July 8, 2013

Juliette BurtonPerception is a funny thing... And “funny” is a strange thing to perceive. As a comedy writer and performer I like making fun of things that I feel angered or frightened by. Perceptions can both anger and frighten me...

I have acute body dysmorphia and a lifelong struggle with various eating disorders, depression and anxiety. Because of this, I often can't trust my perception of myself, my body or sometimes the world around me. My perception can be distorted; it caused me to believe I had to lose weight when I was a month away from dying from starvation. When I was sectioned for anorexia I had a psychotic episode; the hallucinations I experienced during that episode challenged my perception of the world around me powerfully.

Over the years I've learnt how to accept my mental health problems – I’m still learning. Honesty has been a huge part of this; the more honest I've been about my illnesses, the more I've learnt; the more I've met other people like me on a path of recovery; the more I've met people who've accepted me as I am; the more I've accepted myself and the realities of living with my problems. Thanks to the kind people who know to treat me no differently – the people who see me and not my illness - I'm learning to do the same.

This honesty is now fuelling my comedy

This honesty is now fuelling my comedy; I started to address my mental health problems in my shows. I want to be open about all my experiences to challenge the wider perception of mental health problems. I want to be a part of this much-needed dialogue. People want to talk about mental health now, it's no longer something to keep quiet about.

Nowhere did I see this more clearly than in the response to a recent press interview. In a wonderfully intimate interview with comedy blogger John Fleming I opened up more than ever before about my psychosis, my eating disorders and my experience of being sectioned.

What would people think?!

As I walked away from talking with John it suddenly struck me – what would people think?! My friends, my family and the public; what if they thought I was a crazy nutcase?! Because, well, you know, I AM! I needn't have worried, the response was overwhelmingly positive. Sure, some of my friends didn't comment but some friends said they were reminded that I'm a “tough cookie” (food pun intended I hope!).

On Twitter I gained many new followers and people tweeted me to share their stories. It was like having a verbal hug every time I received a new message: “It's great to have such strong voices speaking out”, “Thank you for your honesty and integrity”, “You have to have the darkness to appreciate the light”. Someone even quoted me in a tweet to Stephen Fry (one of my heroes!) and one lovely new Twitter follower told me that, having just been discharged from his psychiatric nurse, reading my interview gave him hope. I felt so blessed and excited to hear from him – in a small way I'd help him feel less alone at a time when loneliness could be a very real threat.

It opens up that dialogue and welcomes other people to do the same

My family's response to the interview was…British. With their stiff upper lip fully starched they remained on the fence; those closest to me often appear concerned that by being so open in interviews or in my shows I risk being vulnerable. They’ve seen that my mental health issues can take me down a dark and dangerous road of isolation. And they fear some people's perception of mental health issues might mean I'm isolated once more. But I have emphatically decided that being vulnerable is a good thing.

Vulnerability is frightening, but it's also honest. Honesty is real. And facing up to reality is a part of recovery. It might be frightening, to me and to others, but I want to be brave. It then opens up that dialogue and welcomes other people to do the same.

If some don't want their perception of people, like me, with mental health issues challenged, that is their choice. But for every one person like that there are more who are open-minded enough to listen to my experiences and change their perception by becoming more informed. And there are the 1 in 4 people who might just see my openness as an invitation to feel less isolated themselves.

I still struggle daily with my mental health problems; my perception of myself, my body and the world around me. But perception is a very funny thing. And funny things deserve to be laughed at.

What do you think about the issues raised in this blog?

Share your views with us on Twitter >>

Or sign our pledge wall to show your support and find out how talking tackles mental health discrimination.

Juliette will perform her new show ‘When I Grow Up’ at the Gilded Balloon at 1.15pm from 31st July to 26th August (not 13th). To buy tickets visit https://www.edfringe.com/whats-on/comedy/when-i-grow-up and for more information visit http://maceandburton.com/whenigrowup/

Share your story

Too many people are made to feel ashamed. By sharing your story, you can help spread knowledge and perspective about mental illness that could change the way people think about it.