Trying To Be The Change

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The fabulous actors at the opening of ‘Finding Alice.’ photo credit Mark Russell

On Monday night people paid actual money to see a script-in-hand performance of a play I had written. This fact is completely astonishing to me. This is money that people earned for themselves, money that they could have spent on coffee, a pint, or most of a cinema ticket. (Yes, it is cheaper to see live theatre than go to the pictures these days, support your local am-dram!) Yet, instead of doing all those possible things, they decided to turn up to see my play! I can even say that the audience wasn’t disproportionately stacked with friends of mine since I was so nervous about it I barely told anyone until the last minute.
On Monday I reached an important goal of mine: people I didn’t know paid money to see something I had written, and my play was performed from beginning to end. This is a big deal.
And yet, on Monday afternoon I wasn’t sure I was going to make it.
My anxiety was so bad that my stomach problems were hugely inflamed, and as the day wore on towards the crucial moment, debilitating stomach pains kicked in. The prospect of not only seeing my play performed but also having to sit on the stage with the cast and receive feedback was overwhelming. My partner looked at me, worry in his eyes, and said the words I dread in this situation:
“Maybe we should cancel.”
Cancel one of the most important nights of my life? It was the last thing I wanted to do, and I was desperate not to do it. Anxiety can be like this – a brutal physical side-affect at the time when you want it least. How can you deal with that?
Well, the only way I made it there was by not eating, having a quick power nap, and taking regular doses of codeine and peppermint oil. I also had my partner by my side intoning “Breathe, breathe, it’s going to be fine…” on a regular basis. Monday night was a huge milestone for me, but in terms of my anxiety, it was pretty much business as usual. Away from the stage, I was still the girl riddled with anxiety.
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The reality of our mental health can be so completely different to the reality we project on the world. Sometimes our proudest achievements can happen in the midst of our most crippling moments of depression, anxiety, OCD, eating disorders, social anxiety and any other mental illness we might be living with. These are two realities that can be difficult to reconcile. It took a lot of courage for me to sit on that stage with those actors and answer questions. It would have taken a whole different type of courage for me to have been honest with those people about my mental health and how it affects my writing. And do I need to be that honest, really? Can’t my private life remain my private life?
In some sense, yes, of course it can. I am not obliged to reveal anything about my mental health to anyone. I am not obliged to blog here, I am not obliged to speak honestly to anyone I don’t feel comfortable with.
On the other hand, it can sometimes feel like it is about more than what I am comfortable with.
This week someone on the internet wrote an article about her former friend’s suicide with the comment: “Some people are so sick, they are beyond help.” Last year a Belgian woman struggling with depression was granted the right for doctor assisted suicide. A leaked report from a government task force at the beginning of the year revealed that a quarter of people with serious mental health problems need more support than is currently on offer, and many are at risk of self-neglect. Is that so surprising, when all around us there are messages that mental illness can be a death sentence and no one is there to help you?
So maybe it’s worth being uncomfortable if it might show someone the fallacy of that statement. Maybe it’s worth it if it shows someone the truth: that living with a mental illness is possible, and that help is available.
In light of that, I’ve taken some steps. Steps towards the thresholds of my comfort zone, but also towards honesty.
For the first time, I’ve been honest about some of the realities of my mental health (particularly with regards to my physical health) with my employer. In my interview I mentioned my mental health history and got the job, but this part of my ongoing journey has not been mentioned since then. So last week I spoke to my line manager about the current effects of my anxiety disorder, and how it is being managed. This was frankly terrifying, but I think it was worth it. Not only does it mean my presence as a person with a mental illness will hopefully knock back any lingering stigma there might be in the team, it also means I feel more supported in my work. In the past I have felt like I have been burdened with an ugly, shameful secret: unable to tell people the real reason for my scarce eating, my regular stomach cramps, my tiredness and quietness. In other work places I have overheard people talking about mental health issues like they were weaknesses to be overcome, and have kept my head down, afraid.  But my fear was met with kindness understanding. I was surprised with how well the confession went, and how kind and responsive my line manager was, keen for me to be as honest with them as I could be about what was possible for me and what wasn’t. Hopefully making myself initially uncomfortable in my honesty will have actually made my life a lot easier at my new job.
Another step – I’ve potentially put myself in a position where I might be sharing my mental health journey with young people in a school as part of my day job. Something that makes me hugely uncomfortable, but something I feel incredibly passionate about. Because who needs to know that their life is worth living more than teenagers and young people who may be struggling with their mental health? Who needs to know they are not alone more than those in that vulnerable age group where alienation and loneliness are almost endemic?
*****
One of my closest friends lives her life by the words of Mahatma Gandhi: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
I have been asking myself honestly what change I wish to see in the world, and it often comes back to attitudes about mental health. What I wish for is honesty in our discussions about mental health. What I wish for is acceptance of people who struggle. Acceptance for them in their workplaces, their families, their friendship groups, their schools, and their universities.
So I am trying to be honest about my mental health. I am trying to be honest about it in spaces beyond my comfort zone, beyond this blog where I feel safe saying these things and sharing my story. I am trying to be honest in my work place, and my family, and my friendships, and my church. I am trying to be honest so that I can, hopefully, experience acceptance and model that to others in my position.
I am trying to match up some of the disparate scenes of my life, so that the woman who sits on a stage and enjoys a performance of a play she has written is the same woman who is curled on her side in pain from anxiety. And nobody finds that weird.
I am trying to be open about who I am, so that maybe there can be more discussions about who we are as a community who embraces and supports people with mental health issues.
 I am trying to be the change I wish to see in the world.
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I’m not fighting for “normal” anymore

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I am seventeen years old and I still can’t ride the bus alone. The word “childish” does not begin to cover it. My mother, so frustrated with my inability to drive and my refusal to catch the bus, rightfully cuts me off. She will no longer pick up me up from my after-school cleaning job. I see this for what it is, a “kick the baby bird out of the nest” move that is ultimately done in love, but I stubbornly refused. Not because I enjoyed being the only non-driver my age who hadn’t grasped this small mode of independence, but because my anxiety about public buses was too strong. Small interactions with strangers sent me into a tailspin. There were too many factors to consider! Too many unknowns. Over the years I had made progress in this area. I could order a coffee in a coffee shop on my own, I could ask a waiter in a restaurant for a glass of tap water or where the toilets were, I could even take the train on my own (because I could buy a ticket in advance and not speak to anyone). But I could not get past the bus.

It’s something to be ashamed of, and everyone tells me so.

They don’t realise, and I don’t even realise yet, that life is composed of these tiny battles I will have to fight to be as capable as everyone else, and I am fighting the best I can. Rather than saying that, rather than telling them that my brain sometimes tries to hurt me rather than help me, I just blush and try not to mention it. So when my Mum cuts me off I walk the 4 miles home next to the most polluted road in Britain. I even enlist the support of my kind, adorable boyfriend at the time who lives close to my school. He walks two miles to the school, to walk me five miles home, to then walk six miles home. He was a sweet boy. And I broke up with him. In the part of the route where he still had six miles to walk.

 

(Well done, teenage self. Real classy moment.)

 

Once cut off from my walking companion, those four miles seemed more unpleasant than they had before. I felt myself initiate the slow build up towards doing the nameless thing I was afraid of. My best friend and I caught the bus home from town and I bought the ticket myself. Sort of. She went first and I followed and said “Same please,” which has been my go-to for confusing circumstances since then. (I’ve ended up with a lot of drinks I didn’t like this way.) I carefully noted the route the bus took, so I knew how I could get home at every point if the bus broke down, or a serial killer came aboard, or I was alone and the bus driver turned out to be a pervert. (Yes, this is how my brain works). I memorized the name of the stops so I would never say the wrong one. I pre-decided what seat I would sit in, and what seat I would sit in for a back up. And then, one day, without telling a soul, I made sure I took extra change with me to school. After I had finished cleaning classrooms, I walked nonchalantly towards the bus stop. I told myself that if a bus came that was going the way I wanted, I would get on it. No pressure. I could still walk home at any time, I could even get off if I got on and freaked out. I got on the bus, enjoyed a moment of tentative victory, and then panicked and got off two stops early. But by then it was only 1 mile home, not four, and I had done it.

 

“About time!” everyone said.

 

To me, it was one of the biggest achievements of my teenage years. Now I ride the bus all the time. I like riding the bus! Just like I like ordering coffee now, and going out to dinner, and chatting with shop assistants. But these things were hard-won for me, they weren’t natural, and I have often felt a pressure to keep that part of my narrative silent. There are some things we are all just supposed to be capable of as adults and to admit that we can’t do them, or that they give us fear, is perceived as unacceptable. It seems to make us less of an adult, or less of a person.

 

We don’t ever think it just makes us a different person.

 

******

 

Some things have always been very natural to me. Writing for instance, and reading. Singing and dancing. Listening, empathising, falling in love. None of those things have ever been hard for me, and yet so many people find them incredibly difficult! But rather than being told they should grow up, there are movies made about them. Hell, there’s a whole arm of the rom-com anatomy dedicated to the individual who is afraid of falling in love. How many movies are dedicated to the narrative of the individual who is too afraid to show-case a hidden talent? Instead of being riddiculed, they are nurtured towards the spot-light.

 

That’s not the case when “Normal” things are hard what you find hard. Scared of meeting new people? You just need to put yourself out there. Does going to the doctors give you anxiety? You just have to deal with it. Does eating keep you awake at night? You just need to be less fussy. You just need to be “normal.”

 

“Well, we all find some things hard,” some people say. “we just suck it up, and move on. Just get on with it!”

 

Just get on with it.

 

If those words were effective, I would honestly have conquered every fear in my life long ago. Because that is the internal monologue of someone who is struggling with their mental health and staring down a roadblock in their life. Except it’s all the time, and it’s much more vicious:

 

Just swallow the thing, just eat it! You’re so stupid, you’re so weird, why can’t you eat it? You bitch, you’ve totally let yourself down, and now you’ve spit it out. You’re pathetic.

 

Just go to the party! Who cares if you’ve never been there before? You’re such a baby, you’re so stupid, why can’t you just deal with your crap? Why do you have to let it ruin everything? God, you’re such a failure.

 

Why are you making them take time out to go with you to this doctors appointment? Don’t you know that everyone thinks you’re pathetic? God, look at yourself! You’re in your twenties and you can’t do this simple thing – do you realise that no one likes you or enjoys your company? It’s because you’re too much work.

 

I wish you were dead, I really do.

 

Too dark?

 

Being constantly told by society and yourself that your problems are just the manifestation of your own weakness makes you dark.

And I can promise you, it’s not just me. I know other people who find “normal” processes hard can experience the same kind of vile self-hatred. Our own frustration is more powerful, more violent, more disgusted than anything anyone could say, and yet, perversely, a big part of our growth process is learning to say no to that frustration and the ugly voice that comes with it. Recovery has a lot to do with learning that you might be… well, okay as you are?

 

Still, it feels unfair that the world shouts “Get Better Now! Be the same!” but the path to getting better begins with saying “It’s okay that you’re not the same.”

 

How do you even begin to answer that contradiction?

 

I’ve started to listen to the shouts of the world less, and the whispers of the heart more. I have started seeing the little things as what they really are, achievements in the making, rather than failures. Some things are very difficult for me to achieve, but just because they’re easy for others doesn’t mean I should devalue my own progress. I should celebrate it! And I am beginning to.

 

So yes, I had to take my husband with me to get a blood test and I am 27 years old, not an infant. But I didn’t have a panic attack before or afterwards. I didn’t cry or scream or suddenly be unable to extend my arm or let the nurse touch me. And I got on with a normal day afterwards, whereas in the past an encounter with a nurse and a needle might have sent me retreating to bed, too disappointed with my own weakness to face the condemnation of the “normal” world. So I’m calling that an achievement.

 

And I’m calling it an achievement that whilst I have been struggling in some areas, like being honest and vulnerable online, I have been making progress I never even thought possible before. I am generally eating normally and enjoying food, which is a bit miraculous in itself, but I am also currently holding down a full-time job that I love and am passionate about. I am getting paid to write. For me, even if I still can’t sleep alone or quite get to the point where I don’t panic about meeting new people or taking new bus journeys, this relatively “normal” step of holding down a regular job, is an achievement.

 

These little achievements. They sound small, but they are giant to me. They remind me that the world is not controlled by my anxiety, and that it is possible to live beyond the bounds that my mental health currently sets. The future can be different, maybe. And it is a path paved with little achievements.

 

I want to live in the beyond “normal” way that I am capable of.

 

Less shame, more celebrations.

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