Several weeks ago the Mind digital team contacted me and asked for my postal address, saying that they would like to send me an invitation to the Mind Media Awards. I was very excited and surprised to be asked, but as soon as the invitation arrived (“Stephen Fry, President of Mind, warmly invites you…”) social anxiety started to kick in. It often surprises people to learn that I suffer from social anxiety. After all, my career has involved standing up and speaking in front of powerful people – hospital Consultants, Magistrates and District Judges, Parole Board panels, elected council members – and sharing my professional opinion in public. These days I put those public speaking skills to use when I deliver talks about bipolar and how it affects me to people on Mind training courses. I know I appear highly confident when delivering a talk or oral report, but that’s usually because I am hiding behind a role. Even when talk about my own life for Mind, I’m still in role as “an Expert by Experience” and I have that to use as a shield.
When I’m asked to attend a social event where I won’t be anybody except me, the social anxiety kicks in, especially if I won’t know many people there. Unfortunately my means of coping with it are not always successful or healthy. Two years ago, my partner and I were invited to his ex-wife’s Christmas party. I felt under pressure to go, not from my partner, but from my own internal sense that we should all be able to act like grown-ups and socialise together. My anxiety levels were very high, and I dealt with that by downing too many glasses of wine in swift succession. Once thoroughly drunk I circulated, spilling intimately personal details wherever I went. The next day was Christmas Eve, and I awoke to not just a hangover, but to gut-wrenching horror about what I had said to whom. By the afternoon, I was in a state of total panicked agitation, which I had to struggle to hide from my children so as not to ruin their Christmas. Another potential pitfall, and one which is exacerbated by alcohol, is my tendency to become overly flirtatious with people other than my partner (a particular problem when I am hypomanic). It’s fair to say my fear of not being liked can lead me to behave in unlikeable ways and to make a fool of myself. It’s the ultimate emotional catch-22.
The Mind Media Awards embodied all the usual anxiety triggers such as having to find the venue, and being in a large group of strangers with free alcohol on hand, with additional pressures of being around celebrities and senior figures in the mental health field. In the weeks leading up to the awards, finding the right thing to wear became the focus of my anxiety, almost to the point of obsession. I had been advised to dress “smart casual” (whatever that means) but didn’t want to be under-dressed; on the other hand, I wasn’t shortlisted for an award, so I didn’t want to be OTT. I spent ridiculous amounts of time shopping, including a whole day at Westfield without purchasing a thing, looking at dresses I couldn’t afford, despite knowing that I because I was slightly hypomanic there was a risk I could tip into bipolar overspend mode.
My anxiety reached a stage where I realised I might not manage to go without support. I identified a Twitter “accountability buddy” who I could text at regular intervals through the evening to keep me on track with taking meds, avoiding excess alcohol, etc. I also got hold of a friend I met at a Mind event last year who I knew would also be attending and asked if he’d be willing to go with me. He went one better, and brought along another friend he’d met through fundraising for Mind, so I had two friendly faces waiting for me as I came out of the Tube. I am so grateful to Jon and Stuart for accompanying me. The start of the evening was both busier and more glamorous than I had been expecting. We had a definite moment of, “is this really us?” as walked in past the cordon where the press photographers were snapping soap stars. In the foyer of the British Film Institute glamorously dressed women and be-suited men (“This is NOT smart casual!” Stuart, Jon and I hissed at each other) were sipping wine and chatting. The noise was phenomenal, and I started to feel quite panicky. Had I not had my Twitter buddies with me at that moment, I might have been sufficiently intimidated to walk right out again.
Thank goodness I didn’t. Once we had all filed into one of the BFI’s cinemas and found ourselves seats (Jon, Stuart and I took very literally the instruction to fill up from the front, and grabbed ourselves three seats in the very front row) the Media Awards proper began with Stephen Fry taking the stage. I have watched Stephen on television for many years, and it’s easy to think that because you watch someone in your living room you actually know them. But although the Stephen who hosted last night’s was witty, he was much less urbane and so much more human than I had expected. I have my reservations about celebrity sufferers, and I’ve been very open about that. But for me, the gap between “them” and “me” was narrowed last night.
The clips from the nominated radio and TV shows were fascinating, often touching and sometimes triggering (I know I was not the only one frequently blinking back tears). The two nominees to which I felt a sense of personal attachment – Henry’s Demons in speech radio, and Homeland from the TV drama shortlist – won their categories, much to my delight. But the real power of the evening was the sense that service users, celebrities, journalists, programme makers, and staff from Mind and Time to Change were all there for the same reason: to try and make the lives of those with mental health conditions a little bit better. In fact, the whole event felt very inclusive of all disabled people, not just those with mental health conditions; signers interpreted the entire ceremony and the stage was accessible, and one award was presented by a wheelchair user. Our current government likes to talk about all being “in it together”, whilst creating policies which make our society ever more divided. It’s events like last night that demonstrate what that phrase really could mean.
Afterwards everyone adjourned to the bar, where Jon, Stuart and I were delighted to meet other bloggers we’d come across on Twitter, as well as staff we’ve been in contact with through our various connections with Mind. We didn’t push to meet any of the celebrities in person; we didn’t feel we needed to. The glow of being part of something so meaningful, and of having extended Twitter connections into real life, was enough.
And how did my social anxiety and I get on? Well, I was able to text my accountability buddy that I only had a glass and a half of wine, putting the remaining half aside when I started to feel the buzz, and that I took my antipsychotics on time and would take my lithium on the Tube home (which I did, to a few gawps at my huge, rattling dosette box). This morning, instead of feeling shaky and full of shame this morning I am, if anything, a little bereft that the Mind Awards are over, and shedding a few tears as I type this. I am also incredibly grateful both for the invitation and for the friends who helped me get there and stay there. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.