‘Normal’ is whatever you’re willing to tolerate

Depressed selfie, 2015

Earlier this month I chaired a panel discussion at Rights for Life, a two-day conference in Glasgow exploring mental health and human rights. From the first thing I saw, a keynote speech by Graham Morgan of HUG, I knew it was different from any conference I’d been to before. Here was a man talking eloquently about the day-to-day reality of living with schizophrenia in front of hundreds of people. Afterwards a microphone was passed around and other delegates responded with their own candid, personal, obviously painful stories about their depression, bipolar disorder, or borderline personality disorder.

Mental health conferences are new to me, and the openness was a culture shock at first. I found myself wondering whether this is what it’s like to go to a gay bar for the first time – discovering, after years of hiding what you are, somewhere you can be openly, unapologetically yourself in a public space and not be judged.

I have been with the Mental Health Foundation since October last year, and it is the first time, ever, that I have felt able to talk openly in the workplace about my experience of depression – such is the stigma that still exists around any mental health issue, even in the arts. My depression has been nothing like as serious as it is for many people, and it has not affected me professionally any more than flu. If anything I think it has made me better at my job, which has frequently involved managing large teams of people. It has made me more empathetic, more patient, and less judgemental, particularly when working with people who have their own mental health problems, which I have done often. When working as a journalist I think it has made me a better interviewer, given that mental health is something that often comes up when talking to artists. And yet, in spite of all this, I still feel nervous talking about it here.

This is a problem. If someone like me can’t talk about depression, who on earth can?

It was talking that helped me, more so than any medication. A crucial turning point for me was a year of therapy in 2008. I had tried therapy, of a sort, years before on the NHS, with a psychologist who seemed to be ticking off a list of set questions with clock-watching disinterest. I lasted one session. This was different – £40 per hour, more than I could afford, but also very effective. My new therapist challenged me, cross-examined me, forced me to ask myself difficult questions.

Until that point I had thought of my depression as a purely physical condition, and that the cure must be no more complicated than pills and exercise. It seemed inexplicable otherwise. I had a nice life, ordinary without being mundane. I had a creative, interesting, fulfilling job and was good at it. I had enough money to survive. I was loved. I’d had a happy childhood, I’d always thought, with kind, supportive, interested parents. I was making music, the thing I enjoyed most. I had a child who I loved dearly. So why these oppressive black moods?

My therapist helped me to see what was invisible to me, all the problems that were concealed from view by my apparently happy, ordinary life  – how a sustained period of bullying at a very young age had damaged my self-esteem; how growing up in a household that was actually obsessively tidy, and disapproving of raised voices and drama, had contributed to me bottling up my feelings; how my inability to fit into a stereotypical ‘masculine’ role in life had made me feel like an outsider; the skin problems that wore down my physical confidence; the speech impediment that made me shy of speaking up and, over time, made me feel as if nothing I had to say was of value. I began to understand how depression is intensely complicated, with multilayered cultural causes as well as medical ones. I had thought this couldn’t be the case for me because my life seemed so ‘normal’. When I began to accept that it might be the case after all, it made me question the whole idea of ‘normal’. Normal is, in the end, whatever you are prepared to tolerate.

In this way, experience of mental health problems cannot help but shape your politics. It focuses your thinking on gender expectations, how the pressure to be ‘masculine’ and not express your feelings makes men vulnerable, while misogyny makes women vulnerable. Or it focuses you on poverty, the fact that suicides have increased under Tory austerity policies. Or it focuses you on addiction, and the fact that is is often connected in complex ways to mental illness. Or it focuses you on discrimination and social exclusion. Why is there a high rate of mental health problems and suicide among trans people, for example? A big part of it is that they are so discriminated against. When the Mental Health Foundation organised a conference earlier this year on the arts and mental health, called The Dust of Everyday Life, we decided to open with a discussion about the stigmatisation of asylum seekers (one of the most vilified groups in Britain today, thanks to the efforts of the Daily Mail and UKIP, among others) and the impact this has on mental health, as told through a positive, hopeful and deeply political story – that of the Glasgow Girls campaign.

Of course, mental health problems know no social boundaries. Being poor or socially excluded undoubtedly makes things worse. The obstacles to escape are bigger and more overwhelming. Apart from anything else, you cannot afford to pay for therapy – a fact that troubles me daily, given my personal experience of the gulf between the quality of therapy available for free and the quality available privately. But money and success do not protect you. You can be a wealthy Hollywood star and still sink into despair. Think of the death of Robin Williams last year, the lesson from which, surely, is that depression can happen to anyone. There is no neat, simple explanation for Williams’ suicide. He had money problems, he wasn’t happy with how his career was going, he’d gone through two divorces. Can you think of anyone, at all, to whom at least some of that life experience does not apply? All of it seems very ‘normal’.

Mental health campaigning has become important to me, but the arts are still very much at the centre of my life and my thinking. I think that art, when it does what it’s supposed to do, works the same way as a good therapist. It shakes you up. It makes you ask more questions, look at the world from another angle, and understand that things are more complex than you thought they were. It allows you to tell a different story about your life. It’s fascinating to me that, at the beginning, the Glasgow Girls were convinced they were powerless because they were ‘just’ a group of schoolgirls from Drumchapel. And yet this was exactly the thing that made them powerful, because it was a compelling story – very young women from different backgrounds standing in solidarity with each other.

The fact that they were girls and not boys was important, I think – like the gay rights activists who stood side by side with the miners in the 1980s, this was one group of people who face daily, institutional discrimination speaking up for another. It was also important that they were schoolgirls, not students, so still essentially regarded as children – it cut through mealy-mouthed grown-up arguments about the economy to something simpler: Seriously, you’re taking children from their homes in the middle of the night and throwing them out of the country? Children, like us? Like your children? It was an inspired move for Cora Bissett to turn the story into a musical, but in many ways it was art already. The campaign was as much about telling a simple, compelling story, about youth and friendship, as it was about making a political point. It already felt like a song. Because this is what art does. It makes you care by finding the emotional truth in things, the humanity, the story.

It is this ability to tell a different story about yourself – learned in therapy – that gets me out of the occasional relapse. Depression clouds things, turns all your individual disappointments, frustrations, rejections, resentments, all those sad, angry thoughts, into one big blur of hopelessness. For me it’s like an untidy room in which the mess seems so overwhelming that you can’t imagine how you can ever begin to tidy it up, so you want to sink into the floor and disappear. Instead I try to focus on one thing I can fix. I do my best to fix it, then I try to move on to the next thing. Put another way, I try to find a story in a mess of events, a picture in a blur, a melody in white noise. I think to  myself, what is the creative way out of this?

Everyone needs to find their own solutions, of course. The important thing is not to try to do it alone. Seek help. Stop trying to be ‘normal’, and instead be honest with yourself about what you can tolerate. Organisations like the Mental Health Foundation can help. Above all, find someone you can trust, whoever and wherever that may be, and talk about it.



One thought on “‘Normal’ is whatever you’re willing to tolerate

  1. I’ve always asked the question ‘define normal’ internally when others said things have to be this or have to be that, so you article resonated. My own creative journey has only started after many false starts when confidence and courage disappeared in the blink a overwhelmed, depressed and self-loathing eye. After decades of ‘acting normal’ and trying to conform to others views of what that should be, I prefer my ‘new normal’…being me, lived experience, creative and all. Be well. Be happy.

    Liked by 1 person

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