Dear Fellow Actors, I wanted to tell the truth. And not the truth in a confessional, sit me in a box and say three hail Mary’s kind of way, although a Hail Mary from time to time does help I’ve found, but simply in a let’s talk about this because it’s important kind of way.
When I was nineteen I suffered from horrendous OCD, intrusive thoughts inside my head telling me that if I didn’t do or say or think certain things then those that I loved would die and that it would all be my fault. Since that first attack, I have suffered on and off from anxiety, depression, panic attacks and more OCD than you could sink a battle ship with, though I wouldn’t recommend trying unless you were wearing armbands and a helmet.
It has affected my family, my life and my relationships but thankfully never my acting work, if anything it has spurred me on. I say I “have suffered from” not as a victim but as a strong, confident young woman who never understood mental illness until she had it and suffered.
You wouldn’t know it if you met me as for those of you who do know me will know, I have an abrasively perky disposition, a positive outlook on life and a love of all things rude (noises/words/sounds).
I say “have suffered from” because it is suffering, it is crippling and it is exhausting. I had seen it in family when I was growing up, but I never truly understood it until it felt like my own brain was attacking me.
Because that is what mental illness feels like, it feels like your brain, the thing inside of you which up until now you completely associated with your sense of identity and self, is on fire and on the attack and will not rest until you are flattened. It feels like someone has placed a blanket of lead over your head that no matter how hard you try you cannot (unlike Taylor Swift) shake it off.
What is so hard about mental illness is that, unlike when you have broken your leg and you can clearly see all the “broken” bits, when your brain is broken it is so difficult to distinguish between what is you, your personality and what is the illness. This is one of the many reasons mental health is such a taboo subject and people feel uncomfortable talking about it because they don’t want to be thought of as crazy. What they do need to be thought of as is ill, unwell and poorly, all the same words that you would use for a cold or a gripey tummy.
When your mental health isn’t working properly or at its best, the same as if you broke your leg, it needs fixing and resetting. Many mental illnesses are caused by chemical imbalances or over-activity in the brain, others from traumatic experiences and some completely out of the blue.
The hardest thing about mental illness is pretending that you’re ok, it’s exhausting putting on a smile that doesn’t quite reach your eyes when all your body and mind is screaming for you to do is lie down, cry and not get up.
You can’t pull yourself together because at that moment in time you don’t have the strength or cognitive ability to do so. You try to be ok and to seem fine because you don’t want anyone to worry, you don’t want to be a burden to your family and friends.
The kindest thing my best friend said to me when I was ill was, “You don’t need to pretend in front of me, take it ten seconds at a time”. Because that is all you can do, get through that first ten seconds and then another and then another and cling on. Because you will get through it. It is, although it may not feel like it at the time, temporary. Like all illnesses, it will get worse, better, worse, better, worse but things will change, it will pass and you will heal with time and help.
And the best thing you can do is to talk about it, which is why I am writing this and why I created #itaffectsme. I am asking you all to take a selfie with a post-it note on your head, that says #itaffectsme, upload it to social media, donate to Mind and then share, share, share!
#itaffectsme is simply the statement that at some point in all our lives we have seen or known mental illness in ourselves or others and have been affected or moved by it.
And the selfie is to stop people having the need to hide, or be embarrassed by it, to show a united front and to express the universality of these illnesses. Mental illness has no prejudices about who it affects, so we should have no prejudices about it.
People are scared to talk about it and we need to change that. We tiptoe around the subject because we don’t know what to say or how to react but the best thing you can do is SAY THAT, say I don’t know, be ignorant and let someone tell you how they feel instead of guessing. Say ‘how are you?’ and actually mean it.
The best thing I did when I was ill was to seek help, taking active steps immediately made my brain shift from a position of destruction to one of creation. I went to my GP, I went to a counsellor and finally I received cognitive behavioural therapy, all three together combined have been a life saver. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not completely fixed (none of us are) and I know it is something I will always battle with but when you have an army of troops on your side you can win. I’m not sure how my doctor, therapist, family and friends would feel about being called a troop but tough titty I’m afraid that’s what they are.
Mental illness is so so so so common, all of us will experience it at some point in our lives whether for ourselves or through a loved one. Ruby Wax, Stephen Fry and Emma Thompson have all suffered and spoken out about it, they are the tip of the iceberg. What we need to do is get educated and we need to talk because that is where true happiness and hope comes from: talking, communication and connection. Don’t hide and don’t let someone else hide.
Life is too short, too precious not to talk, not to tell the truth. So please, do it. #itaffectsme
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