Stephen, January 16, 2019

People are scared of the terms ‘mental health problems’ and ‘mental illness’. When I talked about my bipolar I was worried about  the reaction. - Stephen

People are scared of the terms ‘mental health problems’ and ‘mental illness.’ It makes many uncomfortable; turn their heads, look at their shoes, anything. Things are changing, but not soon, or fast enough.

But that’s why we are involved in this social movement isn’t it? To get rid of stigma, just erase it from society… What we are trying to say is that we are all people, and we all have challenges. We all live double lives to an extent – people only ever know what we want them to know… But if we don’t have an environment where people feel comfortable, and want to talk about themselves, and really share; double lives will still be hidden, and some (like mine was) extreme. And struggling in silence will still be like dark matter; a huge invisible part of our universe - one we can’t see and don’t understand.

But we can change this together. Whether like me you struggle with a mental health problem; you live with someone who does; or a friend or family member is living with a mental illness.

I struggled in silence for more than two decades… Well I say in silence. When I went through stages of extremely unstable and what people considered ‘out of character’ behaviour. I treated people like shit… They knew something was wrong, but just put it down to me being me… How would they know better?

But like most people with a mental illness, addiction or any other serious condition, I hit my rock bottom, the darkest of places. But I was lucky, I got a second chance; and started to try and help myself. And that meant talking – not just bullshit small-talk, actually talking… To my parents, friends, and eventually, my therapist (who I’ve been seeing intermittently for the last three years).

I’m not going to wave a magic wand and say it was easy, and it solved everything. It didn’t. In fact, it opened a lot of old wounds. With family and friends feeling guilty about not helping me and that my situation was their fault… But I put out that fire immediately… It was nonsense… Because here’s the thing, we cannot help each other if we don’t even know there is something wrong. Explaining this gave them a much better understanding of my condition and helped us all over the following months and years.

But they were still shocked, if not entirely surprised; but genuinely relieved I’d finally felt comfortable enough to be honest. And after a very uncomfortable initial stage, things started to get easier… For the first time in more than twenty years I felt like I was letting people get to know me; and wanted people to get to know me.

Work was more challenging… But people had seen I wasn’t right for some time.

And I was sick of just answering the question ‘How are you’ with the answer ‘Not bad’ when I was thinking ‘Well actually I didn’t sleep, couldn’t face looking in the mirror and don’t really want to talk to anyone’.

We don’t need to be that frank, but there is a middle-ground. For all of us…

What I would say is only ask someone ‘How are you?’ if you really mean it, and if you do, that’s awesome. Just be prepared the response might not always be ‘Yeah I’m fine’. After I started talking to people in my office a bit more, over a period of months, some mornings I would actually feel comfortable saying something like ‘My head’s not right, and I’m struggling. But I want to be here to try and keep a routine and not give up’.

Sounds heavy right? Maybe. But what I did previously, which was just sit, slump in my chair and withdraw, must’ve made people around me so uncomfortable, and I hated the thought of that… When I finally started sharing, I was worried about the reaction, we all have been or still are, but I should not have been. People around me were and are so supportive. Mental health problems affect so many people. And what I found is that as I started to open-up, so did other people. The tension began to ebb away, and it felt we were slowly becoming closer. I don’t mix business with pleasure – I’m quite reserved at work… But I like and respect the people I work with, and I believe relationships can only become stronger the more (comfortably) open and honest we can be.

In England, we are reserved, stiff upper lip and all that. The train syndrome – we’ll do anything not to interact with anyone… The last time I used a train the conductor even ended his announcement by saying ‘If you do not wish to be disturbed, please leave your tickets on the table ready for inspection’. I was dumbfounded. To me that’s the absolute polar-opposite of what we should be encouraging…

It’s not just people who struggle with mental illness who have problems, challenges and insecurities. Everyone does, and they’re all equally important. I’m bipolar; and go through phases of varying degrees of wellness. But during those times, I don’t want to be left alone, I don’t want people around me to feel uncomfortable, or feel sorry for me… I’m still trying to function, to live my life, to be productive, and I still want to hear about, and am interested in, what other people are going through, and how they are. It’s at the times we’re feeling low we need the people around us the most. I’m sure so many others must feel the same.

I cannot stress this enough, which is why I’m writing this, and written my book. I wish I had a transatlantic megaphone…. It’s better to say something, just to break the ice, to show people they matter; than say nothing, turn your head, or carry on walking… We’re all inherently tactile and perceptive - we can sense when something is not right, and we can decide to try and make a difference. We all have this unique, amazing and brilliant power within us. Not everyone wants to talk; or finds it easy. But everyone wants to know and feel that someone cares. And we all know how powerful a smile, or a simple kind word or gesture can be, and what a difference it can make to our day, our feelings or frame of mind, our lives... So, let’s make a difference, together…

It’s time to talk… talking changes lives.

@talkingcl

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