Sunday, October 9, 2016

Start talking (World Mental Health Day)

A week ago as I type this, I was dressed up to, if not the 9s then a pretty solid 7, working as a journalist at the BAFTA Cymru. I'm good at my reporting jobs, I'm well informed, highly researched and confident both in my interview skills and my writing skills. I did a good job as ever last Sunday.

On Saturday I was performing with my choir. I'm also quite good at that. Again I'm not winning any TV talent competitions any time soon, but I'm a solid soprano, and a lifetime of musical theatre obsession gives me performance-face like you wouldn't believe.

That was Saturday and Sunday. What anyone who saw me at either of those events wouldn't know is not half an hour before getting there (actually about 5 minutes on Saturday) I was a mess. I spent the weekend alternating between sobbing, screaming, shouting or feeling like a lifeless lump. I was horrible, I felt horrible. I was horrible to my Mum. Really horrible. And anyone who knows me we’re close, and we get on really well. Seriously it’s like a re-enactment of Gilmore Girls episodes most days in our house. So that’s a sign something is really wrong. I’ve had some pretty rubbish times both recently and in my life as a whole, but I’m pretty sure this weekend ranked in the top worst ten.
Why am I writing this? Aside from a compulsion to share all manner of nonsense on my blog? Well in part exactly that. Because this is something I’ve kept very quiet for a long time.

I have mental health issues, and have done for some time. I have had eating disorders, depression and anxiety. And actually I’ve never really told anyone. Mostly I’m afraid to talk about them, seek help for them, or even admit they exist. And that really should change, for me and for anyone else in the same position.

I’m finally putting those words down for two main reasons. Firstly, the day I’m publishing this, 10th October, is world mental health day, and while we shouldn’t need a day to start a conversation, sometimes everyone needs a little nudge.

Secondly, as part of my BAFTA Cymru evening I had the pleasure of interviewing Tim Rhys Evans, founder/musical conductor of Only Men Aloud. Someone I’d admired for many years for his musical work, but also more recently for the reason he was at the awards- a documentary entitled ‘Tim Rhys Evans-all in the mind’ about his struggles with mental health. During our interview, where we touched on the importance of sharing stories about mental health Tim said how the nomination gave an opportunity to talk about the film again and in particular giving him chance to talk to ‘people like you’ meaning journalists, to keep getting the message out there.

I couldn’t stop thinking about that, and other aspects of our conversation, and as a result two things occurred to me (this is a blog of twos). 1. Tim was right, there is a very basic need to keep talking about mental health. 2. If he could be brave enough to share his story in such a raw, honest way, then I could share a bit of mine too.  So here goes…

I’m not mentally healthy. I haven’t been for a long time. Possibly ever. But I don’t know for certain, because I’ve always been too scared to ask for help when I need it. I don’t feel “sick” enough to ask for help. I don’t feel I “should” ask for help. And because mostly I get by, but sometimes I have a day, or a weekend, or a week that looks like last weekend.

And I write this to say these things manifest in different ways for different people. For me one way, as with last weekend it becomes an issue of body confidence. No matter what I know rationally, nobody will convince me I am not hugely fat, and have in fact put on an enormous amount of weight and that as a result am a worthless human being. Or I will be convinced that everyone I have ever met hates me and in fact wants nothing to do with me. Ever. Or that whatever I am trying to do that day will go horribly wrong to the most extremes, and I will be utterly convinced of that-that by the end of the day I’ll be fired from my job with no hope of future employment. All of these are utter, undeniable facts to me when my head is in this state. Or in a more depressive state of mind, that nothing will ever change no matter what I do, that whatever is bad right now will always be so, and it is worthless even trying-I am worthless. I’ll remain jobless or in a dead end job, I’ll be single forever and probably all my friends will abandon me too.

All of this written down would seem ridiculous if I were writing a fictional character but in my head at any given time they are the utter gospel truth.  

And so last weekend I was both a worthless fat person, who was doomed never to fulfil professional potential, whose friends and acquaintances also no doubt hated her and wanted her gone forever. And then sometimes, as happened last weekend all of this is accompanied by endless sobbing (that’s the depression element talking) and anger (that’s the anxiety) and a general inability to think straight, and sometimes even to breathe.

Even as I write that I think of people reading this and saying to me either ‘stop being a drama queen’ (which on a ‘healthy’ day, granted I can be) or ‘don’t be ridiculous, we all have bad times, and you’ve had a rough few months, snap out of it’ And it’s true I have, a period of unemployment and questioning my personal and professional identity post PhD certainly have contributed to my current state of mind. And I say yes, this time life events have been a factor. And in a way it’s easier when there is some sort of event to link it to, because then there’s something to work towards, or away from. Those are the lucky times. It’s the irrational out of the blue for no damn good reason times that I struggle to explain even to myself. But then you look at the world, the often terrible world we live in and think ‘I’ve no right to feel this bad about my life’ and yet you do, and so you feel worse.

For me also, that I do function pretty well 90% of the time, is in fact a barrier to acknowledging something is wrong. Most of the time. I shouldn’t have to. Nobody should have to feel ashamed.
But I, like many others keep all of this as hidden as I can. Until I can’t anymore. But because I don’t talk about it, because we don’t talk about it, people don’t see the real reasons. They just see me being a bitch, or being irrational, or over emotional. And sometimes I am being those things, because I’m human as well. But sometimes I’m not, and sometimes I can’t control it, and sometimes the really bad times, it controls me.

And I like so many others keep quiet for many reasons. The usual reasons, that people will make judgements, that they will think I’m weak, or broken or even worse that there’s nothing really wrong with me. Or that I’m making it up. Because nobody cares, and everyone worries about things right? The same way everyone gets a bit sad? And how do you explain to someone who has never felt that way? It’s like trying to explain to someone a migraine isn’t just a nasty headache, or that a broken bone isn’t like a really terrible sprain.

And it's seemingly a little thing that takes over your life. These last few months, when things have been particularly rough, nothing quite works right. I can't write-I actually envy those supposed great writers who channelled their depression and other things into something great. When I'm not feeling myself I can't write, I can't do the thing I love, and it frustrates me no end. I also lose the joy I find in music a lot, I struggle to sing, or even listen to music. Everything is just a bit grey. And it's so often so very difficult to explain to people why. Or more importantly feel it's ok to explain to people why.

I don't come from a family or background where we talk about these things. I've been in a career where any sign of weakness is seized upon by vultures looking for a way to bring you down. And I've had enough, I'm exhausted. It's like fighting a battle twice over every time.

If we could all talk about it, in the same way we come into work in the morning and say ‘Sorry I’ve got a terrible cold’ then it would make things so much easier. We could all be a little more understanding, a little more honest. If we could explain that my head makes me feel like everyone hates me, in the same way that I can explain when I get a cold my eyes stream so much I look like I’m crying, then it would be so much easier.

It’s been a long, long road getting to type these words. And I think it’s going to be a difficult moment to hit that ‘publish’ button. But I have cultivated a bit of a voice in this blog, and I want it to be an honest one.

This was a BIG conversation. On 10th October, for World Mental Health day, if I could ask everyone reading this one thing, it’s to have a small conversation. Ask someone how they are, and really listen. Or tell someone how you’re really feeling. And keep asking, and keep talking. Sometimes one small conversation is all it takes to get someone on the road to helping themselves.

I found mine in a really unlikely place through my job interviewing someone who had been far braver than me in sharing the things we keep far too hidden. So please, start talking, keep talking everyone.