper came to light. The language is negative and stigmatising, and it seems odd that those considered ‘typically developing’ are viewed positively when they’re objectively behaving badly. I think it’s because researchers start from a deficits position and so they can’t see the illogic of it.
      Best wishes,

      Rosemarie

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