the ‘conversation’ is all well and good, but we’ve a long way to go – World Mental Health Day

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It’s World Mental Health Day, and it’s also 10 years since I was first diagnosed with mental illness. At the age of 16, after contracting viral hepatitis, I developed a panic disorder, anxiety and OCD: and what a ride it’s been. The past 10 years have been full of ebb and flow. My health was at its most debilitating early on, when I couldn’t leave the house or eat, lost a huge amount of weight, had to leave school and my A Levels, and at least three times a day was so wracked with terror I couldn’t move. Over the subsequent years I’ve enjoyed long stretches of time when I barely noticed my anxiety (my OCD is always lingering) and darker periods when I’ve struggled to hold down a job.

Perhaps aptly, I went to see my GP yesterday to discuss the last two months. Every half year or so I tend to need a check-in. My anxiety fluctuates and it’s currently very high, but I’ve also been feeling a depression I’ve never felt before. I’ll spare the details of the appointment, because they’re boring, but after a useful conversation involving recommendations of cheaper counselling services in Edinburgh and the suggestion to up my meds, I was struck – not for the first time – by the doctor’s apparent desire to minimise the problems I’d presented her with. I don’t doubt that it came from a good place, wanting to reassure me that I am not alone, but nevertheless I was frustrated and, conversely, felt more alone than when I’d walked in.

In 2018 we are talking about mental illness in a way we never have before. The ‘conversation’ is rife with celebrity voices and influencer campaigns, inspirational quotes and timetotalk tweets. It is positive: government ministers appear to be listening and the stigma around – namely – anxiety and depression seems to be fading. People now feel able to open up about their struggles and go to the doctor and get help, in whatever form that takes for them. However, there are more than a few problems with the way we’re now approaching mental health and as society in general becomes liberated further still, those problems take on a more dangerous context.

The (positive) effect on increased mental health awareness is that more people than ever are getting help. Last year the NHS prescribed a record number of antidepressants and over four million of us are now long-term users of the drugs. The question of whether there are more people suffering with mental illness in comparison to previous generations or simply more people who know what it is has never been resolved, but regardless, there are indeed more people in waiting room. So far, NHS resources are not matching the demand. Not even close. Waiting lists for talking therapies are six months at least, unless the patient is suicidal or severely malnourished, and GPs are resorting to prescribing Headspace – a meditation app. Said app has been suggested to me personally on three separate occasions, when I’ve been in the throes of debilitating anxiety and panic attacks that saw me unable to get to work every day or on a train or to sleep at night.

I was at a book event for a mental health memoir in the summer and at the end, when it was time for audience questions, a woman stood up, crying, and spoke of her sick 13-year-old son who is unable to leave the house, go to school, eat, or barely step outside the four walls of his bedroom due to contamination OCD and panic attacks. I cried as she talked. So did my mum who sat next to me and, 10 years ago, had to powerlessly watch me in the very same state. The woman had been desperately trying to get her son help for a year. He was on medication, which had helped a bit, and was on a waiting list for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). He couldn’t leave the house though, so how he was going to get to the therapy once he got to the end of the list was another question entirely. The fact that he wasn’t going to school, putting him behind and probably unable to start his GCSEs the following year didn’t seem to be hurrying the process along.

People who have serious (shall I use a capital S?) mental health problems, such as schizophrenia, bipolar, psychosis, borderline personality disorder, or severe strands of panic, OCD, depression or anxiety are the ones who are suffering even further right now. The lack of qualified staff, the long wait times and the inability to tailor therapy to the person can be fatal. I would also venture that these are the people still suffering under the stigma, who will struggle to hold down a job due to the erratic nature of their illness and feel isolated from their social circle because their behaviour can be unreliable and unsettling.

While inspirational quotes are posted liberally to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram we are told to talk, not to be ashamed, that we are not alone, that we are all in this together. I was told by my doctor that I shouldn’t worry too much because so many people suffer in the same way. Which is true… and not true. But definitely minimises my pain. Yes, let’s talk about it, but let’s not assume that everyone feels anxiety in the same way. I heard a quote recently that resonated so deeply (probably on The High Low): ‘a lack of empathy is just a lack of imagination’. It is a problematic, albeit arguably natural, instinct that to make someone feel less alone in their pain one has to relate to it. I disagree. We all experience mental illness differently, to different degrees and with different consequences. I cannot hope to understand the unimaginable terror of a psychotic episode or a month of disassociation regularly endured by someone with Borderline Personality Disorder. Similarly, someone who describes themselves as a ‘germaphobe’ cannot understand my experience and what it’s like to be so terrified of germs that you fear the very air around you. There’s a spectrum when it comes to anxiety and depression, too, and although there appears to be an outward understanding of that, in practice I’ve seen different. I’ve had many conversations with friends and family that leave me feeling misunderstood. Well-meaning loved ones who themselves have endured their own form of the illness and seek to comfort by assuring me that ‘it’ll pass’ because ‘it did for [them]’. I have offered the same advice many times and am only now realising how truly unhelpful it can be.

The rhetoric around mental illness right now is well-meaning but surface level. In my darkest times I find it vapid. We still have a long way to go before we are caring for people with mental illness in a way that plunges deep into stigma, legislation and true awareness. We are severely lacking the resources to deal with the mounting pressure on the NHS mental health services, and we could do with more voices in the mix: voices that speak of the ugly truth, rather than the PG version. This isn’t a club most of us want to be a part of. It’s not glamorous and, although it is good fodder for an interesting think piece, it is an unbearable part of many peoples’ daily lives. If we’re going to truly help, we need to talk about that.

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books i read in january

I’ve set myself a goal of reading 60 books this year. I don’t know whether I will reach that target. Probably not. But it’s nice to have a goal, especially when that goal involves reading.

People always ask me ‘do you enjoy EVERY book you read?’, because I suppose it appears that way. No, is the answer, but I certainly shout louder about the ones that I love. And I think that’s the way it should be.

Having said that, I did enjoy every book I read in January, and here they are…

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First, We Make The Beast Beautiful by Sarah Wilson (Bantam Press, 26th April 2018)

This is written by the woman behind the ‘I quit sugar’ craze (a craze I must say I cannot and will not get behind) and is her first book about mental health. Sarah Wilson has a variety of mental ailments including anxiety disorder, depression, bipolar and OCD, and I found her account both affirming and powerful. She comes at the topic from a place of hopefulness, which is so important. She asks how do we use and hone our anxious minds to become better, more creative, kinder, more ambitious, more productive people? The book is laden with scientific findings, practical advice and anecdotal evidence, which I felt backed up the emotional heart of it in a really powerful way. I read a lot of books about mental health and this was honestly one of the best of them. It left me feeling empowered, and that’s really an incredible gift.

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Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng (Blackfriars, out now)

Wow. This book blew me away. At first you think you’re reading a thriller, the blurb and the first chapter take you down that road, but soon, through some pretty clever narrative on Ng’s part, you realise that the family story beneath the plot is what’s fascinating. The narrative goes back and forward in time. I don’t normally like that device, as I find it creates a disconnect from the story, but it worked perfectly here, and you gain insight into the inner workings of each member of the family. The reader ends up understanding each of the characters far better than they do one another, and it’s both excruciating and powerful. The book is almost lyrical, utterly tragic, and seamlessly conveys the danger of parental expectation and the damage that can be done when a person does not feel like they have a voice. I am recommending it to anyone who will listen.

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Shtum by Jem Lester (Orion, out now)

This is the story of a 10-year-old boy with severe autism and his father, the narrator, who loves his son so completely but cannot carry on with life the way it is. Jonah, the 10-year-old, doesn’t speak – in fact he doesn’t do anything for himself, and the book depicts the battle with their local authority to have him placed in a specialist live-in school for children with autism. It’s so sad but incredibly eye-opening. There’s clearly a misrepresentation of autism in the media that it’s just a case of social-awkwardness and a special ability. But in reality it’s far more hopeless than that, and Shtum does an incredible job of getting that across. I can’t say I loved the reading experience, but I can fully appreciate what an important book it is.

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I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell (Headline, out now)

I love memoirs. Gaining an insight into the lives of fascinating people is such a pleasure. (Quick shout out to probably my favourite ever: Claire Tomalin’s A Life of My Own). Maggie O’Farrell’s depicts her life through her 17 seventeen brushes with death – an entirely unique way of telling her story and done with her trademark grace and wit. The juxtaposition between life and death throughout the book leaves the reader feeling uplifted – a difficult feat given the sometimes shocking and gruesome subject matter, and a true testament to O’Farrell’s writing prowess. I don’t want to talk too much about this book, because no one can the way the author does herself. I recommend it though. Strongly and wholeheartedly.

2018 – but what if I don’t feel like it?

January, despite all its bleak greyness, brings with it a promise. It’s a new year and a new start. Time to make commitments, lose 10 pounds, write a book. It’s time to quit the lethargy and start making shit happen. Everyone is doing it – make sure you know that – everyone is achieving amazing things and those achievements started at 7am on Tuesday 2nd January.

Picture the scene: They rise from their freshly laundered Urban Outfitters sheets, partake in a session of at-home morning yoga to awaken the body *and the mind* and, before finally settling down at their desk at 8.30 with a full face of no-makeup-makeup and a coffee at their side, they whip up an acai bowl to really start the day right.

I don’t know who ‘they’ are, I guess they’re the people I follow on Instagram (and love, by the way). I sound bitter and/or scornful. I’m not either of those things. Maybe I’m a little jealous… although there are a lot of UO bedsheets on sale right now so I’m about *this* close to becoming 30% less jealous.

I’m just not having that experience, and I wonder (read: hope) if some of you are the same as me.

I find January hard anyway. The comedown from Christmas, daily cheese boards and all the good TV – it’s a lot to give up. And it’s also a tough leap into an 8-7 and exercising-every-day lifestyle. I still have stilton coming out of my pores for goodness sake, no I DO NOT want to join you for a Bikram yoga class.

Honestly, what I want to do in January is cocoon myself in a king size duvet and watch Netflix for the full 30 days, only surfacing for crisps, jacket potatoes and Tesco Finest triple chocolate cookies. But the sheer pressure of expectation is forcing me to make plans and resolutions that I don’t have the mental capacity for.

Of course there are certain things I need to do. Work, for one. After months of building up to Christmas we suddenly return to our inboxes to realise ‘oh shit’ the world keeps turning, books keep getting published and we better get a wiggle on.

I have a tendency to get depressed and anxious when I feel overwhelmed and when I feel depressed and anxious I retreat into myself and do less, thus continuing the cycle of miserable nothingness.

I think this comes down to two things: the natural ebb and flow of a human being’s energy and motivation levels, and the unrealistic expectation that we should all be achieving all our hopes and dreams today, and that everyone else already is (they aren’t).

But what do we do about this? Well, for me, I’m trying every day to be okay with not always being at my best. That means not beating myself up when I don’t start work at the crack of dawn because I’m tired and I took a sleeping pill the night before. I’m also trying not to compare myself to other people. I’ve deleted Twitter from my phone because it was becoming a source of anxiety and constant comparison. When I see a freelancer or blogger I admire talking about their resolution to shower and dress every day before they start work on their insta-stories, I’m trying to say ‘good for them’, and not look down at my unwashed pyjama covered body in disdain. I’ve made some small resolutions and I’m celebrating every little achievement I make. I’ve committed to doing yoga every day in January (with Yoga With Adriene) and so far so good.

There’s nothing to gain from telling ourselves off every time we have a bad day. We’ll get there, but it has to be at our pace, no one else’s. I’m not saying stop trying, rather the opposite in fact. I’m suggesting that by easing into our natural mentality rather than forcing things, you might just find yourself more productive and on the way to those end goals.

the books i’m excited about

There’s not much joy in January and, honestly, I struggle this time of year. We took the Christmas tree down today, which has got to be the most joyless activity of the annum, and I’m generally lacking in motivation and well… joie de vivre. However – and it’s a big however – what does get my fingers tingling and my heart a-racing is the promise of a whole load of amazing publishing. We have an entire year of  new books ahead of us and currently the internet is a-wash with ‘Books to Look Out For in 2018’ articles. I am hungrily adding to my Amazon wish-list (a handy place to keep them, not necessarily where I will buy them all) and am anticipating a year of incredible literature. There’s something in the air. People are creating. People are standing up. And I, for one, am mighty excited.

I’ve compiled a short list of just a selection of my ‘most anticipated’. Some new writing from old favourites, some first time authors, some poetry, some defining social commentary. All of them look exceptional.

I’ve listed them in publication-date-order and the short commentary underneath each title is taken from the book’s blurb, not written by me. Some of the cover images are not yet available.

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Everything I Know About Love by Dolly Alderton (Fig Tree, 1st February)

A spot-on, wildly funny and sometimes heart-breaking book about growing up, growing older and navigating all kinds of love along the way.

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The Only Story by Julian Barnes (Jonathan Cape, 1st February)

First love has lifelong consequences, but Paul doesn’t know anything about that at nineteen. At nineteen, he’s proud of the fact his relationship flies in the face of social convention.

As he grows older, the demands placed on Paul by love become far greater than he could possibly have foreseen. Tender and wise, The Only Story is a deeply moving novel by one of fiction’s greatest mappers of the human heart.

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Educated by Tara Westover (Hutchinson, 22nd February)

An unforgettable memoir in the tradition of The Glass Castleabout a young girl who, kept out of school, leaves her survivalist family and goes on to earn a PhD from Cambridge University.

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Almost Love by Louise O’Neill (Quercus, 1st March)

When Sarah falls for Matthew, she falls hard.

So it doesn’t matter that he’s twenty years older. That he sees her only in secret. That, slowly but surely, she’s sacrificing everything else in her life to be with him.

Sarah’s friends are worried. Her father can’t understand how she could allow herself to be used like this. And she’s on the verge of losing her job.

But Sarah can’t help it. She is addicted to being desired by Matthew.

And love is supposed to hurt.

Isn’t it?

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Anecdotal Evidence by Wendy Cope (Faber & Faber, 1st March)

Wendy Cope’s first collection of new poetry since 2011’s acclaimed Family Values.

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Places I Stopped on the Way Home by Meg Fee (Icon Books, 3rd May) 

Weaving together her joys and sorrows, expectations and uncertainties, aspirations and realities, the result is an exhilarating collection of essays about love and friendship, failure and suffering, and above all hope. Join Meg on her heart-wrenching journey, as she cuts the difficult path to finding herself and finding home.

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Whistle in the Dark by Emma Healey (Viking, 3rd May)

Four missing days. Could you cope with not knowing?

Jen’s 15-year-old daughter goes missing for four agonizing days. When Lana is found, unharmed, in the middle of the desolate countryside, everyone thinks the worst is over. But Lana refuses to tell anyone what happened, and the police draw a blank. The once-happy, loving family return to London, where things start to fall apart. Lana begins acting strangely: refusing to go to school, and sleeping with the light on.

As Lana stays stubbornly silent, Jen desperately tries to reach out to a daughter who has become a stranger.

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Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion by Michelle Dean (Fleet, 3rd May)

From acclaimed literary critic Michelle Dean, winner of the National Book Critics Circle’s 2016 Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing, a powerful portrait of ten writers who managed to make their voices heard amidst a climate of sexism and nepotism, from the 1920s to the 1990s.

Promising Young Women (Caroline O’Donoghue – Virago, 7th June)

“I don’t know why it never occurs to me to ask for more: to be taken to dinner, or to be given a promise, or at the very least, an explanation of why things aren’t working out with his wife. I know exactly what Jolly would say: I know because I’ve written words to mistresses before. Hundreds of them.”

On the day of her 26th birthday, Jane is recently single, adrift at her job, and intrigued by why Clem – her much older, married boss – is singing to her.

Meanwhile her alter-ego, the online agony aunt Jolly Politely, has all the answers. She’s provided thousands of strangers with insightful and occasionally cutting insights to contemporary life’s most vexing questions.

When she and Clem kiss at a party, Jane does not follow the advice she would give to her readers as Jolly: instead she plunges head-first into an affair. One that could jeopardise her friendships, her career and even her life.

Crudo by Olivia Laing (Picador, 28th June)

Olivia Laing radically rewires the novel in a brilliant, funny and emphatically raw account of love in the apocalypse. A Goodbye to Berlin for the twenty-first century, Crudo charts in real time what it was like to live and love in the horrifying summer of 2017, from the perspective of a commitment-phobic peripatetic artist who may or may not be Kathy Acker.

To Kill a Mocking Bird illustrated by Fred Fordham (William Heinemann, 1st November)

A graphic novel adaptation of Harper Lee’s classic, by the artist behind Philip Pullman’s The Adventures of John Blake.

Lethal White by Robert Galbraith (Sphere, release date unknown but sometime in 2018)

No information currently available! But AAAHHHHH.

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Spending money.

 

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I am terrible with money. Just the other day my friend and I were discussing our spending habits, comparing notes and citing that time I had £9.76 in my bank account and 10 days to go till pay day and yet I simply had to have that Essie nail polish in ‘Lovie Dovie’. Said nail polish cost £7.99 and needless to say the next day I was calling my dad from Pret a Manger (having not had the foresight to make a sandwich that morning) requesting a bit of money to tide me over until my pay cheque came in.

There’s a running joke in my family about how awful I am with money. It’s tinged with genuine concern and whenever anyone brings it up I either laugh it off or bristle and promptly leave the conversation. I get a rush from buying things. I love buying things – makeup, expensive moisturisers, knitwear, mugs, candles. Oh, beautiful Diptyque candles… how you ruin me. Having nice things makes me feel accomplished and grown up. Gone are my days of wearing terrible Rimmel foundation that cakes under the eyes, nay, I shall wear Nars Sheer Glow* and I shall indeed… glow. I am genuinely ashamed to say – and slightly nervous to write down – that I think there might be a part of me which believes I am entitled to nice things. I’ve found myself saying variations on the following when justifying my latest purchase: “I work hard”, “it’s my money and it’s none of your business”, “why shouldn’t I get to have a nice candle? That Youtuber has 50.” I am not, of course, entitled to anything.

And therein lies the problem. Although I’ve always tended to spend all the money I have, it has definitely gotten worse in the last few years. I put this down to two things. Not only do I now have more money to spend – being an adult with a job – but at least once a day I find myself watching a Youtube ‘haul’.

The rise of the ‘Youtuber’, and in particular beauty and fashion Youtubers, has had a profound effect on product marketing. The most efficient way to get a product into the customer’s hands is no longer a celebrity-endorsed television advert or a cleverly designed tube poster, it’s to pay a 20-something thousands of pounds to sit in his/her bedroom and talk about that product to his/her millions of adoring subscribers.

There is, of course, something innately gross about a clothes/makeup/homeware/etc haul. When you tot up the amount of money spent in each haul and then hold that figure next to the knowledge that the majority of people who watch Youtubers are teenagers (or women in their early 20s), it does start to feel a bit uncomfortable.

Just yesterday I watched a video by a Youtuber I find particularly troublesome who not only has a lot of money because she makes a lot in her job, but she comes from a hugely affluent family, appears to think it normal to have a collection of designer bags in double figures and grew up in Chelsea. In the video she tells her viewers how to ‘live in the moment’ in ten simple steps. Unfortunately, the video goes on to display the kind of holiday that 90% of the population could only dream of, equipped with infinity pool and £300-a-night hotel rooms. And not only that but we were led to believe this trip was booked spontaneously and without a second thought. I read through some of the comments below hailing her as “inspiring”. To make matters worse, the video was sponsored by Evian (yes, the water), so not only was this woman promoting a completely unattainable lifestyle and possibly encouraging impressionable people to spend money they don’t have, but she was also earning a lot of money from it herself.

There are of course Youtubers who seem a bit more down-to-earth, albeit with an astronomically higher income than most of us. And I’m torn. I like watching the videos and I find them entertaining, yet I know they have a dramatic effect on me and mostly it’s a negative one.

A lot of teenagers now watch Youtube instead of television, and that has a marked effect on how those young people grow up. While we do pay for our television license or Netflix subscription, once we’re sitting down for some mindless viewing in the evening the adverts are kept quite noticeably separate from the ‘entertainment’. The ad-break is a time to make a cup of tea or go to the loo or, if you’re watching on catch up, you’ll probably simply fast-forward through it. On Youtube however, the entertainment is the advert. The Youtuber – or ‘influencer’ – must state whether that particular video is being endorsed (and therefore paid for) by a particular brand, but the essence of what they do is product recommendation. It’s ‘What’s in my bag’, ‘What I got for Christmas’, ‘Massive Boots haul!’, and all the time we are being told that what we have isn’t enough. We need more.

I suspect I’ll always get a rush – a boost of serotonin – when I hand my card over to the shop assistant or click “checkout” on Zara’s website, but it is so important to take a step back sometimes, close your laptop, and be okay with not having rose-gold knives and forks.

*Literally the best foundation. If the point of this post wasn’t to buy less I would tell you to definitely buy it (you should buy it)

freelance.

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I did it. I quit my job. I am now self-employed. Freelance. Just as millennial Jesus intended.

It’s not a secret that I’ve always wanted to work for myself. When an office works well, and the people around you inspire and encourage each other, it can be an incredibly rewarding experience. But if it doesn’t – for whatever reason – it can be stifling. There’s plenty of other reasons to go freelance – like flexibility, like working-from-home, like wearing your dressing gown until 3pm when you say to yourself ‘enough really is enough’ – and all of the above has led me to this rather gigantic decision.

I really like the idea of working with different people and on different projects all the time. Variety keeps me interested and although the life of a publicist is always varied, whether you work in-house or not, it is even more so when you have no consistent employer.

So here I am at the start of a new stage of life; feeling terrified but positive. I’m super busy at the moment because I’m still working with my previous company on a freelance basis, trying to wrap up anything I’m leaving behind and taking on new projects at the same time. I’m trying to create a website that looks decent but doesn’t cost the earth, I need to work out how on earth to do my taxes and I’m concerned about ‘the books’ and what the term ‘book-keeper’ refers to. I should work out what they are. I’ve linked up with the brilliant BookMachine Works, which is an agency for freelancing publishing professionals, and I’ll be spending the foreseeable dusting off my networking trousers (very stretchy) and sucking up to LITERALLY ANYONE that looks at me.

I’m so interested to hear from other freelancers. What was your experience? How did you cope with the first-year-fear? AM I GOING TO STARVE?

And if you’re interested and don’t know what it is I actually do and maybe possibly want to get in touch to talk about potential projects and actually hiring me (hire me! hire me!): I am a publicist, specialising in book PR and event management but able to create to campaigns for companies or individuals within the Arts. I have an extensive list of contacts in the national and regional media across print, online and broadcast and a wide variety of experience with fiction, non-fiction and academic books. This is turning into a CV so finally (!) my email address is clairesrmaxwell@googlemail.com.