This Time Last Year – Mental Health Awareness Week

Fair warning – this is gonna get personal, and potentially pretty intense.

This week marks two things: Mental Health Awareness Week; and my dissertation hand in. It’s been a frantic week, people editing and writing to the wire. Not much sleep has been had, many coffees have been consumed, and hugs distributed en masse. Pictures have been taken, and congratulations sent. It feels like an ending. Sure, we still have exams, but there is something so final about dropping that wad of paper that we’ve been working on for over a year now into the submission box. It’s made me mad reflective.

Coincidentally, it is Mental Health Awareness Week. This year, there’s been some fantastic work done online, as well as a bunch of new content and projects being pushed into the limelight. It’s really nice. Since I got to uni, mental health has been at the forefront for me nearly constantly, whether that be my own, through my work with Student Minds UK, or my dissertation – the initial reason for me starting this blog. And now uni is over. The battle goes on, though, and I am incredibly lucky to have secured a job after I graduate working for The Shaw Mind Foundation and Trigger Press, a mental health charity and their publishing division. In my interview, they asked me what the five-year-plan was, and I responded, ‘Honestly, this was the five-year plan. I guess I’ll have to make a new one’. That got me thinking, as I’ve always been the sort of person to look to the future. Where sometimes it is terrifying, I was always taught growing up that the future is exciting, that it is going to be good. Coming to university, I figured out fairly quickly what I thought I wanted to do with my life, and I pushed for it. The plan kind of trailed off after that, as I didn’t know where I was going to be once I graduated. Now that I do, and now that university is coming to an end, I wanted to do something I tend to avoid: I want to take some time to look back.

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Yes, those are bunny ears made from pipe cleaners

A few weeks ago, during a particularly strong spell of nostalgia, I decided to look through some old diaries. I have always been terrible at keeping up with diaries – I never do them every day and usually lose the will after a few months. There will be three-month gaps where I write nothing, then a week where I write every day. I do believe diary-writing can have its benefits for mental health, but I remember finding that around this time last year, so much was going on, and so much of my time was geared towards what comes next, that I didn’t have time to dwell too much on what was happening, or had just happened. It started making me sad, so I stopped.

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This time last year, when we all did face masks and took the only photo in existence of all my flat together

Looking back on those entries, I cannot believe what I read. I messaged a friend as I went through it, and asked him how I couldn’t have seen how bad I was feeling. I was writing all this stuff about feeling trapped, or slow, or weighted down, but it was always followed with an ‘Ah well, such is life!’ kind of comment. Some of it was quite profound. One particular entry was based around me feeling slightly lighter than usual, and feeling completely caught off guard with it. Those days seemed so few and far between, and I had no idea. At the time, I was just getting through it as if it was normal. I was working, I was handing things in on time, I was going to the gym and seeing friends. But I was also writing things like ‘Whenever I’m with people, all I’m thinking about is when I can be alone again’. That day where I wrote about feeling better, I wrote to myself, ‘Your friends seem like people again’ and ‘Laughs reach your throat now. Not quite your heart, not quite your stomach, but it’s getting there’. Reading all this stuff, frankly, hit me very hard.

Reliving those moments made me see myself now incredibly differently. At that time, I was consistently, continuously tired but, because of who I am, I didn’t think it was that bad. It was just how things were, and I should be thankful for those days when I felt lighter. Those were the days that I held on to, so tightly, without even knowing why. Now, I can see why. Now, from a distance, I can see how much I was struggling, and how much I was working to get through it, and how tired that was making me. And it was exhausting. Now, I’m not tired unless I’ve been working all day, or out all night. Now, I look at my friends, and I feel so much for them; I wake up and I get up. I worry, but I don’t have to shut it down for fear of spiralling. I am mindful naturally, instead of forcing the calm to come. Now, I don’t have to feel thankful for the light days.

What I wanted to say with this is that I did something I never do, in looking back. I took the time to actually see something for what it was, and to give myself the acknowledgement that yeah, things were shit, really shit, for longer than I thought. But by doing that, I’ve been able to see how much things have changed. How different things are, not just with me, but with my relationships, my family and friends, my career. I am, for all intents and purposes, an entirely new person. I have different motivations, and goals. I want different things. But I am this way because of that time. The precedents I put in place then help me now, without even realising it. The time I spent trying to know my own mind, to calm it down, mean I do it without thinking now. The times I forced myself to be social, to smile, to interact, means I do it now easier and smoother than ever. Things that felt like chores then, are second nature now. And if that isn’t the best feeling in the world, then I don’t know what is.

This Mental Health Awareness Week, I wanted to think about how, with all the talk of living in the present, of mindfulness, and of acting for the future, it is also okay to think about the past. Looking back on myself this time last year has shown me how far I have come without realising. How things changed because I did things to change them, and how things do pay off eventually. We often think about the past through rose-tinted glasses, melancholic and nostalgic for the way things were once, and how we wished we could get them back. And that’s okay. It’s natural to reminisce. But it’s also important to recognise that it was bad sometimes, too. Things sucked sometimes. Acknowledging that not only gives you an immense power, but sometimes, like in my case, immense pride. I am scared of growing up, moving on from university and into the real world – massively scared. But looking back, I’ve done much more in a much worse frame of mind. And if I could achieve all this, after all that, then nothing seems all that scary anymore.

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Long story short, take the time this week to think about your past, not with a wistful eye, but with a look to the future. Miss the things you miss, but realise that there are a whole host of things you can be so glad are over. We need to change in order to grow but knowing where those roots came from is important. Be proud of them. I certainly am.

 

Here’s a list of people/organisations/content/resources I have used over the past year that have been invaluable to me:

 

  • Headspace, an app you can get free with Spotify Premium that talks you through meditation in an accessible, doable way.
  • Insight Timer, for those longer, bedtime talk-downs.
  • Daylio, which tracks my mood so I can see that yes, PMS really does make things worse.

 

  • Happy Place, a podcast by Ferne Cotton where she speaks to celebrities and public figures about their experiences with mental health in the most calming manner. 
  • Dodie Clark, for showing me that it’s okay not to know what you’re doing, but doing it anyway.
  • Matt Haig, for writing Reasons to Stay Alive, a book I needed before I needed it. 

 

  • My friends and my family, who are all as mad as me, but endlessly loyal.

 

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Updates, Apologies and Rhoda With No Face

You’re tired of hearing apologies and I’m tired of giving them. That being said – sorry for the absence. Assuming most of you are my friends, or twitter followers, or tutors, even, you’ll know that it’s been that time of year. Assessment season. Plus Christmas and New Year and all of that but really it’s been all about the assessments. An unfortunate side effect of said period is the absolute disinclination towards doing a-n-y-t-h-i-n-g other than work, and an unfortunate result of such is that this blog has fallen into a bit of disrepair. Or neglect. Or a combination of both. To be honest my brain has been well and truly fried, poached and boiled.

But here we are: new year, new me. It’s the final semester for me here at Nottingham, and whilst that is terrifying, it’s also exciting. In classic me fashion, however, I’m trying to jump the change by making other changes to lessen what will in fact be the real change of leaving the university bubble and stepping into the real world. By that I mean I’ve dyed my hair ginger and bought a suede coat and gloves and now drink coffee on the go. Although, turns out if you say to everyone ‘Hey, look at my new lady coat!’ it kind of ruins the facade of being a capable lady. You win some you lose some.

Source: Wikimedia

Anyway, enough of that. What I want to start this new year with is a quick ode to the best discovery of last year, my new favourite writer, and favourite woman in general, Virginia Woolf. Roll your eyes, I know. What female English student doesn’t like a bit of Virginia? Well, me from two years ago for one. We studied her briefly in the aptly named ‘Studying Literature’ module of first year and safe to say, me and V did NOT get along. I experienced To The Lighthouse via live audiobook, one of my friends reading it aloud as I cleaned the flat after a house party. Probably not the best environment to read Woolf in but it was first year when work and socialising were a joint endeavour. Neither me or the audiobook friend liked it all that much, and me being less literary than a lot of my peers, I dismissed Woolf as something not right for me. Fast forward to September 2017. Whilst picking out modules for third year, a good portion of my friends opted to do a single author study module. None of the modules we’d taken thus far had focused on one author, and that was a really attractive prospect. They all chose to do James Joyce though and I was not about to throw myself into that snake pit. The other option was Virginia Woolf, and my thought process was something like ‘Heck it, why not’.

Four months later, here I am, shoehorning Woolf into every literary conversation and essay I can. I love the woman. But I’m not here to sell you on Woolf. It’s been a while since I did some good ole psychoanalysis on here, and boy are Woolf’s works rich for it.

Source: Wikimedia

Now one of my top (possibly number 1??) books ever, The Waves was pitched to us in class as one of Woolf’s harder novels. However, I didn’t really find this to be the case. Perhaps due to the fact I took a trip to the hometown without any chargers which resulted in no phone or laptop for the long train home, I blasted through it in a few sittings. I’d argue it’s best read in this way, though, as the reported speech style Woolf uses to narrate the characters’ internal thoughts requires a bit of a switch in your reading process. Generally described as soliloquys, the passages of the novel are written completely through the internal workings of the six characters’ minds – there’s no external description whatsoever. The result of this is an incredibly intimate experience, as the only judgements you can make as reader are literally through the eyes of another. No objectivity here, thank you. Woolf was an extensive essayist, diarist and letter-ist, meaning a lot of her working processes are documented. The Waves is one of the lesser explained of her works, however, Woolf’s most allusive comments being that of ‘writing to a rhythm not a plot’. An initial subheading to the book, Woolf aimed to write ‘The Life of Anybody’ in this book, to write an experience both intimately subjective yet untied to external reality. And she really succeeds, in my opinion.

I am made and remade continually. Different people draw different words from me.’

Six characters narrate The Waves: Bernard, Louis, Neville, Jinny, Susan and Rhoda. Woolf once wrote in a letter that she perhaps intended the six to be facets of one person, and the possibility of such permeates the book – ‘I am not one and simple, but complex and many’, says Bernard. Paired with Woolf’s aim to represent all parts of humanity, this means that the characters in The Waves often come to represent the different people within us all. Bernard needs people, Rhoda despises company. Susan is steeped in nature, Jinny lavishes in the superficial. Neville is a poet, Louis desires order. There is something to connect with in all these characters, good and bad. However, what I found genuinely heart-wrenching was the way Woolf describes the dark parts of life through Rhoda.

Rhoda exists psychologically in what is a severely psychological book. Where most of the characters find some grounding in their external world – Bernard in his phrase-making, Susan in her farm, Jinny in her sexuality – Rhoda has no such connection. She struggles with her place in the world, saying she has ‘no face’, ‘no identity’ like those around her. Nonetheless, she longs for anonymity – ‘I like the passing of face and face and face, deformed, indifferent. I am sick of prettiness; I am sick of privacy. I ride rough waters and shall sink with no one to save me’. This is the tragedy of Rhoda – she cannot exist in the world of her friends as she has no sense of self, yet she will not let go of the anonymity that has comforted her all her life. She despises human beings for trying to chain her down in one spot, snatching from her the ‘white spaces that lie between hour and hour’ but without them she will drown in the nothingness. Despite being not dissimilar to Bernard’s fear of solitude, Rhoda’s struggle often goes unnoticed by the others. Bernard sees her and Louis as ‘spies, conspirators’, as more because of their introverted experience. He says ‘Rhoda was wild – Rhoda one never could catch. She was both frightened and clumsy.’ From the outside, perhaps, that is how Rhoda appears, introverted but content with it. After all, she attends the social events, she has a sexual relationship with Louis, so Bernard sees her isolation as a choice and an admirable one at that.

‘Alone, I often fall down into nothingness. I must push my foot stealthily lest I should fall off the edge of the world into nothingness.’

‘I will fling myself fearlessly into trams, into omnibuses […] I am flung upon this woman, upon this man, I am not injured, I am not outraged by the collision’. Rhoda speaks these words in the wake of Percival’s murder. It is in a passage of settlement, Rhoda creating a ‘dwelling-place’ amongst the anonymous faces of Regent Street, making peace: ‘Wander no more, I say; this is the end’. However, in the final passage, Bernard tells us ‘Rhoda, always so furtive, always with fear in her eyes, always seeking some pillar in the desert, to find which she had gone; she had killed herself’. Too late, he reaches out to her in a vision, a memory, and tells her to please wait for the omnibuses to pass. Rhoda does not think it will harm her, she sees her collision with the omnibuses as the only way to collide with other human beings, and assumes this will protect her. Rhoda was detached from her physical existence, and so she flings herself against the physical world in a desperate attempt to connect to it. The others, multitudinous as they are, never quite made the connection to Rhoda that could have saved her life.

Virginia Woolf Quotes. QuotesGram
Source: Lifehack Quotes

Woolf writes internal existence so well to the point of fear. Reading this book scared me in more ways than one – it made me confront all aspects of myself, including the dark parts that Rhoda represents. Yet Rhoda’s suicide was not the part that hit me hardest about this novel. It was Bernard’s, and the rest of the characters’, failure to see Rhoda’s experience for what it was – fatal. Bernard admired her solitude – he admired her suffering. He thought she was more whole because of it. It is this aspect that I wanted to write about in this post. Like Septimus Smith in Mrs Dalloway, Woolf touches on the grandeur that suffering is attributed in art and the power that exists within pain. Bernard only wishes he could harness this artistic potential, he envies Rhoda to the point where he can no longer see what is really happening. For both Septimus and Rhoda, whatever beauty exists in their suffering, whatever artistry, it means nothing in the end. They choose to fling themselves hopelessly outwards rather than be trapped inward a moment longer. Bernard sees Rhoda’s suffering as admirable, as poetic, as an artistic goldmine right up until the moment she kills herself. No one would call suicide an artistic expression, so why should we revere pain as we do when we are alive?

‘To let oneself be carried on passively is unthinkable.’

Of course I am being hypocritical. Woolf herself followed in the footsteps of Rhoda and Septimus, throwing herself into the River Ouse with her pockets full of stones. Without her sadness, we may not have got these outstanding works of art. Yet Woolf’s message in these characters is not that we should admire their pain, but rather we should see it for what it really is, and more importantly, do something about it before it is too late. Pain is not beautiful, suffering is not to be envied. The Waves is an incredible piece of art, devastating and deeply affecting. It is masterful, wonderful and full of light. It has some of the most uplifting phrases I have ever read. Yet it is also a warning. The long suffering artist – is there any image so dangerous?

The Waves by Virginia Woolf was published by The Hogarth Press in 1931. My copy is the 2015 edition published by Oxford World Classics and edited by David Bradshaw, available in bookstores and online. All of Woolf’s works are available for free on Amazon Kindle and in various places online. If you are looking to start reading some Woolf, I recommend beginning with Mrs Dalloway, A Room of One’s Own and her essay, The Narrow Bridge of Art.

Featured image courtesy of theintelligentlifemagazine.com

All We See is Sky: The Unstoppable Power of ‘Dear Evan Hansen’

Yes, this is a post about musicals. No, you should not click away. Cliche as it sounds, Dear Evan Hansen is not your regular piece of musical theatre. It’s a triumph of art that can (and should) be enjoyed by all, whether you like the medium or not. Here’s why.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that this show doesn’t exactly fit most people’s preconceptions as to what a musical is. For one, it’s completely new. Even I, as a moderate-to-avid musical theatre watcher, would have struggled a few years ago to think of many shows that came from nowhere. Broadway reflected Hollywood in this way – everything seemed to be an adaptation, revival or completely unwarranted musicalisation of our childhood faves (seriously, who asked for Shrek the Musical???).

Then along came Dear Evan Hansen. A new concept, devised by Pasek and Paul almost 8 years ago during their studies at the University of Michigan, Dear Evan Hansen is still the most current feeling piece of art I’ve consumed in a long time. The set feels reminiscent of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, very dark with digital screens and harsh spotlights. At times it feels boundless and empty, at others completely overwhelming with flashing images of social media feeds. That’s where it’s effect lies, I suppose. The story is very centred around this idea of social media and hyperconnectivity, of which both the set and the music portray to incredible effect.

 

Source: backstage.com

The music. Usually, if I try to sell someone on a musical, the score isn’t the first thing I go to. Weird, I know, but I’m assuming here that the person I’m talking to needs convincing out of some pretty anti-musical feelings. Some people don’t like the old razzle-dazzle and that’s fine. I totally get it. But the music of Dear Evan Hansen is so fresh and modern that it could be played on the radio and you’d be none the wiser to its origins. There’s also a chance that you’ve already heard Pasek and Paul’s work in the past. Heard of La La Land? Yep, that’s Pasek and Paul, Oscar-winning composers. La La Land has done for movie musicals what Dear Evan Hansen is doing for the stage – bringing a wider audience in, and leaving them spell-bound. Waving Through a Window, the best-known song from the show, has been covered by all kinds of popular artists, including dodie and Owl City (remember them?!).

The score is gorgeous, the instrumentation feels modern and the voices, good lord. Rachel Bay Jones, Tony-winner, switches from poppy opening song, to raspy rock, to soft lullaby all within the same show. Ben Platt, who also won a Tony for his performance of Evan Hansen, has the most incredibly vulnerable yet powerful voice in any genre as far as I’m concerned. That vibrato though.

Okay so, the music is good, the singing is good. So what? Isn’t that like, the bare minimum for a musical? Yeah, good point. BUT. What really makes this show as special as it is is the story itself. Steven Levesnson’s book for Dear Evan Hansen is just as accomplished, nuanced and beautiful as the music. In my opinion, this is where many musicals fall down in people’s eyes. The music can be brilliantly orchestrated and performed, but if the story isn’t there to back them up, it can fall flat. But this story is incredible. Without spoiling too much, Evan Hansen is a socially anxious teenager who falls into a lie where he claims to have been close to a classmate who committed suicide. However, because of this lie, Evan helps the grieving family to heal, as well as doing good for the community and fixing himself a little on the way. The intricacies of Evan’s character are flawless, Ben Platt’s performance bringing out Levenson’s writing in the most beautiful ways. Platt has been hailed hugely for this, his commitment to Evan’s physicality and anxiousness requiring him to go to physical therapy so as not to develop a hunchback. But you never leave Evan’s side. You understand him the whole way through, which I think is a big compliment to the writing as well as the performing. All the characters are fleshed out, all are relatable and all are devastating in their own ways. They’re all wonderfully acted too.

More than just being a great piece of art, Dear Evan Hansen is important. As I said, this is new. Whilst a risky thing in the current Broadway climate, the show has experienced unadulterated success and has possibly changed the face of Broadway for the forseeable future. Thanks to the likes of Stranger Things, nostalgia has been dominating our media for a while now. And while I love it, and completely get why people want to distract themselves from the current moment, it’s important to think about it sometimes. Dear Evan Hansen brings forth some really prominent issues. Social media, anxiety, suicide. Feeling lost and alone when everyone around you is posting their whole lives online. Trying to connect with the people closest to you and failing. Trying to connect at all. The way in which these things are dealt with in the show is raw, I won’t lie to you. I cried a lot when I first saw it. Ben Platt’s performance is so visceral, there are tears and snot and spitting and it’s so painful to watch in parts. Rachel Bay Jones and Jennifer Laura Thompson’s performances as the mothers in the play are just genuinely heartbreaking. All of the performances are, really. It hits you, hard, and not just the parents or the kids, but both. That’s what I think is so incredible about Dear Evan Hansen. You can watch it, no matter what age you are, no matter your situation, and find something in it that will resonate with you.

I saw this show back in April and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since. I listened to the soundtrack constantly for a few weeks when I was really struggling with my mental health and there’s no price to put on the way it helped me. And that’s not an uncommon story. Dear Evan Hansen has brought out such a love in people, such a mass of stories and experiences being shared and talked about. It’s started a dialogue, between parents and their kids, between friends, and in society as a whole. This show says, ‘Hey, look. This shit is important, we can’t ignore it. Let’s talk. You will be found.’ That kind of message shouldn’t be limited because you don’t like the idea of musicals. Give it a go, and I promise, you won’t be disappointed. All we see is sky for forever.

How to Deal When Your Brain Won’t Co-operate

Full disclosure. This article is going to go full meta because the reason I’m writing this is because of what this article is about. That will hopefully make more sense as we go on.

I talk a lot about mental health. For the three(-ish) things I write for – this, the Student Minds blog and my university magazine, Impact – two are almost exclusively about mental health and the pieces I write for the other tend to lean that way. Write what you know. I don’t really believe anyone can be a proper expert in brain stuff purely because it is so varied and widespread and unknown and literally so neurologically complex we can’t comprehend it, but I like to think I have a good grip on the way my own brain works. I also love anything to do with cognitive processing so I know small enough amounts about psychology to understand why and how things happen to me. However. True to form, sometimes days happen where I cannot understand for the life of me why I feel the way I do. Today is one of those days and I could feel myself getting nuts. If I can’t analyse it, all is lost.

Not really. That’s way too dramatic for me. More like, all is confusing and thinking about how confusing it is is just gonna make you feel worse. Some days, thinking about thinking just doesn’t do it for me. So here we are. What I’m going to do here is talk about some of the things I do when days lie this happen – days that, for whatever reason, feel out of your reach.

One. Don’t freak out.

This is the biggest one, so I’m going to start with it. If, like me, you are prone to spiral when you can’t get a grip, this step is v i t a l. Things are out of your control sometimes. Deal with it. There’s no concrete way I can tell you to achieve this. It’s more a case of recognition, acknowledgement and acceptance. If your brain wants to be weird today, let it act out. It’s having a tantrum, so you gotta let it tire itself out.

Two. Figure out what is achievable and achieve those.

Even when you’re in the lowest place imaginable, some things are still within your reach. Having a shower, getting a glass of water, reading a chapter of a book, all these things are small, achievable goals you can set. Ticking something off a To-Do list gives you a little kick, enough to make you tick off the next thing and on and on. On days like today, when I purely cannot concentrate and am just feeling a bit blank, I’m lucky enough to maintain a fair amount of brain function. I tried to sit down and read a textbook chapter for my course (a chapter on ‘thought’, ironically) but it just wasn’t happening. I could, however, read a chapter of a novel for my course if I wanted to. Barring that, I’m sure I could find some video essays or reviews on Youtube that would err on the side of productivity. This post feels achievable to me, so I’m writing this instead of reading that chapter. Replacing tasks which are unsuccessful with ones that are is a great way to instill a bit of motivation and confidence.

Three. Take a step back.

There’s probably a reason I’m feeling like this today. I don’t really know what it is, but I’m sure it’s there. Taking a break every once in a while is important so as not to overheat the old brainbox. Making lunch, watching a video, playing a quick song on piano – these are all things I intersperse within my work to make sure I’m not overdoing it. Don’t wanna make whatever is up worse.

Four. Write it down.

Writing things down is notoriously useful when things are a bit fuzzy, and I do highly recommend doing it. As long as you aren’t getting carried away and spending four hours writing about how shit things feel, getting some sparse thoughts down on paper can work to clear your head of those things. Alternatively, channel that weird energy into something more creative and productive: poetry, prose or a blog post, perhaps. I told you it was meta.

Five. Get on and let up.

This is my favourite. Right now, I’m getting on. Doing this, putting my attention into something alternative but still productive. It might not make you feel much better particularly, but I know that I’ll be glad I did this instead of struggling with that chapter for another hour and getting nowhere. The next thing is to let up. Shit happens. Brains throw curveballs. It makes no sense but it happens to the most prepared of us. Usually I would try and meditate and clear my head and find some sort of silence but that won’t work today. So I’m just letting it happen. Trusting that things will go back to normal soon is the most powerful thought sometimes. I’m going to listen to what my body and my brain is telling me to do and follow that. In some roundabout way this might be my brain trying to assert itself – I’ve been pretty in control and on top of things lately. Okay brain, I hear you. I might have a nap.

Well, this worked I think. There’s too many levels now. Was that self-therapy? It’s like a step-by-step example of how my mind works. Is this performance art? Maybe I do need a nap.

 

 

Summertime Sadness: A(n Amateur) Guide to Mental Illness Management at Festivals

A couple of weeks ago now, a group of my uni friends and I went to Citadel Festival in London. Full of current and past favourites of mine including Laura Marling, Maggie Rogers, Parcels and headliners Foals, it was an instant yes from me when my lovely and always on-the-music-ball friend David suggested it. I’d been at home for around a month when Citadel rolled around so I was really looking forward to seeing some friends and getting back into city life for a bit. My brain, however, had a different opinion.

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@isabelsuzannah on Instagram
This is the part where I’d usually say ‘Without going into too much detail, blah blah blah’, but that won’t really work for what I’m trying to say here. So here’s the detail. For the past couple of years I’ve suffered with a variety of depressive and dissociative disorders that come and go in waves. Last summer I experienced a massive flare-up of depersonalisation in which I spent a good month seeing the world through a hazy lens, as if I was watching my life from behind a screen rather than actually existing in it. Since then, these periods of depersonalisation have returned every so often in a similar way to that summer. Going into this summer, I was already nervous about a possible resurgence and I wasn’t entirely wrong to be so. After a week or so of being back in Sussex, I felt that same, detached feeling creeping back in. Thankfully, I’ve learned slowly how to manage myself when this happens but with this festival and a week-long holiday with my friend and her family looming, I felt on unsteady ground.

Studies are still sketchy in these areas, but there has been research to suggest biological factors. Experiments involving neurotransmitters have shown that people with depression often have interrupted serotonin and dopamine levels – otherwise known as your naturally occurring happy drugs. Such is the problem with these kinds of disorders: the parts of your brain that access joy and pleasure can feel dulled or switched off entirely. You’re there, physically, but you might be mentally and emotionally somewhere else. They also make social and physical exertion really tiring and often leave you feeling trapped or like you shouldn’t be doing anything other than lying in a familiar bed, safe and alone. So, upwards of twelve hours on your feet in an unfamiliar place several hours from home surrounded by tens of thousands of people? Risky business. But I did it. And (after accepting my brain was just in that place) I had fun. So here I am today with some pointers on how to make the day go smoothly so you can enjoy yourself to the best of your ability and have a good old groove while you’re at it.

Phase 1: Before

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@claviclmason on Instagram

This is already sounding more dramatic than I planned. I’m gonna roll with it. Okay, so, you’re a week or so away from the big week/weekend/day and you need to start planning ahead. I cannot stress how important it is to plan the logistics of things like this. Planning well will reduce anxiety and make things easier in all senses, allowing you to focus on enjoy the present moment rather than worrying about getting home. Here are the things you absolutely need to do before you set foot out the door.

  1. Tickets. I’m guilty of this one. I once made it nearly all the way to a festival without realising I’d left my ticket at home. That was not a fun few hours. More often than not, when ordering a ticket for a festival or a gig, you can opt to have a paper copy delivered to your home. I always do this, because I feel safer knowing I have this proper physical thing to prove I’m allowed to be there. In addition to this, you’ll probably have an e-mail confirmation and an e-ticket. Screenshot these for easy access.
  2. Travel. Depending on how far you are from the venue, you may need to sort travel in advance. For Citadel, we got the train into London and back. You’re gonna save a load of money booking in advance with a railcard, especially when it comes to travelling in London. Another tip would be to get a solid group of you travelling together – this will soften your anxiety, get you in a good mindset and also provide the option of doing a GroupSave ticket if someone forgets their railcard (…totally not me). If you’re driving in, make sure you’ve booked a space in the festival parking. Check your route before you leave, and I’ll also suggest screenshotting this if you’re going to be driving through areas with little signal/travelling via the Tube. Know your options in terms of getting home, check the last train times and look up back up options such as buses and taxis in the area. Sidenote: my ever wondrous friend Bella introduced us to an app called Citymapper to help you travel around London.
  3. PackingWhether it’s a day or five, get your packing done in advance. For Citadel, a day festival, I took a backpack (check the bag size restrictions) with a water bottle (empty, there’ll be water stations inside the festival), tickets, travel purse (take out things/cards/change you don’t need in case you lose it), paracetamol, sunglasses, a jumper and your phone. Chewing gum has been proven to have calming effects, too. If you’re going somewhere like Glasto or Reading, make sure you’ve got your tent and toiletries stuff sorted and check the festival’s specific regulations when it comes to what you can and can’t have. In some cases, you’re allowed to bring food in, in which case, snacks. Snacks snacks snacks. Also, make sure you have a hairband to hand. For the love of god those crowds get hot.

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    @claviclmason on Instagram

In addition to these things, I have a few extra trips that I found useful for my day. Eat a good breakfast – a slow release one like porridge. My main symptom is that of feeling constantly spaced out so adding hunger wooziness to that is just unnecessary. Find a good meeting place if there’s going to be a bunch of you – a specific one. Like a local pub or a specific stand in the festival. You don’t want to be running around looking for two people among thousands. Something I usually find super creepy but actually proved really useful was SnapMaps. I turned it on and selected which friends could see me so that we could all track each other’s whereabouts just in case. This also allowed us to see when everyone had got home safely.

Phase 2: During

This is the hard part. A lot of the time I never know how I’m going to feel from minute to minute, let alone across the period of a few days. Managing your mental health is something that should always be your priority but doing it in a festival scenario can be hard. Here are some tips to do to keep yourself centred and solid throughout.

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@claviclmason on Instagram
  1. HALT. Bear with me, but this is a little trick I learned from The CW’s Jane the Virgin. It stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired. In the programme, Jane is told to use this to assess her susceptibility for panic attacks but I think it can extend to all kinds of disorders. I know for a fact that when I’m any of those things my mental health can easily spin out. So, if you feel your brain fogging you out, take a step back and try to see if you’re any of those things. If so, do what you can to remedy them.
  2. Hydrate and nourish. Food and drink, people. I’m not going to stop saying it. Eat those snacks and make sure you drink water. I know personally that having a couple of drinks helps me out, so if you do drink alcohol it’s all the more important to stay hydrated. However, only drink if you know you can drink responsibly, never get more than tipsy and make sure your friends are all looking out for each other.
  3. Take a second. Throughout the festival I got these crazy waves of feeling trapped and wanting to go home. While these feelings are completely valid, they are not productive or gratifying in any way. At a house party, even clubbing, you have the options of going home safely but at a festival, you’re more likely to put yourself in a bad situation if you try to leave alone. In this case, you need to take a minute out. You can do this by escaping to the loo for a moment, refilling your water, or simply sitting out of a couple of acts. At Citadel, all my favourite acts were on in the first few hours, so by the time it got to the headliners, I was started to feel panicked and phased out. For one of the acts, we broke into two groups, one went in, one stayed out, and for the final act I went in, started freaking out, then took myself out and found a spot where I would be found easily later on. It’s okay to do this, as long and you do it safely and have people know where you are at all times.

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    @danlyonss on Instagram
  4. Calm down. During Foals, the final act, I felt a proper freak out coming on. Huge crowd, rowdy as heck, bottles flying everywhere and music that I wasn’t that into. One of my friends had to fight his way out of the crowd anyway to catch a train, so I decided to exit with him and sit this one out. I still had a good view of the big screens and could apparently hear better than in the actual crowd. I did feel instantly calmer leaving, but just in case I opened my Aura app and did a few mindfulness exercises. Things like mindful breathing and checking in with your body you can do anywhere and on the move, so I highly recommend learning a few of these before you go. I like to breathe in time with tracing my fingers up and down. Aura also provides quick, guided meditations if you need that extra help.
  5. Fight back. This sounds like the worst advice. I know it’s aggravating to hear sometimes but I’m a big believer in the power of acting like you want to feel. Whether or not you actually feel any differently, telling yourself you are going to enjoy yourself can have a big impact on the way you experience things. If you can, fight back. Do the things, take part in the activities, jump in the crowd. Smiling makes you and those around you happier. If you have to take yourself out, tell yourself that you just need a quick break and you’ll be ready to have fun again when the next thing comes along. It’s sort of like fake it til you make it (which has been proven to work, by the way) but internal.
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@claviclmason on Instagram

One last little personal thing for me was taking something to entertain me. Sometimes, especially at the end of long days, I feel like it’s almost impossible for me to make conversation but even more impossible to sit there in silence. Taking something to distract you is always a good shout. For me, when I sat out for Foals, I read a little. Thanks to the Amazon Kindle app, I had a bunch of course texts on my phone that I gave a little read. Cut me some slack, you know I’m an English student. One thing I would say is avoid using social media as this escape – it can often make you feel more detached than before. My friend Kate did a wonderful post on this over on her blog.

And lastly…

Phase 3: After

See, you did it! Wasn’t that bad, right? Okay, you’re exhausted, you’re covered in glitter and you haven’t done any exercise in a month so your muscles and falling apart from the exertion but you had a good day. Even so, making sure you’re okay afterwards is imperative.

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@claviclmason on Instagram
  1. Get home safe. As I said earlier, plan plan plan. Getting home is maybe the most important plan to have, as you’ll already be exhausted and probably just wanting water and bed at this point. Know which train you’re getting, how to get there and who’s coming with you. Try and travel in a group (as always). Get a group taxi home and drop people off in an order which means at least two of you are at the final destination so no one has to be in the taxi alone. Text people when you’re home safe. Maybe get your parents to leave a spare key somewhere or leave the back door on latch so you don’t have to take your keys with you.
  2. Let yourself sleep in. If you possibly can, don’t set an alarm. You’re going to be more exhausted than you usually are, physically and mentally, so let your body take as much time as it needs. Make sure you’ve drawn your curtains and…
  3. Give yourself the next day off. I know this isn’t possible for a lot of people. You might have work or school or social engagements but if you at all can, let yourself have a recovery day. After a solid period of time in constant contact with people, I often find I need to be alone for a good while. Even extroverted people need this sometimes. Have a chill day watching Netflix or relaxing in the garden or catching up on some reading. Have a really good bath or a shower because you’re going to be disgusting. Just let yourself exist for a day before re-entering the real world. Reboot yourself.
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@elisejackoon on Instagram

So, there it is. My advice to surviving a festival if you’re prone to a little madness. The last thing I want to say is keep your expectations optimistic. It can be so, so hard but you have to go into these things expecting to have a good time. If you don’t, you’re setting yourself up for failure. It’s harsh but true. It’s a whole mode of thought called learned optimism! And I know, it doesn’t seem possible sometimes. But it is, I promise. You’re going to have fun. You’re going to make memories. You’re going to be alright.

Love, Elise.

If any of these things resonated with you and you feel you may have mental health problems, please seek help from a doctor. Getting counselling comes with unimaginable benefits and no one should suffer mental illness alone. In the meantime, check out these resources:

All photos are mine or courtesy of David Mason (@claviclmason on Twitter and Instagram), Bella Brown (@bellabrwn on Twitter, @isabelsuzannah on Instagram, bellevernacular on WordPress) and Dan Lyons (@dantheli0nman on Twitter, @danlyonss on Instagram and danthelionman on WordPress). Thanks for reading and please feel free to message me with questions or leave a comment below. This is my first attempt at something semi-personal and I’m thinking about writing another similarly themed to this. Thanks!

I Never Promised You A Rose Garden by Hannah Green – A Review

Here we are – the first of the heavy dissertation texts. First, I need to do a teeny bit of disclaiming. I haven’t actually finished this book. I took it out of my university library to read before I headed home for the summer but, unfortunately, did not reach the end. I will go into why I think this was later on, but I apologise in advance to those who may have read it and think this analysis is just an uninformed mess because it could very well be.

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I Never Promised You A Rose Garden is a novel written by Joanne Greenberg (pen name Hannah Green) in 1964 based around a young girl, Deborah Blau, and her three years as an institutionalised schizophrenic. Not to be confused with the Lynne Anderson song of the same name, the titular phrase provides a basis for almost all of my analysis for the book. Titles are important, guys! So, as a jumping off point for, well.. all my points, I am going to use the scene from where the title is taken. In short, Deborah is visiting her therapist, Dr. Fried (yep, really), after a patient-on-nurse attack. Here is a small passage:

“But you see, I have no part in what is to be done on the wards; I am not an administrative doctor.”
Deborah saw the match lighting dry fuel. “What good is your reality, when justice fails and dishonesty is glossed over and the ones who keep faith suffer. Helene kept her bargain about Ellis and so did I. What good is your reality then?”
“Look here,” Furii said. “I never promised you a rose garden. I never promised you perfect justice…” (Chapter 13).

These few sentences sum up so many of the themes, ideas and conflicts in the book. Deborah’s statement about reality and Dr. Fried’s response (called by her Yri name, Furii) almost paraphrases what the whole book is about – it is a template, almost, a microcosm or synecdoche on the conceptual level rather than the word. It is unclear whether Deborah’s opinion is a symptom of her illness or whether her illness is a result of this unhappiness with reality. Dr. Fried, in comparison, is clinical and harsh in response, yet we assume truthful and realistic. It examples the struggle between Deborah and Fried, illness and health, internal and external realities. This brings me on to my first point of discussion.

Text World Theory

I first came across this theory in my year 2 Literary Linguistics module (or it may have been in a language one in first year I can’t remember I’m sorry lecturers if you’re reading this) and just thought it was the coolest thing. I’ll try and explain it as clearly as possible but forgive me if this gets a bit rambly. Essentially, Text World Theory says that humans understand the world around them by constructing versions of it in their heads in which to run simulations on. Much like the theory that nightmares are just your unconscious brain training you for dangerous situations, Text World Theory provides a basis for a similar function. You create a world in your mind that has all the struggles of reality but without the consequences in order to inform your behaviour in the real world. In prose fiction, creating a good text-world is imperative to the reader accepting what happens as the true reality of the characters and settings of the book. Without a believable text-world, we just wouldn’t engage. There are so many applications of this theory, so if you want to learn more head over to the Text World Theory website or to the awesome Prof. Joanna Gavins’ twitter page if you want to know more.

Now, the reason I mention this is that Text World Theory can inform so much upon mental illness narratives. So many disorders, especially anxiety and paranoid ones, take hold through constructing uncomfortable or distressing versions of reality and convincing the individual that that is the reality of their world. That the terrible scenarios that the mind concocts are just projections of the truth. After repeated use, this pathway in the brain becomes stronger and stronger, until an individual’s behaviours becomes based purely around the avoidance or maintenance of certain patterns in order to avoid pain or conflict. You’ve probably heard of Pavlov’s dog, right? Bell rings, dog gets fed. After a while, the sound of bell ringing triggers dog’s salivation glands. It’s called classical conditioning and forms the basis of the school of psychology known as behaviourism. An important set of experiments in this school came from B. F. Skinner in the 1930s, in which he distinguishes between different types of conditioning. One such strain is that of negative and positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement is when you repeat a behaviour so that it leads to rewards, eg. pressing a button to receive food. The opposite is negative reinforcement, where you repeat a behaviour in order to avoid a negative situation, eg. pressing a button so you don’t get electric shocked. Skinner did this with rats, but I’m hoping you can see what I’m getting at here. Many anxiety disorders, such as OCD, take root and grow through this kind of process. If I don’t shut the front door 3 times every time I go out, I will get burgled. If I don’t do exactly 72 scrubs of my toothbrush every morning and night, I will get gingivitis. It’s about performing something to avoid negative consequences. This can, however, expand wider. If I don’t leave my house, I won’t have to face possible humiliation. If I don’t eat, I’ll be skinny and people will love me. You see? Despite everyone probably experiencing these kinds of things once in a while, it is the unhealthy mind that latches to this and that is where lots of our diagnoses come from.

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A still from the 1977 film version
Okay, but how does that relate to Text World Theory and to I Never Promised You A Rose Garden? A main feature of Deborah’s characterisation in the book comes from her internal reality construction. She creates a whole world in her mind in which she retreats, or occasionally is dragged into, when she experiences an episode. Named Yr, this world has gods and eternal pits and fire. It’s pretty intense. Here’s a quick snippet of Deborah’s view of Yr in comparison to the Here (reality):

To escape engulfment there was only the Here, with its ice-cold doctor and his notebook, or Yr with its golden meadows and gods. But Yr also held its regions of horror and lostness and she no longer knew to which kingdom in Yr there was passage. (Chapter 2).

We can see here that Yr can be beautiful. It has golden meadows and long grasses in which Deborah feels free. But it also has regions of eternal darkness and unimaginable suffering. Sound familiar? This constructed world in Deborah’s mind is meant to reflect the real world in some fantastical way. It’s called Yr, for one. I have to admit, it took me until she said it alongside ‘the Here’ for me to get the comparison, but there it is. It has its own language, Yri, and names for people in the real world – Deborah has an assortment of epithets including ‘bird-one’ and Dr. Fried is renamed ‘Furii’ as seen earlier. Everything in Yr can, to some degree, be linked to something in the real world. When Deborah has a mental break and is taken to be strapped to the wet cloth, she retreats to Yr where she falls into darkness for four days straight. It all links in some way. Her childhood teasing has filtered into Yr in the form of the whisperings of the ‘Collect’. Nothing is new, necessarily, but reshaped versions of Deborah’s reality, past or present. Yr, however real feeling to Deborah, is a simulated reality in Deborah’s mind, with direct links to her actual surroundings. To what success this simulated reality informs on the real one is an important theme in the book.

Fantasy

These are mental representations, just like the one we create for the text-world of the book. The biggest obstacle I found in connecting to the story was that I found Yr to be a smidge too fantastical. I found it unlikely that, no matter her illness, Deborah seemed too intelligent to believe this world in her head was a real one. Once I decided to read the story from the assumption that Deborah didn’t believe it was real, but escaping to Yr over the cold world of the Here, I found it a lot more enjoyable. Why? Because I started viewing Yr as a text-world narrative Deborah was living. The mental representation she had of Yr was so progressed and in depth that it is easy for her to accept it as a kind of truth. This is what a good piece of prose fiction does. The text-world we create when reading the novel itself is reflected in the internal reality Deborah creates in her mind. Accepting this gave the representation of Yr a newfound credibility to me. When you read Harry Potter you don’t sneer every second that ‘that’s unlikely’. Fully investing in the text-world provides all kinds of leeway for fantasy elements and that is what I believe Deborah is experiencing in Yr. Much like reading for the likes of you and me, Deborah can allow Yr the unbelievable elements because her mind creates the world out of a desire to escape. She holds it as truth with both hands because it seems better than the alternative.

Schizophrenia and Ageing

Finally, I want to note the age of the book. Of course, this is not necessarily a point of criticism, but I think, due to the content of the book, it is a point of discussion. Research into schizophrenia is still relatively limited. In recent years it has been accepted that ‘schizophrenia’ is merely an umbrella term for a whole spectrum of symptoms and is mildly reductionist. The DSM-V clinical outline for schizophrenia would allow two patients with completely different symptoms to receive the same diagnosis, for example. One main linking factor is that or paranoia and delusions, both of which Deborah shows in some degree in the book. However, a theme in this kind of behaviour is that this manifests in real-life intrusions. For example, people with schizophrenia might believe that the government is out to get them and thus finds evidence for this in their real lives. On the other hand, a patient may be going about their regular routine and hear voices commenting or criticising what they are doing. These are known as positive symptoms, things that occur in addition to real life. Negative symptoms, such as avolition and alogia, represent the detriment of regular functions. The difference in Deborah’s symptoms here is that her hallucinatory world is completely separate from the real one. Despite the comparisons, no characters, except herself, exist in both planes. I think perhaps this can be attributed to the understanding of the disorder at the time of writing. As a modern reader, this is what I found hardest to reconcile. My understanding of schizophrenic disorders did not match up with the representations in the book, therefore detaching me a little in my experience of it.

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from broadwayworld.com, Miners Alley Playhouse production
I did enjoy the half or so I read of this novel. Green’s writing style is engaging and fluid, her construction of Yr fascinating and rich. If I compared that bit to anything, it would be similar to Tolkien’s Middle-earth. However, I didn’t find myself reaching for it. Maybe that has to do with my subconscious awareness that it was kind of work, but I feel like it was more to do with my trouble finding the main character believable. My gut instinct is that this book is becoming time-bound. However, going back to that first titular quote, the moralistic message rings true even now. ‘”I never promised you a rose garden…”‘ might not float in psychiatrists’ offices nowadays but I appreciate the sentiment. The more we understand about mental illness leads to higher rates of medicalisation, which in turn leads to higher rates of medication. While I’m not slamming medication, there is an increasing risk of people assuming they can take a pill for mental disorders instead of therapy and expect instant results. This is what Dr. Fried means when she says this to Deborah. She can’t cure her straight away, it doesn’t work like that. Deborah has to put in the work, too. It’s a hard, long road but it’s important to face it head on. In this way, I Never Promised You A Rose Garden is a little timeless.

I Never Promised You A Rose Garden by Hannah Green was published in 1964 by Holt, Rinehart and Winston. It was developed into a film in 1977 and a play in 2004. I’d be super interested to see what those look like, so if anyone has any comments on them let me know. Also, as a general disclaimer for these posts, I am not a psychologist so I apologise for any inaccuracy – I have done as much research as I can in order to present things as fairly as possible. Thanks for reading!

Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig – A Review

Story time.

As an unwritten rule, once it gets above 22 degrees Celsius in Britain, we freak out. If it gets above 25, the old ‘Hot, isn’t it?’ ‘Yeah, might be too hot’ conversation starts emerging. And then you get this past week. Consistently hitting between 26 and 31 for a full five days, people have NOT been handling it. Despite loving the sun in my head, my body hates it. I burn, not tan, I get heat induced headaches after half an hour in the sun and for some reason I look super tired all the time when it’s hot out. So this morning was a glorious surprise. I woke up, or should I say was woken up, by the sound of rain. Heavy rain. Then a breeze came through my window – a cool one. Then there was thunder. And as I lay there, listening to the sounds of stormy weather, I realised how lovely it felt to be awake and alive and feeling all those feelings and hearing all those sounds. Not least because I was excited by the prospect of being able to actually go outside for more than 20 minutes unprotected.

This leads me on to the book for this review. This book is one that I actually read last summer, during what, in retrospect, was a really bad brain… two months. It was lent to me by a friend who was lent it by his parents who said it was amazing and that everyone should read it. I don’t often pick up this kind of format, but this guy NEVER recommends books so I was kind of amazed enough to try it. Now, in a much more positive place, I read it again just to see. Here’s what I found.

Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig

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The blurb of this book states it is ‘more than a memoir. It is a book about making the most of your time on earth’. It’s non-fiction but written like a diary format novel – think Bridget Jones, Sufia Khan is Not Obliged or the Georgia Nicholson series (there are a lot of nervy bs in this book too). It consists mostly of linear storytelling with inserts of lists, experimental stream-of-consciousness passages and internal dialogues reported in a playscript format. You follow Matt through 8 years of his life and various mental breakdowns. You meet his parents, his colleagues and his wonderful girlfriend-now-wife Andrea. You see, step-by-step, his ebbing and flowing, his sinking and rising and, finally, his recovery and stabilising. And it gets you, it truly does. I cried, I think. I remember feeling so relieved and pleased for him, but mostly I felt hope. I didn’t realise it at the time, but so much of Matt’s experiences were a little too easy for me to empathise with. A favourite quote is ‘I had never been one of those males who were scared of tears. I was a Cure fan, for God’s sake. I’d been emo before it was a term.’ My parents both love The Cure and when I was growing up my mum used to play their video albums to get me to go to sleep. Alongside The Smiths who, admittedly, I was listening to a bit young for how nihilistic they are, I always had that understanding that having emotions is fine! Expressing your emotions is cool! Cry if you want to, saying boy don’t cry is dumb! It’s those little things sprinkled through the book that make this so easy to engage with – Matt is real, you can feel that in the writing, and it makes his journey all the more engaging.

In terms of connection, Matt Haig really nails how to communicate complex states of mind. There’s a part where Matt lists what it feels like to have a panic attack, then recalls a time where he couldn’t go to the corner shop at the end of the road alone without having one. He gives you a clinical-looking list of steps or symptoms, then chucks you into a scenario in which those things happen like an unstoppable tide. The combination of objective understanding with emotional reaction means we, as readers, can feel just as frustrated as Matt when we can’t control the outcomes. We start expecting the worst before it can ever happen, and that, my friends, it what depression feels like. He uses a metaphor of the demon on his back, licking his ears while he’s at the theatre or in bed with his girlfriend. Matt Haig’s writing is nothing if not to the point and to the heart. His language isn’t fancy, but it is poetic and emotive. You understand everything that is going on at every stage in the process, something imperative for people to read. His simplicity and honesty translates so well because it provides the experience he had to other people in understandable and relatable terms. A Sunday Times bestseller, this book has reached not only the percentage of people who suffer from mental health problems, but the 2 in 3 people who don’t. It creates such an inescapable empathy through genuine care for him and his family that you find yourself completely understanding his brain along the way. It’s pretty powerful stuff.

I did, however, have some problems with it. Matt says himself in the book that we like to compartmentalise things and give labels to what is a much more complex set of factors than just OCD, schizophrenia or depression. I get the feeling that reading this book again would be a completely different experience each time, depending on the place that you’re in when you read it. When I read it, in the midst of a suffocating bout of depersonalisation and anxiety, it made me angry. I knew I had some of these things Matt was experiencing, but I didn’t react in the same way. I didn’t lash out at my family, I could go to the shop, I didn’t feel a demon licking my ear. I found myself getting defensive that I was doing it wrong. That my brain was faulty, but faulty in the wrong way. I couldn’t relate, and I was tempted to discard the book as reductionist because of this. But on a reread, I felt entirely different. I thought Matt relayed everything perfectly, sensitively and delicately to his own truth. I found it smart and funny in ways I didn’t during the first read. This reaction, to me, is fascinating. It’s a super quick read – it only took me a few days – so i’s definitely worth trying more than once to see if the same thing happens to you.

This makes it hard for me to really review it one way or the other. Reasons to Stay Alive is a brilliant memoir of one man’s experience. In one way, it felt isolating and confusing to someone who refused to acknowledge their own struggles. In another, it is gut-wrenching and close-to-the-bone but ultimately hopeful. Most importantly, it is educational and aware. Matt Haig is careful to insert lots of information and offhand advisory sentences to those who suffer from mental illness as well as to the carers of those who do. For everyone, it is worth reading. For some, like me, it is worth reading a couple times. It is honest, brutal, and, dare I say it, a really important signpost towards a larger conversation. This book opens avenues for discussion and understanding for both people who suffer from anxiety, depression, or any other manner of mental illness, and those who don’t. All aboard the empathy train, people!

An Introduction

Hi there. At the moment, there is absolutely no audience for this. In reality, there probably won’t really ever be an audience for it. This blog (??) is going to function for me as a kind of documentation of all the books I read in the coming year or so that feature, in some way, mental health as a focus. There are 3 main reasons for this:

  1. My dissertation. I am at university, studying for a BA in English Language and Literature. Wow, an English student writing a blog waah. Truth is, blogs take commitment. They take time and effort and inspiration and most of those things I don’t have in abundance. HOWEVER. I figured that if I could combine those things into one place, I’d suddenly have a thing I could really put effort into. I’ve just finished my second year and part of my last semester was taken up by creating a dissertation proposal. Now, I’m a language girl at heart. I love reading, of course, and literary theory and convention and what-does-it-all-mean??? but I came to uni loving language and that hasn’t really changed. Stylistics is my current jam (currant jam? There’s some phonological humour for you for free) which is essentially looking at how a text is constructed on the page and to what effect. It’s a strange combo of literature, language and psychology and I LAV it. For all the books I read, this will be the main focus as the title of my dissertation is, drumroll please… ‘Mind-Modelling and Stylistics in Neurologically Atypical Narration’!!! In other (less poncy) terms, what that means is I’m looking at how an author writes from the point of view of someone who does not have a neurologically or cognitively typical brain. I want to see just how writers recreate the mind of someone which is going to more than likely be completely different to the person reading it. At the moment, a full 6 months away from the beginning of my dissertation, I’m still stuck between whether to write on representations of cognitive or learning disorders such as autism, or on mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia or dementia. This is going to be a kind of journey through books to see what I find most fascinating. As well as being supremely interesting to me, another reason for choosing this topic takes me onto my next point…
  2. Empathy. Sounds vague, I know, but let me explain. Studies show that people who read literary fiction frequently and from a young age develop better emotional intelligence skills and levels of empathy. I think I’ve always believed this but it wasn’t until I started my studies that I started understanding why. In one of my future posts I will talk about this in more depth, but the basis of this is in Theory of Mind. Theory of Mind is essentially our ability to imagine and understand things from other peoples’ points of view and to afford them as much consciousness and emotional complexity as we view ourselves with. As an inherently empathetic person (code for: I cry at all the films) I find it extremely difficult not to run through every possible consequence my actions will have on people and make judgements based heavily on how it will effect others. True, that can be a hindrance sometimes, but it’s also a skill we need increasingly more of. In recent years, people have refused to acknowledge others complexly, as real people with lives and emotions and brains different to their own, instead inserting them into boxes labelled with dangerous things. But they say reading helps to change this way of thinking. As an English student, I feel it is my academic duty to try and read books by authors from walks of life different to my own. I am white, I am straight, I am English. I have a whole lot of privilege. So this task I have set myself is me trying to expand my understanding and empathy towards those who so often get the opposite: mental illness sufferers.
  3. My own mental health. For reasons I won’t get into right now, I’ve been struggling with mental health problems for the best part of two years now. Luckily, I’ve always had a good support network of family and friends and have access to professional support and counselling services. However, one of those most useful things I’ve found more my own peace of mind is seeing, hearing and reading the stories of other people who have struggled in a similar way to myself. Mental health is something everyone has. Wonderfully, the conversation around mental health has bee increasing exponentially in the past few years, but in Britain there is still a huge stigma about it. Especially with all the political tempestuousness, things like mental health do tend to get sidelined into the ‘Stiff Upper Lip’ mentality of dealing with problems. But there is a reason talking therapy is a thing. It works! Not for everyone, but for a lot of people. So, in a weird roundabout way, this is a talking therapy for me, intermingled with expanding my own emotional intelligence and empathy skills (and hopefully those of people reading) whilst all the while contributing to my dissertation and my degree.

So that’s it. Intro done. Now to get on with the books.