April 4, 2012

AJ blogs for Time to ChangeSo, I’m sat on the sofa on a Sunday morning, bleary eyed and (Time to Change) mug of hot chocolate in hand, digesting what happened the day before. Yesterday I came out to the public as 1 in 4. I didn’t know what to expect, or how I would react... never mind the reaction of those I told my story to! But let me tell you this, I was not expecting the result I got from being part of the Time To Change Village on Southbank.

I was diagnosed with Developmental Trauma Disorder in January this year. Years of telling myself that I was okay, that I could handle things on my own, I was lying to myself. I should have noticed with the years of depression, anger, anxiety, self-harming, that I was not okay. I refused to deal with the truth, and I was determined to ‘be the strong one’. Because being mentally ill, being in distress is a weakness, right? I wish I could talk to my teenage self and tell her how wrong she was.

Supressing all those feelings, not seeking help or letting someone, anyone know ‘I’m not okay’, has led to physical symptoms. Being afraid (or too damn stubborn) to deal with my mental health has done me a lot of damage. A few months ago they surfaced as something called Psychogenic  Seizures. Full on, unconscious, very scary seizures. I know this is an extreme example of what can happen if you put on that typical false smile and try to soldier on through, but it was a serious wake up call for me. I need to look after my Mental Health.

So this is where the Time To Change Village came in. I had followed Time To Change for a while. I followed their sofa tour on the internet trying to pluck up the courage to go and have a chat, but I never quite managed it. As soon as I heard they were looking for volunteers with lived experience for the village on the Southbank, I knew I couldn’t refuse.

I walked up to the village on the day and I was terrified, but I knew I wanted people to be open, honest and relaxed during conversations about mental health. I thought: ‘If I just get one person to open up with their loved ones or GP about how they are feeling, I may help prevent them from getting the physical symptoms like me’. I wouldn’t wish these seizures on anyone (not even those who caused my DTD in the first place!). If I am able to help one person, then I know I would have achieved something major.

I was on the second shift, with my very supportive partner. As we wandered into the village I gripped his hand tightly. All those people in white tshirts brimming with confidence, strutting up to the public and sparking up conversations. How the hell was I going to do that?! I noticed a friendly face in the co-ordinators, and other volunteers who I had met at the training earlier in the week. My anxiety eased.  After our briefing I was raring to go. Confidence bubbled from somewhere hidden inside me, I marched up to the first couple I could see:

“Excuse me, we are here today to raise awareness of mental health. I’m not after any….”

I didn’t get to finish my sentence. They walked straight past and ignored me. My face dropped and I could feel my 'Black Dog' eyeing me up from a distance.

Nope, I was there to help people shake off the Black Dog, not encourage mine to visit! I took a deep breath, put on my best grin and tried again with the next walker by.

Success! They stopped, took a leaflet and looked at me expectantly. This is it, I’m about to tell my story in 30 seconds to a complete stranger in the middle of London. Anything I had planned to say had gone out the window, it all came direct from my heart. I explained our campaign, and waffled on about why it was important to me to raise awareness. They smiled. They actually, genuinely smiled! I got asked questions and they seemed truly interested in what I had to say. A massive weight was lifted. I’d done it, I’d achieved my goal of getting someone talking about mental health openly and honestly.

After that, there was no stopping me. 48 meaningful conversations in 3 hours, and not a single negative remark. I had a few looks of shock when I explained how common mental health problems are, and a few looks of sympathy when I explained about my seizures. Those reactions were short lived. I got thanked so many times for talking about my experiences that I lost count. I had people open up about their family, their friends, and their own concerns around MH. I even got a pledge from someone that they would go and visit a friend who has been experiencing problems that very night, just to ask how they are. Perfect.

6 o’clock came and I didn’t want the day to end. I’d learnt new things, met new people, been interviewed about my own experiences. Even though I was so cold that I could have sworn my jaw was about to fall off from all the chattering, I was warm inside, and grinning from ear to ear.

Yesterday wasn’t just about raising awareness of others, it was about helping myself. I now believe my own words… It is okay to not be okay. Thank you Time To Change, because of your village I feel I am finally on the road to recovery and accepting my illness.

I am 1 in 4, and I’m proud to declare that to the world. (Now just to tell my Mum!)

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