Time to talk

Today, 5th February, is Time to Talk Day 2015. Time to Talk was started (I believe) by Rethink and the idea is to spend five minutes talking about mental illness – how it affects you, or people around you. It’s about breaking the silence surrounding mental health issues. This will probably take a bit longer than five minutes to write, but hey.

Now you might think that there is no longer silence – mental health issues seem to be constantly in the news; pleas for more funding, need for better care, testimonies from people and their families or friends. The official statistic is that one in four people will be affected by mental health issues every year. That’s a lot of people. And it doesn’t always have to be the biggies – your schizophrenia, your bi-polar disorder, your depression. It can be insomnia, anxiety, panic attacks. It can be bereavement, post-natal depression, work or relationship stress. Mental health issues aren’t fussy, they’ll take anything that’s going. And we all have mental as well as physical health, it’s just harder to talk about the former.

Mental health problems affect the way we feel about ourselves and others, they affect our sleep, attention span and productivity. This in turn will affect our work, so wouldn’t it be better to ‘fess up rather than try to hide it?

There is a history of depression in my family down my father’s side. My mother’s side has given us short-sightedness, thanks for that. I have had quite a few bouts of depression, and I’m not just talking ‘ooh a bit miserable today’. I’m talking dark, exhausted, grey, agoraphobic, can’t move, can’t talk, can’t think depression. I’m talking suicidal thoughts. I have, in my time, wondered what it would be like to… what would be the easiest way to… it would be so much easier if… oh well at least one day I’ll be…

So far, I’ve got through these periods without doctors or prescribed medication. Perhaps one day (if you’re good) I’ll tell you some of the stuff I do that helps. But today is the time-to-talk moment, to actually come out and say: yes, me too.

The first time I got hit by it, or at least knew what it was I’d been hit by, I was in my mid-twenties. I was terrified, because it had (seemingly) come out of nowhere, this cloud of grey that removed taste, smell, joy, desire and left me bewildered and lost. “But what’s wrong?” people were asking. “There must be a reason.” Well actually sometimes there just isn’t. Sometimes there you are. And no-one can hear you banging on the glass – but one person did, a friend who (I then found out) also suffered from depression. “It’s like being in a goldfish bowl. You can see out, but no-one can hear you calling.” Just to hear that, to know she got it and more than got it – was the moment I began to come to the light again.

Many people – even friends – don’t get it. If you haven’t experienced it, don’t understand that it’s not always quantifiable, there isn’t always a reason – often isn’t a reason – watching someone drift away or hide is not an easy experience. “But you’re always so strong, so up, so glass-half-full.” Yes, most of of the time. Except when I’m not. Sometimes I’m not strong, I can’t be strong all the fucking time, I can’t put the face on all the fucking time. And that’s when I talk to the people who really get it, who have either been through it themselves or have the empathy and care to let me be where I am.

One of my closest friends was felled by post-natal depression after her first child. She and I have always laughed at the darkest, most inappropriate things, but when I went to see her in hospital I couldn’t believe the same person was lying in the bed. My friend had gone and someone new and blank had taken her place. She’s one of the people I can talk to and I often cite her particular form of loving bollocking which goes something like this: “I know you. You never say, but if you don’t say how the fuck do I know what’s going on?”

So here we are, Time to Talk day. Mental health is as real as physical health, and as deserving of the same respect, sympathy and treatment. Nobody asks to have a mental health problem any more than they ask to have a physical one. Be kind. To use that oft-quoted tag – the person you meet might be fighting a battle you know nothing about.




“You should be…”  “I should be…”  “You should have…”  “I should have…”  ‘Should’ and its little friend ‘shouldn’t’ – may be the most invidious words in the English language.  They take you down dark paths, whether you are saying them to others or to yourself.  And who hasn’t said them to someone, either as an imperative or an accident?

This blog could be the sequel to ‘The arrogance of certainty’ – ‘Should’ is such a certain word, isn’t it?  It implies that the speaker knows the secrets of the universe; that whatever they say is sure to be acted on.  It can be as simple as me being told (this is true): “You shouldn’t use a white cup if you don’t clean it properly.”  Why shouldn’t I?  I like white cups and I know how to clean them, but sometimes I choose not to scrub them back white again as soon as I’ve finished with them.  I choose.  In my own time, and in my own way.  Yay me.

This is also true – said to me, by me. “You should have written another blog by now.”  and “You should have submitted to the next literary agent.”  and “You should do more/be more all the time.”  and “You should be happy.  You have a house, work that you love (most of the time), a family, friends, you aren’t living in Syria, you didn’t get flooded, you should be happy.”  And if I’m not happy all the time because I should be – if I don’t do everything my perfectionist, slightly obsessive head-mind tells me to because I should, I am not happy.  I am anxious, exhausted, striving for more and more, not really stopping because there’s always something else I should be doing.

I’m telling myself a story.  We all do that, we tell ourselves – and others – stories.  All the time.  We change them to suit whoever we’re telling.  We love embellishing, to make ourselves look good or bad or funny or tragic.  We want people to listen to our stories and feel sorry for us, or understand us, or we just need to tell them in order to have some kind of validation.

A man named Don Miguel Ruiz wrote a book called The Four Agreements.  I’ve bought this book for quite a few people now – one of them happily says to me, when I do the ‘Should’ shit – “Time for the Four Agreements,” and she’s right.  He says this: “At a certain point, all the opinions of our parents and teachers, religion and society, make us believe that we need to be a certain way in order to be accepted.  They tell us the way we should be, the way we should look, the way we should behave. We need to be this way; we shouldn’t be that way – and because it’s not okay for us to be what we are, we start pretending to be what we are not.  The fear of being rejected becomes the fear of not being good enough, and we start searching for something that we call perfection.  In our search, we form an image of perfection, the way we wish to be, but we know that we are not, and we begin to judge ourselves for that.”

The first Agreement is this: “Be impeccable with your word.”  And on first glance you might think, oh that’s OK, just don’t be nasty to people.  But it isn’t only that.  It’s about the word you use to others and the word you use on yourself.    It’s bloody hard and when I’m anxious/angry/frustrated/unhappy/depressed, it becomes even harder.  You want so badly to pull yourself out of this state  –  you know that you can, you have the tools to do it, you’ve spent years getting to this point of being able to do it – and your head goes: “You should.”  And there you are again.

February is a ‘should’ month for me – I find it difficult, not necessarily because the weather’s shit.  It’s got a couple of things going for it – short, and no council tax.  But there’s that Imbolc time of new beginnings, spring appearing, crocuses, snowdrops – and the feeling that I should – there I go again – be more galvanised and spring-like.  So why aren’t I?  I just. Am. Not.  Sometimes I am.  Sometimes I can be.  Yesterday I was – I had a brilliant evening with writers and readers, and it’s given me the kick up the arse I needed to rediscover the joy of possibility.  I think that’s the worst thing about ‘should’.  You lose the joy; there’s only other people’s ‘should’s’ and your own beating a path through your head to the heart.

March is looking good though.