It’s not often that I’m speechless. In fact, it’s very rare. I’ve always got something to say. Well, maybe not always. Last Saturday night was one of these occasions.
I was asked to make a short speech at a fundraiser for SAMH (Scottish Association for Mental Health), superbly organised and well attended. It was called “Dress for Depression”, the premise being that people kindly donated their old dresses which in turn, went up for auction with the proceeds going to SAMH. Bargains aplenty.
What happened next was amazing. It certainly wasn’t simply because of me or anything I said, that wasn’t the case at all. It was more a sense of togetherness that we all felt. Everyone had gathered because of a cause that was personal to each and every one of us in the hall. There was definitely something in the air, like some form of electric magic. It was honesty, acceptance and unity. It’s as if each one of us had a light bulb switch on above our heads. Or maybe it was more than that. Maybe we were all these wee racing cars, sitting on the starting grid, ready for the off. One by one, we all switched on our engines and revved them to the max, waiting for the signal to change and to race for the prize.
Well, the lights are at green, what are you waiting for?
Many people have requested to see the speech, so here it is. It borrows from previous writing but there’s some new bits too. I hope you like it. Oh, and I promise, nay swear, never to perform “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” ever again.
“My name is Scott and I suffer from mental health problems. I’ve been blogging for a couple of years on the subject and have been lucky enough to have a few articles published by the global magazine, The Good Men Project. I’ve been very kindly asked by Martin and Jennifer to talk to you tonight about the stigmas and challenges that face people with mental health problems, along with sharing some of my own battles with the illness.
Just as a warning, some of the content does contain triggers. I’m not going to go too deep but this is an issue I feel strongly about and we all need to know what it is like to suffer from these incredibly common problems. Yes, this isn’t the most pleasant of subjects but this is why we are all here – to raise awareness.
I first suffered from depression in my mid twenties. To this day, I don’t really know why. I had a few bad things happen, I messed some things up but there wasn’t one particular thing that kick started it. And this is incredibly common. Many people think that that to suffer from depression, a million and one bad things must have happened to you. It isn’t as simple as that.
At first, I simply started to feel down. A wee bit miserable. And I couldn’t shake it off. No alarm bells went off at this point. I stopped eating. However, it didn’t stop me drinking. More on this soon. I found that I struggled to motivate myself to do anything. Even the simplest of tasks was a challenge. I didn’t want to see anyone. I found that talking to people, even my close friends and family, was a chore. Then it stepped up a level.
Why was I crying for no reason? I was 25, had millions of friends and loved my life. I played football for Eaglesham and enjoyed my job. Why would I feel so down, so utterly, utterly miserable that all I wanted to do was lie in bed all day? Why couldn’t I motivate myself? Why couldn’t I talk about it. All I had to do was open my mouth. I didn’t. I chose drinking. I know! That’ll work!! A wee pint here. A wee pint there. I drank them wee pints everywhere. Too often. Too much. The trouble is, it wasn’t working. I got worse. But still, all the time, I was push, push pushing how I felt away. Maybe if I keep pushing, all these problems will simply disappear! What a strategy.
The next thing that happened was I cut myself. To this day, I don’t know why I did. It happened on 3 occasions and each time I did it, I felt awful afterwards, like some form of guilt, which then manifested itself into more pain in my tortured mind. But at the time, when I cut my arms, it felt so right to be doing it. But we all know how wrong it is. I have one wee scar to remind me of these times. I don’t hate it, it’s a memento of a past that I can’t change, but I can look back on to help me in the future.
Eventually, I got help. I broke down and told my parents. I told them about my drinking. I showed them my arms. We made a pact, there and then, to ensure I got better and never, ever felt that low again. And it worked. Sort of. I went to the doctors, I was put on medication, and after a great deal of time and a short while “aff the bevvy”, I began to function normally again. All went well until 2010.
At the start of that year, something horrendous happened to us as a family. Some of you in here know about it and some of you don’t. That’s fine. For tonight’s purpose, I don’t need to go into detail about it. It’s still painful for me to discuss it and it’ll be a long time, if ever, I can speak publicly about it.
But it has taken me so long to get over it. I’m still not. The funny thing is, last year, I started blogging about my previous mental health issues and was telling people to seek help if they thought they were suffering and to open up to someone. And I was ignoring my own advice. Eventually, I realised just how badly I was suffering and this time, admitting to myself and loved ones was easier, given what I had been through in the past. I’m on medication, I’ve had counselling and I’ve been diagnosed not only with depression, but PTSD as well. Not the most normal case but PTSD nonetheless. This year, I’ve been writing about my battles and how I’ve been dealing with my diagnosis. I won’t go too much into them as a lot of you may have read them and are easily accessed online.
What is it like to have a mental health problem? That’s a hard question. Everyone is different and suffers in their individual way. All I can do is tell you how I feel and what issues I have.
Nothing or no-one can prepare you for the bleak emptiness of depression. The hollow, cavernous solitude grows inside you like a seed and can at times become completely unstoppable. When I’m on a downer, it seems like this dark cloud has descended. It sits right in front of my forehead. I swear it’s physical and it’s heavy. I often think it changes the shape of my face. I want to shake it away, to shirk it off, to break it into tiny pieces and get rid of it. But it stays. It affects my mood. I’m angry. I’m sad. I’m temperamental. I don’t know why. I’ll stay that way for a time. How long, I don’t know. The time isn’t a constant. It can be fleeting, it can be for a whole morning or a whole day. I’m not in charge of it. I hope that these dark days will become few and far between. I hope that something will happen, something will break and I’ll make it through. Never underestimate the power of the dark side. Bloody hell, it’s strong. This odd, cataclysmic vortex of darkness that continues to drag you down, no matter if you feel happy or not.
Attitudes to mental health do not help in any way. I found out a statistic from our friends at SAMH that simply astonished me. 40% of employers would not employ me because of my mental health issues. Slow hand claps all round, eh? The media doesn’t help either. That excuse for a newspaper The Sun recently had an awful headline about mental health patients being killers which it retracted 2 days later. Only, not screaming out of their front page but on a tiny wee column on the inner pages. I have mental health problems, but it’s ok, I’m not going to kill you. I won’t hit you or hurt you. Hell I’m not even going to shout abuse at you. But society thinks otherwise. Not only are you socially unacceptable, you’re now a psychotic killer, too. Here we are in late 2013 and still society continues to vilify, bully and stigmatise those who suffer from mental health issues. We’re still stuck with the same old attitudes. To have a mental illness is to be a loony, a violent, unpredictable character capable of harm and brutal acts. Well, the truth is quite the opposite. Those who suffer from mental illness are far more likely to come to harm themselves rather than commit a vicious act. But let’s not let the facts get in the way of a good, ill researched opinion, eh? Society has deemed us who suffer as outcasts. How the hell can anyone who suffers ask to get help if they’re made to feel like a fraud for having an illness. We’ve all heard the statistics. One in four of us will suffer some form of mental illness in our lives at some point. So, if 25% of the population have it, why are there so few who speak openly about it? Probably because of front pages like The Sun’s.
I know there are people in this room who suffer. You’ve got in touch with me to tell me. What would happen to you if you opened up about your illness? What would people think? Badly of you? No. Less of you? Quite the opposite. You’d get a hug, a smile, a welcome look that says “Me too, I’m with you brother or sister”. You’ll get help, you’ll get better, you’ll go places, go forward out of the darkness and into the light. You’ll get a high five, a handshake, a slap on the back, not a slap in the face from a society so deep in the shadows and so set in its ridiculous ways that one day we’ll look upon this time with shame and embarrassment.
If you are worried about what people will think of you because of your depression, then stop. Stop it now. It doesn’t matter what they say because you are better than them. It doesn’t matter what they think because you are a hero. It doesn’t matter what they do because you are still you, and there’s nobody out there better than you. You are you, the same person you always were. You’re no different. Except you’re not wired correctly. There’s a bulb out. You’re a wee bitty wonky. And that’s ok. Nobody is perfect. We’re not meant to be. We are designed to have imperfections, to have failings, to be flawed. It’s just that some of us are more flawed than others. But when that flaw happens to be a back problem or a skin complaint or a whole multitude of other things, then it is ok to talk about them. However, if it’s this. If it’s up here. It’s taboo. And this is madness. The brain is the most complex organ in the body so it’s no surprise it often fails. And it’s so common. Yet we can’t talk about it’s malfunctions. And it is a malfunction. You’re not just sad, you’re ill.
We have to open up. You are not going to get any better until you do. Other people want to help. Loved ones are concerned. But of you keep building those barriers, they can’t get through. How can we expect other people to understand us or treat us if we don’t tell them how we feel. But sometimes it isn’t as simple as that. Often the sufferer doesn’t know or can comprehend what is happening to them. And that’s where the rest of us can come in.
It is an illness. It can’t be solved by giving ourselves a good shake. A good night out with the boys will probably make us worse. We can’t just cheer up. It isn’t attention seeking. It’s not all of the above and it’s a million other things.
We have to change as a society. We have to smash the stigma that has been associated for far too long with mental health. We need to speak out about our experiences and encourage those that are suffering to seek help. We need to make mental illness a socially acceptable illness to have. It’s a long road. But it’s a fight worth fighting, one that I want to to tackle head on and I hope you will too.
You may think that because I can stand up here and talk to you that this comes easy to me. It doesn’t. I’ve fought with myself over this for weeks. Yes, I can talk but this is a completely different story. It’s all very well confessing to everyone from behind a keyboard. Standing up here and talking to you hasn’t been easy and I thank you for your time and patience. There are times when it gets incredibly difficult for me to simply function as a human being and I couldn’t do it without the support I receive from my family and friends. In fact, Karen deserves a medal for putting up with me at times. I dont know how she does it but every day I’m thankful that I’m married to such a wonderful, caring and understanding person.
So here I am. I’ve told you how I feel. I bet some of you feel the same. Like a fragile bubble of glass. Here we are, all carrying on with being wee glass bubbles. Until something handles us too roughly, not carefully enough. We’re tender, you see. We shatter. We smash into all these tiny pieces and although we are surrounded by people who nurture us and put us back together, the pieces we break in to are becoming smaller and smaller. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to piece us back together. The glue isn’t holding. We just want to become whole again and not be these silly wee delicate humans.
Yes, some of us have a mental illness. But there’s no shame in it. It’s how you deal with it that counts. When you’re up, savour how that feels, it’s normal. Don’t be dragged down by the vortex. Yes, the depression will always be there, like a darkness on the edge of town. But keep it there. In fact, banish it from town. Run it out of town. Chase it away, scare it, frighten it so much that it only ever dares dip a toe over the county line. And when it does, you and your posse are on it like a flash, charging like heroes to make sure it knows the message.
And the message? You are not alone. I am not alone. We are not alone. There are so many like you. You don’t have to do this by yourself. We are your posse and we are plenty. And we are coming to get the darkness. And we will win.”