Yesterday, I took a train through central London. That sounds unremarkable – millions of people do this every day. But getting on that train is something that, in the last six months, I have been unable to do.
Late last year, I was caught up in the Paris terror attacks. This led to a resurgence of the post-traumatic stress disorder I had developed – but largely got over – after a man tried to strangle me to death in 2010. As a result, almost overnight, the world became set with traps, crawling with men who were determined to kill me.
Every unattended bag, police car, low flying helicopter, sudden noise or movement or sign of “suspicious” behaviour convinced me that another terror attack was unfolding. Every minor symptom was a life threatening illness. Every unanswered text was a dead family member or friend.
In my sleep, I heard French sirens, felt the cold metal of a gun being held to my head. I still do, some nights.
I don’t write this to invite pity, but to highlight how mental illness can afflict anyone – even people like me.
From the outside, I am a functioning member of society. I write columns in national newspapers, I go to the office, I see my friends, I go for weekends away. But while I’m doing these things, and though you’d never know it, I might at the same time be imagining myself lying on a pavement bleeding to death, or dying of cancer. But I suppose if you’d seen sobbing my heart out on the bus last week, as my legs shook beneath me because I was convinced there was a bomb on board, you might have some kind of inkling.
It seems not a day goes by without the issue of mental health entering our national consciousness, whether a public figure has opened up about their own struggle or another report is published on the funding crisis in mental health services.
This week, the actress Sheridan Smith faced stigma and abuse as she was signed off for up to a month from the West End show Funny Girl, in which she plays a leading role, because of stress and exhaustion.
We also heard of the suicide of author and agony aunt Sally Brampton, a woman who fought depression for many years and whose 2008 memoir Shoot the Damn Dog highlighted in raw detail how success, visibility and status do little to shield a person from the horrors of mental illness.
In the years since Brampton’s memoir was first published, the way we talk about mental illness has undergone a heartening transformation. Social media – so often criticised as a meretricious lens through which we show only the sunniest aspects of our lives – has provided many people struggling with mental illness with an outlet.
Facebook support groups and message boards abound; news feeds are populated by members naming “three good things” that happened to them today. When a friend on social media shared publicly that he was battling depression, the response under his post was sympathetic, kind and encouraging. When another male friend said, matter of factly, that he regularly goes to see a therapist I felt an overwhelming sense of pride.
In the middle of a male suicide epidemic that is killing our fathers, our brothers, our boyfriends, husbands and sons, public conversations like these are crucial. Anyone who has felt the way mental illness constricts your world, making it smaller and lonelier, knows that another human puncturing the foggy barrier you inhabit, through understanding, tenderness and support, has the ability to save a life.
And while it’s important to highlight the stigma faced by Sheridan Smith and others who are honest about their condition, it’s vital too that we celebrate this new openness too. It is a sign of the most stupendous progress.
In 2015, Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive, which detailed his struggle with anxiety and depression, was a huge bestseller – partly as a result of its unapologetic frankness, but also because of the story of hope than runs through work. He writes: “Life is waiting for you. You might be stuck here for a while, but the world isn’t going anywhere. Hang on in there if you can. Life is always worth it.” Vital words.
Partly as a result of Haig’s success, the mental health memoir has become a publishing phenomenon. A Vice article about anxiety, written by senior editor Eleanor Morgan, went viral last year and has since inspired a brilliant forthcoming book, Anxiety for Beginners.
“People – high-functioning, highly successful people – are crying out to talk about their struggles with mental health,” she wrote in the original article. “No one would feel ashamed discussing an arrhythmia: why should an instability in the brain be taboo over one in the heart?” Morgan’s refreshing book is written in the frank, confiding, witty voice of a person facing and trying to make sense a tide of psychological bullshit; a person who could, ultimately, be any one of us.
The journalist Bryony Gordon is also shortly to release her second memoir, entitled Mad Girl. I wasn’t a particular fan of her first book, The Wrong Knickers – didn’t everyone take drugs and have one night stands throughout their twenties? What is clear from her follow is that Gordon was struggling desperately with obsessive compulsive disorder throughout this period of her life. Mad Girl, a vivid page-turner with an intensely moving ending, is the best thing she has written. It feels like you are seeing her properly for the first time, and its frank honesty will inspire.
These are just two examples of a publishing trend with more to come, from Bryony Kimmings and Tim Grayburn’s Boys Don’t Cry, Emily Reynolds’ A Beginner’s Guide to Losing Your Mind to James Dawson’s Mind Your Head. That such a variety of stories about mental health is being told represents a monumental cultural shift.
We are making progress. To hear another person open up about their difficulties has the effect of making people like me not just feel less alone, but also less ashamed. Because, though the external stigma of mental illness is significant and damaging, it is often never nearly so bad as the stigma we create for ourselves.
I felt ashamed to tell you that I am often too frightened to get on a train. I felt that it exposed me as weak, or a failure, or a nutter.
But I told you anyway, because writers such as Brampton and Haig, Morgan and Gordon, gave me permission to do so with my head held high. And that, on its own, is huge.
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