Why didn’t I want to talk? I debated for a bit as to whether I should delve back into this world, in truth I debated on my bus ride home today (technically now yesterday, as you’re reading this…) but it seems as good a question as any to be asking on Time to Talk day, as well as covering just why it is so important to talk about mental health problems but that’s for later.
It’s a cause that is ingrained in my being due to my experiences with depression and social anxiety. Talking is massive, for someone battling mental illness, for someone who doesn’t understand it, for dismantling stigmas and fighting these horrid fuckers – it really is everything.
For a while “I’m fine” or “I’ll be fine” was practically my catchphrase. I didn’t want to talk because I didn’t understand, I was frightened and I just didn’t know where to begin or what was happening.
Today, I’m 23 years old. I have a job. I’ve got a first class journalism degree in my back pocket. I’ve conquered a lot of my demons but undoubtedly, there are still battles to be fought, wars to be won and all that business. If we fast forward back ten years ago, however, the contrast is stark.
A few years earlier I’d been uprooted from a quiet little village in Suffolk to go and live in the hustle and bustle of Basel, Switzerland. Now, technically I wasn’t living in Switzerland at first but the trip to school involved darting through France, Germany and eventually die Schweiz. It was some difference from just being able to take a ten minute walk to my primary school back in the day.
Nonetheless, despite initial fears, I embraced it. I had classmates from here, there and everywhere. I had a fantastic teacher. I had football. I had a lot of good things going me and bar a bout of homesickness at ski camp, bearing in mind I was 11 and I’d never been away from home before for a proper length of time, I can honestly say I was happy. There was a while though where I blamed Switzerland and my school for what I went through which on reflection, was unfair. It’ll come later but I built up an eventual return to England as if it were the holy grail. Instead, I was just me. Wherever I’d been, I think I would have faced what I did.
I shot through puberty like Usain Bolt charging to victory in the 100 meters. I don’t think that helped. Suddenly I was bigger, smellier and uglier and for someone who’d always been a bit shy, it wasn’t an easy thing to tussle with. The shyness had always been a factor for me. Wherever I’d been. I had never been the life and soul of the party but I think people liked me. I think I was good company. I’d tell jokes. I’d talk Football. I’d try give advice. I’d simply try be a good friend. I was always much better at doing this one-on-one, as opposed to in a large group however. The cracks steadily started to appear during these next two years as shyness began to twist into social anxiety. Ten years ago, 2007, that’s when it started.
I can remember it vividly. We had some sort of activity day in school – okay, perhaps I can’t remember it quite as vividly as I thought. But we were paired off in groups, we were going to have to present and I don’t think I knew my group members quite as well as I knew others. Panic set in. Discomfort. It was nothing they were doing, I should add, I was simply really shy and this was a bridge too far for myself. My panic took me into the bathroom where I ended up caught in a vicious circle, crying out of panic, crying out of frustration, feeling sorry for myself and feeling angry at myself all at once.
That was my first taste of social anxiety, and boy, it was about to twist the knife. Such occurrences didn’t really happen for the rest of that school year, on memory. There may have been one or two, or my brain is simply focused on 2007/2008 so let’s get to that.
It took 3 days to fall to pieces. I really can’t tell you what had changed, I can’t tell you what was the overriding driver behind my struggles except simply, I didn’t like myself and I just wasn’t happy.
My feelings of self hatred I projected onto others. If you don’t like yourself, then why are you going to believe someone giving you compliments? Why are you going to believe someone can like you? I appreciate it can be a very frustrating aspect of someone with depression and anxiety that they think like this, but we can’t help it – at least, we can’t quite do it on our own. The thought of school terrified me, to be honest with you. It terrified me so much that I recall far too well whirling into such a panic that I vomited all over my mum’s car. Sorry, mum! Needless to say, I didn’t end up going in that day.
Back then, I had no idea what this was or what was happening to me. Unfortunately, the episodes continued and culminated in skipping classes as I just physically couldn’t make myself go inside. It all came to a head a few weeks into the year when my mum was meeting with my head of year, due to my struggles, and found me in floods of tears wandering the hallways. By now, this wasn’t just social anxiety, there was something else gnawing away at me.
Before I get to the D word – no, not that one, get your mind out of the gutter! But before I get there, what is social anxiety? In my experience, social anxiety is being trapped inside yourself, feeling that there’s a million awesome things you could be, that there’s a million awesome things that you could do, but simply your brain and your body won’t allow you to do them.
It’s this brutal mess of vicious circles and self-fulfilling prophecies. There were some great people at my Sixth Form (2010-2012, we’ve jumped forwards a bit here), but there are friendships and experiences I could have had if I could have toppled my social anxiety. In fairness, I’d just arrived back from Switzerland and was the only one who didn’t actually know anybody else – which is hard enough if you’re the life and soul of the party, but I digress.
The mind of someone with social anxiety is an exhausting mess. Here’s an example for you, take those Sixth Form days, I’d want to make friends but I wouldn’t feel confident enough to put myself out there, I’d worry about being judged, I’d worry they’d ignore me, I’d worry they’d tell me where to go. Of course, this wasn’t a reflection on them. It was a projection of my own feelings onto everyone else which in turn, became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I’d avoid people and think they were avoiding me, proving to me that I was right to be hesitant in putting myself out there. I was right that it wouldn’t work. Of course, it wasn’t that. It was simply a case that I gave the facade of someone who didn’t want to hang around with others.
It’s brutal. It’s exhausting. It’s demoralising.
Now, depression. Depression is probably my biggest fear, simply due to just how remarkably small it can make you feel, just how hopeless and bleak it can feel. Depression is like a permanent bully, stood beside you, bringing you down, crippling you and driving you towards surrender.
The fact was, my social anxiety had handed me so many self fulfilling prophecies and exhausted me so much, the whole fun of life had been sucked out of me. My self esteem was on the floor. My self belief was zero. My whole race was run. I flicked between therapists until I found Judith, who will forever be one of my heroes. I came to an agreement with school that I’d do half days and build myself back up as we’d reached a tipping point. After my mum found me, I missed the next week or so as I genuinely felt finished. I was 13/14, in a foreign country and I just had no idea what was happening to me at all. It was honestly terrifying.
I didn’t want to go back. Absolutely not. There was not a bone in my body that wanted to return to school. Again, it’s all a bit sketchy here – I remember the day I was due to go back, I frazzled out again, thanks, anxiety! And thus, it was the day after. It was gruelling hanging in there and I felt cut off and alone, simply as I knew it must be weird. I was missing school. I was disappearing in the afternoon. None of my classmates were any the wiser – but when I talk of heroes, I think that class of 8 Red is always going to be one that’s special to me as well and I’ll eventually explain why.
Well actually, I’ll explain now. It’s time to talk day and this couldn’t be more apt.
I was hanging in there but that was it. I was just doing what I had to do to get by. I was still doing my half days. All my teachers knew what the deal was, but my classmates didn’t. It all changed during a drama class. I’d decided I wanted to simply explain to them what was going, why I was like I was, where I disappeared to and what was going on.
So that’s exactly what I did. We sat around in a circle and I did my utmost to coherently explain my situation, I think I made sure to clarify that it was no reflection on them and I just… I didn’t want anyone to think I was lazy or a slacker or just plain rude. I wanted them to know that I didn’t want to be this way. I wanted them to know that I was doing everything to try and beat it. So yeah. I told them everything. I broke down a few times as talking? It is IFD. Immensely. Fucking. Difficult. But it is also UBL. Unbelievably. Bloody. Liberating.
Suddenly, I had boosted my numbers in my battle. I’d become less alone through a ten minute monologue and you know something? They were remarkable with me. They really had my back. They really looked out for me. I can’t imagine it was easy. They were just kids themselves, well… just kids sounds wrong. I guess what I’m getting at is, it couldn’t have been easy for them to understand but they gave me everything. I’m not in touch with a great many of them nowadays but I’ll never forget them. With everything I was up against, I don’t think I could have had better backing.
Talking is power. This really is something I’ve only recently come to realise, but it absolutely is. It’s not recovery but it shrugs a monkey off your back. My parents knew. My teachers knew. My friends knew. I wasn’t alone. If I was having a bad day, I’d broken down that first walk and I could talk to someone. It’s the first step in looking depression in the eye and saying, I’m not going to take this. Fuck you.
But it’s not a magic fix.
As I began to stay a little longer at school, I began to have mood swings. I was keeping a report folder thing for my head of year, almost like a mood diary in which I was grading how things were going. I think I put an 11/10 on there one day. I genuinely couldn’t tell you if it was real, or if I was act by or if I was blindly hoping that this is who I could turn into. If you remember that I was struggling with social anxiety, you’ll understand why what happened hit me so hard…
So. I had done one presentation in front of the class – and I mean, Jesus. Standing up in front heaps of people. Talking. Bloody hell, it was my worst nightmare! But I did it. I flourished. I was funny. Yes! Me! I was actually funny. It was like rocket fuel, as if my blood was Lindt chocolate and I was sitting on a cloud, being hugged by rainbows and fed Jaffa cakes or something.
But with that, I put pressure on myself. In fairness to me, that presentation flowed naturally as i was just being me. I’ve got quite a dry sense of humour and I just relaxed and let it happen. The next presentation that came around, I forced it and I felt it was a trainwreck. Nobody had said a thing. Nobody had reacted badly. Honest to god, nobody had done a thing.
But I felt it. And that’s what mattered. I left the class, I went to the bathroom and I wasn’t sad. I was angry. I was humiliated. I was ferocious. I was fed up.
When you’re battling this shit, every setback is a punch to the gut. Every bad day you take to heart. This episode was exactly that. This was rock bottom in the blink of an eye. It simply spiraled out of control. The good thing about my episodes was I’d burn out, I wouldn’t have the energy to sustain them and eventually I’d just fizzle out.
Here was no different. So what did I do?
I managed to pull myself out of it far enough and I called my therapist, Judith. I explained. We went from there. Now, I won’t lie. We went somewhere a little worse before we went somewhere better, but the point is – talking got me on the road. Talking opened up different avenues whereas keeping silent would have driven me deeper into my depression.
That was rock bottom and I started to scrap my way up from there slowly. It was a stuttering, bumpy ride, rather than a graceful flight from A to B but it was never going to be anything else. That’s the nature of it. It takes a lot of time.
The following year, I got into football. I was goalkeeper for one of the school teams and this was big for me. Football in general was. It was something I really loved going into school for – to escape at lunch to play in goal, pulling off whatever saves I could, just having a great time with my mates. It was a release. It was an escape. It was somewhere I felt useful. I felt vindicated. I just felt good.
I pulled off a fairly impressive drama monologue if I do say so myself in front of an auditorium filled with people.
Despite the good memories beginning to outweigh the bad ones, I don’t think I worked as hard as I could have in fully beating my social anxiety. While depression had fallen away, I still wasn’t where I wanted to be and in a sense, I’d convinced myself that leaving for England in 2010 would fix my problems.
Spoiler. It didn’t.
That’s the nature of it. I just wasn’t there. Rather than talk and push on, I built England up in my mind. It really wasn’t all that and I struggled once more. Despite knowing the value of talking, I didn’t come out and say I was struggling – even having had chances to do so. Whether it was pride, or just that it crushed me a bit this wasn’t going to be the magical homecoming I thought, I just couldn’t get talking.
I ended up bashing my hand against a wall, stumbling up with the lame excuse that I “fell on it”. It was spawn from a mix of anger and a desperate cry for help. It worked and I got on the road once more. I wouldn’t say this was anywhere near as bad as what I faced in Switzerland, but it was really difficult being with a bunch of people who didn’t know me that well – that was nobody’s fault, it was just circumstance so eventually, I got talking again. You know what A-Levels are like, all your classes are different so that involved three different speeches.
Again, I think it helped. It didn’t really spark a mass upturn like Switzerland did and as I said earlier, I think I missed out on a fair few Sixth Form memories and friendships which is a shame.
I’d say that it’s only recently I’ve learned the true value of talking. After my cancer, and another round with depression, I’ve really got far better at it. I keep people in the loop. I nip things in the bud as I best I can. I have my ups and downs but all in all, I am in a wildly better place. I have a way to go. Social anxiety is something I’m chipping away at and slowly dismantling but these things take time. I’ve always been shy and it’s not an easy habit to break.
But I really feel that I’m scrapping at the door. I’ve worked myself all the way up, I can see that light seeping through and I’ve just got to bang away that little bit harder to break down my final wall. I’m nearly there. It’s not going to be easy. But I sure as hell am going to do it.
And I’ll talk my way there. I’ve got a myriad of amazing people in my life, I’ve got my degree, I’ve got a great job basically what I’m saying is, all the foundations are there. Mental health doesn’t have to be your master. It doesn’t have to stop you living. It doesn’t have to isolate you and make you feel alone.
Talking is power. Whether you speak it or write it, just get it out there. Get it in the open and in turn, things will open up for you. You’re not just swirling downward, suddenly you’ve got other avenues you can travel down, other possibilities, support, help and people looking out for you.
Ultimately, you’re the one that has to push yourself on when you don’t want to, you’re the one that has to beat what you’re up against but you absolutely do not have to do it alone.
So. Time to talk. Get talking. You’ll be thankful for it.