Can honesty always be a good thing?

As children we are taught to be honest, ‘Don’t tell lies’ or ‘can you please tell the truth’ are phrases we would all hear time and time again. I’ve therefore been inexplicably lead to believe- that being honest is something that you have to do, and that not saying something will result in consequences later. But how does disability and mental health fall into this realm of honesty? As I grew up I learned that disclosing is something I should do, in the same way that I shouldn’t lie about eating all of the sweets. As a teenager I was as far away from this acceptance as you can possibly be, I knew I was different- I read books, wrote poetry and played folk music- while others my age were taking drugs, going to parties and having one night stands. The embarrassment of having a completely different teenage life to my peers made disclosure impossible, and hiding away from reality easier to achieve. I remember going away on a hostel weekend with The Woodcraft Folk, I was about 14 at the time and the girls in my dorm were discussing weed, boyfriends and blow jobs – I buried my head in a book as to show that I wasn’t interested in the conversation, but really I was embarrassed – about the lack of experience I had in life and the little acceptance I had of myself.  I find being honest pretty natural now and it’s given me more friends than I have lost, but back then I found uttering the words ‘I am Dyspraxic’ to myself, on my own in a room harder than anything.

Disclosure as common place as it is for me now, despite the sleepless nights regularly wondering ‘have I done the right thing? There have been times when I either wished that I didn’t have Dyspraxia, anxiety or depression OR that I just simply didn’t disclose. Those of you who have followed this blog, or my general life for a while will know that I went to India for three months in 2010 and had one of the best times of my life. Ringing a friend up in tears, when I was worried about getting on the plane all worked out okay in the end. An experience that came later – as it’s a few years ago now, it doesn’t feel so raw.  I applied again to go to abroad, this time to South Africa to do some similar volunteering with an organisation called Restless development, as part of the International Citizen Service. I had visions of this being as good as India- it’s cliche I know,  but I felt I’d ‘found myself in India’ – for the first time in my life, I talked about my Dyspraxia in depth throughout the interview process, a disclosure  that ultimately got me a seat on that plane. Without thinking  I disclosed here too.

‘Do you have a disability or medical condition?’

‘Yes’

And so Dyspraxia & anxiety appeared on my form. I went away not thinking anything of it, knowing that I had done the right thing and that my honesty would help me here too.

I would never have imagined what was to follow. My ‘mental health’ was picked up as being a problem, I was put through the most gruelling assessment process and judgements were thrown at me left, right and centre. More than anything, this experience taught me that the stigma of mental health is still well and truly there.

‘We are totally unprepared to support Alice’ were some of the comments in the emails I later read about myself.

And ‘What if something inappropriate would happen, like if she needs to go back on anti-depressants whilst in South Africa for example’

The list goes on, and so I filed in a formal complaint – for my sanity more than anything, and to channel my anger about an organisation that see’s the word Anxiety, panics and then discriminates, into something positive. I didn’t go to South Africa in the end, but I didn’t want others to go through what I’d experienced. Hence all of the writing. All of the tweeting and the many frank and open discussions I’ve had lately.

It’s experiences like this, that makes many of us wonder if disclosure,  honesty and being as open as I have is the right thing to do. I’ve certainly thought twice about disclosing my mental health or Dyspraxia since, and can understand why people don’t – although I am pretty comfortable writting and blogging about these these kind of things now, this confidence in discussing issues that others would rather avoid on social media, came well after Restless Development and still, sometimes I wonder if I really should.

This week I went to a folk gig with a friend, and as I sat there listening to the music, in the world where I first found a sense of belonging and acceptance, I thought to myself: ‘I fit in so much more now that I’ve started to use disclosure as a positive thing’. And this to me, is why honesty is important.

In other slightly related news, I’ve found that the best thing for mental health (and the latest devastating news in politics) other than understanding and supportive friends, are cats – meet Biscuit and Amber: 

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Being a Magazine Journalism student: part two…

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Sunrise at silly O’clock on the way to uni…

Massive apologies for not updating this blog as much as I would have liked- it’s been (as you can probably imagine) a pretty full on few weeks.

I’ve been at uni for well over a month now, although it’s felt in many ways so much longer than this. Reading week is next week, something that I’m sure everyone is looking forward to- I’m spending mine visiting friends in Nottingham & Leeds (and anyone else who will have me.)

I’ve learned more about myself in the last six weeks, than in a whole year studying youth work, being amongst like minded people and feeling the most ‘at home’ I’ve felt in years is wonderful. I should have done this years ago – as much as I love youth work, I’ve finally found something that I can be good at, without worrying about not being like the loud, lary and more extroverted youth workers in a team.

At the moment when I tell people what I’m currently up to, conversations tend to go like this…

‘WHAT so you’re doing ANOTHER masters?!’

Or: ‘What happened to all of the youth work?’

and occasionally ‘omg you’re at Sunderland?’ As if I’d just told them that I was going to university on Mars. It’s not so amusing when you hear this hundreds of times.

Comments aside, being Dyspraxic there are some things you’d think wouldn’t naturally go together with journalism- processing information, shorthand, working under pressure and getting things turned around quickly- as much as I’ve found some of this hard, and I’m often on the brink of giving up with shorthand (having been reassured that magazine journalists DON’T need shorthand to do well, irrespective of the debate) I’ve been able to give everything a go. My background and being able to be pretty open on social media/in general life about certain issues has made me more determined than ever to get mental health, Disability and more ‘hidden stories’ into the media, and in some ways I feel that I have ‘a duty’ to do so. When the MA began, I made a list of everything I find difficult for the disability support service and then compared this with everything that’s expected of a journalist, and thought how can this all possibly go together? But in some strange, weird and wonderful way it seems to work. It helps that I’m thoroughly enjoying everything we’re doing, the food in the canteen is even exciting and I couldn’t ask for better people to train with. The best thing about this course is that it’s very practical, so we learn, write and create as we go, and for someone who learns by doing and being shown- this is the best kind of learning.

Mondays are spent up on the top floor of the of the media centre, in ‘the hub.’  A live media environment, where our main focus for four hours is to be ‘real’ journalists, writing for either SR news, Northern Lights or pitching to local and national publications- we put into practice researching stories, interviewing people, gaining feedback, having our work edited and eventually being published. Its intense. Loud. Busy. But incredibly exciting. How can I concentrate on anything meaningful in such a busting, noisy environment? I honestly don’t know- but it’s working. AND I’m meeting all of my 2pm deadlines. I also regularly wonder, am I good enough to be here? As is only natural to doubt myself in such an unfamiliar environment, but then I remember that if I don’t try, I will never know- and that’s exactly what I am doing today, tomorrow and the day after that. If I was too confident, I’d be more worried.  So far I’ve written articles about dyspraxia awareness week and world mental health day for SR news. I’ve also written a piece that I’m most proud of, about the release of the ‘I, Daniel Blake’ film, and the people behind the unfair benefit sanctions. The film was powerful, and I attempted to create an equally powerful article portraying the hardship many local people have to go through when faced with cuts and sanctions to their benefits.

In the busiest months of my life so far (bar perhaps A levels & India) I’ve learned how to write news stories, features and reviews. I’ve used editing software and cameras, hunted down a story for video journalism, whilst also understanding how the magazine industry works – and started to design the concept of a new magazine. I’ve listened to media law lectures, and stories about how things can go wrong. If only media law exam questions could be answered with ‘Just don’t do Journalism.’ I’ve felt relatively confident in ‘public affairs’ seminars – we were asked to research our local MP in the first session, something that I knew at fourteen, my background with Gateshead Youth Assembly helps here. I was surprised to learn how many lacked a basic grasp of politics, compared to my upbringing when I was encouraged to debate and hold an opinion from such a young age. Maybe this shouldn’t be surprising, maybe this is just normal- but I don’t want it to be normal. I overthink too much.

How I’ve managed to sleep, eat and feed cats- I don’t know.

If you asked me at the start of this degree,  what do you think the most important thing you’d do this year? I would have almost certainly said ‘writing.’ It almost goes without saying that you need to be able to write to be a journalist but then again not all great writers make good journalists. After being here just over a month, it’s clear that one of the most important skills a journalist can learn, is to build up contacts- because without people to talk to, we don’t have stories or anyone to interview. For the first time in about ten years I actually have a physical address book- it’s relatively empty now, but hopefully by the end of the year it’ll be full of lots of interesting people. ‘Networking’ is a terrifying word- something I have to get used to.

My course is busy, intense and I’m exhausted both physically and mentally- for both related and unrelated reasons. My break into journalism may be slightly later than some, but I’m comforted in knowing that I have most definitely made the right decision. Although roll on reading week!

I also have a new (and slightly scary) online portfolio– it’s a work in progress at the moment, but if anyone fancies having a gander you’d be most welcome.

In other news nanowrimo has gone out of the window, along with my ability to sleep….

 

 

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Surviving week one as a Journalism student…

My morning walk to Journalism school involves boats! 

”So I’ve been a youth worker for two years, what other challenge can I throw at myself? I know I’ll become a Journalist.” And so the rest followed…

If you’d told me two years ago, that I’d be starting a Second Masters in Magazine Journalism, I’d probably have told you to ‘piss off’ or words to similar affect, I would never have imagined that this is what I would be doing, right now at this stage in my life, but here I am after week one of training as a magazine journalist, and I absolutely love it. Hands down, this is one of the best decisions I have ever made, even better than deciding to go to India- and that’s saying something.

As someone who’s taken a bit longer to fit in than others, I’ve finally found somewhere I can really belong- it’s only taken 27 years. After week one I have new friends, a new place I can travel to without getting terribly lost and a whole new world. As cheesy as finding a ‘whole new world’ sounds.  Journalism training is fast paced, varied, practical and exciting. In the last week I’ve learned about media law, discussed the many options in the magazine industry, struggled with shorthand but then celebrated when I remembered how to write ‘the’ and learned how to use a video camera. I’ve understood the importance of curiosity, how to find new ideas, how to re-develop old ideas and what not to do when being a lone video journalist (don’t go and meet a group of armed pirates off the coast of Africa at midnight, was the example) I’ve also heard stories about getting journalistic pieces, methods to follow when reporting court cases or hostile situations, interviews that could go wrong and learned that you need to constantly think about new stories to write everyday. This is all in-between dealing with the arrival of two new kittens, who really are going to get me through this degree (but mental health & animals is something for another day)

In all honesty I was terrified before I started this degree; Have I made the right decision? What if I can’t do it? Will the people be nice? Will they like me? I asked myself. Putting my innate overthinking aside, it is only natural to feel this way, when starting a new course and a pretty drastic career change. I can now tell myself (and you) that I have definitely made the right decision, I really can do it (although the shorthand is questionable), I can’t imagine a nicer group of people to train with and they go for coffees with me so I must be a little bit alright.

I’ve decided to blog about my Journalism training, as a method of reflection for myself but also as an easy way to document how I’m doing for those who are interested. This is going to be one of the most intensive years of my life, but probably the most exciting and thought provoking…

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Planning a future

Recently it was A level results day, ten years since I picked up my As levels and 9 years on from my A level results day in 2007- the day when I learned that despite almost messing up sixth form, I still somehow managed to get into university. Now, my younger sister, 10 years since I made that journey into school to pick up results has done the same, so it’s a more poignant time than ever to write about A levels, working out what the hell to do with that future ahead of you and some things that I’d recommend you don’t repeat.

Back in 2005, I wandered into school to pick up the first of those brown envelopes- my GCSE’s. My predicted grades varied, as someone who struggled with Maths, science and any practical subjects, but I did well in predominantly essay based courses. This confused many teachers, because I wasn’t good at ‘everything’ and because of this, they doubted my abilities to go onto sixth form. I did well in my GCSES’s in the end, even passing Maths (albeit by one mark, but we don’t talk about that) and moved onto study four A levels as planned.

In 2007, now 18 I was there again, with a brown envelope but faced with almost failing some A levels- as someone who was predicted A’s and B’s but came out with a couple of E’s, I was embarrassed, upset and confused. I was probably at one of the best places possible to get these results, being away at Folkworks Youth Summer school in Durham, and surrounded by friends was what I needed at the time. I hadn’t done as well as I could have, or was certainly capable of achieving- and felt that I had really let myself down. The truth being that I still got a place at university to study History and Politics, so I couldn’t complain too much- and I didn’t. When I returned to Folkworks after collecting my results, people asked how I’d done- and I just told them I had got into uni, they didn’t need to know about the E’s that behind closed doors I was devastated by. I remember one girl, who’s birthday was on results day, getting four A’s and being featured in the local paper, with her birthday balloons and a big grin on her face. I was slightly envious, and made to feel that my results weren’t good enough and didn’t deserve to be applauded- I still got into my first choice of uni, so in the grand scheme of things shutting up and just getting on with it was probably the best strategy. I hadn’t considered then, that everything I’d done, experienced in life and achieved  wasn’t recorded in this brown envelope and certainly didn’t compare to those who were good at everything, who the teachers seemed to love. Winning a writing competition and travelling to Slovakia is something that no one in my year had done- but I had ticked off my list by the time I was 17. I was able to write for England, and to write well- my personal statement was the size of a short story, something that isn’t useful in the context of keeping to a specific number of characters, but useful in many other ways. I also learned very early on to stand up for myself and those around me, developing an innate sense of justice and fairness- something others are often scared to do, but a skill that has always come naturally to me, and as I’ve grown up I’ve developed more tactful ways of being heard. My favourite moment was aged 15 when I piped up ‘I can speak for myself thank you very much’ during an SEN review meeting, after being asked if I wanted an advocate to ‘fight my corner’ as it was so clearly put.

The two years of A levels were probably one of the hardest of my life, I basically went off the rails- not in the sense of partying every night, although I sometimes wish I had done as that would have been more fun, but that I basically just stopped, and my brain became full of stuff that wasn’t conducive to sitting four A levels. I remember writing in a diary that I hadn’t achieved everything I wanted to achieve by 18, I wish I knew what this was, because going on a rampage of self pity wasn’t healthy or useful to anyone. My difficulties with AS’s and an upsetting A level music performance when I was torn apart- made me work out that throughout my life and in the world of work I was going to struggle, even with my fiddle playing- the one thing that had kept my mental health up, someone could pick out flaws, and this made me feel quite down. I’d picked up on people’s lower expectations throughout my life, and when I saw a less than helpful careers adviser, who told me that I wouldn’t be able to do an English degree, because I had taken A level language and not literature- my plans were crushed, although now I realise that he couldn’t speak anymore rubbish if he tried.

Looking back on my years in education, I wish that I’d worked harder during those crucial two years at sixth form and listened to myself more than others around me, but I also know that my A level results didn’t stop me doing what I do now. similarly I could have got a 2:1 or even a first degree, if by second year I hadn’t just stopped too  (I can’t think of a better way to describe it) -but it certainly hasn’t held me back. If there’s one bit of advice I’d give to 18 year old’s holding that brown envelope and wondering what the hell to do with their future, is to do what you enjoy and can do well, I’ve never been highly paid but I love what I do, I’ve developed the skills needed in the job market now that I’ve worked for a few years and met people who have helped me to do that. I’ve also been very clear about things that I’ll find difficult or even impossible to do with my employers. I know I’m fortunate to work for such a supportive organisation, and not everyone is as lucky as me- but what I will say is these exam results are only the start of what you can do, and that people and plans often change- but it’s also okay to feel what you feel now,  people will tell you that a piece of paper doesn’t matter, but I know that it does, it did to me and it will to you. It’s important to have that time to be the most difficult person to be around if you weren’t as happy as you could be with results. I was devastated with my A levels at first, but then I realised that there’s more to me than my two E’s and two C’s…

 

 

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Recognising lovely Valerie!

A few Fridays ago, the shortlist for the National Diversity Awards was announced on social media, awards that until accidentally coming across on Twitter I hadn’t heard of. After reading through the award categories- I knew that there was one person who stood out from everyone I knew and I had to nominate her for an award. I nominated Valerie Ender for the life time achiever award, my youth worker as a teenager, who has had more impact on my life than anyone. I knew, that for all she’s done for young people across the borough of Gateshead, Valerie needed to be recognised. I wanted others to know about the valuable sanctuary that Gateshead Youth Council provides for young people, how important youth services are in general and how proud I am now to call Valerie a friend.

I first met Valerie when I joined Gateshead Youth Assembly, as a shy, timid fifteen year old- with incredibly low self esteem and an anxiety disorder that I didn’t have a name for yet. I was also in denial about being Dyspraxic and going through bouts of horrendous bullying, on top of trying to be a ‘normal’ teenager, and dealing with everyone telling me who I should or shouldn’t be. I was, at this time in my life very unsure of myself and the world around me. However the first time I met Valerie, her warm smile and words of encouragement immediately had a powerful affect on me, she saw past the barriers and through to a girl who desperately wanted to be included, valued and be accepted-  so that I could participate. Everything finally started to make sense. She adopted a very caring and reassuring approach, offering an ear when I needed it, a gentle hug when things got too much or simply just a push in the right direction when I had to do something. She was always there, and Gateshead Youth Council became my second home- Valerie believed in me for one of the first times in my life, something very special for a girl with Dyspraxia who was constantly told that I wouldn’t be able to do things, or achieve academically. Whilst on a university trip, when I learned that our lecturers were going to irresponsibly force us into the middle of a riot in Paris- anyone with any common sense/understanding of Dyspraxia would understand how I felt at this point, my instinct was to give Valerie a call. She was sat at home, whilst I was in a hotel room across the channel, in floods of tears with worries about tear gas and French police. Her calm and reassuring approach made it all so much easier to deal with, despite looking back now and wondering how was that situation even allowed to carry on? Isn’t hindsight wonderful. From a different country, she was still able to reason and rationalise with me, to make a terrified Alice feel ten times better.

Valerie was different to everyone else who came before, she knew that I would get there and I was finally able to prove it when I travelled, with Valerie’s support to Slovakia after winning a writing competition. It was on this trip that I finally understood who I was for the first time, and through the tears, anxiety attacks and lack of vegetarian food- I blossomed. The one woman who has been instrumental in helping me achieve this has been Valerie Ender, coordinator of Gateshead Youth council and a brilliant youth worker and friend to everyone, who simply lets young people have a go, without being worried about being different, standing out or indeed getting it wrong. This seems miles away from the world many know at school. She really did make a difference to mine (and many others) lives and I wanted everyone to know this, so I nominated her for this award.

I am delighted that Valerie has reached the shortlist for these awards, and I am sure every young person or colleague she has ever worked with will join me in saying how much it means to them. The NDA’S are about equality, diversity and inclusion- and Valerie has really shown that this is at the heart of everything she does, by bringing young people from diverse backgrounds across Gateshead together. Diversity is the backbone to everything she did when I was a young person, and still does today- making reaching the shortlist for the life time achiever award even more special. She is one remarkable woman from Gateshead, who through her humble and passionate ways has done extraordinary and often life changing things for the young people she works with. When I got a place at University, Valerie was one of the first people I told- who seemed more over the moon than me at points, so you can probably imagine her reaction when I told her that I’d got into Durham to do a Masters. I was inspired so much by Valerie and my time spent in the Youth Council office, that I decided to study for an MA in Community and Youth work, so that I could encourage and support young people just as Valerie did for me. When I finally completed the MA, and it came around to graduating in the iconic Durham cathedral, Valerie was on the top of my list of people I wanted to be there, and I was honoured when she accepted my invitation.

I do everything I do now, because I joined Gateshead Youth assembly when I did, at a time in my life when I really needed to be accepted and understood. I am over the moon that my youth worker and friend, who was so instrumental in me becoming the young woman I am today, capable of standing up and taking the lead, with the confidence to support others in the same way as she did when I spent more time in the Youth Councils office than at home, has been shortlisted for this award.

Valerie writes:  ‘I have been incredibly lucky to work in an amazing organisation for most of my adult life. I have worked with colleagues, parents, carers and most importantly young people who are amazing, inciteful, funny compassionate, confused, overwhelmed and absolutely bloody fantastic. What you should know though, is every decent Youth Worker out there would get nominations like this. I come from a profession of people who believe desperately that people are wonderful, some just need support to achieve their potential.’

The awards take place in September in Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral, and I am pleased to have been a small part of getting Gateshead represented but also to finally be able to show on a national level just how lucky Gateshead and the youth work profession is to have a woman like Valerie who has shaped the lives of so many. Everyone needs a Valerie in their lives.

 

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Four years

Four years ago one of my best friends moved up to Newcastle to go to university, an addition to my life that I probably needed at the time, bringing along with her much needed laughter and happiness. As someone, who still lives at home well into my 20’s now, partly because it’s easier financially but also as it wouldn’t be fair to burden anyone I live with, with my problems- a fear that has become increasingly clear to me, having Rosa in the same city has been a real novelty. Prior to this I was used to having to get on a train if I wanted to see anyone, something that has been harder for me over recent years due to several mental health dips. I was now able to escape around to her flat for cups of tea and a change of scene when I wanted to and she would come to me when my anxiety was too bad or I couldn’t face getting on a bus. I literally, and by no exaggeration wouldn’t have been able to get through half of what I’ve dealt with over the last few years without her here. We’ve both supported each other through lots of highs and lows while she’s been in the North East, drank many cups of tea, eaten any onion rings we can find, danced at ceilidhs and had cheesy chips by the seaside. Now after four wonderful years she is moving back home to Nottingham.

We met when she was 15 and I was 19, and despite being very different, in age but also personality- we immediately clicked and became inseparable. Although we are, by definition of most people, one of the most unlikely duos ever. Our friendship has certainly blossomed and been made stronger since her move to Newcastle four years ago. I’ve refrained from saying much on social media about this, until she knew just how hard it’s going to be for me and how much I will miss her, because aside from how it makes me feel and how much I have already cried over it, she is so doing what is right for her and that’s the most important thing. And I really do support her with this decision. But now she does know, I wanted to write something.

As hard as change is for anyone, particularly if you’re Dyspraxic or you just generally get attached to the familiarity of places and people, this move simply means that we’ll both be spending a bit more time on trains than usual, and as we both have friends dispersed right across the country- this isn’t a rare occurrence. Of course it isn’t the same as having someone around the corner, who you can phone when you’ve had a bad day. I’m going to miss her terribly, and will probably find it harder than most- for reasons related to loneliness, mental health and the need for company. But I have had a brilliant four years with her up here. So if any friends fancy having me visit/meeting up for coffee to make this all easier for me, I will really appreciate it at the moment. Above all I wish Rosa all of the luck in the world with her new adventure and thought I’d leave you with some memories of our time together over the years…

 

There’s not many people who I would happily dress up as a man and dance around a stage with…

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Panic, anxiety and being a teenager

The first time I remember experiencing anxiety (or at least when it really started to take hold) was when I was thirteen years old, at school. We were in a middle of a PE lesson, and I began to feel as if I was genuinely about to die. I struggled to see, my vision became blurry, my legs turned to jelly and all I wanted to do was disappear- I felt so ill , the hot summers day didn’t help, and in hindsight neither did being outside playing tennis. I felt sick. I wanted to lie down, before I fell over. It was horrible. It was also my first anxiety attack. When the teachers back was turned, I managed to escape and make my way, still holding onto my tennis racket, back to school. Here I turned off the lights, and lay down in the darkened room of the girls changing room, still wearing my red PE t-shirt and tracksuit bottoms. I must not have been there very long, although it felt like forever- as I assessed and catastrophized every worry in my head, my biggest being not looking like a ‘freak’ as I left the school later, would I even be able to physically get up? What would happen when the other girls got back here from the lesson? Can I hide in the toilets? What if I’m dying and the school changing rooms would be the last thing I ever see? I checked my pulse, thankfully I was still alive. Maybe I’m not going to die, but I am going blind. That must be why I feel so dizzy.

At this point it hadn’t crossed my mind that what I was feeling was anxiety, and that it was all completely ‘normal.’ Maybe not normal in the sense that everything was okay, because it certainly wasn’t okay and if I’m honest felt bloody awful. But in the sense that anxiety is something that millions of us feel and experience everyday, and that I was just joining this community whose minds are more complicated than meets the eye. I didn’t know this yet, or that 1 in 4 of us will feel like this at some stage in our life, so there will, most likely in that very PE class, be people just like me. We just didn’t talk about it, and as teenage girls were more concerned about being ‘liked’ and ‘popular’ than recognising our mental health. I of course was neither, so opening up about any mental health difficulties would have made me even more of an outcast. Being known as the clumsy, hippy, vegetarian was quite enough- I didn’t want to be seen as the crazy girl as well. Shortly after those periods of rumination, my teacher must have been alerted to the fact that I was missing, as the school nurse appeared in the changing rooms looking for me. By this point I had calmed down considerably, but still felt incredibly spaced out and in no way ready to engage in conversation with anyone. Despite this, she made me gather up my belongings, and go with her still dressed in my school PE kit down the corridor to the nurses room. Whilst I was here, I burst into tears- it finally all became too much. I remember her giving me a glass of water and a leaflet about bullying- It baffles me why she thought this was necessary, I had been bullied most of my life, it wasn’t new and sadly over time had become part of the norm- a leaflet telling me about anxiety disorders and that I wasn’t really a freak- would have probably been more useful.

Since that moment, my life has been consumed by worry, fear, anxiety and depression. I’d worry that every time we went out in the car that we’d have a fatal car crash- or worse that mum just wouldn’t come home from work one day. When not long ago, my family were in a real-life car accident, without me in it- I understandably was in bits. I worried like most girls my age that I would get fat- but unlike most people to combat this fear I became vegan and cut more out of my diet than is healthy for a growing teenager to do, subsequently making myself ill and almost requiring hospital treatment if I didn’t put a stop to my veganism when I did. Every headache- I had a brain tumour, and every time my breathing sounded ‘funny’ it was definitely a heart attack. I panicked whenever I heard a slight argument at home and to this day still worry about my friends at levels that aren’t healthy. I once watched a documentary about someone who had glaucoma and for months was convinced that it was happening to me too and that I was going blind. These irrational thoughts, seemed perfectly rational to me, but they were also terrifying. I’m just pleased I was a teenager over a decade ago, and not now- current news stories would have surely sent a teenage girls anxiety that didn’t have any strategies into overdrive. The biggest news story during the height of my anxiety was the Iraq war, I remember sitting down in the middle of a road on an anti war protest being terrified of world war three breaking out, sometimes it would probably have been better for my mental health if I wasn’t so politically aware. It would probably be best for most of us if we didn’t know that the news exists some days coming to think of it. After experiencing a couple of anxiety attacks in a local shopping centre, I avoided going there for two years, I would rather stay at home in my room where I felt safe- much like most teenagers, except I was hiding in my room because I felt anxious, not because I was a stroppy teenage girl (although I was that too.) I started to wear baggy clothes so that I could hide away- the less attention that was on me the better, I concluded. Anything that interests most girls completely bypassed me, and my attempt at maintaining friendships let alone relationships hit an all time low, it takes a lot of empathy and understanding to get to know me I have since worked out and for people to see past the girl who is ‘hard work.’ I felt trapped with my thoughts, the only interests that stayed with me were music and campaigning about absolutely everything, animal rights, anti-nestle, global warming, anti war- you name it, I was there (in my baggy jumper.)

More recently I have become terrified of being unable to swallow and choking on my food, this probably stems from my TMJD- a very real physical condition related to my jaw. As a result I only feel comfortable eating in front of people I trust and have cut out so much from my diet, that I have decided I can’t swallow- despite numerous trips to the doctor, all concluding that there definitely isn’t anything physical going on and that it is in fact all in my mind. In a similar way I have worried about going completely deaf because of water getting into my ears when I’m swimming, so for months I removed swimming from my life- despite it being the one form of exercise that was actually really positive for my mental health. I’m also unable to go anywhere without a bottle of water, almost as if I’m convinced other people’s houses and pubs don’t have running water, but I am just scared that without my bottle of water to calm me down- my anxiety will appear more angrier than ever. Although seeing all of the above written down, does make me wince at how absurd it all seems- it’s the truth, and very few of us talk about exactly what anxiety means and looks like. In some ways I’m lucky to have grown up when I did- pre social media, anxiety ‘listicles’ and when almost everyone talks about being anxious as though it is some kind of craze, being a bit worried or nervous is very different to dealing with an anxiety disorder, in the same way that having a clean house is very different to suffering from OCD. In some ways, today mental health is glorified by the media as being ‘cool’, but I can tell you that it is anything but cool.

As I grew up, after the days of that first anxiety attack in the changing rooms, I gradually began to feel more and more low. I can’t really describe it, other than being sad all of the time. My self esteem didn’t really exist and I started to self harm, because I was angry with myself for feeling this way. There was no explanation, and I would often feel anxious for no reason at all. Sometimes there was a reason though, travelling for one- being unable to escape during an anxiety attack became (and still is) my worst fear,  mental health can work in strange ways. Despite not saying much, my teenage self was very good at responding to how I felt and I used writing to express this. I’d come home and spend hours writing in a note book before bed, documenting my day, my worries and things that I longed to tell people, but felt too weird to even begin to verbalise. When I was sixteen I relied heavily on a text service for young people, this for me was a step up from writing it down- as I was starting to, for the first time in my life talk about my mental health. It was through this text service, and the youth workers behind the computer screen that encouraged me go to the doctor and access counselling for the first time. Walking into the doctors surgery to admit to everything that I had been writing down, was a big thing to do for a seventeen year old- A levels, university applications and mental health all in the same year isn’t a great place to be.

Now as an adult, my anxiety has moved on, but it is still very much there. I’ve experienced more heartache, difficulties and bereavement too, but I am finally able to talk about it, and although I still feel somewhat of a burden every time I do mention something that is getting me down- I’m not sure any of my friends don’t know about my anxiety. This is a good thing, because it’s so important to talk about our mental health. I’ve lost count of the amount of therapy I’ve had over the years, the times when I have mentioned anxiety and people have ran a mile (making me reluctant to disclose for months) and the days when getting out of the house seems as challenging as climbing a mountain. Through sharing my story about mental health (and Dyspraxia) I have met some of the most kind, caring and wonderful people who really do understand and have been there, or are there- just as I was as a thirteen year old girl scared of falling over during a PE lesson. Talking about it really does help to make you realise that you are not alone, in ways that are often difficult to describe- unless you have been there yourself. Empathy means everything.

And I hope you are able to talk about it too.

 

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