Stigma Enigma: People Should Talk About Death More Often

Bare with me here.

The ongoing pandemic is scary as hell for all sorts of reasons, from the death toll, to fear of infection and the long term financial and societal repercussions. It’s certainly going to create a huge demand for mental health services. So many people have lost loved ones so quickly, in such a horrible way, without even having the chance to properly say goodbye to them. Even funerals have had to be restricted to a small number of people who, unless they were isolating together, wouldn’t even be able to share a hug safely. It’s a lot to take in.

But just to be clear here, I don’t wish to come across as simply morbid and ‘end of the worldy’ in this blog. As someone who has become very accustomed to talking and writing about various difficult elements of mental health, from depression to trauma to suicide bereavement, I feel like it’s high time we talked about death more as a society. Surely a situation as awful as a global pandemic is an appropriate time to do so.

Work I’ve done around suicide bereavement has, understandably, been very illuminating in terms of societal views on death. The stigma surrounding suicide is something that has become more toxic as the years go by. I can remember depressing reactions to recent celebrity suicides, with members of the public and eventually even mainstream news anchors perceiving those suicide victims as selfish, or cowardly, or both. It’s all quite horrible to see, but it’s almost certainly coming from a place of shock, grief and anguish. Obviously I wouldn’t condone someone accusing musicians and comedians I’ve spent years looking up to of cowardice when they were clearly in immense anguish themselves, but going somewhere towards understanding these reactions is important. To simply shut down such views and box them into a corner won’t make them go away. If nothing else it exacerbates the problem and makes it endemic to the stigma itself. “You’ve said something that I don’t like, therefore you shouldn’t be allowed to say anything” is not a healthy attitude for any society to have. It silences and sensors, it fuels resentment and division. The number of people I’ve heard from in peer support groups who’ve said they were extremely anxious to talk openly about their loss is heartbreaking, but unfortunately that’s not uncommon at all.

So recently, like a lot of people, I’ve been occasionally binge watching TV shows online during the lockdown, and I was really fortunate to come across The Midnight Gospel, a Netflix original series created by comedian/actor Duncan Trussell and Pendleton Ward, creator of Adventure Time. I cannot stress this enough, I utterly adore The Midnight Gospel. The animation is amazing, and the guest interviews (largely derived from Trussell’s own podcast) are quirky and often fascinating. The music is great too. The show is often hilarious, there are too many laugh out loud moments to count. It’s a show with dark humour and endearingly quirky charm in equal measure. Each episode revolves around guest interviews with subjects ranging from drug use to existentialism. But one common theme throughout seems to be death and grief and acceptance of it, either in violent visuals and downright surreal representations, or more obviously in the interviews themselves. Almost every simulated planet the main character visits is destroyed at the end of each episode. It almost comes across as nihilistic on the surface, but there’s much more to it than that. It’s a bold, scary, surreal, confrontational, passionate, visceral, philosophical work of art. (I liked it, just in case that’s not clear.)

tenor MG
Clancy is on an emotional journey, and we’re on it with him. (Credit: Tenor.com)

As previously stated, I have no qualms talking about death and grief. I don’t view it as taboo simply because I’m so used to the subject. But it’s been immensely refreshing for me to see a series talking about such things so directly, and with brutal, genuinely moving raw honesty. This is rare, and it shouldn’t be. If we did talk about death more as a society, surely we could prepare for and understand it a lot better. As Caitlin Doughty discusses in the penultimate episode, attitudes towards death have shifted and become almost sterilised over time. She makes a convincing and sobering argument. I can remember discussing suicide bereavement groups with a friend and having them ask me “but isn’t it all a bit morbid?” No, it’s essential, arguably vital. You can’t wish these things away, try as you might. And a lot of people do. Surely such reluctance to talk openly about such things leads to a hell of a lot of isolation. The worst case scenario to that is what made those groups form in the first place. It feels like society is a snake eating its own tail here, with a mounting, tragically avoidable body count as a consequence.

Another superb moment of the series comes towards the end of the last episode, in a brutally emotional interview from a podcast Trussell made with his mother, Deneen. Living with terminal cancer, she was forced to make peace with her death, and the conversation becomes so raw that it’s impossible not to get emotional. I’ve never quite seen something like that before on screen, particularly because there’s a bizarre combination of a surreal, science fiction environment and a very real conversation between two people forced to grieve the imminent passing of someone who was still alive.

In a truly beautiful exchange, Deneen remarks that death is something that just happens, and that “our egos personalise it and we consider ourselves special cases, but we’re really not, you know? We’re part of the whole, and everything in the whole transforms all the time, changes form, transfigures.”

When Trussell asks her how she deals with the heartbreak of her situation, she passionately and poignantly exclaims “You cry! You cry.” At which point the two animated characters hug each other and cry together. This reduced me a sobbing mess, but in a good way. It’s not every day you hear such a powerful conversation, which becomes increasingly emotional as it goes on. I found the whole thing rather humbling and immensely powerful. The boldness of the two of them to share such personal turmoil is as highly commendable and beautiful as it is important and profound, and it’s perhaps even more pertinent during a global pandemic with a catastrophic death toll. I can see a lot of people finding it extremely cathartic.

Trussell has stated in a recent interview that Deneen sadly died before the show’s production was completed, meaning that we’re hearing a conversation from someone who is only recently deceased. Realising this makes the episode, and indeed the entire series, pack even more of a punch.

Like it or not, we have to talk about death. It’s part of life and unavoidable. The Midnight Gospel is a powerful commentary and meditation on this, albeit one wrapped up in a surreal, violent, quirky piece of psychedelic art. It certainly isn’t accessible to everyone, but it’s a masterpiece in my opinion, and probably a cathartic tug on the heartstrings that people need right now, by unfortunate coincidence. The show debuted on Netflix on the 20th of April, at the very peak of the outbreak.

It’s worth pointing out that mental health is a common thread to the show too. References to mindfulness and meditation are made more than once. Trussel has been open about his own struggle with depression in his podcast, and he was clearly looking for answers during the show’s interviews.

Perhaps a better perception of death and ourselves would be a very healthy thing. Perhaps making peace with it wouldn’t make people so judgemental towards issues like suicide or mental illness in general. Listening to each other is so important. It can save lives, as opposed to a demonisation and taboo status of such topics, which I would argue endangers lives. We need to keep talking about these things, and I believe we all have a responsibility to shape a society that can.

Let’s face it, none of us really have a choice at the moment. Perhaps this tragedy could be an opportunity to build something better. All of this chaos and dread has to be useful for something, otherwise what have we learned?

The Midnight Gospel is available now on Netflix. And it’s brilliant.

 

 

Lockdown and PTSD – Pros and Cons

There’s no denying it, the current situation with the COVID-19 outbreak and the lockdown is difficult, verging on horrifying. You probably noticed. It’s a lot for anyone to take in, between the obvious change in our routines that we could previously take for granted, the death toll rising and anxiety around losing loved ones or getting infected ourselves. I’m stating the obvious to say it sucks. A lot.

It’s given me a lot of time to reflect on things, which is both good and bad. But it’s really got me thinking about my response to this, and how I cope with day to day life in general compared to most people I know. The thing about living with severe anxiety and complex PTSD is that I tend to see threat almost everywhere, almost all the time. There are things I find really difficult that a lot of people don’t. Both voluntary and recent paid work can be immensely stressful to me. I was honestly almost relieved when recent peer support groups and workshops I’d been co-facilitating from November were cancelled in March because of the outbreak. It’s not that I wasn’t enjoying them, I absolutely was. It’s all very fulfilling work that I know is having a positive impact because I get to see that first hand. But the unpredictable nature of all this was a huge challenge. I’m someone who still has to fight off panic attacks doing a weekly food shop, or sometimes even just meeting up with friends. There probably isn’t any threat whatsoever in walking to a coffee shop or sitting in a pub for an open mic night. No one’s suddenly going to stab me to death while I’m buying groceries either. Just try telling my brain that.

So how does someone like cope with something like this? Oddly, better than you might think. It’s messed with my head a bit to be honest. I’ve been weighing up the pros and cons of all this from a personal perspective, and I’m finding some interesting things.

Anxiety, then and now

So yeah, most obvious thing first. What’s changed here? Well, the aforementioned food shops are still a bit of a pain for obvious reasons. But even here I’ve found something interesting. When you’re used to feeling a frequent sense of dread and threat, when you’ve got a brain that feels at ‘home’ catastrophising, it’s less difficult than you might think to adjust to this. I still have a sense of dread and threat, it’s just shifted. I’m more concerned about social distancing and infection/possibly spreading a virus I could have without knowing than I am about someone being out to harm or kill me. The irony here is that the virus hypothetically is. That threat is real, but I can adapt. It’s a new, unpleasant normal, but it’s not abnormal to me.

I’ve made adjustments here. I’d usually go into town to a large supermarket for a food shop, but I’d much rather go to a smaller shop down the road from me. I’d usually have to get a bus home with my shopping and I don’t want to do that now. I’m lucky enough to be living in a student area, which means there’s no shortage of places to get food from. Even in the early stages of the outbreak when people were panic buying, that wasn’t as much of an issue for me. Plus a lot of the UK based students went home for the Easter break, and won’t be coming back any time soon. That’s actually a win/win for me. Less people to have to contend with, either picking up food or walking round the park up the road suits me fine. It’s eerily quiet round here, but I honestly don’t mind. Less people equals less threat in my mind. That said, I worry about the fact that those students HAVE gone home. Maybe they should’ve stayed. I’m glad they didn’t, but what does that say about me?

I feel awful for a lot of foreign students who must be distraught to be stuck here during a time like this and not able to be with their families, some members of whom probably won’t survive this or have already died. As much as I worry about the future now, and the long term consequences of the pandemic, I’ve got a hell of a lot to be grateful for. There are certainly pros to this, and the cons are something I can work with. That said, I am putting off a food shop as I type this. That’s fine, I would’ve done that anyway. I’m a pro procrastinator and that works in my favour.

No pressure

As I mentioned before, in terms of work and meeting up with people, the pressure is off during lockdown. My mood can generally be a bit all over the place, so there have definitely been times when I didn’t entertain the idea of stepping outside at all. Now I’m told I’m not supposed to. Fair enough, fine by me. No pressure to get to groups or go to and stay at open mic nights or gigs in crowded venues. The groups are cancelled and the venues are closed. It’s almost like I’ve got an anxiety friendly get out of jail free card. This is a pro for sure.

But the cons here are obvious. It’ll be harder to get back into things when this is all over. I’ve had that before. Prolonged breaks from playing live in the past has meant the prospect becomes really daunting to get back onstage. And I’m not a total recluse; I do miss people. I’ve had the occasional video chat, and being able to keep in touch online or by phone has been massively helpful. But yeah, it’s not quite the same. I miss hugs and face to face interaction. Sometimes the build up to seeing someone can be difficult, and that makes feeling safe in someone’s company all the nicer. I’ve been talking to friends about this recently, the fact that meeting up for a cuppa was something we could take for granted and look forward to before. Now it feels like a novelty. That changed quickly. In what, the space of a month or so? The last thing a close friend and I agreed on in person was that we’d meet up more regularly. Now said friend is back in her home country with her family, where she needs to be, having travelled back pre-lockdown. All of a sudden we’ve got no idea when or even if we’ll be able to meet up again. I have no idea if she’ll come back. Neither does she. It’s a horrible situation. Which leads onto my next point…

Fear of losing people

This is most definitely and obviously a con. It’s been just over four years since a suicide bereavement for me, which is a long time. But it’s still a difficult thing to live with. Since then, I’ve been very on edge, almost paranoid about losing people, whether that’s due to mental health related stuff or because of a disease that’s killing people in their droves. I’ve panicked if I haven’t heard from some friends in a little while, even though they’re probably fine. Then I’ve panicked about sending them a panicked message that I shouldn’t have sent mid panic, and panicked about how they’d react. Good times.

There’s a huge negative cycle I’m having to fight there. Should I feel guilty about this? Why can’t I get a grip? They’re fine, I should leave them to it, and it’s not as if they need a stress-head like me pestering them right now. I won’t be alone in all this obviously, but it’s something I feel acutely. I need to check in with people and freak out if I don’t hear back. But then, social media can help there. I can see what people are up to. That’s reassuring. Then conversely…

Isolation, my old friend!

Now this is an interesting one. I’ve had some insightful conversations about this too. A lot of my friends hate this lockdown with a passion. Some are going a bit stir crazy. They feel almost claustrophobically limited in what they can do. I can totally get that, but I’m not. This is where, in a bizarre twist, my mental health/illness actually benefits me. Similar to having a lack of pressure as previously mentioned, I can be quite content on my own. As long as I’ve got music to listen to, musical instruments to play and express emotions with, the internet, books, video games etc. I’ve become used to needing periods of downtime away from people, and I’m lucky enough to be able to have that. Even when I’m told that I’ve got to get out every day because it’s vitally important, well frankly it isn’t to me.

I guess a con here would be having too much time to think, hence the panic. Those feelings of dread and potential loss, and anger at the situation from a political perspective can be a bit overwhelming. But I’ve got music to help with that. There’s a song for any emotion. I’m also getting songs out of this situation, be they intense acoustic songs or progressive metal to channel anger, or chilled out tongue drum music to help ground me and calm me down, or electronic music with no emotional investment whatsoever. Music is helping. The current situation has even made me more driven to record music. I’ve currently got two albums and an EP to finish writing/recording. Between that and blog writing, that’s a lot to keep me occupied. I can do all that in my living room. But yes, arguably there are pros and cons here too.

I guess the most important thing we can do here is look out for ourselves, and each other. In writing this, I’ve helped myself see what I can do to keep going for however long this lasts. It could be the rest of the year for all I know, and I may or may not lose people I care about by the time this outbreak is over. I’d rather brace myself for the worst than pretend everything is fine. But again, I’m used to that. The balance I have to strike is staying productive and as positive as possible under exceptional circumstances. That’s going to be a challenge, but it makes self-reflection vital at a time like this.

Stay safe, people.

If you like, check out a tune I wrote about this whole carry on:

We’ll Survive This, Then Imagine All The Hugs We Can Have

Peer Support, An Ongoing Journey: Advonet

I’m often finding myself reflecting on this journey I’ve been on, both as a musician and within mental health activism. It’s taken me in some really unexpected directions from fundraising gigs to peer support groups, and now to blogging. The most recent chapter in this adventure has been working with Advonet, a fantastic advocacy charity based in my home town of Leeds. I touched upon this in a previous blog.

Advonet’s aim is to: “offer a wide range of advocacy services tailored to people from diverse backgrounds, facing a range of challenges.” Those people in question may face challenges from being autistic, learning disabled or having long term mental health conditions. This is something I’ve grown increasingly passionate about, considering my own mental health struggles.

The capacity in which I’ve worked with Advonet has been within an LGBTQ+ advocacy project, co-facilitating self advocacy workshops and a peer support group. The workshops and groups aimed to address difficulties and barriers faced by the LGBTQ+ community, encouraging group members to find a voice where they may have felt they didn’t have one, and to be empowered to speak up for themselves to get any help they require. This could range from help with GP appointments, mental health related appointments and the like, or to simply feel safe in their own skin to openly discuss their sexuality.

“I’ve written quite a lot about peer support in previous blogs. But the reason for that is that I’m extremely passionate about it. It works. It makes a huge difference to people. Especially for the LGBTQ+ community that face all sorts of challenges, the importance of such a thing is something I can’t stress enough.”

I’ve had a far reaching background with peer support, so the peer support groups we were running were familiar ground to me. It felt really good to be able to apply my experiences to this. These groups involved members with a wide variety of needs including mental health difficulties, autism and learning disabilities. For some members all those things were applicable, making for some incredible insights. It was refreshing to see just how inclusive the project was in this regard. I’m used to peer support being mental health based, and I’ve often wondered whether or not that focus might not be enough to meet the needs of some people, or risk isolating them. That wasn’t the case with this. The ethos was very much that people are people, regardless of needs. I found that really encouraging and unique, and most importantly it created a really safe space for the group members to get to know each other and open up, even though that was very difficult for some of them at first.

I found the workshops in particular both challenging and fascinating. Challenging in the sense that it pushed me out of my comfort zone (I’m not used to leading such things), but also a fascinating insight into the wide range of difficulties faced by the LGBTQ+ community, some of which I was aware of and some not so much. Issues including homophobia and transphobia as well as cultural or religious conflicts; such range is obviously massive. Some experiences we were hearing were nothing short of heartbreaking, and testament to such a workshop being necessary. And interestingly, because of the nature of the workshops themselves, they pretty much became peer support groups in themselves, albeit more structured. We weren’t standing at the front of the room presenting to the group, we were facilitating the group in a much more informal setting which was crucial in encouraging members to engage if they wanted to. Specific exercises brought up quite powerful feelings and experiences for members in various ways, and the need to talk openly in a safe space about this was clearly a huge benefit.

I’ve written quite a lot about peer support in previous blogs. But the reason for that is that I’m extremely passionate about it. It works. It makes a huge difference to people. Especially for the LGBTQ+ community that face all sorts of challenges, the importance of such a thing is something I can’t stress enough. We had assurance of this in some of the feedback we received from members, not because we asked them necessarily although we handed out feedback forms towards the end of the project, but because they wanted us to know. Highlights for me there included asking one member how they thought the group was going and they told me straight away, with no hesitation that “it’s absolutely brilliant, it’s just what I need right now”. Such an assertive answer to such a question really hits you. Another group member went further than that, saying that the workshops and groups had changed everything for them. Some members experienced huge breakthroughs before our very eyes, stuff like that really brings the importance and validity of these things to the fore.

It’s also worth pointing out that the project hasn’t just helped the members. It helped us as facilitators too. Similar to past experiences of peer support, this project has been a huge learning curve for me personally. A safe and friendly work environment with brilliant (and I mean brilliant) colleagues and managers helped me through a ton of initial anxiety. I’ve also found it much easier to talk openly about my own sexuality. Close friends and family have known that I’m bi-sexual for a long time, but the struggles I’ve had around this have meant that I’ve kept that mostly quiet. Well, until now that is. It’s quite fitting that I’m essentially coming out in this blog, right now as I type this. It’s really quite a feeling I can tell you! Advonet and this project have made me able to do this. I’ll always be immensely grateful for that.

It’s a shame the project has now effectively come to an end pending further funding, but I’m feeling quite a powerful sense of pride as I type this. I’m glad we could help our members, I’m glad we could assist them in learning to communicate their needs when they would have otherwise really struggled to. As my manager said in a recent supervision meeting over the phone, the work we’ve done could really help group members deal with tough times in the future. I have a feeling that she’s absolutely right. It’s to be hoped that such projects can continue in the future. I’d passionately argue that they’re too important not to.

As for me, I’m excited and inspired to see where this activism and advocacy journey takes me next.

For more information about Advonet, visit https://advonet.org.uk/.

Peer Support: An Ongoing Journey

A lot has happened since I last did a blog. It can be tricky getting the sense of motivation and direction when it comes to the first post of the year (I’m not procrastinating, honest!), but I’ve got a lot more to write about mental health peer support and my experiences of it. I wrote a blog on the subject back in February last year and that in itself has led to some really positive developments.

I’ve been doing a lot of reflection lately. There’s nothing like a new decade to do that to you. I’ve realised more and more that peer support has played a larger role in my own development than I’d given it credit for. The work I’ve done with it in terms of suicide bereavement has continued to be beneficial, and I’ve continued to see first hand what it’s meant to group members. Members’ stories and interactions within groups are so individual that it’s impossible not to take away some really insightful, relatable and genuine, downright powerful perspectives. I feel like I’m learning all the time. Everyone has the opportunity to help everyone else in a safe environment, simply due to the nature and format of the group itself. This is something I’ve always loved about peer support.

As I mentioned, I wrote a blog about this very thing early last year, and the response to that was something I didn’t anticipate at all. It wasn’t long since I’d completed peer support training with Leeds Mind, so I wanted to pass it on to the training facilitators. From there, it got featured through the Leeds Mind website, and eventually people from national Mind caught wind of it. This led to an invitation to London to meet a peer support group there in October, and I then got involved in an event they were holding the following month. That in itself was fascinating and personally validating. It was an open door to talk to lots of people about their experiences of peer support, and it’s made me feel even more positive and passionate about how peer support can bridge gaps in communities.

The whole thing is a really positive cycle, created by an ethos of mental health awareness, compassion and empowerment. The more I’ve processed all of this, the more humbling it’s been.

The event was brilliantly structured. From talks about the history and development of Mind’s various peer support groups (mindfulness, gardening, recycling and even singing amongst them), to taster sessions of said groups so that guests could see first hand what they entailed, and even a ‘human library’ where group members gave brief talks about their experiences. The latter in particular was a powerful and moving glimpse into just how people have been able to grow and heal in these settings, and in turn been given the chance to share that with others. Then to have a room full of people, some of whom having little or no experience themselves of peer support being informed and moved. It’s the kind of thing that screams to me “this is working, it really is.” Furthermore, there could be a legitimate ripple effect for people going away with new knowledge and awareness. Maybe they’ve thought about how to apply peer support to their extended communities. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they have.

A friend of mine, Lucy, attended the event with me. It was really fitting for her to be there as we both used to help run peer support groups at Leeds University years ago, and she’s gone on to work for Time To Change in London. The two of us had a chance to mingle with people we otherwise wouldn’t have met, and we could convey our own past experiences of both mental health and peer support. It’s quite a big deal to feel able to be a part of such conversations at such events, again massively validating. It perfectly encompasses the vibe of peer support. I also had the privilege of playing instrumental acoustic music there. That’s quite a big deal for little old me. There I was in London, playing music to a room full of fancy important people. There was a bit of imposter syndrome creeping in; I honestly felt like I’d be ‘found out’ and unceremoniously ejected from the premises forthwith! But I was welcomed as an equal, because that’s what we all were in that space. Also, considering the work I’ve done on the back of my own bereavement that led to this, there was a huge and emotional sense of pride. I fought off a huge amount of anxiety to get there and stay there, which was made a lot easier in a setting in which everyone understood my own personal needs. If there’s any situation in which someone like me will be supported in such way, it’s a situation like that.

It’s also worth pointing out that the event raised a lot of money, around £25,000 so I was told. So the event itself will essentially help fuel future projects, and give credence to further events. The whole thing is a really positive cycle, created by an ethos of mental health awareness, compassion and empowerment. The more I’ve processed all of this, the more humbling it’s been.

montagesmall

Towards the end of 2019, I found myself in a new job. I’d essentially been headhunted by a friend to work for Advonet, a charity delivering advocacy services to people from various backgrounds and with various needs, be it mental health struggles, autism or learning difficulties. I’ve been co-facilitating LGBTQ+ advocacy workshops and, yes you guessed it, peer support groups with Advonet, and again I’ve been able to see first hand the impact that this has made. Group members have gone out of their way occasionally to tell us personally how much they’ve benefited from what we’ve delivered. It’s been a fascinating insight into the wide range of challenges faced by people under the LGBTQ+ umbrella, something I was aware of to an extent with my own experiences, but this has opened up a new world for me. The scope of all of this deserves a blog of its own. I might possibly be hinting there.

So what have I taken from all of this personally? Well, quite a lot. My involvement with peer support has taken me on quite the journey so far. It has helped me through horrific grief. It’s given me a voice and legitimised my experiences. It inspired me to write blogs which themselves took me to London, which I would have never thought possible, and empowered/inspired me to fight through my own mental health difficulties to get there in the first place. Thanks to Leeds Mind, it led to formal training that eventually helped land me a job, and that job has massively boosted my confidence and self esteem, both of which have been in tatters over the past few years.

If anyone would have told me a couple of years ago that I’d be where I am now looking back on all this, there’s absolutely no way I would’ve believed them. Such a thing used to feel completely unattainable to me. I’m pleased with the work I’ve put in because it’s been a slog and a half, but the path it’s built for me has made it all worth it. I think it’s been a vital asset to my own mental health, and I can use that to help other people going forward. I’m proud of that, I really am. But without peer support existing as a concept, I don’t think any of this would have happened at all. I’ll always be a huge advocate of it.

There’s more work to do, more people to reach and more conversations to be had. I’ve never felt more inspired to continue this journey as I am now. Irrespective of context, lived experience can really bring people together in a massively positive way. I’ll keep you posted!

Mind event strummy bloody yeah

Stigma Enigma: Communication is Key

Today is World Mental Health Day, and the build up to it has made me quite reflective. All contemplative and stuff. I’ve been thinking a lot about my experiences of mental health, from when I first started experiencing depression and anxiety symptoms around the age of 11 or 12 to where I am now. From a total lack of education about mental health at the time, my own poor understanding of it, other life events that made things worse, legitimate experiences of stigma and lack of acceptance, to being able to combine mental health and music as a mental health activist. That’s a lot! It’s been quite the journey.

This journey has been more difficult than I’ve let on, and it’s making me really want to address the subject of mental health stigma again in a series of ‘Stigma Enigma’ blogs. Or, to attempt to have a more positive spin on it, to address what we can do in society to make things better by challenging stigma. When my mental health has been at its worst, I have struggled with suicidal thoughts. When I’m doing much better, I can play a significant role in mental health conversation, breakdown of stigma, education and fundraising. There was a time when I would have simply been too afraid to. In recent years, as attitudes have shifted, doors have been opened for many people, myself included.

So how can we best challenge mental health stigma? I’d argue that it comes down to a very simple sounding statement: communication is key. Being able to talk openly about mental health without fear of discrimination is vital. I’ve long been convinced, as I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, that this can save lives. My opportunities to volunteer as an event organiser putting on gigs for mental health charities, work in peer support and simply be able to write songs and blogs about my experiences and share them with people has been hugely validating for me. It’s been a much needed form of expression. I’m also lucky to have had fantastic mental health support in the past in counselling/therapy, and to have knowledge of how to access those services in the first place. All of this has reinforced a very important state of mind for me, which is simply that I matter and my experiences count for something. At my worst, I’ve felt utterly directionless, insignificant and suicidal. Those feelings still come and go. It feels essential, almost self preserving for me to be a part of this conversation.

In many ways, things seem to be going in the right direction in terms of mental health awareness. There’s generally a much better understanding of a range of diagnoses, and we’re seeing many more celebrities and members of the public being admirably open about what they’ve been through. And yet there do seem to be major hurdles to people accessing support. One of the most disturbing statistics concerning mental health care that I’ve encountered over the past few years has involved a rise in suicide rates. The gender disparity here is also alarming. Last year, men accounted for three-quarters of deaths by suicide in the UK. I would never want to undermine female mental health obviously, but three quarters is a hell of a disparity. We still seem to be at a point where men are reluctant to open up and get help, and I’m sure a lot of this will stem from perceptions of masculinity and how men are made to think they’re supposed to act, think, and generally be. It really makes me want to say, “OK, society. Fine. Just keep going with that. Propagate that attitude as much as you want. It’s killing people though.”

This isn’t a needlessly melodramatic statement. Unfortunately, it would appear that it literally is killing people.

All it seems to take is a way in. All it takes is someone starting the conversation, and before you know it you can be having a poignant, important chat that someone might really need to have.

Last month, as part of World Suicide Prevention Day, I had the opportunity to volunteer on a stall with Leeds Suicide Bereavement Service and Leeds Mind, in Leeds city centre. We were there from 10am to 4pm, and the range of conversations we had with people was quite striking. Some people were asking for support and wanted to be signposted to the appropriate services. Some people simply wanted more information about the stall itself. But other conversations were much more in depth and quite emotive. For example, there was a police officer telling us about his experiences and how unprepared he’d felt in a variety of situations regarding members of the public in acute psychological distress. Some of what he described was harrowing. Another highlight for me was a lady talking to me about multiple suicide bereavements she had experienced, and while getting understandably emotional she vented to me that “men are thick when it comes to mental health. They’re absolutely thick”. This seemed a bit harsh to be saying to me, a man, on a mental health stall. But I can see where she was coming from. I can definitely understand the frustration of people not getting the help they need, the worst case scenario of that being the devastating consequence of suicide.

It was quickly very clear that all of the people we talked to simply needed someone to start that conversation for them. Once that happened, they had a lot to say and it clearly helped them massively. It’s easy for me to forget that most people aren’t as used to talking about all things mental health as I am.

I had the same experience in the taxi on the way. The driver noticed I had bags full of stuff and asked what it was about, and once I’d told him we had a really good conversation back and forth until I got there, and a supportive handshake before he told me he thought what I was doing was good. That was nice. But again, all it took was one mention of World Suicide Prevention Day and all of a sudden he had loads to say. None of these conversations would have happened that day if it weren’t for the stall. None of them.

Back in July I helped host a fundraising gig focusing on male mental health that raised money for Leeds Mind and Leeds Suicide Bereavement Service. It was a really successful event which we were thrilled about, and there was clearly lots of interest in the topic as well as the music. At one point a few guys from Andy’s Man Club were giving really impassioned talks about their own harrowing experiences of being suicidal and surviving suicide attempts. You could have heard a pin drop the entire time. The audience were completely engaged in these stories. And I couldn’t help but think, when does something like this ever happen in such a setting? It’s extremely rare, extremely powerful and absolutely vital.

MH stall
How many mental health leaflets can you fit on a table? Only Leeds Mind have the answer.

All it seems to take is a way in. All it takes is someone starting the conversation, and before you know it you can be having a poignant, important chat that someone might really need to have. Even in writing blogs, I’ve seen some really moving reactions that I didn’t expect at all. Again, for me this has been hugely validating. Sometimes writing about things like suicide bereavement and PTSD can be extremely difficult. But I’ve managed to start the conversation. Now is the opportune time. I couldn’t have done any of this a few years ago.

In the past I was scared stiff of writing, talking or singing about my mental health. Thanks to recent societal changes I’ve been able to come a long way. But until fairly recently there was something holding me back, something making me feel unable to be so open. That something was stigma. It’s a far cry from when I was at school and no one ever talked about mental health, to now where school kids are being taught about it in the classroom. That’s brilliant.

But there is definitely still work to do. Many more conversations that need starting, many more discussions and debates to be had. It needs doing because it can combat isolation, break stigma and ultimately save lives. We can all be a part of this in our own way. Whether it’s through activism or social media, or whether it’s simply a case of looking out for each other and checking in from time to time. World Mental Health Day is all about reminding us of this. We can all make a difference. Let’s start talking, and keep talking.

 

PTSD, Music and Me

“I want to write about trauma. I want people to know what it’s like to live with it.”

Mental health awareness week 2019 has now drawn to a close, and it’s been inspiring to see more public engagement on the topic than usual. And here I am realising that there are many things I still haven’t been public about regarding my own mental health. Not really. I haven’t put everything out there. I’m surprising myself at how hard I find it to write blogs, or talk about mental health in general. Still. Me. For all the therapy and mental health work, volunteering, event organising and fundraising I’ve done over the years, I still haven’t talked much about major elements of what I live with. This seems like an opportune time. I’ve been stalling. I do that a lot. ‘Stalling Dave’ should probably be my nickname. I’m a month late with a blog post as it is.

But there’s a reason for that.

So that feels like a good place to start, an explanation. The past couple of months have been pretty difficult in general, a lot more so than I’ve let on with friends and family. I’m out the other side of a very severe depression ‘wobble’, and now that I’m out of that fog, it’s pretty frightening to reflect on. It’ll be at least once a year generally that I struggle with suicidal thoughts to the extent of it being dangerous. As in, seriously thinking about planning something and acting on it. That has happened recently, and while I’m very relieved to point out that I’m feeling a LOT better (don’t worry about me, I’m honestly OK), seeing this clearly from beyond that fog is obviously very uncomfortable.

I want to write about trauma. I want people to know what it’s like to live with it.

It was a mental health crisis around five years ago that led to me receiving a PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) diagnosis, with it being later suggested to me, although not formally diagnosed in itself, that my PTSD is ‘complex‘. While I’ve been extremely lucky in being able to get appropriate, sustained professional support (which can be a rare thing these days), it’s been gruelling to work through certain things. In all honesty, it’s a diagnosis I would have benefited from years before. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, I honestly believe that it may have saved my life.

When getting to a venue to perform can cause panic attacks huge enough to trigger brutal flashbacks or vivid, violent hallucinations, it’s hard to want to stay at said venue if I get there at all.

I still haven’t been open about this with anyone other than very close friends and mental health professionals. I feel like I haven’t told many people everything, sometimes out of fear of losing friends and further isolation, sometimes because I just didn’t feel I deserved anyone’s time, affection or compassion. Because of what I’ve been through (bullying, violence and two unrelated, terrifying sexual assaults), I’ve become an expert in beating myself up and pushing people away, as well as an expert at hiding what I’ve been going though. It follows me around like an unwanted shadow. It’s like I’ve got some huge monster in my head repeating the phrase “you are a useless piece of shit, you’re fucking worthless and the world would be a better place if you were dead. See all these people? They fucking hate you.”

It feels toxic and almost constantly frightening. I feel like I’m reaching a turning point right now just writing this, as scary as that is. I feel strong enough to do that at the moment. This will come across as a bit of a moan (told you, self beating up expert here), but please bare with me.

PTSD
Art therapy project created by a U.S. Marine with PTSD. Source: Wikipedia

I want people to understand what trauma is like. I really do. There’s no doubt that depression is a horrible quagmire of emotion and that anxiety can grip you so tight that it feels like it could crush the air out of you. I certainly would never want to undermine anyone’s experience of these things. Just try to imagine that all the time. Feeling under attack from all directions. Walking down the street can sometimes lead to such overpowering paranoia that turning round, going home and hiding in bed feels like the only option. It effects everything, from cancelling plans with friends to trouble building or maintaining relationships or as has been the case with me, losing the ability to do what I love most. Playing live solo acoustic music. I almost gave up on that entirely.

When getting to a venue to perform can cause panic attacks huge enough to trigger brutal flashbacks or vivid, violent hallucinations, it’s hard to want to stay at said venue if I get there at all. And when I say vivid, I mean it’s like it’s in the room with me. I see it like I see my surroundings. It’s like being in a horror film. I’ve never experienced psychosis – I’ve never been convinced that my hallucinations are real. But they certainly feel real.

I’ve had gigs where I’ve hallucinated, dissociated and fought off panic onstage, sometimes all of that in the space of half an hour. Then feeling like everyone, especially males, in the room wants me dead. Open mics and acoustic gigs can tend to be quite male dominated sometimes, and that makes these feelings even more challenging for me. I can view men as a threat sometimes. I genuinely feel like they want to hurt me. Social and performance situations like that can be tough at the best of times. Add a looming sense of threat and dread to that, no matter how real that threat is, and it’s almost impossible to deal with.

When it comes to a point, as it did for me recently, where a friend is holding you while you physically shake in their arms as you see, hear and sense the fingernails of some gruesome creature against a door in your own home, something is very wrong. When it feels like the only way to control these things is self harm or drink too much because you feel like it won’t stop if you don’t, you’re in trouble. It’s a nightmare. If I’ve bailed on friends, if I’ve gone to venues and then left unexpectedly or even if I’ve said random things or behaved in ways you wouldn’t expect me to, there’s a reason for that. I feel like I’m under attack. I’m not of course. But I really FEEL like I am. It’s an overwhelming, distressing, painfully isolating feeling.

I really want people to understand this. No one would until I told them, that’s on me I guess. It’s just terrifying to be public about stuff like this. I’ve even found myself panicking as I wrote this. I had to seek advice from friends as to whether or not I should even publish this post at all, or if I was writing too much. Panicking about writing about PTSD. Brilliant. The irony of that isn’t lost on me. One nice thing a friend sent my way today has been the following: “it’s your account, your experience and your truth”. Yep. That just about nails it. The most self respecting thing I feel I can do here is refuse to apologise for writing what I need to write.

It’s worth pointing out, as much as I may have sounded like I’m moaning about it (which I categorically wasn’t… there you go! Not beating myself up! Progress!) is that music has been a lifeline here. It may sound cliché or, again, melodramatic, but it’s true. Criticise me for throwing in a cheesy “my music saved my life, maaaaaan!” type of statement if you like. But I honestly believe it did save my life. And I predict that I’ll need it to again. Being tapped into music creatively is something I’d be utterly lost without. Writing songs, whether they be acoustic or all out heavy metal, has helped me through so much. It always has and always will. If I can reach or help people through that process like my favourite acts have helped me, I’d love that.

Music makes me feel safe when nothing else can. I’ll always be very grateful and humble about that. I’m lucky to have been able to play drums with numerous acoustic acts when I couldn’t face performing solo. The more I’ve been a part of the Leeds acoustic scene, especially linked to mental health causes, the more I’ve been able to reintegrate and slowly feel safer in that space. The friendships I’ve formed over this time have been absolutely vital.

And I’m not sorry or ashamed about my mental health. I refuse to be. I’m glad there has been a metal health awareness week. I’m glad people have been talking and writing about these things. Sometimes people need to do these things to survive.

Katie’s Legacy

Remembering Katie
Photo manipulation artwork by Christian Smith.

As I type this, it’s been just over a month since I started my blog up again, following over a year of inactivity. The response has been really positive, which is very uplifting considering the fact that I didn’t anticipate anyone to take any interest whatsoever. I was pretty much just writing for me. But being aware of people’s reactions, it’s reinvigorated my desire to blog. Healthy pressure and all that. So here I am on a fairly dingy, rainy Tuesday morning, typing away with a cup of hot chocolate and some chilled music in the background, having put this post off for a while. I’ve been stalling. So here we go.

I’ve been really anxious about writing this post (damn it Dave, stop stalling), but it’s something I need to write at the moment. The date I’ve published this, the 12th of March 2019, marks three years since the suicide of a very close friend of mine, Katie. In the future I intend to write more on the subject of suicide in more of a societal context, but for now this is about her.

So yeah. Deep breath. No more stalling. Here we go.

It’s hard to explain how I’m feeling at the moment. Over the past week or so, lots of emotions and intrusive thoughts have been swirling around my head. Feelings of anger, sadness, guilt, shame, rejection, abandonment. The sense of sheer injustice of the pain she felt. I can remember the last time I saw Katie, and the time before that when we had, what I obviously didn’t realise would be, the last conversation we’d ever have. It would be the last time I’d see her smile and hear her endearingly dorky laugh. The last time we’d put the world to rights together, the last gentle hug we’d share before going our separate ways. All of this all at once, and round and round and back again. It’s very grueling. Ultimately, I miss a friend I love dearly. I miss Katie an awful lot.

But this isn’t a piece of writing about loss. It’s about legacy and love. It’s about passion and humanity. I intend for this to be about everything Katie represented to me, what we meant to each other, and to express as accurately as I can just how unique and inspiring she was.

Warm words of wisdom, kind listening patience as well as the occasional sprinkling of quirky humour to make things feel a little less awful; Katie was always there, always caring. The more I reflect on that, the more grateful, humble and lucky I feel to have known her.

I met Katie, essentially, through mental health activism. We’d both been involved with a society at Leeds University called Mind Matters, a mental health awareness society aiming to educate and break stigma on campus and beyond. When she was well enough, Katie had a lot of insight into how the society should work, and even became its president for a time. We came to be very close friends. We encouraged each other a lot in terms of mental health activism. I was co-running mental health charity fundraising gigs, and she was blogging, running a university society and occasionally sitting on panels in front of senior NHS staff to directly have a say in patient care within the mental health system. (Between to two of us, I think she wins there.) When it came to attending meetings with other mental health organisations, she didn’t so much ask if I wanted to come with her to such things and be a part of what she was doing, she pretty much told me I was. She was adamant. Her commitment to such work, all whilst dealing with her own mental health (as well as mine, it’s worth pointing out), was formidable and utterly inspiring. It still blows my mind.

When I was struggling with a very difficult decline in my own mental health, eventually leading to a PTSD diagnosis, she was there to help pick me up and help me through it. She understood. She got it. Even when I felt unable to talk to anyone else about what I was going through outside of counseling, she was there. Warm words of wisdom, kind listening patience as well as the occasional sprinkling of quirky humour to make things feel a little less awful; Katie was always there, always caring. The more I reflect on that, the more grateful, humble and lucky I feel to have known her.

After her death, a fundraising project was set up to raise money for mental health causes that were obviously very close to Katie’s heart. Even shortly after her funeral, it had raised thousands of pounds. That money has undoubtedly helped a lot of people over the past three years. Katie was also an organ donor, and we were told at the funeral that several people had been given a new lease of life because of this. Even her death couldn’t get in the way of her activism and compassion. She wouldn’t let it. That’s how she rolled. That was her all over. It’s very fitting. There’s something about that I find quite beautiful. The impact she made hasn’t dwindled. I doubt anyone she knew is prepared to allow that.

So why am I writing this now? Well, a few reasons. Partly and rather obviously, I feel the need to mark the anniversary. Partly, it’s a way for me to remember her and let people know the colossal impact she made in her short time.

But most importantly, I want this to instill hope. The most important thing I’ve been able to take from knowing Katie and being a part of her life is that individuals, as much as it might not feel like it at times, really can make a massively positive difference. She’s reminded me that I can do that. I can write songs and blogs that can mean something to people. When I’m well enough, I can be active in the community, as both an activist and a musician, helping to raise money for mental health charities. I can help run peer support groups with people dealing with suicide bereavement as well as number of mental health related difficulties. I can be a voice of awareness, compassion and hope as she was. If I can come close to helping people the way Katie helped me, I feel a strong need to do it. It feels like the most appropriate way for me to honour her memory. As far as I’m concerned, Katie has left quite a legacy. I’m very humble to be a part of it. It’s what she’d want me to do. It’s what I want to do.

Katie isn’t ‘gone’. She’s still very much a part of me.