Swim Until You Can’t See Land.

What if I’m never thrown that rope?/And what if that tear in my side just pours and pours and pours?

Scott Hutchison’s songs are intertwined with miserable nights I’ve spent disassociated from the rest of the world. Yes, I Would when I thought things would never get better. Candlelit when I thought I’d never be loved again. Swim Until You Can’t See Land when I’d come out into the sun like some newborn baby animal, blinking at the future. The Twist when it was all too much.

The songs were a revelation in times of trouble, a twanging cord of kinship between me in my bedroom and this man who was able to articulate every nuance of emotion I was feeling but couldn’t speak.

It’s a lonely experience when you struggle with your mental health. It hurts in places you can’t put your hands on to heal, places you can’t even pinpoint, leaving you chasing ghosts. I’ve spent the past two days thinking about all the times I’ve listened to the same Frightened Rabbit song on repeat because they’ve spun my feelings into a fine silk thread and used it to stitch up my wounds.

I’ve feel like I’ve lost a friend. I never met him, but Scott Hutchison knew me better than I knew myself. He told me what I was feeling when I couldn’t unravel it, helped me lay it out and work through it. I hope that, wherever we go after we die, he is at peace now. And I hope that somehow he’ll know that everyone who listened to Frightened Rabbit carries a tiny piece of his music in their soul. I know I do.

And while I’m alive, I’ll make tiny changes to earth.

What I’ve Done in March

Working in an office that has minimal natural light is hard. It screws up the brainio and makes my emotions feel like they’ve done a half marathon with no training. A couple of weekends ago my brain hit the wall. I dragged the duvet onto the couch and slept for nearly 24 hours.

But it’s reminded me what anxiety feels like, and it’s reminded me why I’m so thankful for SSRIs.

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On SSRIs anxiety is like that funny noise your car makes, enough for you to notice it but you can turn the music up and drown it out and continue driving without worrying that something’s going to snap and send you into oncoming traffic.

Anxiety is driving down the motorway in the rain with no brakes.

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When it hits, I want to not feel guilty every time I speak to my friends, my family, because I’m annoying. I want to not have something open and sit with my thumb hovered over the keyboard before I interact, thinking do I need to? Do I REALLY need to say something? Don’t I think I should just be quiet and not remind people how irritating I am?

I want to be on top of my life without feeling the strain. I want to be able to come home from work after twelve hours out of the house and write and play games and sit on the couch with Sean and laugh at stupid videos without looking at a floor I haven’t hoovered and crashing into pieces, and I want to be able to stay on top of everything without burning myself out.

I want to make everything better. I want to make the world better. I want to open eyes and heal hearts.I want to reach out and touch people who are suffering. I want to sleep away days at a time because people are so awful to each other. I want to do something about it. I can’t.

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I’ve been AWOL recently while I unpicked the weirdness in my brain that the dark was doing. Normally when I feel like this it’s a sign that I need to go back to the doctor and get another round of medication. But surprise! It was just the lighting. Now I know about it I can stop every couple of hours and take a breather on the steps. It helps.

Take a breather. Go outside.

Time to Talk: about triggers.

Today is Time to Talk Day, a day for everyone – not just those who struggle – to talk about mental health. On the table: one of my personal bugbears, trigger warnings.

For a start, if you haven’t already, try this article from The Atlantic that circulated a few years ago. In relation to the increasing use of trigger warnings on content that might be uncomfortable, it claims that:

A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense.

To this I say: bollocks.

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Let’s get this out of the way first: there is a difference between something being a trigger and something making you uncomfortable. I have a Twitter account, I can’t help but see some amount of trash online every day that makes me very uncomfortable.

I’m not triggered.

Remember when you learned about the First World War in school? Shell shock? Reactions to loud noises? Yup. PTSD. Sexual assault. Violence. Accidents. Anxiety symptoms. Flashbacks. Panic attacks. Triggers.

When I was fourteen years old I had a mental breakdown. Around the same time I watched The Exorcist and my warped, malfunctioning brain led one into the other, crashing down around me, until any reference to the film was enough to give me a serious case of The Anxieties.

Tubular Bells? I’m leaving the room. GIF of creepy girl vomiting that weird green crap all over the priest? Probably going to cry. Even saying the title dried my mouth out faster than a nasty hangover.

imagesEven searching for that picture still makes me vaguely uneasy.

For me, it was relatively easy to avoid anything that was going to trigger this reaction, as it was unlikely I was going to bump into Linda Blair in Tesco shopping for crucifixes and pea soup. But things like sexual assault and violence that are becoming more of a talking point – the #MeToo movement, for example – and it’s becoming increasingly easy to stumble across something that can cause a similar reaction in people who’ve had a traumatic experience.

Trigger warnings are there to give people a warning, an opportunity to prepare themselves, a chance to make sure they’re going to be OK.

They’re not an easy way out, an excuse to coddle a bunch of millennials into avoiding things they think might be difficult, creating a society of easily-offended cotton wool fluffs.

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You wouldn’t laugh at someone who served in active combat for suffering from anxiety and flashbacks if a car backfires in their street. If you agree with that but in the same breath accuse a sexual assault survivor of being soft because they want the option to avoid or be aware of something that might cause them distress then you have problems I’m not even sure I can be bothered to unpick.

Putting warnings on things isn’t a sign of a soft society, it’s a sign of an educated one. We know that some things have an adverse reaction on peoples’ physical health, we know that some things have an adverse reaction on peoples’ mental health. It’s like saying “well you shouldn’t have allergy warnings on food”.

I’d like to invite anyone who thinks that to come and look after me when I’ve accidentally eaten something with gluten in it.

You can, of course, argue that some allergies are fatal. Guess what? Bad mental health days are fatal too. Suicide kills more people every day than anaphylaxia. The fact that we aren’t treating them equally as seriously is a sign that that we still have miles to go.

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In conclusion, don’t laugh at trigger warnings. Don’t take the piss. Don’t slam your hands on the table and claim you’ve been triggered because you disagree with something. Don’t be an ass. Don’t do it.

Since it’s Time to Talk Day, DO: talk about mental health, ask your friends how they’re doing, share this post if you think I’m making a modicum of sense.

It’s mental health, my dudes. It’s a big deal.

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If you want to read an awesome YA book on PTSD and what triggers can actually do, let me point you in the direction of The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson.

The Impossible Knife of Memory

Stock images from Pexels.

Book Review | Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine is the story of a quirky yet lonely woman whose social misunderstandings and deeply ingrained routines could be changed forever—if she can bear to confront the secrets she has avoided all her life. But if she does, she’ll learn that she, too, is capable of finding friendship—and even love—after all.

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This is a brief review, but for a good reason: I don’t want you to be reading it. I want you to go out of your house, go to a bookstore, BUY THE BOOK and read it instead. Go. Now.

If you’re still here, I can only assume you’re snowed in, gravely ill or temporarily incapacitated, so sure, read this while you recover.

First of all, don’t be put off by the fact that, for a decent chunk at the beginning of the book Eleanor Oliphant is supremely annoying. It’s immediately obvious that she’s an unreliable narrator, but it’s also immediately obvious that there’s a lot to unpick.

Her interaction with a number of other characters – Raymond (the IT guy at her work), Sammy (the pensioner they help in the street) and her mysterious musician, only serve to highlight the difference between being “Completely Fine” and Eleanor’s idea of Completely Fine. It’s a gut-wrenching, life affirming, thoroughly relatable masterpiece of a journey. I promise you that by the time you get not even halfway through, Miss Oliphant will break your heart, put it back together and then break it again.

Recommended for: anyone with eyes and feelings. Seriously. Read it.

On Happy Pills, or “shut up Daily Mail”.

The Daily Mail are at it again.

Anyone see this headline emblazoned across their front page yesterday?

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Once I’d gotten over my disbelief (even now I continue to be surprised by trash, like finding a raccoon in my wheelie bin) I was infuriated. So this one’s for you, Daily Mail, and anyone else who believes this dangerous crap.

Let’s get this straight, first of all. They’re not “happy pills”. They’re not tablets your GP will hand out like Haribo on a wet Monday morning. Britain’s not hooked on a chemical shortcut to a good day.

What Ben Shepherd, Medical Correspondent is referring to is the group of medications known as Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors, or SSRIs. Medication. Like you’d get for diabetes, or high blood pressure.

They’re prescribed for a number of mental health conditions, like anxiety and depression, and they basically work by slightly increasing the amount of serotonin – the stuff that makes you feel happy – in the brain to counteract chronic low mood and anxiety. They’re not opioids. They don’t induce addiction or physical dependency.

They take the edge off. They gently relieve the unbearable struggle. They let you regain your footing when the world feels like it’s falling away beneath you. They lift the albatross. They stop the wild oscillation of anxiety that renders you incapable of function.

That’s what SSRIs do. They make being alive seem less like an ordeal. But that’s not going to sell papers. So let’s sensationalise an illness that kills more men under 50 than anything else in the UK.

Throwing around the idea that “Britain is hooked on happy pills” like they’re fidget spinners is vile. It’s not trendy to take antidepressants. The line “Experts last night said patients were demanding a quick fix to avoid feeling down” is staggering. Imagine reading the same headline about insulin for diabetics. Experts last night said patients were demanding a quick fix to avoid dying.

Mental illness kills. SSRIs save lives.

I was going to pose this as an open letter to the Mail but I thought, what’s the point? They’re hysterical and completely tone deaf. Instead, I’ve written it here in the hope that the perspective of someone who’s actually experienced both horrendous mental health problems and the way that medication for mental illness can pull you back over the precipice.

If you’re struggling with your mental health and make the decision to speak to your doctor about it, don’t balk at the idea of medication. Don’t listen to idiots like Ben Spencer, Medical Correspondent, who really should know better.

In fact, do youself a favour and just don’t read the Daily Mail.

Self-care: do it your way.

I only realised as it was coming to a close that last week was National Self Care Week. It’s probably just as well, or I would have spent it vegetating on the couch until I started to smell of pyjamas, wine and special fried rice.

I’m a firm advocate of the concept, but the phrase “self-care” makes my teeth hurt. I think it’s because everything I see when I’ve googled it (as I have in the past for inspiration, before I wised up) is all a bit…twee and samey. Instagrammable.

Yoga. Meditation. Find unexpectedly beautiful things on your way to work. Unplug all your electronics. Run a bath that looks like you’ve melted Care Bears into it, light a bunch of candles and turn into a raisin.

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I have a bitter, sarky Scottish wee heart, and none of it moves me.

Don’t Google it. Seriously. You don’t need to. You already know what you like. Self-care isn’t about completely reevaluating your hobbies or buying stuff. It’s about prioritising yourself and making time to do the stuff that you know makes you happy. You don’t have to book a spa day or buy five million different types of things that smell if that’s not you.

I don’t doubt that these work for LOADS of people, but I’ve found trying to do something and finding that it doesn’t work can actually compound the problem. (“What’s wrong with me? Why haven’t I reached nirvana? Now I’m EVEN MORE STRESSED.”)

Here are my five favourite things to do when I feel like punching someone into the sun that I have yet to find anywhere else. And quite right, because they’re mine, and it doesn’t matter if someone else would say “you should get out more” or “that’s not good for you”. I don’t care, get out of my house.

Make the bed every morning

Sean put me onto this one, and it’s a good one. Basically, before I go to work or go for breakfast or whatever, I make the bed and make it look super good. I get to go about my day knowing that I’ve already achieved something and if I have a really shit day you can come home and crawl into a bed that looks amazing.

This is the only one I would recommend giving a shot. If you have a family member who can slip a hot water bottle into it before you get home, jackpot.

Video Games

I’ve loved gaming for most of my living memory. It was my seventh birthday, when I got my PlayStation, that the love affair really kicked off. I’ve got enough games consoles in my house that I could play three a day for a week and still not repeat. I’m engaged to an ex-competitive World of Warcraft raider. It’s a way of life.

I have three categories of game.

  • Huge open world games, preferably with a good plot, so I can potter about and look at the views and complete quests and enjoy the story. Currently I’m playing through Horizon Zero Dawn for this reason.
  • Old favourites, like Skyrim, or Destiny. The ones I can play with my eyes closed, recite the dialogue off by heart and know that they’re going to be awesome. It’s like having your best friend come round and put a duvet round you and feed you crisps.
  • The Mindless Game. I’ll probably be set upon for suggesting that Minecraft is “mindless” but systematically digging holes, laying railway tracks and building a dream house on a hill is incredibly therapeutic.

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Sitting in my pyjamas on my laptop

What am I up to? Nothing. Sometimes literally. Sometimes I’m just refreshing Twitter. Sometimes I’ll fall down the Wikipedia rabbit hole. Regardless, there’s something about staring at loads of mundane crap on a screen that lets my brain switch off while my body is still awake.

I find if you can walk the thin line between being chill enough to function and descending into procrastination madness, it’s a great way to engage brain shutdown for a while. Installing software like f.lux also means there isn’t angry screen glare to contend with either.

Writing

I mean if you haven’t guessed that I like writing by now…

For me writing is the ultimate escape. “If you don’t like the world you live in, make a new one” has been the justification for most of my daydreaming since I was in high school. Writing is a distraction from everything that’s going on and it lets me pour myself wholeheartedly into something to escape from anything that’s threatening to overwhelm me. It’s a rubber ring in an empty sea.

Watching grim documentaries

I love true crime documentaries. I love apocalyptic documentaries about weird shit like nuclear reactor leaks and earthquakes. I love Air Crash Investigation and Seconds From Disaster. I have so many things recorded on the Sky planner I could probably survive being snowed in for a week and still not have to go to the TV Guide. They’re so grimly fascinating.

The one downside of this is that every time I go on a plane and there’s even the slightest bit of turbulence I assume that the horizontal stabiliser is going to fall off or that the rear cargo door is going to fly away and take half the plane with it. It’s great fun flying with me! (See: the time I went to Florida, cried because it was windy along the Eastern Seaboard and had to be fed Kalms tablets and gin.)

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Life can be like struggling to grab onto the shore while someone kicks you back under the waves, and sometimes it’s difficult to look after yourself and keep on top of life as well. It was nearly a month before I hoovered my house recently which is horrendous and gross, but I was well aware that if I started doing housework after a day at work I’d go to bed completely done with everything.

It’s not the easiest thing in the world to re-prioritise, especially if you’ve got responsibilities, but take it from me: you can’t be the best version of yourself if you don’t look after yourself.

Give yourself a break. The world can wait.

 

Some thoughts on International Men’s Day

Happy International Men’s Day! I’m pretty sure they couldn’t have found a more controversial event this year if they’d invented “Kicking Puppies into Puddles Day”. You know how every International Women’s Day there are cries of “When’s International Men’s Day”? It’s today! Here you go!

I’m still seeing a lot of complaining about IWD today, but you do you, guys.

Snark aside, I think it’s marvellous that we’re encouraging men to talk about some of the issues they face. IMD is (in an ideal world, anyway) not about point scoring and helicoptering your willy and getting together in the pub to talk about how much women are ruining your lives. While the official IMD website lays out exactly what they hope to achieve, I’m going to focus on the two of the biggest issues I see currently.

I’m sure everyone will have noticed by now that I think that mental health is A Big Deal. If not, hi! I have this drum and I bang it a lot. Anyway, I like to highlight men’s mental health whenever the topics some up, because the statistics are frightening .

Men are three times more likely to commit suicide than women are.

In the UK, a man attempts suicide every two seconds.

That means that the number of men who will have tried to kill themselves by the time you finish reading this blog post will be in double digits.

Phrases like “man up”, “grow a pair”, “don’t be a little bitch” etc are so ingrained in our vernacular that they slip out without any second thought. But when you’re saying “man up” to someone, what you’re really saying is, you’re acting weak. You’re acting like a woman. Man up.

Statistically, nearly half of men who contemplate suicide feel like they cannot talk about their feelings. I wonder why?

This ties into my second point, the idea that “boys will be boys”, the idea of being A Man™. The idea that if you show any sort of traits that can be linked to being in any way effeminate, you have to “man up”.

We’re in an era now where we’re redefining everything. Which is good! It’s 2017, and while some things that are “traditional” are harmless (every Christmas Eve my family watch White Christmas and eat more cheese than is normal for any human being) traditional gender things aren’t always…particularly positive. I’d have been burned for witchcraft years ago if your worth as a woman was defined by how well you could cook and keep house. The idea that men should be these massive, hard-centered golems that never cry and projectile vomit the moment anything pink is placed near them is so outdated they’re showing reruns of it on Dave.

The problem starts much, much earlier than that.

If you’ve looked at Kinder Eggs recently you’ll see that there’s often two different wrappers, pink and blue. Girls and boys. Girls toys and boys toys.

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It’s generally accepted for a girl to play with cars and Meccano, but watch the reaction if a little boy wants to play with Barbies or Disney Princesses, or anything else that’s “girly”. There’s an excellent thread on Twitter by the “Let Toys Be Toys” campaign that dives into the reasons why this segregation has such a negative impact on men. It’s an excellent read.

It’s permeates everything. Cocktails? Girl’s drink. Fiat 500? Girl’s car. Housework? Girl’s job. These are all actual things I’ve heard people say, as a throwaway remark. I’ve worked in shops that sell toys. I heard parents – mothers and fathers – saying this regularly to their sons. Imagine reacting that quickly in telling your child they can’t have a toy because it’s for girls. Imagine the message that’s sending out – not just about girls and women, but about themselves.

You can’t do that. That’s for girls. You don’t want to be a girl do you?

Man up.

There’s a lot of blacklash against this way of thinking, some of which I read not ten minutes ago. Rather than opening minds, we’re subverting our boys, perverting them. We’re confusing them. We’re making them think that they have to grow up and want to be a different gender. We’re forcing them to be something their not.

I’ve never heard anyone saying this about a girl who likes to play football. I’m just saying.

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International Men’s Day shouldn’t be a chance to “one-up” women, in the same way that International Women’s Day shouldn’t be about relentlessly trashing men. Contrary to popular belief, most women don’t want to conquer the world and force everyone who identifies as a man to submit to our womanly overlord tendencies. I just don’t want to have to worry that whenever I post something about Magic or games I’m going to get a negative response.

If we put energy into building each other up, or working to change perceptions, or just opening up understanding that there are things to work on, think how much better the world would be.

Think how much better we’d all be.

So happy International Men’s Day. Love your fellow man. Lift each other up and realise that being a man might be broader than what you think it is.

Love the women in your lives. Love your kids. Love yourselves. Love each other.

Out To Sea Again

One Dundee memory that’s never left me, in all the rollercoaster years that have followed, is walking down Nethergate in the evening rain with neon puddles all over the road. I was listening to Wonderful Life by Black and I thought yes, it is.

But not for me.

Back then I had one goal. Don’t fall apart, and that was a big ask at the time. It was winter inside and out when I was at uni, and good weather was a long time coming. But even in the worst times, there was progression. Second year, third year, fourth year. Graduation. Masters. Graduation. Rarely was I left without a path, although it was a dark, lonely one.

Sometimes I miss that.

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You know, you’d look at me and think “what on earth do you have to complain about?” And you’d probably be right. I have my family, a fiancé, a mortgage we can comfortably afford. I have two cats that let me scoop them up and squeeze them like big teddy bears. I have more friends than I’ve ever had, friends who turn up at our house with regularity, who bring me cake and drink my coffee and sleep on the couch when we’re done dicking about in the living room.

And I love it.

So why do I feel like a winter morning, when the sun is pale and struggling and never really rises?

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When you say you’re tired, people say “me too” or “wow, how late were you up last night?” and you want to say no, I’m tired, marrow-deep and thread-thin.

I quit my job. Not the wrong decision, but it feels like taking your hands off the wheel in a car with no brakes and accepting the crash. Like telling yourself to put one foot in front of the other and realising after months of walking you’ve been travelling in circles.

I wish I could be one of those people, energetic all day, every day. Those people who find joy in everything, in other people and wearing scarves, and small talk with strangers on a train that smells like beer and too many lives.

I wish I could sink money into useless things that would keep me afloat. House a revolving door of junk, a museum of temporary relief.

Sometimes I wish I had faith, something intangible but omnipresent, the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. A candle to warm my hands on when the weather turns cold and I can’t see where the doors are.

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This isn’t a cry for help, I’m lost, not bereft. I’ve been lost often enough to know that the fog will lift eventually, but boy is it difficult when the clouds never clear from behind your eyes. Your arms are always tired and you just want to eat mashed potato.

The reason I can tell I’m OK is because I can still find moonlight.

I saw the first robin this morning. My sister is coming to visit soon. Morrisons sell gluten free curly fries.

It’s a wonderful, wonderful life.

Maybe not yet. But it will be.

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Images from Pexels.

 

The Black Hole

Last Thursday, Linkin Park frontman Chester Bennington was found dead in his home in California. Last Thursday would also have been the 53rd birthday of Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell, who died in May.  Last Friday would have been Robin Williams birthday, had he not passed away nearly three years ago.

All three of them committed suicide.

Mental illness is fatal if it’s left to fester. Suicide is the biggest killer of men under the age of 45. Men ages 40-44 have the highest rate of suicide in the UK. Rates of suicide in women are the highest they’ve ever been on record.

But we only ever talk about it when somebody unites us in empathy, and it forces us to hold a mirror up to our own lives. The aftermath of Robin Williams’ death saw people all over my Facebook wall suddenly opening up in shared grief and a sort of mental health comradeship, and I remember feeling quite touched that the response to his death was so many people opening themselves up to say “I feel it too”, and offers to be there as we all reached out to grab hold of each other. Reaching out is easier to say than to do. I know this.

I was bullied so badly in high school that I used to hope – with a calmness that frightens me – looking back – that I’d die in my sleep and wake up as somebody normal.

I had a nervous breakdown when I was fourteen years old.

I spent all of my time at my second school failing to recover, and essentially lost four of the most important years of my life.

I destroyed all my friendships – and they were good friendships, and I have so many regrets – by the time I was in my early twenties, because I was paranoid and miserable and constantly anxious and it turned me into a horrible stranger.

I nearly failed my degree on multiple occasions and had to resit all of my second year exams and one of my modules because my brain was wracked with self-loathing and paranoia and have you ever tried writing essays on Shakespeare like that? It doesn’t work.

Had I not made the long, difficult walk to my GP when I was nineteen – a walk that I turned round on three times and nearly missed my appointment – I would have failed my undergrad degree, never sat my Masters. I wouldn’t have a job. I wouldn’t be engaged. I’m not sure I’d be a functioning human being. I’m not sure I’d be here

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I stopped myself five or six times writing this and considered making it a bit more palatable, because I thought ooh…that’s a bit uncomfortable to throw out into the internet.

And it IS uncomfortable. I don’t particularly want to tell my family that I hated myself so much as a very young teenager that wanted to cease existing.

I don’t want to tell the people who probably thought I was a bit of a loser or a weirdo or whatever during high school that I was failing to recover from a breakdown that wouldn’t heal until I was in my 20s.

I don’t want to tell my friends how hard it is to interact with them sometimes because even the slightest feeling that I’m “too much” sends me back into a hole I have to work really hard to get out of, even the slightest thing makes me stressed and my default reaction to stress is either to lose my temper or to burst into tears, neither of which are particularly appealing attributes to have in a friend.

It’s not nice. It makes me uncomfortable, especially as some of these are things I haven’t told anyone for a long time, if at all. But that’s the point, isn’t it? We only ever talk about these things when someone else’s experience triggers it. It’s not something you drop on a Tuesday afternoon out of nowhere. Maybe you don’t do what I’m doing and tell everyone you know, but maybe you tell someone.

I know it’s easy for me to sit here with 20/20 hindsight and tell everyone to talk to each other. When you’re in a bad place, the worst of the worst, it’s a black hole you can’t easily crawl out of. There’s an unwillingness to burden someone else, the creeping paranoia that nobody REALLY cares, despite posts and pleas and helpline numbers. Sometimes we might have told people, in passing maybe, and been shut down. It’s a big step, but believe me, when you take the next big step, and the next one, and the next one, having someone hold your hand as you crawl back into the sun makes a big difference.

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I’m mostly OK now. I don’t remember how I got out. Pouring my soul into things as a distraction, a combination of therapy and medication probably helped, and spending quite a lot of evenings in the basement of a comic book store gave me back the years I lost to my own head. It wasn’t easy, and I didn’t come out of it unscathed, but I came out of it.

Reaching out when you’re in that pit is the hardest thing you can possibly do, but I promise it’s worth it. Find something to get you through the day, and the next, and the next. If it’s 3am and you’re sitting in the dark wondering how on earth you’re going to keep going, call a friend. Call your parents. Call Samaritans. Call me. Call someone.