Thirteen years ago I thought I could make it as a writer. I thought all I needed was someone to show me the way and I thought that way was through an Arvon Foundation course.
Just to paint a picture of what Arvon is all about, it’s basically a house somewhere remote, surrounded by fields and farm animals and the foundation owners stick about 10 of you in there with two to three professional writers and over the course of 6 days they teach you the tricks of the trade. It’s kind of like Big Brother for arty farty people without the cameras. There are all sorts of writing genres to choose from so you look through a brochure, pick which course you want in which teeny tiny village, look up the writers who are leading the course and you convince yourself this is what you want; this is what you need because if you’re going to be anyone in this world, this is the path to take in order to achieve it…
…or is that just me?
It’s a funny old world Arvon. I learnt very quickly that in a room full of people who are all different from each other you can still feel that agonising pain of being unaccepted. I say this because, at Arvon you willingly open yourself up to criticism. You literally hand over your heart and soul for someone to look at, analyse and then dish out their constructive opinion.
I admit I went Arvon thinking I was pretty good at stringing a sentence together but it didn’t take long for that thought to be squashed. It was implied that my writing wasn’t good enough. And I was told it was too dark, too bleak and people don’t want to read something that has no hope in it.
I disagreed, and trust me, that took balls! When you’re staring a writer in the face who is paid to put words on to paper and all you have is a few sheets of A4 with words that reflect your own pain, it doesn’t matter that life is sometimes like that. Life can be bleak and sometimes there is no hope – but without the money in your bank account to back up that claim, it doesn’t matter what you think, it doesn’t, because the man with the money doesn’t care. He’s getting paid to tell you your work is unreadable and as a writer you should especially steer clear of writing about mental illness because no one wants to read about it, it’s…
Arvon left an impression. It was a crazy week with no phone signal, and if you can’t drive there was no escape. Everyday I felt like I was being ripped apart by a pack of hungry lions washing my limbs down with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc and it hurt! Man it’s painful. I am not naive and please don’t think I didn’t know what I was letting myself in for, I did. But I also had a dream that someone might have a little bit belief in me so that I could gain a little for myself.
Believe it or not, somehow, by the end of the week I felt like I’d turned a corner. I’d finally connected with the people I was sharing my soul with, I was the youngest and I wanted to be liked – who doesn’t? I took everything that was said to me on board. I tested out all the advice about my writing and on the final night I wrote a light-hearted, comical short story that blew the socks off all them! It did, I know it did because the applause still rings in my ears and I remember being poured a glass of wine by the writer who told me my work was too bleak to put on to the page and he said…
“I think you’ve found your niche.”
You know what? I look at that story thirteen years later and I wonder what was so good about it to change the opinion of an entire room? What was it in those words on those pages that changed people’s opinions about me when for the last five days they thought everything I wrote was too depressing?
The answer is simple…
I changed because they wanted me to. I changed the vision I had inside my head, I changed my writing style. I flipped the coin from heads to tails and I dipped my toes into an area that I knew nothing about. I felt like a ham sandwich in need of cheese that’s nowhere in sight. Don’t get me wrong that applause was worth it, but when the week ended what was I left with?
The course leaders said it’s good to tweak. If I tweaked my writing style things would be different. But in order to tweak my writing style I had to tweak myself. I had to tweak every part of my personality and train it to think the way other writers deemed to be acceptable.
The only problem I have with that is, nobody tells Bret Easton Ellis to stop writing weird stories that you can never figure out because by the time you’ve read all about the yuppies on Wall Street snorting coke, you can’t remember which story Patrick Bateman hasn’t been mentioned in.
No-one tells Jilly Cooper to down her writing tools in exchange for knitting needles because old ladies should not be thinking about throbbing members!
And it never crosses anyone’s mind that perhaps Shakespeare isn’t the greatest writer of all time because half of his plays are bleak! They’re depressing and there’s no hope in them because 90% of the time he kills off the majority of his characters! You just have to look at King Lear to see that.
So I rebelled, I rebelled against the professional writers, the paid writers, the people considered to be knowledgeable and qualified to tell me I’d never get a shelf in Waterstones. I’d like to say I respected their opinion but I didn’t, not really. So I decided, if I wanted to write a story with characters who were consumed by mental illness, then I would.
If writing stories about mental illness is such a bad thing then doesn’t that say something about the world? Doesn’t that say that we should be opening our eyes and our mouths and putting pen to paper to say to the world that this exists! And it kills people! And in the grand scheme of things this was just one person’s, opinion so tell me where the crime is!
I’ve always believed that diagnosis is simply an answer to a question, but it also fuels the fire for stigma. It doesn’t matter how many people have a mental illness, if you’re not talking about it, then any negativity increases, it doesn’t fade. In my early twenties I was ashamed of my mental illness. It was a huge part of my life that I didn’t feel I could be open about. I could only deal with it through writing and Arvon was a sharp reminder that even then the written word still wasn’t okay.
My mum was happy to tell people about my diagnosis. I’m not sure if it was because she’d seen me completely destroyed by it and she’d had to drive hundreds of miles across the country to pick me up on countless occasions when it got too much to cope with. Or was it because she wanted people to know there was a reason her daughter had flopped at every angle of life and Bipolar was that reason. Or maybe she just wanted to start off the change; maybe she was ahead of the game, I don’t know. Whatever it was my mum should have been my inspiration and it should never have taken me twelve years to realise that…
…if we do nothing, then nothing changes.
In 2014 a friend loaned me a book…
I hadn’t known her for very long so I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I don’t read books about Bipolar people by people with Bipolar. But I decided to humour her and I read the first page. That first page turned into the first chapter and then the entire book. I’m not about to talk about the book in detail, it’s not my story to tell, but please check Andy out, his book is on Amazon, he’s an amazing Bipolar survivor, a wonderful friend and my inspiration. He won’t take the credit for it but…
…Andy is the reason I found my voice.
At the tail end of 2014 something in me changed. I was becoming less ashamed of having a mental illness. I was slowly opening up to more people in and out of work. I’d mention it in passing, I’d “like” something on Facebook that was mental heath related. I would post something mental health related and this strange feeling started grow within me. It was like a burning desire to do something, I wanted to change something, I wanted something to get better!
One morning when I was getting ready for work Mum said she’d noticed I didn’t seem quite myself and she asked what it was I wanted to do. I remember putting the milk back in the fridge and I said…
“I want to be like Andy, I want to talk about my mental health…I want to be a speaker!”
There…I’d said it. That’s what I wanted. Right there and then in the kitchen with half a carton of semi-skimmed in my hand, was the moment that I had to say goodbye to shame. If I was going to speak up about living a life with a mental illness, then I had a shedload of balls I had to grow and it was not going to be easy.
My family and friends would ask me what I would talk about and I know some of their lips curled when I said I was going to be honest about my mental health. But when they asked me what I wanted to get out of it I would have to stop and think for a moment. Because in all honesty…
…what the hell did I know?
When you decide to be a speaker you don’t wake up on the day of the decision and think..
“…woo hoo! Yeah! I’m a speaker and I know exactly what I’m doing!”
I wish it was that simple. I joined a speaking club where I was encouraged to do all sorts of things that I had never imagined I could do. In everyday life I would never read aloud. I would stammer, I would flounder and then I wouldn’t be able to breathe. The ladies at the speaking club taught me how to pause. If you pause you can find your breath, if you pitch your voice at the right level it takes less nervous energy and if you concentrate on the pace of your speech, the flow is easier and your audience are able follow and understand everything you say.
Those ladies pushed me to limits I never knew I had. They had me enter the North Pennine Area Speech Contest where I talked for eight minutes about drag queens and I came first place.
While I was trying to find my feet in the speaking world and I was also coming to the realisation that still so many people had no idea what Bipolar is or that in actual fact, it’s not a crime to have it or talk about it. The day I spoke about being mentally ill at the speaking club was the day I knew my time there was coming to an end. They were horrified. They were beyond words – which for a speaking club isn’t exactly a great advert – they suddenly lost respect for me, maybe they wondered what they had let into the club? Whatever it was they felt, I allowed myself to be affected by it for a few weeks before I decided to leave for good.
I was out on my own, I had no idea what it took to become a speaker let alone a good one! And let me tell you, it is hard, it is stressful, it is nerve wracking and when you open up at a bootcamp for the first time in front of 10 strangers it’s like hanging yourself out to dry and waiting for a ten-tonne truck to come and run right into you.
I did three of Richard McCann’s bootcamps and he taught me everything I know! How to stand, how to draw your audience in, what your presentation should look like and all of the things that you should be doing to get out there and speak to the world. He taught me that if you don’t go looking for a speaking gig, you won’t find it, because it sure as hell won’t find you.
Today’s blog is not about listing my speaking achievements. I don’t speak out about the horrors of having a mental illness so that I can gain praise. In the early days I would post things on Facebook to show people what I’d done, it was a way of saying…
“Hey! I’m bipolar and I’ve done this when no-one thought I could!”
When you have a mental illness people expect very little of you. And when you’re constantly being told that a decent, wholesome life is out of reach and you have to accept that unhappiness is 90% of your make-up; it is so hard to turn that around. When you feel like the only person who believes in you is you; it’s hard to make that enough.
Initially I had no idea what I wanted to achieve. I was tired, I was bored and I was so sick of the system getting it wrong for so many people. I was exhausted from hearing stupid and ignorant comments and using words wrong way…
“Oh my god, she’s so Bipolar”
“I’m having a Bipolar moment”
“They’re so moody, they must be Bipolar”
…because that’s not really how it works, that’s not even how mental illness as a whole works.
I was frustrated with the media world for painting all Bipolar people with one of very few brushes…
Stacey from Eastenders
Claire Danes in Homeland
Stephen Fry – because he always looks fine!
People would ask what did I have to offer? What could I possibly speak about that people would not only give their time to listen to but also walk away having gained something from hearing the words that come out of my mouth.
You know what? I wasn’t sure anyone could gain anything from hearing me speak. I didn’t even know if I had a story to tell. I’ve never really put a foot wrong in my life. I’ve never smoked, I stopped drinking at twenty-six, I was never a wild child; even my Bipolar episodes were low key compared to others. I’ve never been close to death, I’ve never taken a life, I’ve never been to prison, I have never done anything worth reporting.
What I have done, is try to live my life. I’ve tried to never give up and I’ve tried to fight a system that needs reminding that the mentally ill are still people.
Six years in, I don’t know if I’m any good; I will never be perfect and I will always pick holes at my delivery. I probably do the exact opposite of how I have been trained and for that I apologise to Richard. But what I do must be working because now I have business cards, a website and a blog and not only that, but I get requested to speak and that was once a pipedream.
Andy taught me that the best way to speak to an audience is to think of it as a conversation and he’s right. It’s a conversation that we should be having with our families and our friends, that having a mental illness is as normal as having a cold. It’s just like any other illness, it’s a fight and it’s a battle to take control of in order to get well again.
When I think about why I started this whole thing in the first place, it was never about achievement. It was about telling the professionals who aren’t listening that they need to open their ears. It is not okay to write the mentally ill off. It is not alright to tell people what an acceptable way of life is according to them. Everyone is different so how can people be pigeonholed?
I didn’t set out to change the world (contrary to my Bernard’s belief), I set out to show people how to say…
“…no! That is not okay.”
In 2008, back at Arvon, I was proud of my bleak and depressing stories and I should never have allowed myself to change because others didn’t feel the same way. Nobody ever asked why my stories were so dark. No-one ever took the time to wonder if there was a deeper meaning to my miserable paragraphs. Maybe they weren’t interested, maybe darkness is something we should avoid at all costs. I don’t know. But I do know that change is inevitable. I know it happens without us even noticing and over the years, especially the last six, I have changed both inside and out.
My writing has changed. Everything I write now has some form of hope resting within the depressing words. I’ve made this change because I have hope in my life, where once upon a time I had none.
At Arvon people said tweaking yourself was the right path to take to gain success…well?
Consider me tweaked…
…but it’s not because of you … it’s because of me.
Dedicated to my good friend Andy. You gave me the strength to get started and taught me never to be ashamed of being Bipolar. One day when the world is a safer place I hope we can share a stage and tell our stories together…