Time [for you] to talk

cn: mental illness

You post that it’s hashtag time to talk. I respond that you should practise what you preach. Now, if we’ve finished exchanging clichés, can we actually say something?

Don’t get me wrong, any positive mental health message is a GOOD thing, for raising awareness and removing taboos if nothing else. But while I’m sure that anyone posting that they’re there to listen genuinely means it, I hope we realise that this isn’t enough to change the conversation.

Not convinced – surprisingly, the mental illness epidemic can’t be solved by a single tokenistic slogan.

Forgive me for being sceptical – but while that picture of your face next to your hand making the OK sign might earn you lots of virtual hands making the thumbs up sign, I wonder how much of your real life time you’ve given to talk to someone irl about feelings. Because unfortunately, if one of your friends is mentally ill, I’m not sure that your facebook status will be the prompt they need to reach out to you and spill everything that’s on their mind. I mean, they’ve got enough going on themselves without also having the burden of initiating this conversation. It’s like standing opposite them, both of you on either sides of a ravine, and you shouting ‘Jump!’, expecting that to be enough. Do them a favour – be the one who reaches out to them – physically in the case of the ravine, and metaphorically in the conversation. Make a little effort – message them, or better yet, ask in person, how they’re doing.

You may think you’ve done that. But your attempt may not have been good enough if the conversation went something like this:

‘How are you?’

‘Fine thanks, you?’

‘Yeah, good.’

Source: Almost every conversation, ever?

Perhaps an adequate nicety when talking to the cashier at the supermarket checkout, but I imagine that most therapists would not regard this as a sufficient means of assessing someone’s mental stability. I’m sorry to be so critical, but if we really want to remove the stigma around mental health, and really want people to be open about it so they can start to recover, then we all need to face up to the fact that we aren’t doing a good enough job yet. We need to try harder and I’m not afraid to be blunt about it.

A particularly irritating phrase to hear after opening up about mental illness is ‘you should have told me before’. I can’t help but feel that this comment just serves to alleviate some imagined guilt for not knowing. Recently a friend messaged me and expressed the sentiment a little more honestly, in my opinion, saying ‘I’m sorry I didn’t stay in touch’. Isn’t that what you really mean? But I don’t blame you for not knowing and I obviously don’t blame you for not being there for me and my mental illness when you didn’t even know about it, so don’t (inadvertently) put the responsibility on me for not telling you instead.

And I understand that we all say we’re fine as an automatic reflex, without a thought, so it’s difficult to get to someone’s true feelings. It’s what we’ve been socialised to do – there’s that joke of that one time we asked someone how they were and instead of mumbling ‘fine’, they had the audacity to start giving a detailed answer of how they really were, as if we actually cared!

But what if, and this might be a stretch, we do actually care? Then don’t take ‘fine’ for an answer. Mentally ill people aren’t just an incorporeal haze of emotions, ready to engulf passers-by with their deepest anxieties. More often than not, we lock those up, and shrink them away inside of us, as far away from our outermost shell of facial expressions and words as possible. Certainly further away than any casual ‘how are you’ can reach.

Not pictured: a mentally ill person

So be a little more present and active when you’re asking. I much prefer the ‘ask twice’ slogan to ‘time to talk’, because sometimes we just need a little help to question our autopilot response, to prove to us that our inquirer really does care, and to give us the confidence to open up.

Mentally ill people aren’t just an incorporeal haze of emotions, ready to engulf passers-by with their deepest anxieties.

And regarding confidence, don’t be afraid to ask more – chances are that if someone has already hinted at feeling bad, they want to talk about it. Take them seriously, don’t laugh it off or change the subject just because you’re suddenly caught in the headlights of a slightly awkward subject matter. If you think asking is awkward, how do you think the other person would feel, monologuing the whole conversation to you, a slightly embarrassed, silent audience? When we talk about sharing feelings, that includes the feeling of awkwardness surrounding sharing feelings.

As with everything, this becomes so much easier with practice (even though for some unknown reason, we all seem to assume that social skills are some mystical magic power bestowed on a select few. This is not true). I always wanted to be the friend that people confided in, but never wanted to seem intrusive so would avoid serious personal issues as a topic of conversation. But interestingly, having made friends with people who weren’t brought up with this annoying British habit we have of dancing around the issue in the hope that someone will lead us to the right position, I’ve seen how they ask specific, direct questions, and it makes it so much easier to open up to them. If they aren’t embarrassed, why should I be? So why should you be either?

I do understand the need to avoid being intrusive – I’m obviously not saying you should engage in a psychoanalytic interrogation of the aforementioned cashier. But if it’s a friend, then ask, sensitively and in a private environment – direct doesn’t inevitably mean rude. Also, give them the option for them to tell you they don’t want to talk about it. That’s ok too.

The slogan isn’t ‘time for you to ask and them to talk’. It’s time for us ALL to dig out our feelings, look them straight in the eye, and translate them into words to be shared.

But the slogan isn’t ‘time for you to ask and them to talk’. It’s time for us ALL to dig out our feelings, look them straight in the eye, and translate them into words to be shared. Which again, is easier said than done. (Unlike actual feelings, which are usually easier felt/ignored (delete as appropriate) than said). Unfortunately, there is no tap flowing directly from the innermost point of our minds to the tip of our tongues. Finding the vocabulary to express how we feel accurately is a difficult thing, but it can only get easier – with more practice, and more exposure to other people practising the same thing. So when you share, not only are you doing your mind a favour, you’re allowing others to learn from you, providing an example of how they could share too. Which makes it easier for them, so they’re more likely to share, which means you can learn from them, etc etc etc.

This clock might be too far away to read the time – but it actually says it’s time for us ALL to talk.

I evidently love talking about mental health (see: this whole blog), but I find still find it hard to talk to my parents about it. I’m really close to them and they’ve supported me all the way through my *journey*, and they do ask directly about my mental health. But they never really let me know how they are in any detail – whether good or bad. It’s always either denial or deflection. I’m not blaming them for this – it’s just that my family is not an environment where true feelings run wild, which makes it feel so unnatural for me to release mine. And maybe this is the baby of the family talking now, but I think it’s unfair – why do I have to be the one to bear the burden of the unnaturalness and awkwardness of sharing feelings, just because I’m the depressed one?

It’s like being in a pitch black theatre, with the mentally ill subject suddenly alone, centre-stage and illuminated by a single spotlight. What we really need is to turn up the houselights, so everyone is visible and is giving some of themselves to the picture. Now, standing in the spotlight isn’t so dramatically different to everyone else, and it isn’t such an alien feeling. Sure, my light might be a bit bluer or more intense than the average, and yes, I’m still on stage, but it’s a lot less intimidating than before, and the relationship between me and the audience is a lot more even.

Intimidating, no?

What we really need is to turn up the houselights. Now, standing in the spotlight isn’t so dramatically different to everyone else.

I have no idea if that made any sense – but what I’m trying to say is that if we all bring more of our true feelings explicitly into everyday conversation, then sharing more difficult feelings like depression or anxiety or mania becomes less of an abnormal phenomenon. Yes, those feelings will still be harder to share than others, but it will be a whole lot easier than now, because the words to describe those feelings will become part of our society’s common vocabulary, and because we’ll all be more accustomed to sharing feelings generally, so we’ll feel more comfortable doing so.

And once you’ve found the words and pushed them out,  be on constant guard to ensure that their constant adversary, the phrase ‘but never mind lol’, doesn’t escape afterwards. Treat your emotions seriously – otherwise how will your friends trust you to do the same for them? Yes, you’ve just been a little bit vulnerable. That’s amazing – relish it.

So go on, talk. It’s #time.


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