August 10, 2015

Memory is a fickle thing; if I need to remember to buy washing powder from Sainsburys then there is a 100% chance of me completely forgetting it. On at least three consecutive occasions. Before I give up completely and buy it online. On the other hand there's the trivial things that stay with you decades later. Here are two that have stuck with me across the years:

"You'll have to learn to stand on your own two feet at some point"

It's 2002. I'm 19. I've been suffering with a mental illness for a year. I've not set foot on the University campus for about 6 months, and this is my second day back. I'm only attending a few lectures, and I've chosen this one because the young lecturer is interesting and great at explaining things. But let's be clear; I'm terrified. My secret weapon is a fellow student called Sarah. She has been employed by the support services at the university to take notes for me in lectures in order to free me up to concentrate on what is being said. As I walk into the room, I am metaphorically - and possibly literally - clinging onto Sarah. This is what happens next, and it takes all of 30 seconds: my lecturer gestures to Sarah and asks me who she is. I reply that she is my notetaker as I'm just returning to classes after a period of illness. And my lecturer replies that, it's OK for her to stay for the time being, but that; 'I'll have to learn to stand on my own two feet at some point'.

Support from someone else experiencing mental illness made me feel stronger

My second memory dates from around the same time. I was seeing a cognitive behavioural therapist who was also running a mindfulness based course for university students with mental health issues. I had attended the first mindfulness session with 14 other students and found it challenging and interesting. I was walking with friends on the campus only a few days later and saw one of the girls from the mindfulness group. Emma was in the second year of an English Literature degree and was bright, sexy, stylish and confident. She did a lot of smiling. She also suffered severely from anorexia. When I saw her, Emma was also with a group of friends. I made to walk by her without speaking - surely she wouldn't want to acknowledge someone she had met at a mental illness group. As I did so, she called my name and stopped me. She introduced me to her friends, and chatted to my friends for a couple of minutes. That's all she did. But the generosity, kinship and strength in that gesture made me feel stronger than at any time since I had become ill.

The effect of both experiences - one stigmatising and one supportive - has repeated on me countless times since

Both of these memories are brief, and both happened over a decade ago. But the effect of both - one stigmatising and one supportive - has repeated on me countless times since. The chemical cascade required to imprint a memory deeply on us is the same as that released when we become emotional about something. So a situation that raises strong emotions in us is one that we are likely to remember and re-live.

I view this as a challenge; to take every opportunity I can to create a positive memory for another person who's feeling vulnerable, as Emma did for me. And it's a challenge I accept.

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