Yesterday I had hot chocolate with a woman called Helen. Helen is a professional photographer who has travelled widely – Kashmir, India, the USA, Afghanistan – to undertake assignments for organisations including Warchild and The Salvation Army. She also takes beautiful, arty wedding photographs: the kind of photographs that make you want to get divorced, just so you can get married all over again like THAT. Helen is also is preparing a final project for an MA in photography, and her idea for this is to make portraits of women who have experienced mental health problems. She is explicit about her desire to use the project to challenge the stigma surrounding mental health, and approached Time to Change to recruit potential subjects. Intrigued by the proposition, I agreed to meet Helen on the understanding that anyone working with her would have to be, in her words, “confident enough and willing to share their stories and lives with me and happy to have the work published, with the idea in mind that sharing your stories and experiences could help other women in similar situations, and help eradicate the stigma attached to mental health issues.”
That’s me, isn’t it? I’m the woman who blogs about her medication side effects and her suicidal urges, the woman who strikes up conversations with passing strangers about mental health, who tweets about her every mood swing and blood test. It’s all out there already, right? Except no, it isn’t, not really. I don’t use my full name on my blog, my Twitter account or guest blogs. There are still some things that I feel are too personal or too painful to blog or tweet about. I’ve been open with some of my colleagues about why I have been absent from work for so long, and even sent them a link to this blog, but there are others who genuinely have no idea. Then there is the fact that I work in a public sector organisation which deals with “involuntary clients”. Not all of my clients will wish me well; some may actively wish me harm. I worry about sharing my mental health and treatment issues in a way that might give a disgruntled client something with which to hurt me.
So when Helen and I sat down in with our mugs of chocolate and had shared a bit about our personal backgrounds and our reasons for wanting to do the project, I admitted to her that I was having not exactly second thoughts, but certainly some anxieties about whether to participate. Helen was very reassuring, saying that if I did want to go ahead, she could easily shoot me in a way that hid some or all of my face, or I could cover my face with a scarf, a blanket, or even a mask. I know that using a mask to represent mental health problems has been done before; you might even say it’s become a bit of a cliché. But the idea immediately resonated, and not just because of concerns about how “out” to be.
When I wrote “Ten things not to say to a depressed person”, I included as number four: “But you can’t be depressed! You’re so confident/bubbly/jolly/self-assured (delete as applicable)!” I received many comments on that article from people who identified with one or more of the “ten things”, but number four definitely provoked the most responses. People wanted to let me know how strongly they related to the idea of getting up and putting on a mask or disguise, just to get through the day as a functioning human being and carry out their responsibilities as an employee/student/parent/manager/carer/spouse, etc.
I remember vividly the last day that I worked, before working became impossible. For months I’d been feeling increasingly anxious, stressed, and distressed, without acknowledging to myself that I was falling into a depression. I had already been crying on the way to work every day for more than a week, but I had been just about managing to leave that at the door, pull on my world-saving alter ego (“public sector middle manager”) and get through to 5pm before crumbling. On that last day, I stopped crying as usual before I walked through the door, but when I reached the safety of my own office I began again and this time I couldn’t stop. I called in a supportive colleague and asked her to cancel my meeting, and instead I cried for most of the morning. I had lunch; I don’t know what. Then, somehow, I managed to pull myself together again and deliver a training and information session to a large group of people. I don’t really understand a) how I did that, or b) why I felt that I had to do it, given that I had had a horrendous morning and I was clearly very unwell. It is interesting to me now that I prioritised the needs of the organisation over the last vestiges of my mental health. And as far as I can remember, I did it well; I really don’t think the majority of people would have known there was anything wrong with me. I was animated. I laughed. I made jokes. I answered people’s questions. Then I went home, cried for the entire evening, and entered my deepest depression for ten years.
During that depression, my mask disappeared entirely. Shuffling from bed to sofa, I struggled to remember who I was. I didn’t recognise the person I saw in the mirror. I couldn’t care about any of the things that I use to create my public persona – clothes, make up, hair, jewellery, conversation, humour, wit, intelligence, etc. My usual gregarious nature mutated first into preferring to be alone, then into an almost phobic response to having to speak to or be around human beings other than my immediate family.
Helen and I haven’t yet worked out the details, but I want my portrait to use a mask, and if possible a very beautiful one. It’s important to me to say something about the fact that with mental ill-health, what you see is not what you get. Maybe your very logical colleague goes home and exhausts herself obsessively checking the doors and windows to her home. Maybe that bubbly lady you see at the baby clinic goes home and thinks about self-harming, because she’s convinced that she’s a terrible mother. Maybe your friend who was the life and the soul of the party last night has been that way for weeks on end and would give anything for just one night of sleep. Maybe the thin, pretty girl you envy has to stay vigilant every day of her life to keep her eating disorder from controlling her completely. And maybe you’ll never know.