“I WOULD never have suspected.”
Those five words are innocuous in that short sentence, but their impact on me was bigger.
I had spoken previously to a handful of people before then about my experience of living with anxiety, and managing depression too. But it’s only when somebody comments on a disguise, that you realise how effective it has been. I hadn’t consciously put one on, rather grown into it. There is, not now or ever, any intention to deceive on my part, but concealment seemed the comfiest fit – the best way to get through next day.
That’s as far ahead as I look.
As for the five words, it’s what my friend said next that struck a chord; “That’s what prompted me to go get help and advice,” she added. This is somebody I know well and knowing that I’d been through a tough and challenging time – a person they believe successfully projects a version of themselves to the outside world that portrays something different – had become a spur for them to act.
It surprised me too, but in a wholly transformative way. I had never given much thought to how sharing that side of me with anybody would be received. After all, the prospect of doing so felt scary and out of my control. I volunteered to become a Time to Change Champion earlier this year, and that exchange with a friend was a catalyst.
As I’ve started to become more open about what I’m going through – whether it’s a comment here or a social media post there – the response I have continues to inspire me. My phone has lit up more than once with a text offering words of support. Others have sent me a message privately online. Not once have I felt pressure to confess anything but I have felt comfort, relief too, from knowing there are people out there rooting for me.
That’s not to say I doubted as much, but the fact they reaffirm it is so heartening. But those same words – ‘I would never have guessed’ – have been repeated over and over.
And they resonate.
I don’t know if they’re genuinely surprised, or maybe don’t know what else to say. If they had recognised signs, wouldn’t they have said something? How many others around us, who we talk to daily, are wearing a similar disguise to the one I have? That’s why I signed up to be a Champion.
I’m not sure I’ve ever felt ashamed, but I’ve certainly been careful about what I’ve written or said. That’s been a survival mechanism, and it works. I don’t want it to be that way though. For those that don’t know, Time to Change invites supporters to sign a pledge wall, promising to play their part in helping to end mental health stigma. It’s one of the first things I did, and my promise reads: "As somebody who has needed - and richly benefited from - support and understanding to handle my own emotional and psychological challenges previously, I pledge to use that empathy and experience to raise awareness, confront stigma and help inspire a change in attitudes towards mental health issues."
I’ve no idea if that’s too ambitious, but as a journalist my reserves of perseverance are plentiful! I’ll stick at it. This isn’t a personal quest to get others, whether I know them or not, to go and get help. Nor am I seeking sympathy.
I can’t diagnose a mental health issue somebody else has although I probably am able to recognise some of the signs. Depression made me insular, inadvertently selfish, and in some ways counter-intuitive to talk or write openly about how it feels. But the potential benefits of doing so, be that convincing others to change how they engage with mental health issues or directly challenging discrimination, make the effort worthwhile.
To finish, I’ll share a secret:
I carry with me everywhere a folded piece of blue paper, on which I’ve scribbled a collection of handwritten notes and words. They include advice, addressed to myself, that I wrote during a moment of reflection after visiting a museum exhibition in London on the history of mental illness, asylums and people’s attitudes towards both in the UK.
‘What support might you need if you were struggling with your mental health?’ is one of the questions I answered. I won’t share all of what I’ve scrawled, save for a single word: ‘reassurance.’
Why that one? Because even the guy that you’d never suspect can benefit from a reminder that it’s perfectly ok to struggle.