Stop using mental health as bait

We all love to boo a pantomime baddie, but that’s usually because they’re stealing a magic lamp or weaving destructive magic spells. We know it’s all made up and we know they’ll get their comeuppance. But yet again, Katie Hopkins and Piers Morgan are enjoying the boos and hisses by taking their pantomime into real life. They’re baiting us with mental health stigma. Sadly, that’s not fictional.

MegaphoneBBC Question Time was a prime hook for the recent onslaught of mental health provocation with Katie Hopkins, rather predictably, tweeting:

‘Breaking news: it is possible to pay for mental health counselling privately if you save hard enough’.

Of course the mentally ill are fair game aren’t they. They’re bound to get upset and have a tantrum. That’ll get the Twitter engagement figures flying. That’ll land more controversial headlines.

It was much the same with Piers Morgan’s recent attacks on Will Young:

‘Will Young does not have PTSD. He has WNTS – Whiny Needy Twerp Syndrome.’

Mental health campaigner Denise Welch rightly called him out which resulted in more mud-slinging from the lovely Piers who called Denise a ‘publicity-starved bore’. Nice.

So why am I falling into the trap and talking about them some more? Because they already have the platform and the airtime. They already have the ears and eyes of millions of people. And they already have the power to influence. Sadly.

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Psychology – I’m a believer!

Psychology has long fascinated me. But I never truly believed that psychological approaches would work for me in quite the way they seem to be right now. I never believed they could have a long-lasting, deep rooted effect. But much like The Pixies, Courtney Love and, sadly, Sun-In spray-on hair bleach (my locks haven’t been quite the same since the early 90s) I think something really is beginning to have an impact.

Given that I’ve had almost as many therapists as I’ve had hair colours over the years, I must make it clear that none of it was a waste of time. I’m not contributing to the suction of resources from the NHS for a giggle. All my sessions have helped in some way or another, and I have never forgotten the CBT tool and tactics that I picked up along the way.

The difference today, however, is that my therapy has shifted from symptom management to tackling the meaning behind my anxiety.

Now the meaning of my anxiety has always been as vague to me as the meaning of a Pixies song (I bloody love ‘Caribou’, I wanted it as my wedding song, but WTF is Black Francis on about – ‘I live cement, I hate this street, give dirt to me’??).

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Sleep – one of my favourite things. Not recently something I’ve been very good at.

I guess the reason behind this apparent murkiness of meaning is laziness. I never truly believed that I could find any meaning to it, so I tried about as hard to find it as I did to pass my Law A Level. I just let the idea wash over me and carried on Googling sinister illnesses and then minimising the impact of said Google searches with CBT. Talk about sticking plasters.

But amazingly, when you let yourself open up to the idea, so much stuff magically appears in the front of your mind. So much stuff from your childhood. So many memories of feelings and behaviours that keep repeating themselves in my adulthood.

I panic when my husband goes snorkelling. To the point of begging him not to go back into the sea or to stay where I can see him, rather than going where the beautiful fishes are and enjoying himself. But I remember now that I felt the same about my dad when I was a kid. He used to go out for miles and I would feel unsettled until he returned.

However, when it came to me, I loved nothing more than jumping the waves on the Newquay beaches during the surf festival as a kid. I would stay there for as long as I possibly could with my sister, eventually realising that the tide had gone out so far that we were all of a sudden miles away from our wind break, sandcastles and now predictably warm and gritty sarnies. But we didn’t care.

‘Can the three girls jumping the waves in the surfing area please return to the beach. I REPEAT, CAN THE THREE GIRLS IN THE SURFING AREA RETURN TO THE BEACH IMMEDIATELY’.

Cue me, my sis and our best mate Pippa almost getting skewered by a surf board and a lifeguard on secondment from Bondi Beach seriously losing his Aussie cool.

So there is possibly something to consider here. As a little girl, I wanted to have fun, I wanted to take risks but I was also terrified of people getting hurt. It’s as big a conflict as deciding whether you’re a (commercial) rave fan or a (mainstream) grunge fan in high school in the early 90s. It’s a hellish conflict!

So I can see this now. I can see this little girl desperate to have fun but terrified of the world around her. And last night, in bed, when I felt as though heart palpitations were sneaking in, when I remembered the last time I had a major panic attack was after consuming pizza, chips and beer too, instead of losing myself in panic central, I imagined that little girl. Me. And I imagined giving her a hug.

Little meDon’t laugh. No, please don’t. I’m honestly not a hippy dippy love type channelling my inner soul and all that stuff. But it really worked! I have an image in my head of me, as a little girl, aged about four, wearing a navy dress with a little boat on it (how apt), sitting in a chair and wearing my white blonde hair tied up in a ponytail. And I imagined cuddling her (in reality, I was cuddling Tumba – my cuddly monkey hot water bottle). I imagined feeling her hair under my chin and slightly messing up her hairstyle with the hug. And then I fell fast asleep.

I woke up still clutching Tumba. There had been no panic attack. I slept through the night.

This might be a coincidence. But given that my last counselling session was on Thursday, and I have had two bloody brilliant sleeps since, it’s worth the effort to keep going. It’s worth it because it means I might be able to keep consuming my caffeinated Diet Coke and still get to sleep. It’s worth it because it will allow me to conserve my energy at night, rather than waste it all panicking about something imaginary like having a fatal illness that doesn’t even exist. And surely that’s more ridiculous than imagining that I’m giving my child self a hug?

However, as much as I love ‘Caribou’, I’m still not convinced I will find the real meaning there. So if anyone else wants to enlighten me, please go ahead.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Show me purpose and I’ll raise you a fighter

Family

My ultimate purpose – family

Anyone who’s in the not-so-exclusive club of the 9 million peeps who have read ‘Man’s search for meaning’ by Viktor E Frankl will totally get this. I’ve not even finished it, but I’m finding it as inspirational as Madonna’s Virgin Tour was to the eight year old me. But unlike the queen of pop, the king of spiritual enlightenment, Frankl, will not be going off trend any time soon. And he is not encouraging me to walk the village streets wearing purple lipstick and lacy fingerless gloves. That was the 80s. Frankl wrote this in the 40s – and it is still as relevant and widely accepted today. Unlike Madonna’s fashion sense.

There’s a quote in there by Nietzche and its theme runs throughout:

He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.

Wow. That’s quite a statement. Especially once you learn that Frankl experienced the Holocaust.

Now the Holocaust is too horrific to even contemplate. But my god, if people can find hope during times like that, we sure as hell owe them an attempt at finding hope in our world today. So this idea of having a ‘why’ can be applied to almost any situation.

Finding purpose

I once had a job where I was treated unfairly. During that time, I lost days to anger, anxiety and a few too many bottles of wine. My mornings were peppered with tears and involved me hollering at my loved ones for absolutely no reason whatsoever. Every day I’d get on the bus to work and sit obsessing over my anxiety symptoms, believing I might have throat cancer or worse because it felt like my breakfast bagel was lodged in my throat when in reality, all that was lodged in my throat was a big ball of stress. And possibly a 24-hour reminder that cheap wine has the same effect on the throat as a strong wallpaper stripper does on wood chip.

Basically, I was going through the motions. Living life without seeing anything beyond the monotony of the utter shite that was work. If you become consumed with the shit storm, you’re going to miss the gentle breeze that blows around it and the little rays of sunshine that offer up the all important vitamin D. You’re going to forget who you are and who you love. And you’re going to forget the ‘why’.

You’ll no longer laugh at Sarah Millican’s ‘taking the bins out’ joke. Kylie will no longer manage to get your arse up off the sofa and wiggling round the kitchen while cleaning the oven. And you’ll not even notice that your husband is wearing ridiculous Sponge Bob pants that practically glow in the dark.

And then, one day, you decide that fate isn’t your master. Fuck that. Where the hell have I been for the past six months? All of a sudden, Sarah Millican tells the world she got knocked up by Mr Kipling and I nearly pee my pants. And speaking of pants, my husband’s are shining so brightly his arse appears to be radioactive. I am once more Spinning Around with Mr Muscle in the kitchen and wiggling my own arse (please take note, in our house, we both clean the oven. And we both put the bins out. In literal and Sarah Millican terms – but enough of that filth I don’t write for Razzle).

I remembered that I could deal with the shit in my own unique way. I didn’t have to lose myself to other people’s actions. Win or lose, I knew that I would feel calmer by fighting through it, rather than letting the mucky whirlpool of water drown me out silently.

Weirdly, by taking on what seemed like a load more stress (i.e. applying for new jobs, battling a legal fight), my anxiety levels started to drop and my confidence started to tell me that I was way stronger than I thought. So strong, in fact, that if I spilt a drink over Courtney Love in a bar I could hold my own in the ensuing fist fight (sometimes, you can get a little over excited with new found strength I guess).

I chose to be myself in the situation and not some kind of rapidly expiring lost soul waiting for fate to sort things out for me.

It’s the same with mental illness isn’t it? You can feel like its kicking you down into the pits of hell, but what seems at the time to be the smallest step towards recovery (often talking about it with your GP) sends a great big ray of light towards you. It’s not cleared the black menacing clouds yet, but you know it might be on its way. And that little ray is enough to keep you going.

There’s a wonderful scene at the end of Denise Welch’s award-winning film about depression, Black Eyed Susan, where she sees the golden light shine through the curtains. That moment changes everything.

I’ve fought that fight and many more (believe me, there’s a few people better off since I challenged the inconsistency of bus fares on the Gosforth to City Centre route a couple of years ago. Esther Rantzen eat your heart out).

Public speaking

I’ve overcome a fear of public speaking to be able to use it for a purpose

But it’s not just about fighting. It’s about purpose in its broader sense. What is our role in life? For me it’s about loving my infuriatingly annoying but wonderful and eccentric family. It’s about cooking my stepson his favourite veggie chilli. Or singing so badly to Bonnie Tyler that it makes my husband start his Monday morning with a chuckle as he leaves for work. It’s about being part of a family of animal lovers who rescue poorly hedgehogs and birds. And of overcoming a fear of public speaking allowing me to speak out passionately against mental health stigma.

There’s so much I still have to do.  And to learn, of course.

There’s more to life than the Tories striking a deal with the DUP. There’s more to life than the fact that Donald Trump got into politics and that Katie Hopkins has a few too many ignorant Twitter disciples. Because if there wasn’t we wouldn’t really have any reason to care about these what these complete dicksplats get up to would we? We’d have no reason to fight the arrogance and intolerance if there wasn’t a bright side to life. If there wasn’t hope.

Some of my ‘whys’ are above. The ‘how’ can be pretty difficult at times. But the ‘whys’ trump the ‘hows’ every time. I’d love to hear your ‘whys’ too. You don’t need to be famous or running the country to have them. I mean, those who are running countries seem to have forgotten what theirs even are don’t they….

 

 

 

Review: Gale is Dead

Part of the ‘Man Alive’ series on BBC iPlayer

Man alive - Gale is deadI hadn’t heard of this series before but it gives you more than one issue to ponder. There’s the subject of the particular episode and then layering on top of that is the 1960s/70s perspective of said subject.

Fundamentally, however, some things never change. People without love and purpose lose out. Some lose their lives. Gale did.

Gale Parsons’ mother gave her up when she was just six years old. What followed was a never ending state of transience and loneliness as Gale was moved from home, to mental health institution, to approved school, to borstal, to prison and to the streets.

At every single turn her desires were quashed. Which eventually quashed her desire for life. Finding heroin and barbiturates was not satisfying a desire to take drugs, it was satisfying a desire to disappear.

The desires we see glimmers of are told through Mrs David – a teacher from an early school and the only person Gale ever connected with. These desires involve working on a farm, working in a school with children and above all, being loved.

Finding heroin and barbiturates was not satisfying a desire to take drugs, it was satisfying a desire to disappear.

But you had to earn your right to ambition and happiness in the world that Gale grew up in. She told Mrs David she wanted to take part in farm work where she was living, but she hadn’t earned the right so she had to work in the kitchens. She realised as borstal and drugs launched themselves into her life that she would probably never be able to work with children, and every tiny scrap of happiness – including a few shillings’ worth of sweets, a teenage girl’s magazines and even letters – were monitored, controlled and confiscated. Mrs David was told to send soap, not sweets.

I’m lucky to have been brought up in a family home, so it’s hard to really understand the impact of growing up in Gale’s circumstances. I imagine that children receive a very different kind of support today. But one thing must surely remain a constant – the need for love, and the need for purpose. Two things discussed during a workshop I attended last year facilitated by Camerados founder, Maff Potts, that every single human being needs.

This film takes you through Gale’s short life as she desperately seeks both. Eventually, she loses all hope and rejects the love she is shown, and herself, and embarks on a path of destruction.

A truly heartbreaking story that needs to be watched.

Psychiatry v Psychology

I’m neither a psychiatrist or a psychologist, but I’m a consumer of both ideas. So I reckon I can say something on the subject…

Have you seen the Twitter war? The psychologists v psychiatrists war of words in 140 characters. It can be as caustic as JK Rowling v Donald Trump, except in this war, as far as I can tell, there isn’t an obvious bad guy. And in this war, capital letters are only used for diagnoses and prescription pills.

As someone who pops antidepressants on a daily basis and pours her heart out to a complete stranger on a weekly basis, I find it all a little unsettling. Should there be one right way to do things? Am I in with the in crowd? (in taking antidepressants, I fear not).

I feel guilty for relying on chemicals that there is no definitive test for to prove that they work. But they feel as though they work – for me at least. And the thing is, as much as long-term psychological treatments can unravel deep rooted causes for my anxiety, its only available in six session blocks on the NHS. Those six session blocks can sometimes seem as much a sticking plaster as an antidepressant.

But something has changed. I’m seeing counsellor number six right now. I’ve only had four sessions but something has clicked. I’m not doing CBT (and don’t get me wrong, I do rate CBT, but in my case it has been more about managing symptoms than dealing with the cause). What I’m doing is working on self-esteem, shame and liberation. The things my counsellor believes might be driving my anxiety.

He’s a private counsellor. Through work. Because due to a severe lack of funding, the NHS referral took five months – so thank God for work’s Care First services and my prescription. Anyway…

Soda streamIt might sound a little clichéd, channelling the inner child and all that shite, but something really has clicked. For the first time ever. All of a sudden I feel as though I have found the secret door to happiness, I just need to find the guts and strength to kick that bastard door to pieces. I’ve ignored it in the past, that door. Looked the other way. Pretended it didn’t exist. Assumed it was far too heavy and thick to be moved. And even if I did sometimes confront it, I assumed there was a sheer drop behind it that would send me spiralling into a bottomless pit of hell, Napalm Death’s ‘music’ on a loop ringing in my ears and a severe infestation of spiders, rats and Piers Morgan.

But all of a sudden I am feeling a little giddy. That door feels more breakable. I reckon I just need Mr Miyagi to teach me how to kick with confidence and belief. And I’m mega excited to find out what’s behind it.

Liberation isn’t a scary word. It’s an enticing word. A word that can take me into a world where I can read a script with passion unafraid of sounding silly, where I can shout whatever I like as loud as I want at a basketball game, where I can sing along to Bonnie Tyler’s Total Eclipse of the Ear Worm on a karaoke machine and where I can jump into a pool and know I’m not going to die (the latter perhaps being the most important to me).

So right now I’m doing both. I’m embracing psychology and psychiatry. I absolutely see the value in both. And part of me believes that, without the help of psychiatric drugs, my mind wouldn’t have been calm enough to embrace the psychology. No blood test or lobotomy is going to prove that though.

So can I be fans of both please? Can we all go to the party together? I don’t want to feel bad or think that synthetic drugs are my evil crutch. It’s not my crack (that’s Diet Coke if anyone’s interested. Now that IS an issue). Maybe one day I wont need to take the pills. Maybe one day I wont need to attend therapy. But for now, it’s all good.

 

 

 

 

 

I look at Katie Hopkins and think ‘you are nothing like me’

I think I reflect the national viewpoint here.

Anyone who watched Ian Hislop’s ‘Who should we let in?’ will no doubt have Hopkins’ arrogance ringing in their ears. Of immigrants she said ‘You look and them and think you are nothing like me’.

Thank God for that. Because I would have a serious problem with immigration if we were opening our doors to hatred, intolerance and a bizarre and unjustified aversion to the name ‘Charmaine’. One Katie Hopkins is quite enough.

Sadly, people lap up this hatred packaged as fear and jump on the bandwagon. A bandwagon they will soon be pushed off by the very people who invited them on.

Her issues with people who are ‘nothing like’ her seem to be informed by a completely random set of rules. It’s about one religion that she doesn’t follow, it’s about immigration, it’s about girls called Charmaine, it’s about tattoos and it’s about people who are overweight or ‘fat’.

But this is a problem that goes beyond her toxicity. And sadly, people lap up this hatred packaged as fear and jump on the bandwagon. A bandwagon they will soon be pushed off by the very people who invited them on.

Residents of the luxury tower block where Grenfell victims were to be re-housed complained about the impact this would have on property prices. But increasing homelessness in the area is apparently OK?

Donald Trump declared that he would ban all Muslims from entering the US. But arming Americans of other religions with guns is apparently OK?

Piers Morgan doesn’t like people ‘whining’ publicly about their personal problems relating to mental health, but ‘whining’ publicly about how it annoys him is apparently OK?

Diversity will threaten the Trump brand. Terror, in all its forms, seems to be a secondary issue.

There’s one thing that all of the above, including Katie Hopkins, appear to have in common. Selfishness. Those residents in luxury tower blocks must already have plenty of money – they’re hardly going to end up on the poverty line. It’s not about local property prices, it’s about their property prices. Donald Trump, being overtly narcissistic, only wants ‘mini me’s’ running around ‘his’ country so it becomes one great big fat United States of Trump. Diversity will threaten the Trump brand. Terror, in all its forms, seems to be a secondary issue. And Piers is happy for public whining as long as it ties in with his personal views.

Thing is, the majority of the general public will never be truly accepted by these people. You might not be ‘fat’, or tattooed or a Muslim or called Charmaine. You might not be talking openly to a large audience about your mental health issues. But let’s face it, if you haven’t got the luxury tower block or the national profile you’re highly unlikely to be accepted by the people who are encouraging you all to get on board and demonise others. You are the ‘others’ – they’re fooling you.

They don’t like others because they are not them. And thankfully neither are you. So isn’t it time you stopped listening to the people who will never have your back. They will never have your back because of many different reasons. Being British born and Christian will not save you. There are too many factors involved. And unless you’re a clone of the people who are whining, unless you eat at the same places, vote in the same way, pray to the same God, wear the same designer labels, you’ll never fit in. So don’t be fooled. You are not one of them.

In my opinion, they are people who are scared of anything that could threaten their position. Just like those fans of alternative music at high school who never wanted their favourite band to become big because they didn’t want others in on the act. They wanted to keep it all to themselves. They wanted to be special, not mainstream, not average. I include myself in that school music snobbery, but thankfully, I’ve grown up.

Increasing diversity in communities creates more interesting culinary treats. More interesting catwalk influences. More interesting music styles. More interesting stories to tell. More interesting pieces of art. People with new things to say. New perspectives.

But if that creates a new breed of nouveau riche, one that’s less about pounds and more about a different kind of wealth, a really vibrant kind of wealth, what’s going to be left for the traditionalists? They’ll become vanilla in a world of tutti fruitti and Karamel Sutra. Their pounds won’t be able to sustain the kind of power they took for granted. That’s why I think they’re really scared. It’s nothing to do with you. It’s just that they can’t do it without you.

Follow me on Twitter – @Lucy_Nichol78

 

It’s not a party lifestyle that drives stars to self-medication, it’s the pressure to carry on regardless

The media has reported that Ant McPartlin is undergoing treatment for depression and addiction issues. He’s certainly not the first celebrity to have fallen foul of self-medication. But why do stars head down this path, when surely they have access to the best doctors and treatment programmes in existence?

Think about it this way. You’ve bought a ticket to see, let’s say, Madonna (disclaimer – the next three paragraphs are entirely fictional – as far as I know). You’ve spent about £60 on the ticket, £150 on transport and £100 on accommodation. The venue holds around 50,000. It’s a sell out. On tickets alone you’re looking at costs of £3m. But then Madonna gets food poisoning. She can’t perform. Luckily, she has an understudy who is just as successful, let’s say, Kylie Minogue. So the show can go on.

Wrong. That might happen in my day job. The bosses might bring in a temp or a freelancer or share the workload out. But when you’re a celebrity, it’s you, specifically, that the people want. It’s you, or nothing. You paid for Into the Groove not I Should Be So Lucky (showing my age here I know).

So Madonna might be puking her guts up but she’s feeling the pressure to perform. Nobody can step in for her. She’s necking Imodium, anti-nausea pills and paracetamol like there’s no tomorrow. She simply must perform. But if she keeps this up, her body won’t function especially well without those pills, and this is where the problems start.

Now I don’t know the full ins and outs of Ant McPartlin’s illness. Only what’s reported in the media. But I wouldn’t be surprised if the pressure to keep going for the sake of his employers, his fans, his partner, his family, his reputation, even, didn’t play some kind of role in his troubles.

Yes, it’s an assumption. And no, I’m not suggesting that his employer, partner, family, fans put the pressure on. But if you know people are depending on you, applying that pressure yourself really isn’t terribly far-fetched.

PillsDepression can be a chronic illness that takes time to recover from, but often stars do not have that luxury. I’ve had five weeks off work for anxiety, I’ve known people forced to take six months off for depression or stress. But can celebrities do the same? Or do they have to hit rock bottom before they feel justified to do so? My guess is it’s more often than not the latter. So if you’re depressed and anxious and you feel you need to get through just one more show, what would you do? Take a valium perhaps? I know somebody very well who saw a doctor through an employer (in entertainment) due to depression and anxiety. The doctor they saw (not in the UK) was literally throwing pills at them left right and centre. It got them on the stage, it got them through their struggles in the short-term, but it created a longer term problem.

So when we look at stars and their ‘wild’ or ‘intoxicated’ behaviour, can we always assume it’s a reckless act? That’s it’s somebody living a celebrity lifestyle, having access to whatever they want, whenever they want? Or should we consider that sometimes, this kind of recklessness is born of hard graft and the pressure to keep going at all costs? Luckily, the media and public response to Ant McPartlin appears to have been wholly supportive. And that is absolutely the right response to have. But Ant and Dec had already established themselves as a wholesome, family act. What about people like Amy Winehouse, who tackled the demons of mental illness from a young age? Who exploded onto our radar as a bit of a ‘wild child’.

I watched the documentary, Amy. Friends talked of her being bundled into a taxi unconscious through intoxication and flown to another country to perform on stage. Maybe if she felt she could have stopped just for long enough to recover, she’d have stood a better chance?

The problems are very similar. It’s just that we, the public, didn’t know Amy for long before her downfall and, tragically, her death. We had much longer to get to know that Ant McPartlin is a good guy and we therefore see his illness as precisely that, an illness.

The response is good. We all wish him well. But in future, let’s remember this empathy we hold for Ant McPartlin and extend it to others in need of support too.

Follow me on Twitter @lucy_nichol78

It’s time to ponder the big stuff

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Time to look back to childhood learnings

I have a new counsellor. I was referred because, during my counselling assessment, it was suggested that online CBT and management of symptoms probably wouldn’t cut it. I’d done all that. It got me through but it didn’t move me forward. It was time to tackle the big stuff.

Was I ready? As ready as I was when I ticked the option for GCSE Drama as an excruciatingly shy 15 year old. And as ready as I was when I jumped on the bus to travel to the Christchurch skydive centre.

So I very quickly said yes and committed before I could wimp out. After all, my amygdala might have been telling me that I was bricking it, but my rational mind argued that these things would be bloody good for me. As good for me, in fact, as a Labour government would be for Britain. (NB – for any currently undecided voters, just to clarify matters, I passed GCSE drama and survived the sky dive, landing with a beaming smile and a huge surge in endorphins. So do take a chance on Jezza tomorrow. You will be rewarded.)

Anyway, back to therapy. Not that I would need so much of it if Labour got in…..

Sorry, that’s definitely the end of the political talk now. Back to therapy…

I thought I might share this new experience of more in depth therapy, as I would love to hear from anyone else who has gone beyond CBT and into what makes us who we are. It’s kind of interesting having spent so many years managing symptoms and learning about CBT to actually look at what’s underneath. What’s driving it all. I had no idea until recently that a lack of self-esteem could cause anxiety. That it’s not necessarily all the small things that are making you anxious, but something much bigger and longer-term that’s driving it.

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