On writing about mental health and exploring vulnerability

Last year I wrote a post where I declared:

“One problem with [media] 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…”

I’ve been writing this blog for ten months now and it’s taught me a few things: like, writing about mental health is hard. Sometimes you just have to crack on and do it.
Since writing that post I’ve definitely hit a temptation to place experiences in the past tense. “Should I write that my anxiety is flaring up? Should I be open about my intrusive thoughts? Or should I couch it in general terms?”
Sometimes this tension occurs because it’s hard to write from the centre of ongoing experience. You end up removing yourself from your writing, however autobiographical it looks. But then I find the more of myself I put in a post, the more people enjoy it, and I still don’t know why.
One thing I do know is that whilst I use my experiences to write about mental health and disability, the blog isn’t dedicated to documenting my issues. I don’t really like people using my blog to check up on me personally, because I think the content of my writing is more important than whatever it says about me.
The paradox is that I write openly, so I have to remember that my life is not public domain and I am under no obligation to share everything.
I once saw the poet Warsan Shire read, and I remember the room went quiet. There were gasps and some tears. By the end of the reading I had heard exquisite poems that explored vulnerabilities and trauma, but I knew as much about Shire herself as I had at the start.
Nor did I feel I needed to know. That’s not what her work is for.
Some people are keen on investigating the hidden autobiographical meanings in confessional poetry and this is because the poet has played a trick. They’ve confessed, but they haven’t told you everything – and why should they? Vulnerability is a precious thing which should be handled with great care.
The compulsion to overshare in public can be cathartic, but it’s also addictive. We live in a culture where women’s suffering is frequently consumed as entertainment. In that environment I know I must take responsibility for my own experiences, and take control of what I share.
And lastly, that leads me to Liz Jones.
Much as I hate the Daily Mail, I like its journalist Liz Jones: she’s a good writer, albeit highly problematic. She has written openly about topics like her anorexia and OCD, her body image issues, and her self-hatred.
Last time I looked, the comments on her pieces were a mix of vitriol and concern. Liz Jones was mad, she was ugly, she needed help and the editors should intervene. It was like seeing a crowd watching someone having a breakdown.
My thoughts:
1) How awful to see someone’s suffering packaged as a fun lifestyle column to entertain readers.
2) It was brave of this writer to share private experiences, and a shame that she was stuck with an audience of Daily Mail readers.
3) What was drawing me, as a reader? Was it a negative fascination with Ms Jones herself, or was it that I had a nagging feeling she might be playing a trick – leading readers to believe everything she said was confessional, and then possibly making things up?
4) Was I complicit in suffering as spectacle? After all, it doesn’t matter what you think about a crowd if you’re part of it.
So I stopped reading.
I have no easy answers to these questions. But I admire anyone who writes from a place of vulnerability, who writes of unpopular experiences, who opens their wounds in writing. I just hope that vulnerability can be handled with care, not exploited by other people.
Lastly my thoughts on this are summed up in Jenny’s Diski’s piece ‘In Defence of Liz Jones’ and I suggest you read it in its entirety:

“I couldn’t see what the universally abominated Liz Jones… had done wrong… She was making a very personal statement about what it was like to be someone who continuously experienced life as not worth living…
In a world that didn’t demand an upbeat ending to every story, she might have been thought to be offering a real insight into a long-term depressive’s point of view. Other people in her condition (I’m one of them), seeing the way she’d been attacked, might conclude that it was better not to talk about their experience, for all that society presently tells itself that it is vital for people to express their feelings.”

Thoughts about thinking

On being illogical
Once I got in trouble at school. I was pulled aside by a fearsome teacher who bellowed at me “YOUR PROBLEM IS THAT YOU CAN’T THINK PROPERLY!” I was sixteen at the time. I still don’t know what she meant.
Actually, this teacher was constantly telling me off for the illogical way I thought. (She once told me that sometimes I “bordered on lunacy”.) This is because grammar schools like logical thinkers, not scatty maladaptive daydreamers.
Anyway, a while ago it struck me that maybe I don’t think properly.
I’d just finished writing an opinion at the time. Looking at what I’d written, it hit me that this was apparently something I thought – but I didn’t
know I thought it, until I wrote it down.
I am very suggestible; I can convince myself of anything. Sometimes arguments about abstract topics don’t feel real to me, so I pick the side that seems least bad. Later on, I see a contradiction of the position I chose and realise that I should think that instead. I am at best thinking about things that involve real situations and people, rather than solving abstract logical problems.
I wrote in my notebook:

“Maybe I don’t really think – I just seem to absorb ideas and sensations and arrange my impressions somehow. (But then, isn’t that just another way of thinking? It is just not the trad. academic way, where you have very verbal and linear thought processes.)”

In Philosophy lessons, I always preferred discussing moral questions to solving logical ones. Ethical questions are so complex and many-sided that it was more fun to explore them, through narrative, questions and discussion, than to ‘solve’ them.
Perhaps this is because I was raised Christian. When Christians answer ethical questions they work from a firm moral foundation, which gives them confidence to approach the question from all angles and admit it if they don’t know the answer. But then, that’s not at all exclusive to Christianity.
Perhaps it’s because I seem to understand ethical problems best through narrative, not logic.

Unbalanced brains
When I had my ADHD assessment I tested highly on verbal comprehension, reading accuracy, spelling, and working memory. That made sense because I know I can write, analyse books, comprehend complex texts, and play around with words.
In contrast to that, I scored much lower on remembering sequences, and on processing speed.
The clinical psychologist told me I have a processing delay. That explained why I sometimes see something happen and take a minute to understand what I saw. It also explained why I was branded “slow” in school, despite simultaneously being labelled “gifted”.

A superior way of thinking?
Society prioritises a certain kind of thought. Logical, linear thought, rationality, and set opinions are valued over intuition, making connections, vision, sensing, receptivity, pattern recognition, faith, and observation.
The qualities I listed second are often seen as being fuzzy, imprecise, inferior ways to think. But I’d contest that qualities like intuition and sensing can be extremely precise and useful skills.
Take music: a good conductor should have a painfully acute ear, and must be able to sense the ebbing and flowing energy in a performance and pick out any mistakes immediately. They must observe every aspect of a performance. Most musicians can hear music in their head, and have a strong sense of beauty.
Learning the science of music requires logic, yes, but music requires all your abilities. Pattern recognition and sensing are vital to music, and other disciplines too. We undervalue those skills greatly.

Intellectualism
Let’s talk about the way Western society worships ‘cleverness’: which is basically seen as the ability to do maths and science, memorise a lot of information, problem-solve, and win arguments. In some circles, every issue must be up for debate (however sensitive), and being emotionally invested in a position is simply weird.
This attitude is based in a very white, Western, masculine conception of thought, which is itself rooted in structural oppression and prejudice. It was held for centuries that women are more intuitive, emotional, prone to hysteria and incapable of logic, whilst men were naturally more rational. (Those views are still being aired.) White supremacists also hold that other races are intellectually inferior and incapable of rational thought.
In this paradigm, white male = capable of rational thought, which makes you fully human (“I think, therefore I am.”) Anyone perceived to exist outside this bubble of rational thought must be less human. Rational thought has long been a trump card, held over the heads of people who are assumed to be inferior.

I am not saying that rational thought is Bad in itself; it can be used for great purposes, by people of any background. But I am saying that there is no superior thinking style, and that logic and rationality are perhaps overrated. Your way of thinking does not make you more or less human than anybody else. There is no inferior way to think!
Intuition, pattern recognition, sensing and emotion have long been seen as inferior to logic. How much of our prejudice against non-linear, intuitive thought is based on a bigoted view of thought?
That leads me on to my last point: that it’s ableist to worship logic.
I was 19 before I found out that some neurodivergent people find it hard to think in a linear, logical way. Before that I’d assumed being a good person and being rational were somehow the same thing, but neurodiversity advocates like Mel Baggs changed my perspective.
Much of Baggs’s writing is about hir thinking style, which is non-verbal and based on sensing and pattern recognition. Like many other Autistic people, sie is also preoccupied with ethics.
Being unable to think logically in the conventional way does not make someone wilfully ignorant, nor does logical ability necessarily make you a better person; you can build a logical argument to justify the most evil actions. Let’s not forget Aristotle and Plato argued logically for slavery, and 19th-century scientific racists thought their own arguments were highly rational. Thinking style has nothing to do with character or views.
However, different thinking styles have everything to do with people’s brains being wired differently, which makes for an interesting and diverse world.
So let’s not dislike ourselves for “not thinking properly”. Enjoy the way you think. It’s the only way you will ever know, and the world would be poorer without it.

“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.

Abusive feminists are not my ‘sisters’

There are three things I wish I’d known when I became a feminist.
Firstly, it doesn’t matter how you dress. (Wear what you want! Fashion should be a pleasure, not a chore.)
Secondly, my feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit*. (Flavia Dzodan.)
And third, a surprising number of well-known feminists – media-friendly, intelligent women – are abusive. They are prejudiced against vulnerable people, particularly trans women and sex workers. And by having a blind spot the size of Australia, mainstream feminist discourse manages to paint these feminists as victims of uppity minorities.
The power dynamic is positively dystopian.
Recently, an open letter appeared in the Observer, complaining of “a worrying pattern of intimidation and silencing of individuals whose views are deemed “transphobic” or “whorephobic””.
The letter is bollocks, for reasons that have been beautifully expressed elsewhere** and can be summed up thus:

– Feminist comedian Kate Smurthwaite lies that she was no-platformed by a university for her views on sex work, Muslim women and trans issues.
– Prominent academics and journalists, including several feminists, then use a national paper to collectively complain about being silenced: JeSuisSmurthwaite.
– Media storm ensues, with a huge backlash from trans people and sex workers.
– Ultimately, many of the signatories will profit from this mess, mostly by writing paid thinkpieces on free speech. They will then use their platform to continue accusing marginalised women of being ‘trolls’ and ‘bullies’.
– At least three of the signatories crying victimhood are white, cis feminists who have previously, unapologetically expressed virulently transphobic, whorephobic views.***
– These feminists are abusive.

For several years, I thought that talking about abuse by women (including the power dynamics between feminist communities) would be letting the side down. To discuss it would be to invite sexism, to perpetuate negative stereotypes of women and feminists as bitchy harpies. Of course, this reflects my position as a white, cis woman: this discomfort with seeing any woman in a bad light. I reasoned that although abuse by women was awful, it wasn’t a structural problem; that women hating each other must be ultimately down to patriarchy, and internalised misogyny. If it weren’t for that, we would all get along, as Feminist God intended us to.
Still, I wasn’t satisfied.
2013 brought more answers. After reading through the hashtag #solidarityisforwhitewomen****, I researched. I read about slave owners’ wives. I read about violence committed by white women against women of colour, particularly black women. I researched modern-day violence against disabled women, which is often committed by female carers, and violence against trans women and non-binary people.
The ‘sisterhood’ narrative ignores structural violence, power structures and everyday labour relations between women. It ignores the propensity of some people with a little bit of power to kick down, hard.

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“Made-up American disorder”: being an adult with ADD

“Kids: if anyone tells you you have ADHD, pay no attention.” – Sickipedia

I really wish I didn’t have to write this article. Believe me, given the choice I’d be sitting here writing a cheery short story, or a song about my cat… But circumstances have crept up on me, and now writing about my experience of ADD* (attention deficit disorder) feels unavoidable.
I write out of a sense of frustration. On its worst days, being the way I am is like having a tangle of wool for a brain; you’re told that you have to untangle the wool, but you can’t let anyone see what you’re doing. You can’t let anyone see that you’re struggling.
People often assume that I am better at life than I actually am. They tell me I seem calm and together, and wonder how I manage to pursue so many things I love. Actually, my life feels like a crazy balancing act sometimes – like juggling spoons on a tightrope.
I have always seen myself as a naturally visible, colourful person. But as an adult with ADD, as a multiply marginalised adult, I feel invisible sometimes, left behind by my inability to concentrate. I expect myself to be brilliant at everything, to have time for everything and everyone I love. Then I end up feeling burned out and inert, skipping between websites or activities at random, constantly late for everything, unable to do basic tasks. It is hard to do things that you love.
To be honest, when I see articles or blogs about children with ADD or ADHD I sometimes feel a slight surge of jealousy. These children, bright and brave: I don’t envy their struggle, which is one I know all too well, but I wish I could have got help at their age. I slipped through the net. I wasn’t diagnosed with ADD until age twenty-one, after turning up at the university student services offices and saying “I just can’t work. I want to work, I just can’t.”

Previously, my life had followed a pattern, which I noticed at age ten or eleven but felt unable to prevent. At the start of the school year I would be organised, proud of my new school books, determined not to make a mess of things this time. Eventually (usually by about December, sometimes even late September) I would slip into a hazy mess. A teacher once described me as “absent-minded professor.”
Books, pens, rulers and letters went missing, I seemed to scatter chaos wherever I went. In class, the teacher’s words buzzed around me: I ended up staring at the Kings and Queens chart on the classroom wall, while inconsequential thoughts rushed through my brain. Homework was handed in late, or went missing.
When things had truly descended into chaos, I would get told off by a teacher:
“What is going on? I know you can do so much better than this, if you just worked harder and got organised…”
I would apologise over and over, driven to contrition by the teacher’s concern. Then I would do an excellent run of homeworks or turn in a great project, partly out of guilt, also to prove that I wasn’t lazy.
I did not feel left behind. In the lessons I loved I sometimes felt I was speeding ahead, flying from A to Z while my classmates used the normal, plodding method to get from A to B. Yes, their method was correct, but if you flew you got a much better view.
Probably if I had been seen as a complete dunce, something might have been done earlier. But thanks to my mother – who had fought for me to be seen in the best way possible – I had gone down at an early age as a gifted child, which complicated things: everyone knows gifted children are different. Gifted allows you to be somewhat weird, whilst also raising everyone’s expectations.
When I went on to grammar school, my skill in some lessons (and the fact I was always reading) allowed me to slip the net again. Grammar school is a diffuse place in some ways, where it is easy to feel that no one is particularly concerned about you unless you fail spectacularly. For people who fail, quietly and consistently, in some areas of their lives and studies, it is easy to escape the radar. I was a quiet student, outspoken in the lessons I liked, daydreamy, and did not fit any stereotype. I passed my exams, sometimes doing very well.
Whenever the “organisation failure” did get noticed, I was blamed for allowing it to happen. (“The problem with you,” a teacher told me, “is that you don’t think properly. You jump to conclusions that amount to complete lunacy.”)

There is a laundry list of things that frustrated me then, and continue to exasperate me now: my inability to concentrate on things that aren’t immediately gripping. My distractibility. The fact I find it difficult to complete a project, after an enthusiastic start. The initial burst of energy, and the tailing off. The underachievement. I am painfully aware that I often start books and don’t finish them, that I usually can’t sit through a film, that I am not as good as I wish I was at any of the things I love. These days, I envy other people their persistence and ability to learn and retain information. I sometimes still feel this is all my fault, even though ADD is recognised as a disorder.
At twenty-one, I was sent to see a kind psychiatrist, who confirmed what the student office thought. He gently explained that he dealt with many talented young people who had struggled with these same symptoms, and that there were ways to cope with it.
Afterwards I spoke to my doctor, who looked sceptical. “We don’t really comment on ADD,” he told me, looking at my non-clinical report. “Plenty of doctors think it’s a made up American thing.” Other people said the same thing, more or less. A Google search results in “is ADD a real disease?” (New York Times), and “ADHD does not exist” (New York Post).
It’s odd, to live in this world. To know that there is a coherent explanation for the way you are, but to constantly see that explanation questioned or snatched away from you.
But, I have hope. Not so long ago, dyslexic children (like the novelist Sally Gardner) were being labelled “unteachable” and accused of laziness. But now, thankfully, dyslexia is much more accepted. Someday ADD will be accepted, too.
Perhaps that’s the reason this article has been nibbling at my brain: I want to prove that the way I am is real, that it matters.

*My official diagnosis is ADHD (inattentive type – not hyperactive) as a specific learning difficulty, not a medical diagnosis. As I am not hyperactive, I prefer to use the term ADD to describe myself. More information on the difference between ADD and ADHD here.

#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’.”

#HowOCDworks: Talking about OCD

Last Christmas I bought a graphic novel called The Nao of Brown. Huge, absorbing and intimate, it was the story of a young London woman of colour living with OCD. For the first time, I could see my own illness – flashes of intrusive thoughts, irrational fears, obsessions and compulsive habits – visualised in front of my eyes.
I thought about recommending the book to my family, but decided against it. One, the more you bang on about a book, the less people want to read it; two, did I really want them knowing what OCD was like?

Skip to now. I walk into the kitchen at home, and find my dad reading the book. I do a double take. Although he knows I have OCD, we’ve never spoken about it very much.
We discussed the book. Then this happened:
Him: “So is this what it’s like, having OCD?”
Me: [hesitates] “Yes, it is. But…”
Then we talked about it.
Nao of Brown is not a perfect book – it forces OCD into a cinematic narrative, along with other problems. But still! He had been given an insight, we’d had a conversation about it. I was amazed that a single book could do that.

The thing is, OCD is hard to talk about.
The problem with speaking about it in any way is that it is a very misunderstood illness, one that plays on our worst fears. For many people, it’s hard to speak about any of their OCD obsessions, fears or worries at all.
We’re developing the tools to talk about depression, self harm and eating disorders, and I’m forever thankful for it. But there’s work to be done.
It’s not always enough to hope a book ends up in the right hands; being able to talk about OCD gives you power. So does having your mental illness respected and validated.
These are some usual responses to disclosing that you have OCD:

  • “What’s OCD?”
  • “OCD? But you’re not neat”
  • “Oh, I saw a documentary about that!” [goes on to explain how OCD works]
  • “But OCD’s a SEVERE mental illness. People are COMMITTED because of OCD. You don’t have OCD. You’re just anxious. You’re an anxious person. You should try improving your diet.”
  • “Are you sure you have OCD?”
  • “So what’s it like having OCD?”
  • “I have OCD too! I’ve got these weird habits like only eating red smarties!”

I don’t blame anyone for saying things like this. It’s hard to know anything about OCD when it’s so misunderstood and there is so little information about it. It’s a vicious cycle: OCD is hard to talk about: we have very little cultural precedent for discussing OCD openly, which makes it harder to talk about. So we don’t talk about it.
But we can change that.
For people with OCD, it should be possible to verbalise the fact that you have OCD without necessarily having to:

  • explain your entire experience of living with a painful mental illness
  • talk about your actual intrusive thoughts and obsessions to a near-stranger, as though you’re speaking to a therapist
  • clarify that you’re not making it up
  • have your honesty and self-knowledge questioned
  • have your illness trivialised and compared to other people’s silly habits
  • having your life experience taken as being universal for everyone who has OCD

So for people who don’t have OCD, here are some ways you can help:

  • Don’t ask people with OCD to explain their lives to you, if they don’t want to!
    Everyone’s experiences are different. Mentally ill people are not robots who can explain their mental illness to you on command.
    You need permission, trust, and respect to have conversations like this.
    I am happy to talk about OCD if you have my permission and trust, and I know there is enough respect between us for you to take it seriously!
    Similarly, if you don’t know the person well don’t ask what kind of intrusive thoughts they have. This is an upsetting subject for the person with OCD, and it takes a lot of trust to discuss it.
  • Don’t assume people with OCD are all neat.
    Some of us are neat. Some of us are messy. Some of us have OCD rituals like cleaning, others just have intrusive thoughts. Some of us are shy, others are extroverted. Many of us have other mental illnesses, or mental or physical disabilities. Some of us have mild OCD, for other people it is so severe they have to be hospitalised.
    In short, just accept what the person is like. Accept their experiences are real. Don’t use their personal habits to question their OCD.
  • You are not an expert because you read one article or watched one documentary!
    Most documentaries and articles about OCD pick the most sensational cases. If you don’t have OCD, you are much better off assuming you don’t know much from the jump. And don’t hand out diet and lifestyle advice when it’s not asked for.
  • Don’t explain to people who have OCD what OCD is like.
    We know, dude.
  • Don’t assume the experiences of one person with OCD are universal.
    People have done this with me, which is why I try to clarify that my life experiences are not the norm. Nor am I an expert: I’m just a young white cartoonist, in South London.
    There is no such thing as a typical life experience, or a normal manifestation of OCD. Be open to the fact that people’s experiences are different.
  • Do not ask people if they’re “sure” they have OCD!
    If someone has diagnosed themselves, they are probably already questioning and feeling a huge amount of self doubt. If you’re not a doctor and don’t know much about OCD, there’s no reason for you to add to that load.
    If someone is officially diagnosed by a doctor, they’re probably already worried that no one takes their OCD seriously.
    If the person who has disclosed OCD to you is a friend or colleague, offer your support. If they’re not close, accept their word. It is OK to say you don’t understand and OK to ask questions, so long as you ask permission first.
  • Don’t trivialise. Don’t crack a joke.
    Disclosing a mental illness isn’t usually much fun: it takes trust. People disclosing will probably be nervous. It’s generally not the right time to try and lighten the mood, especially if you don’t know the person too well yet.
    Be sensitive to the tone and subject of the conversation.
    Yeah, some people cope with difficult situations with humour, and people with OCD might do that too. But there’s a time and a place for everything. The person disclosing will probably be a lot more nervous than you!

That goes for other mental illnesses, as well!

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.