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.
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.