Piles of paper and island mentality: an austerity story

I finished my final university exams last week, which gives me time to write this blog again. I also started a new course of medication recently, and wanted to share a story about it.
I went to the doctor’s, the day after the election. That day as I walked through Brockley I had the distinct, uncomfortable sense of being on an island.
Physically, of course, I’m always on an island. And in the UK, the siege-like island mentality is pervasive. But the gap between rich and poor people, middle-class and working class, and the other prejudices at work in our society – well, it’s impossible to ignore that gap any more. It’s hard to imagine a developed country where rich and poor are more isolated from each other.
My flatmate and I stayed up all night on May 7th, watching as the Tories swept the board and the map of England gradually turned blue.
I saw Birmingham, where I grew up: a small oasis of scarlet in the midst of a solid expanse of blue. I remembered the chasm between the area where I grew up, with its run-down terraces and ’60s tower blocks, and the smug mansions in the suburbs.
Then there was London, my beloved adopted city, showing up as a small splash of red (‘communist island’ I heard it called) in the middle of the solidly Tory Home Counties.
To me it had been solidly proved that nobody – in the surrounding counties of either of my cities – particularly cared about the suicides of people who had been told they were fit to work or had their benefits cut, the rapidly growing number of food banks, the rent crisis, the closed-down libraries, the overloaded health services – or, indeed, any of the problems affecting people who live in poor areas and don’t have much money.
We are in a social crisis, which the Tory government has fuelled and encouraged. But it seems plenty of people are doing well enough to afford not to notice.
How much can you shrink the island mentality?
You can keep shrinking it, down and down, till it’s just you in your living room.
Earlier that day I’d written “Once upon a time there was a smug couple, spiteful and narrow-minded, envious of their neighbours and afraid of the outside world, and their house was an island; they were isolated by their fear of the world and their greed.
I left the doctor’s with a small story, one that could be added to the great web of austerity stories people have been sharing.
So: this time I get a kind sensible female doctor.
She says I seem to be coping well; well, you learn how to cope with chronic lifelong anxiety, somehow. Medicine helps, and so do books. Then I explain that I’ve had a problem with the referral.
I say, “I’ve been trying to push the referral through all year. I have phoned the IAPT service and emailed them -” and also asked the doctor about it repeatedly; his response was to ask me to phone the IAPT service myself. I’d phoned them again, several times, and got no response. The doctor looks concerned and says she will ring them. “They’re very disorganised, I’m afraid. They need a lot of nudging.”
Because she is not in a hurry, I press her on this point. It turns out exactly as I suspected.
She says, “Unfortunately most of our referrals don’t go through.” Oh, why not? “Well, they’re very short of time and they have long waiting lists. Almost all the referrals have to go to people who are severely psychotic or suicidal.” Otherwise, the referral goes on a pile of pieces of paper in an office already avalanched with dead trees.
And what of all those people? People who are struggling, but not struggling enough. People who are suicidal, but not suicidal enough. People who are ill, but not ill enough. Medical abuse of extremely sick people is an awful thing, and so is systematic neglect.
It’s not enough.
Yes, it varies by area – some services have more funding than others. Nor should it be blamed on staff, who don’t control the system they work in. But NHS mental health services have been cumulatively overstretched for years, and the system is formulated so that mental health is shuffled down on the list of priorities. It has to be that way, said someone I brought it up with; if you come into A&E with a bleeding hand they’ll put you in front of someone with no injuries. But at least in A&E, everyone gets treated in the end.
Austerity is destructive. It was designed by politicians with no compassion for the mentally ill or disabled. (The story is still fresh in my mind of the disabled ex-soldier who was found dead in his flat, near a pile of CVs.) 1 in 3 people in Britain will suffer from a mental illness at some point, so why should help be so limited?
The doctor writes a prescription. We talk about possible solutions. She says if I have the means I should look for solutions outside the NHS. I say, “It’s not looking good at the moment, is it?”
No, she says gravely, it’s not looking good at all.

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“Most depression is just sadness”: why the faking rhetoric hurts

Hi amigos. I haven’t written in a while because of the mounting pressure of exams, dissertation and essays. Also, I’ve been lying low because this is an especially bad time to be mentally ill in Britain.
With a General Election coming up, there’s a slew of news about how benefits cuts continue to hit disabled and mentally ill people, and in the next couple of months we’ll be used as a pawn in endless political debates, whether it’s by people who hate us, or politicians who just want to score points off the opposition.
On top of that, after the tragedy in the Alps we’ve seen even more stigmatising of people with depressionShe Who Must Not Be Named wrote in a tweet: “To be diagnosed as depressed is the holy grail of illnesses for many. The ultimate passport to self obsession. Get a grip people.”
In another tweet, she flippantly wrote: “Most depression is just genuine sadness at a social situation. Like being caught in torrential rain with a bag from Primark”.
Usually I’d shy away from quoting Katie Hopkins, but in this case I think she’s crudely expressing a view that, unfortunately many people share (including leftist Guardian columnists). It’s easy to write Hopkins off as an attention-seeking troll without realising that she sometimes represents the views of many; you forget that people come up to her in the street and thank her. “You’re saying what we’re all thinking”, they say.
She Who Must Not Be Named is not at all exceptional. Like Jeremy Clarkson, she’s an extremely privileged person who portrays herself as a sort of Everywoman. She mostly panders to sections of the British white conservative middle class, and delights in expressing their unspoken dislike of people of colour, Muslims, Jewish people, LGBTQ people, and the mentally ill and disabled. Hopkins’ audience know not to openly express their views because of this goddamn politically correct society and the risk and discomfort of being labelled bigoted, so they applaud her for ‘bravely’ speaking out.
People who hold these views are not at all unusual, nor is it just a select group of white well-off people who think these things. Like every society, British culture has its deeply unpleasant side; insular, belligerent, suspicious, selfish. It’s fed by our island mentality, and informs modern-day conservative views. And I fear that at the moment we’re only seeing more of that way of thinking.
In a lot of ways, living in an ableist society is like living in a heavily polluted town. You’re not the one causing the pollution, but you swallow the toxins every day in the air you breathe. It’s easy to internalise ableism, and it’s probably even easier if you actually have a mental illness or disability. For a lot of people take the struggles of other people more easily than their own. It’s easy to care desperately for others, but to be hard on yourself and end up thinking “Maybe I’m faking. I’m probably exaggerating. My problems aren’t that bad.”
We’re taught to hate ourselves for not fitting in with society’s expectations. Then we end up underestimating the problems we suffer from.
For me, learning about ableism was like acquiring a pollution sensor. Suddenly you can see just how foul your environment is, and are astonished. Then you realise how much of the stuff you must have swallowed without realising it.
The ‘faking mental illness’ rhetoric that Hopkins spouts is particularly dangerous, because it’s a form of gatekeeping. Many mentally ill people absorb from an early age that you can only be genuinely mentally ill if you’re extremely sick, in a hospital, or on the edge of killing yourself. That stops us from getting help at literally any stage.
And we’re told these things by people who love us, too. I’ve written before that as a 12-year old, I sat down with my father one night and said “I think I’m depressed.”
“No you’re not,” he replied. “12-year olds can’t be depressed.” He then told me about how he had to section a friend who had bipolar disorder. “My friend was really ill,” he told me. “You’re not mentally ill at all.” And obviously, he said this with the best intentions – to calm me down, to stop me from thinking that I might be sick.
So, the faking rhetoric is hurtful. Even joking about it is hurtful; for all you know, the person you’re joking around with might be secretly struggling, and might decide that you’re not safe to confide in.
For a lot of people, it’s a huge step to say to a parent, teacher, or friend, “I think I might be depressed”, or “I think I might be mentally ill”. If someone comes to you with a problem like that, listen to them. Let them speak. Let the words get out. Don’t turn them away before they’ve even had a chance to tell you the whole story.

Planning ahead and being fearless: what I learned from The Grand Budapest Hotel

I wanted to tell the story of how, and why, I learned that planning is a Good Thing.
I should say, to begin with, that I’m a work in progress. I’m still quite scared of planning, which is because I’ve never really… done it very much. I live mostly in the present. If asked to plan something out in detail I would do so, but it takes a lot of work to make the plan correspond with reality. Aged 10, playing Carmageddon on the computer with my brother, I usually ignored the map and drove around the desert till I reached the fuzzy edge of the world. This is what I’m working with.
So, anyway: last summer, I fell in love with Wes Anderson’s movie The Grand Budapest Hotel. I downloaded the soundtrack, thought about it often, recommended it to other people frequently, all that jazz. It was odd. Grand Budapest isn’t the most substantial movie in terms of storytelling, emotional message or morals. It has problems of race representation that I won’t go into here.
Really, it was the craft that hooked me in: the gorgeous set design, the camera work, the music. The film is a series of little artificial worlds where everything is detailed, sharp, clean, and done right first time. One reviewer wrote: “The jeopardy Gustave and Zero escape from over and over again is presented like a Tintin comic strip.”
I was watching a lot of films at the time. Partly, it was because I was actively figuring out how I processed the world.
I’d realised I wasn’t interested in films for dialogue, because often I couldn’t process all the dialogue in a film on first viewing. I hear it, but films provide so much sensory stimulus that the dialogue becomes another soundtrack, which blurs together into a sound akin to the trombone noises made by Charlie Brown’s teacher.
I found out I liked watching foreign language films, because with knowledge of the storyline, you were free to concentrate on the visual and aural world unfolding in front of you. Whilst watching, small details jump out at you: the wings of a butterfly, the icing on top of a cake, the colour coding, a man in the background carrying a statue. (This beautiful essay on the visual language of Pacific Rim explains more about alternative ways to process films.)
Because of my lack of attention, I frequently lose track of what’s going on; my family still teases me for getting out my phone in the cinema while we were watching Inception, which I found completely incomprehensible. But there were some films I’ve seen, like Annie Hall, which are dialogue-heavy but completely understandable. Somehow, they bypass the part of my brain that doesn’t process dialogue.
Then there’s the 1960s film Daisies – a surreal movie where two witchy beauties gasp out non sequitur lines of dialogue like spells. (“Die! Die! Die!”) Again, somehow, on first viewing Daisies went straight to a part of my brain that wordlessly… got things.
I have never had the instinct to find a logical explanation for things unfolding around me, which was maybe why I connected with Daisies so well. The film was just a series of moments blossoming outwards.
I connected with the visual storytelling of Grand Budapest. But 
I was also watching films for their craft – absorbing how they told stories and built up worlds.
In a world where many mainstream films are made quickly and look generic, it struck me as brave to spend so much time on constructing Grand Budapest. To make something so fiendishly, gloriously elaborate.
Artists like Anderson, who have the ability to plan ahead in detail and envision a completely articulated world, are astonishing to me.
In a previous post, I wrote about how growing up with ADD has affected my perceptions, how I didn’t feel left behind in class, but like I was “speeding ahead, flying from A to Z” while my classmates plodded from A to B. “Yes, their method was correct, but if you flew you got a much better view.”
This, of course, affects how I make things, too: stories, essays, poems, cartoons. I often think in broad brush strokes and big pictures, not in terms of small details.
The problem I was fighting whilst watching Grand Budapest was, I realise now, that I felt (and feel) scared a lot of planning ahead – of thinking in extensive detail when sketching out new work. Of taking the time to create something that elaborate.
It was a two-pronged problem.
One: I was worried that if I planned too much, something bad would happen and I’d never get time to do the thing I was planning.
Two: I know how distractable I am. I figured that if I planned too much instead of doing, nothing would get done.
Living with ADD is like living with a very excitable, impulsive friend. “Oh, you’re working on that thing? Awesome. Anyway, I got tickets for Disneyland, let’s go! Now!! RIGHT THIS MINUTE!!!” And off we go.
In December I spoke to a counsellor at uni about this. She asked me, “Why don’t you prioritise your tasks?”
I replied: “Because I have a terrible fear of something bad happening, so I do as many things as I can in case I get hit by a car tomorrow.”
Long story short: on January 9th, on my first day back after Christmas, I walked into New Cross and got hit by a car.
It’s a lot less dramatic than it sounds; I fell over, got straight back up again, and got a lift home from the driver.
Thankfully, I wasn’t hurt at all. Nor did I straight away decide to change my whole life.
Instead, after the accident, I found myself making small incremental changes.
An important change happened when I realised my fear of the Bad Thing was actively stopping me from doing anything.
I then had to sit the excitable friend down, as it were, and tell them: “Wes Anderson would never have made that movie if he was jumping from A to Z all the time and worrying about the Bad Thing. Artists have to love the letters in between. Please, just assume that you have today to figure things out.”
Like I said before, ADD makes you live in the present a lot of the time. But most artists need space and time to make art. Clearing this time and space, in a world that is always demanding our time and attention, is revolutionary. Focusing on detail and craft is revolutionary.
Which is my small realisation.
Thanks, Wes Anderson.

Should you clear a space for wonder?

I have a confession to make to the guys at NASA: when a photo of outer space comes up on my timeline, I keep scrolling. I’d like to be able to appreciate space photography, but I process it as pretty colours and unintelligible visual noise.
Sometimes I look at the caption, which tells me that life has been found on Mars, or a new planet has appeared, or at this very moment ten galaxies are all having sex with each other at the same time, or something. It is too big for me to process – even looking at the photos is perplexing and stressful – so I shrug and move on. Sorry, NASA.
Is this normal?
Maybe right now, other people are also scrolling past stars and thinking “This should be interesting. This is a fascinating thing people give up their entire lives to study. I just don’t have the brainspace in my day to feel wonder about this, so my only reaction is ‘Oh, that’s good. Keep on doing what you’re doing, faraway cluster of stars’.”
And maybe the reason I’ve been concerned about this is that everything has always been so strange and magical to me. So it’s odd that at the age of 22, I look at outer space – the Big Strange – and just think “Eh.”
Continue reading

Neurotypical Sandra: a mentally ill perspective on an inspirational life

(with thanks to M.S.)

I first got to know Sandra in 2010, when she was working through her final year of A-levels. She had bravely chosen to write about The Bell Jar for her English Literature coursework; despite being generally a very happy person, she found the book “relatable and well written”. However, she was overheard commenting to a classmate, “Esther Greenwood sounds quite troubled. Maybe she should try yoga”. To ease the struggle of being neurotypical, and thus perhaps less aware of the joy, pain and complexity of the world around her, Sandra has attended meditation class twice a week since the age of sixteen.
In a world full of pain and sorrow, it’s a mystery how Sandra manages to stay so happy. Despite being neurotypical, she says “My life is really worth a lot. I feel like I can give a lot to  the world.” Yes you can, Sandra! Yes you can!
Sandra is a beautiful, cheerful individual, and I’m really writing this because I want to salute her smile. Sandra’s smile can lighten the darkest of days; like her, it is a ray of sunlight in a dark world.
We may never truly know what Sandra has been through – bad days, occasional low moods, sometimes feeling like life is a bit pointless. We can only try to relate to her struggle, but this inspirational young woman continues to smile through the roughest of times. Her parents’ divorce when she was seven has affected her deeply – “it was a rough time” she says – but somehow, she has managed to soldier on.
After completing her A-levels with a very acceptable three As, she moved to London to study English at Kings College. Sandra says she finds London “confusing, but that is normal”. She finds the tube “a bit scary”. As for her university course, she’s sometimes got “a bit stressed” at the amount of work she has to do, and put off her work to watch Bob’s Burgers instead. Even in this most difficult and unrelatable of lives, there’s room for laughter.
As a neurotypical, you would think she’d find it hard to read about the characters in her English Lit texts (most of whom have depression, anxiety or other disorders). It’s especially brave that she’s chosen to specialise in Virgina Woolf, who is well known for her severe depression. Sandra’s take on it is, “At the end of the day, we’re all human. I sometimes feel down as well, so I can really relate to Virginia.”
Amazingly, she has spent almost no time at the doctor’s office in the last three years, apart from the time when she thought she had swine flu but it was a false alarm. We can only imagine what it must be like to not be well known to the receptionist, and to be greeted by the doctor with something other than “Oh no, not you again.” As for medication, she sometimes smokes marijuana with friends, a popular ‘home medication’ amongst neurotypicals – but who are we to judge?
Sandra really loves watching Disney films, especially Frozen, Brave and Wreck-It Ralph! She feels like they are an island of calm in a frantic world. It is a mystery why some neurotypical people love watching children’s films – perhaps they feel that the films reflect their unique worldview. They feel inspired to continue by the struggle of the characters against impossible odds. Sometimes, Sandra tells me, she sings Let It Go to herself when she’s having a bad day. It’s a beautiful metaphor for a girl with a unique brain.
We can only applaud Sandra’s bravery in managing to not develop anxiety, and to navigate an increasingly confusing world without having developed any mental illnesses whatsoever.

#HowOCDWorks: Typical Anxious Woman

“My wife’s got O.C.D and keeps asking me to help clean the house.
Her loss though – I refuse to do it until she asks me perfectly.”
Internet proverb (Sickipedia)

Let’s start with compulsions.
So imagine there’s a woman called Rose, who’s putting clothes into her washing machine. Halfway through, she gets worried: what if the cat manages to get into the washing machine before she closes it?
It is possible. Rose’s cat is not very bright.
Rose checks the washing machine. She checks it again, just to make sure. She goes back to getting clothes out the basket. But as soon as she looks away from the machine, she starts to worry the cat might jump in and hide in it while she’s not looking.
So she looks at the washing machine, puts her hand under the clothes; no cat. She knows it’s stupid, but somehow, she still thinks the cat might be in there. Her brain is telling her that her senses are wrong.
Rose is 30 years old. She takes all the clothes out and dumps them on the floor. She is still finding it hard to believe there is no cat in her empty washing machine.
This is me trying to illustrate what it’s like living with my form of OCD. You check and check, but your brain is still telling you “This isn’t right.”
A compulsion is a repetitive behaviour or mental act that people feel driven to perform as a result of anxiety, caused by their obsessions. For me, compulsions are often caused by a general anxious feeling; a sense that something is wrong, but if you check it might be OK.
Eventually, you reach a point where your thinking mind and your brain’s entrenched faulty mechanisms are battling each other. It’s like having a very concerned, persistent demon following you.
You: I’ve locked the door.
Demon: But is it locked? Check it.
You: I just locked it.
Demon: But is it actually locked?
So you go back. You check it. Just in case.

So, onto the joke I started with:
People find OCD compulsions funny. Why is that?
Here’s my take: in many people’s minds, OCD means compulsive tidying, cleaning, checking and worrying. And I don’t think it’s coincidental that this stereotype overlaps with ‘humorously’ sexist views of women. Google OCD jokes and you will see what I mean. Many of the traits we associate with OCD are also stereotypically feminine traits, which both men and women are mocked for displaying.
Why is the “cleaning the house” joke funny? Would it be as funny if it was about a man? Is it still funny to read about a woman who had to leave her family because of her compulsive cleaning*?
We’re starting to understand that people with extreme compulsions need help; but at the same time many women and girls with OCD are discouraged from getting help at all.
Why? Because they’re told in so many words that they’re “just an anxious woman”.
If they’re a mother, they are told it is natural to worry. If they’re a teenage girl, they’re told it’s school stress or hormones.
Society often associates OCD with checking up on people, being anxious, clean and tidy, overprotective of children and afraid of the outside world. People joke about tidy women being “so OCD”; or “my mother is so OCD, she’s always nagging.”
OCD is associated often with gender stereotypes like the female neat freak: the fussy, repressed, controlling woman, often a housewife, who’s “completely OCD” and would definitely check for cats in the washing machine. Bree from Desperate Housewives springs to mind:
Bree Van De Kamp is not impressed by your feeble attempt at humour.

Yeah, women like this exist. Maybe some of them have mental illnesses, others are simply tidy and fussy. But we’ll never get anywhere if we assume every woman is the same.
We need to accept that our stereotypes of people with OCD can intersect with stereotypes, often negative stereotypes, about women and girls.
The fact that real-life OCD is not always like the stereotype means that people of all genders might not even realise they have a mental illness. And conversely, many women and girls with OCD are still socialised to not realise their compulsive checking, worrying or other behaviours might be signs of a mental illness.
What we need to do is reevaluate our collective view of OCD, and look at how that view intersects with society’s view of women and girls. Because the picture is not pretty.
I am a 22-year old Woman Who Checks. I accept that I am an Anxious Woman, owing to a mental illness. But if I hadn’t been constantly told that worrying was normal and that I was just a sensitive anxious girl, I would have got help much sooner.

*The story is one of many cited in Jeff Schwartz’s Brain Lock. Highly recommend it.

Addendum

Misdiagnosis in general
NAMI:
“OCD is often misdiagnosed, and it is often underdiagnosed. Many people have dual disorders of OCD and schizophrenia, or OCD and bipolar disorder, but the OCD part of their illness is not diagnosed or treated. In children, parents (and teachers and doctors) often are aware of some anxiety or depression but not of the underlying OCD.”

Misdiagnosis in women for OCD
BJGP: “A hidden problem: consequences of the misdiagnosis of perinatal obsessive-compulsive disorder”.
”Detection and help-seeking for all perinatal problems is low relative to the prevalence and this is particularly true of anxiety,4 although little evidence exists regarding OCD. In perinatal OCD, the shame of disclosing difficulties is often compounded by fears of being misunderstood by professionals and being judged a potentially harmful parent. Parents themselves may not make sense of their experiences as OCD, particularly if they have no previous history. This may be particularly true of those experiencing thoughts of deliberate harm who often fear they are ‘going mad’.”
More on OCD in parents – “It may be particularly difficult for mums first to recognise their experiences as OCD and second to seek help due to the shame and secrecy associated with the illness, especially at a time when they themselves and those around them expect them to feel happy. As there is often a lack of awareness of OCD during pregnancy and postnatally, people are rarely asked about these experiences by professionals. Despite recent breakthroughs in awareness, understanding and treatment of OCD, many GPs and mental health professionals may still not recognise the symptoms of OCD or even know how to correctly treat the disorder.”
Myths about OCD: includes the myth that OCD is a “women’s disease” which shows how feminised the OCD stereotype is. This is despite the fact that OCD affects people of all social groups and genders at the same rate.

… and for other illnesses
Essay on trauma, mental illness and misdiagnosis: “Pollett writes that individuals who have experienced violence, like others dealing with mental health problems, face mental health treatments that are primarily based on the biomedical model (focused on biological and genetic factors of mental health instead of social determinants such as poverty, housing, stigma and past experiences of violence). Women who require mental health services often receive inappropriate diagnoses and treatment or are denied services because their behaviour is misunderstood or stigmatized.”

In addition, the book Preventing Misdiagnosis of Women: A Guide to Physical Disorders that Have Psychiatric Symptoms, by Elizabeth A. Klonoff has an interesting discussion on theories about gender-specific stress being a contributing factor to anxiety disorders. (p. xxii)

Stereotyping
“Ho
w can I be just like Bree Hodge?”: (Answer: “develop an unhealthily extreme case of OCD”)
OCD jokes: Sickipedia
Woman explains her OCD:When I first went to my doctor and she gave me the diagnosis, I disregarded it: ‘I’m not washing my hands or constantly rearranging the spoons, so it can’t be OCD’.”

Anxiety & Me, part 6: About Mr Milligan

[this is the last in a series of six essays on creativity and mental illness, which will be serialised on Bootleg Noise in the coming weeks. Read part one here]

I was brought up worshipping comedians.

I knew that Tony Hancock, Paul Merton, Spike Milligan and a lot of the others were mentally ill, and always somehow assumed it made them funnier – that it fed the black humour that made them special. I assumed their illness gave them insight into a kind of dark wisdom that other people didn’t have.

But then I saw a picture of Spike Milligan in a depressive episode. He looked destroyed. A sad, broken old man. And I realised something then: wherever his art came from, it didn’t come from bipolar.

“I cannot stand being awake,” Spike wrote about his illness. “The pain is too much … Something has happened to me, this vital spark has stopped burning – I go to a dinner table now and I don’t say a word, just sit there like a dodo. Normally I am the centre of attention, keep the conversation going – so that is depressing in itself. It’s like another person taking over, very strange. The most important thing I say is ‘good evening’ and then I go quiet.”

What on earth can you learn from something so awful?

Some would say that there are a handful of qualities you can develop, if you live with mental illness. Compassion. Empathy. Gratitude. Experience. Mindfulness.
Well, yes. But these are all things you could learn anywhere, in any circumstances. None are linked directly with mental illness, or indeed, with any negative life experience. They are all qualities that we, thinking people that we are, develop ourselves as we grow – and it’s possible to develop them even without a mental illness.

In contrast, creating art usually requires a lot of very practical skills and attributes. Like concentration, energy, stamina, and a basic belief that what you’re doing is worth the time you put in.

All these qualities are contingent on being able to sit down and work.
Which is difficult, if you’re not at your best.

If you can do it at the moment, good. If not, don’t blame yourself. Most importantly, when you can create, it doesn’t matter what your brain is like – it’s what you do with it that counts.

There is no direct correlation between being “a little bit mentally ill” and being an artist. It’s absurd – like saying that you need to have imbetigo to be a traffic policeman, or that you can only be an accountant if your dog got run over. Again: having depression or anxiety is an illness, not some kind of creative superpower.
Yes, we can use mental illness – because that’s what we would do anyway, using every scrap of experience to build something new and beautiful. Yes, we can and probably should talk about it in our work, opening up a space for those who feel scarred by it.

But let’s destroy the assumption that someone must become more interesting and creative as soon as their brain starts to riot. Forget the idea that all artists are somehow damaged, that troubled artists should feel fired up by their experiences instead of thinking “well, that was a bit shit”. Dismiss the supposition that we must all be productive all day, every day, or else we are failing. Mental illness is a fact of life; and there is a deeply personal connection for every artist between work and life experience, which defies attempts to be universalised into a feel-good message about how illness makes us braver and more creative.
It is our own talents, experiences, voices and strength that make us into artists. Not our weaknesses.

Anxiety & Me, part 5: “Dad, I’m Scared About Aliens”

[this is the fifth in a series of six essays on creativity and mental illness, which will be serialised on Bootleg Noise in the coming weeks. Read part one here]

Over the course of my life, I’ve been told frequently that OCD and depression are a personal failure. Maybe I’m not reading enough, not writing enough, doing the wrong exercise, or eating unhealthy food. Maybe I’m just making a fuss – after all, everyone gets worried sometimes, yeah? Maybe I’m just a bit of a non-starter.
“People with mental health issues must be doing something wrong!” This message has seeped into every pore of our culture, and it’s often repeated by people who have no idea what they’re talking about.
No matter how much we explain that being unwell can actually prevent us from reading and writing – and drain the energy needed for exercise, cooking or work – it’s still assumed that the root cause of the problem is the ill person’s lifestyle and habits. We end up believing somehow that when we feel too ill to create art, it’s our own fault.
Anxiety in particular is often seen as a flaw, something you can get over if you try hard enough. As a child, I was told it wasn’t a real problem: “Twelve-year olds can’t be depressed! Just try and stop worrying!” I was vaguely aware one shouldn’t be constantly fretting, but assumed it was something I was doing wrong. Nobody around me talked about mental health, nobody I knew went to counselling; I was just “high strung”.
To me, mental illness meant being sectioned, like the vampy bipolar mother in Jacqueline Wilson’s The Illustrated Mum. There seemed to be no fictional characters who just happened to have brain issues.
And in general, I got the impression that mental illness was a sort of scary, glamorous, soul-destroying malady that only happened to grown-ups. It seemed you couldn’t really have it unless you were sick enough to be in a hospital, and all being well you should just crack on with your day and stop worrying. If you couldn’t get over it, you weren’t trying hard enough. This wasn’t some distant faraway past either. It was inner-city Birmingham in the noughties.
These misconceptions are held by people everywhere, and I have no doubt that other young artists from vastly different backgrounds are being faced with the same prejudices. Even after I educated myself and learned that anxiety disorders and depression were not flaws or weaknesses, but illnesses, I still found myself wondering why I couldn’t just get over it.
Then I wondered why my mental illness wasn’t making me more creative: instead, it often just made me restless, irritable and unable to produce anything.
Since then, I have sometimes wondered if my imaginative wordy skills are related neurologically to mental illness. I don’t know for sure – but you know what? I don’t care, either. Because ultimately, it doesn’t matter.
The important thing is to be well enough to work in the first place.
Poor mental health is not a personal failure, but neither is it some perverse superpower that drives people to create masterpieces. You make your work; your sickness doesn’t.

Anxiety & Me, part 4: Tragedy and Triumph

[this is the fourth in a series of six essays on creativity and mental illness, which will be serialised on Bootleg Noise in the coming weeks. Part one, part two, part three]

Mainstream media has made great leaps in de-stigmatising mental health, with many prominent celebrities like Stephen Fry opening discussion. But somehow it often seems to be mentally healthy people who feel so very, very inspired by these stories, while those of us who are chronic, or not fully recovered, sometimes get a bit frustrated with what’s not being said. Sometimes we feel unrepresented by the people who claim to speak for us.

Success stories sell – as do stories about plucky people recovering from their Big Bad Mental Health Problem. The journalist Caitlin Moran wrote a Times column about her anxiety, claiming that the problem was helped not by medication or counselling, but by telling the thoughts to be quiet; now her anxiety was “not totally over” but the “spell that kills [anxiety] is simply SHUT UP”. And her pal India Knight wrote a column, also in the Times, claiming that “everybody gets depressed…You long for someone to say: “I felt like crap for two years and then I got over it. Which is, by the way, what normal people do”.

One problem with these folksy presentations of mental illness is that they assume everyone’s problems will be helped by the same techniques. More importantly, the issue is always placed firmly in the past tense: “I was anxious, but then I…”

Our culture is full of these stories. The real problem is that young, talented people with mental health problems absorb them and suddenly feel immensely pressured to recover, to be normal, or to be a success story (“if only I could just turn my depression into art…”)

Media shows us who we can be. Women artists with mental health problems – Amy Winehouse, Plath, Woolf – are often presented by media in a way that both glamorises their illness and minimises their humanity. For an example of the kind of media we’re surrounded by, look at Vice’s tasteless 2013 photo-shoot with models re-enacting the suicides of famous women artists.

It matters.

Because young female artists with mental health problems look to culture for role models, for arcs to follow, for ways forward.

And the narratives they see about people like themselves are often tragic, glamorous, but glitteringly triumphant – like the stories about Plath. Mentally ill women artists are culturally associated with glamour, genius and death. Imagine growing up with that pressure. Imagine growing up believing that all successful, happy, creative people are secretly sad, and that being an artist means dying young and unhappy.

So, there’s work to be done. Young artists need mentally ill role models. Young people need media representation of people with ongoing mental health issues leading normal and successful lives. It’s not enough to sit back, look at media representation and think “That’s enough! People are talking about it, problem solved!”
As ever, imagination and vision are key to creating new narratives for our lives.

Anxiety & Me, part 3: The stories that make us

[this is the third in a series of six essays on creativity and mental illness, which will be serialised on Bootleg Noise in the coming weeks. Part one, part two, part four]

Browsing the web after the “little bit mentally ill” incident, I found several articles by Matthew Haig describing his writing journey and struggle with depression. In an excellent piece in the Telegraph, (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/wellbeing/10758065/Suffering-from-depression-It-was-touch-and-go-but-Ididnt-jump.html) he wrote that “words help give us the building blocks to build another mind, very often with a better view. My mess of a mind needed shape, and external narratives I found in… books, offered hope and became reasons to stay alive.”
I enjoyed the piece, and related strongly. During my last depressive phase, my concentration worsened: I couldn’t focus, couldn’t work much, couldn’t read much. I was unable to be interested in a book. But in April 2014, I found a copy of Margaret Attwood’s Alias Grace, read the first page, and was hooked.
My reading muscles were so weak that I ended up mouthing to myself as I read, painstakingly visualising the characters and highlighting as I went. But when I was done I hit the second-hand bookshops, left with an armful of novels, and became a reader again.
Yes, the stories we write and read can help us. Yes, we need them desperately.
But.
My concern is that recovery narratives like Haig’s are framed by media in a way that doesn’t reflect a common, unspoken experience of mental illness: most people have to be at a certain level of wellness to read and write in the first place.
By the time I read Alias Grace, I was already feeling better. Only a few months before, I would have been unable to read it all the way through. Going back to the books was a sign of partial recovery, not a miracle cure.
The idea that ‘art rescues people’ can spark enormous creative guilt.
I’ve talked to young artists who can’t work, study or produce because of their illness – and who worry that they’re somehow doing it wrong. But sapped creativity doesn’t make you innately uncreative; it just means your energy is being burned up elsewhere.
The idea that mental illness necessarily fuels art – that we somehow gain a deeper connection to books and writing through the experience – is one of the most pernicious misconceptions I’ve ever come across. Perhaps it’s true for some, but certainly not for all. To be honest, mental illness is so tiring and boring that it burns us out at times. And then many of us wonder if we should be fired up to create, instead of feeling totally fed up.