Talking About ‘Talking About It’

(is that too many capital letters in one title?)

A few days ago it was Mental Health Awareness Day, and various social media channels were filled with loving encouragements for people to be open about any difficulties with their mental health they may happen to be having. For one lovely day, ‘talking about it’ was more popular on Twitter than the distracted boyfriend meme, as the Internet sought to break the awful and entrenched taboos around talking about mental health, to help people overcome their individual issues.

An issue with this way of tackling one’s issues, however, is that talking about a problem is not equivalent to solving that problem. That is to say, once one has broken that taboo, and becomes open about their mental health, continuing to stick to the doctrine of ‘talking about it’ can offer few solutions, and actually be harmful for several people involved. At least in my experience.

I’m a person who is both disarmingly open about their struggles, and a sufferer of a range of mental health issues, predominantly severe depression and severe anxiety. My problem is that I’ve talked about it, if anything, too much. Instead of actively dealing with the causes of these issues – my low self-esteem, my willingness to avoid solutions, my unwillingness to push through difficult experiences and situations in order to make myself more comfortable with them – I just talk. And talk. And talk.

From endlessly complaining to my friends, both in person and via text, to sadly and ominously tweeting about my own misery at three in the morning as I cry-eat Doritos in bed, I have both personal experience, and public encouragement, pushing me towards ‘talking’ as the versatile omni-solution to these more complicated problems. In addition to not actually solving them, this reliance on mere aimless conversation is addictive; I’m encouraged to continue vapidly discussing nondescript elements of my psyche because it’s easy, but feels like I’m making progress, which only delays my actual movement towards healthiness, and makes me more likely to continue this charade of self-improvement.

There is also damage in a social environment. I’ve had many friendships fizzle out, or even explode into dust, because my relationship with that person consisted of little more than mutual complaining and dependence, that started with comforting one another in our shared struggles, before collapsing into a personal bitching ground for a range of issues, severe and trivial, for both of us. We would create bubbles of suffering, where we’d moan about our lot in life, in a kind of perverse race to the bottom of one’s self-esteem, endlessly trying to out-depress one another with stories of how sad we were. Unsurprisingly, those intense, negative relationships didn’t last long, and I’m bitter that I ruined some otherwise wonderful friendships like that. Friends exist to be one’s friends, not necessarily personal councillors, and I lost far too many friends before that lesson finally stuck.

Even if a relationship doesn’t break down over these kinds of conversations, there is significant emotional toil placed on those around an individual, as a result of that individual’s fondness for psychological openness. I saw a profound tweet rise to the top of the cesspool that is Twitter once, that argued that the reason for the apparent increase in mental health disorders recently is that the human brain is not designed to absorb the psychological impact of that much suffering, and in a world where every natural disaster, terrorist attack, Trump action and, now, as a result of ‘talking about it’, personal gripe spelled out in a hundred and forty characters, is laid bare in public, we are each having to shoulder the emotional burden of a hundred people. Twitter, especially, has become an echo chamber of sad people retweeting other sad people, whole schools of memes and Twitter personas built around self-depreciation to the point of self-abuse, and the longer you remain in the chamber, surrounded by the equally comforting and harmful accounts, words and pictures around you, the harder it is to get out.

This is not to say that the ‘talking about it’ initiative is a bad idea, far from it. My life has certainly become more complicated since I was seventeen, and the lows are far lower, but on balance an openness and willingness to discuss personal problems, and make introspection a public, communal process where the minds of many can be put to work on a single problem, has had an overwhelmingly positive effect on my mental health. Indeed, Mental Health Awareness Day, and the ideas it represents, does a significant amount of good to legitimise mental health problems, at a time where, in this country at least, such issues are being ignored and actively pulled apart by the government.

But beyond being an entry point to other solutions to mental health issues – medication, therapy, petting Good Boys – publicising these problems may not do much to actively solve them. The next step is to upgrade Mental Health Awareness Day to Mental Health Recovery Day.

Depressed as fuck but still here

Hello,

This is weird. For both of us really. It’s been over a month since my last blog post, so I’ve fallen quite spectacularly out of the rhythm of writing, and some of you have stumbled optimistically onto my Facebook friends list so recently that you may never have seen a blog post of mine. As someone with over 600 posts under their belt, that’s a very strange thing to say.

This latest drought has not been for lack of trying – there are about three unfinished drafts with much less exciting titles than this one swirling around my WordPress dashboard – but lack of success. They weren’t funny, or informative, or hugely insightful; not that a lot of my, particularly older, posts were, but I always tried to get in one good joke or one interesting observation, so even if nine-tenths of what I wrote was total bollocks, there would at least be a single quotation you could take away from the post. A bit like reading literary criticism to be honest, a form which has an awful lot of cool quotes, and an awful awful lot of bollocks.

But lately my attempts to write have been flat. My writing has mirrored my life, therefore, as I’ve been in a constant state of severe meh for months now, a mehness exaggerated by the fact that I now use phrases like ‘my writing has mirrored my life’ like I’m Augustus Fucking Waters or someone. I’m not happy with how I’m performing academically, I’m frozen by fear of screwing up on a sporting field, and I’m overwhelmed and lost as one disaster after another befalls my societies, leaving me powerless to save them yet somehow totally responsible at the same time.

I’m also aware that I’m a melodramatic fuck, but that comes with being a literature student; I put the killing thing between my teeth, but don’t give it the power to do the killing, then get decked by a physicist for being such a pretentious little shit.

However, there is some comfort in all of this. Comfort in the fact that, to the best of my understanding, I am still very much alive. Despite the best efforts of my useless pancreas, dodgy joints and brain’s masochistic desire to play a sport in which being squished by hulking armoured giants is a mere occupational hazard, I’m still here.

One of my favourite things to do on the DS game Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings, which is a fantastic game, even in the form of a stripped-down port, would be to build up a huge empire, then let it burn to the ground. I’d wage an epic, Cold War-esque struggle against a single foe for two hundred turns, each of us building vast citadels and networks of castles, then I’d plomp a villager in an uninhabited corner of the map, stand down my armies, and let my carefully constructed world turn to ash. The only survivor would be that villager, who would then be tasked with rebuilding my glorious empire for another two hundred-turn campaign, while my enemy remained at full strength.

The reason for this, as well as me being really quite good at AoE to the point where this was the only way to give the AI a fighting chance, was that I was interested by the smallness of hope. That even if a single unarmed peasant can drag themselves out of a warzone with two working hands and a scythe, a great empire can yet be built. Obviously, this is the kind of thing that only really happens in unrealistic strategy games and The Iliad, but it’s an ideal I like, and a narrative I always get behind.

And I am that villager, scythe and all. I’ve started projects that have fallen apart, put hours into subjects and modules I now know nothing about, and committed fifteen hours a week to sports I can’t really claim to be halfway skilled in. It’s all ash and fire and death and chaos and there’s not even that bastard Saladin and his cavalry sweeping down from the hills upon my poor French villagers.

Yeah, that leaves me depressed as fuck, but it leaves me here.

Now we’ll see what the villager can build. Whether they can drag their grades back to a reasonable level; whether they can shake off the injuries that have built up over years of exercise; whether they can tackle the depression and anxiety and fear of alcohol and much deeper, darker musings that have thrown their life off the rails more times in the last year than they can count.

Maybe they’ll fail. Maybe in two months they’ll drop out, move back home, get a job at Lidl to afford frozen jacket potatoes and slightly-better-than-average porn and die a slightly disappointing death. Maybe the barbarians at the gates will take the last city of the empire, and not even a villager will emerge from the slaughter. I’d say it’s more likely than not at this point.

But in a world where Trump can be president, people hold candlelight vigils for a dead gorilla, and Toblerone can be bastardised into little more than a chocolate bike-rack for really tiny fucking bikes, why not? Why the fuck not?

So come on Depression, do your worst. You’ve got clouds of fear and chains of pain; and I’ve got two hands and a fucking scythe.

Today was weird

Hello again,

Apologies for the radio silence. For nine days I’ve not written on here, nine whole days! 17-year-old me is freaking out and churning out crappy posts during free periods as a kind of bloggy penitence.

But I am no longer 17-year-old me, and so things are different. The main difference is that I respect and respond to the importance of my own mental health; because, surprise, surprise, the last week or so hasn’t been great from a mental health perspective.

By the end of last week I was stressed and exhausted, fresh off my first fortnight of exam revision that was tinged with the oh-so-comforting hue of ‘do I really want to do these exams?’, a rainbow-shattering tone that both stresses me out and makes it harder for me to get work done. At least we can give it credit for engineering such a catastrophic combination of two worst-case scenarios at once, like finding out the local Nisa is out of both blackcurrant and strawberry Ribena.

Then the weekend was stressful, partially because I took a day off and breaks have never sat well with me; missed blogging days used to stress me out, then skipping a day of revision scared me, and now not getting out six Game Shelf articles a week sends me into a maelstrom of logistical panic. Then I cleverly decided to embark upon three consecutive days of socialising, which may be completely normal for most people, but for myself, as someone with more social and physical insecurities than hairs on their body, this was an issue. It’s always weird, as I’ll see people who are important to me, then get exhausted and nervous around them, so when I get home and the day hasn’t gone absolutely perfectly, I toss and turn in bed, fearful that I’ve ruined my one chance to see that person, or present the best side of me. This is a hangover from my younger years, when I would literally ‘socialise’ with peers about twice a year, so there was an obscene amount of pressure to not be miserable or boring or quiet on those days; my social calendar is nowhere near as barren these days, of course, but it’s a hard feeling to shake.

So I woke up today – Wednesday, after my Herculean streak of seeing people I like – at about nine. Then, I felt sad. So I watched some LPs, shot the shit with a few friends, then went back to sleep. I woke up at noon and repeated. Then I woke up at four. Then I woke up at six, had a small moment of dysphoria (nothing says ‘I don’t feel feminine today’ as clearly as putting on a skirt and immediately wanting to impale yourself on a fish-hook) and crawled out of bed to get food.

I was okay from that point. I wasn’t productive or particularly alert – I played Madden and Spore, and watched more LPs – but I was awake. I was out of bed, and dressed, and I’d eaten.

It’d be easy for me to dismiss today as wholly unproductive and, should I get a terrible mark in a few months, I probably will. But it’s unproductive in a strictly academic sense, while being totally vital in a personal sense. I’ve spent years bottling up mental weaknesses to power through learning yet more French vocab or sourcing yet another obscure Yeats critic, and while it worked in the short term (suck on my grades, bitch!), I’d attribute the overwhelming majority of my recent mental troubles to that approach. I felt sad often, but wouldn’t take a day off; I’d question whether continuing to be alive would be the best option, but ignore that to question what Steinbeck really meant by that ending.

And here I am. I have a CV people would kill for but am an incoherent, terrified mess of a person behind it. I know more about the mind of the narrator in the Book of the Duchess than I do about my own head. My magazine is more carefully-organised than my daily routine.

Grades are important, but my health is of literal life-and-death importance.

So here I am, writing a blog post at 2am. I probably won’t get up until noon tomorrow, and almost certainly won’t open my copy of the Riverside Chaucer. The first step is to have a day where I wake up, and conclude that it would be worth it to wake up.

I missed playing football

Afternoon folks,

I’ve not played football – American football, that is, which I’ll be hereafter referring to as ‘football’ because it annoys me endlessly that one word in that phrase ought to be capitalised, but the other oughtn’t – in a month, maybe longer. I’ve been injured and sad and busy and had a thousand other problems, so I’ve not had a chance to be strong-armed to the face repeatedly by large people; and I’ve missed it.

I think it’s easy to overthink things, and I do this a lot. Football became, in many ways, a chore: playing the damn game means you have to lug loads of kit around with you; you get cold and muddy and need to spend three hours showering afterwards; you worry that you’ll forget your assignments and let a receiver burn you for an 80-yard touchdown. And while these are all valid concerns – particularly when compared with sports like dodgeball which only require trainers and some reflexes – they don’t subtract from the fact that the game is just really good fun.

I often worry that I’m not doing things that are important enough, and I get stressed out when I’m not working on a project with a clear end goal; it’s not enough for me to like games, I need to write about them in a way that can be gloated about on a CV too. I see quite a few of my sports in this way, dodgeball as a way to actually stretch myself socially, karate as a chance to be the society president and have actual responsibility, and without such a lofty goal for football, it’s easy to forget why I’m playing in the first place.

It’s not like there aren’t goals for football – we have our big game against King’s next weekend – but a lot of these are communal, or would involve me in support roles. And, honestly, I struggle to not be at the centre of things. I grew up studying in an environment that made me think I was the best, and many of the projects I start myself put me in a position of absolute authority almost by default. I know this is narcissistic and cynical and hugely unfair on my friends, but these are the kinds of thoughts I’ve been relapsing into recently, which have stopped me from enjoying football; I’d reason that if I individually wasn’t winning, there’d be no point.

But this is, of course, nonsense, and it’s a pattern of thoughts I’ve been trying to cut out of my life, not just my fledging football career.

So I’m looking forward to next week’s game; not because I want to single-handedly win the damn thing (gods know I’m nowhere near good enough to do it anyway), but because I want my team to do well.

And it’s a frakking great game.

Casey