In 2000 I was a first-year student at university living the way most students do – before Covid-19, obviously – I went to pubs, I drank pints and once I got over the initial overwhelming craziness of a club scene, I did that too.  Yes, once upon a time people, I was a happy go lucky, inhibition-free, fun gal!

I had a housemate, Tammi, who helped guide me through those first few months of adapting to student life and we spent many a night in York drinking in pubs and bars.  We would wander home, religiously stopping by the infamous burger van “Effe’s” for chips covered in Mayonnaise. 

Germany 2001

The walk home was always the same, past Effe’s, past the Greek restaurant (no idea what it was called but I did go, once) and past a pub that was always blasting out music by a local band or a karaoke singer belting out The Eagles, Meat Loaf and Cher or Bon Jovi. 

Meat Loaf

I remember one night we stumbled past with our chips and there was this kind of psychedelic, experimental sound with a sort of gentle wailing tone of voice accompanying it.  I remember we turned to each other; our eyes wide with an expression of surprised bewilderment.  Neither of us could believe someone had the balls to get up in front of a crowd of people and do whatever it was that they were doing that night.  I remember Tammi said…

“Sounds like a student with an idea and a speaker.”

Never in the twenty-one years that have passed have I ever heard anything as quick witted and genius as that one sentence and it has stayed with me ever since.  Every time I hear psychedelic music or a whispery wailing voice, I think of Tammi, and our chips.

In February 2020 my speaking was really beginning to take off and I was at the point where people were requesting me.  I was in a position where I could charge a fee and once I sent out my first invoice I guess I felt that I’d gone past the goal I initially set myself.

I was happily overwhelmed and I know that might not make sense to some, I can only compare it to the feeling I had walking through the doors of The Gallery night club in York where I would stand in wonder, deafened by the music and the smell of alchopops that had spilled onto the floor.  My shoes would stick to the carpet and if I hadn’t consumed enough Fosters I would question if I had enough courage to dance to Chesney Hawkes, The One and Only because it would mean letting go and just being me.

Not kidding, I drank the lot!

When I danced in a club I opened myself up to being judged.  How I moved on the floor determined how I was received by the roomful of strangers.  Where were my arms going? What was I supposed to do with my legs, did my feet have to leave the floor because if they did I couldn’t tell them where to go because I had no idea.  I had shoulder length hair that my friends told me to swish and I would say…

“How do you swish your hair?”

Twerking was unheard of back then, people just moved about and smiled at each other.  The dancefloor was overlooked by a circular banister where people would watch the intoxicated dancers, some looking for their missing friends, others on the hunt for fresh meat. 

On the dancefloor we were performers.  We were judged on our clothes, how straight our hair was and we showed the viewers from above our best moves in the hope that someone liked them.

When I started public speaking I opened myself up to the same kind of judgement.  When you’re stood in front of a group of people, no matter how large or small that group is, they have judged you before you’ve even opened your mouth.

When I joined a speaking club in 2014 I was a blank canvas.  I had no idea where my arms were supposed to go or what to do with my legs.  I straightened my hair but I didn’t swish it.

I was in a different kind of club with a group of people who had never encountered someone with a serious mental illness.  They were upper class ladies who were members of Bolton Golf Club, the men were in the Free Masons and everyone had extravagant holidays and really posh cars!  I imagine they wore dinner jackets and smoked cigars like the cast of Downton Abbey and week by week I would ask myself…

“Why am I even doing this?”

…I was a girl who wore a multi-coloured maxi dress to a black and white themed night on a cruise ship and was suitably chastised for it by my fellow diners (I guess you had to be there, but this is the ultimate faux pas in cruise ship dining etiquette.

It took me a while to pluck up the courage to tell my speaking club companions why I was there.  After a few months I grew big enough metaphorical balls and divulged my past and declared my dream to speak openly about life with a mental illness. 

Baring my soul to strangers

In that one moment, as I stood behind the lectern, my fingers shaking, my heart pounding I looked at them…and I saw the same expression of surprised bewilderment that I’d exchanged with Tammi fourteen years before.

Right there and then, I was the…

…student with an idea but no speaker.

…I came to the realisation very quickly that my public speaking venture was not going to be an easy one. 

When I came first place at the North Pennine Area Speech Contest I talked about drag queens and people laughed.  When I spoke at the speaking club, amongst the same people and talked about my mental health they made twisted expressions of horror and I knew then that people are not always understanding or encouraging; people are not always kind.

From that experience alone I realised that what I wanted to achieve was something worth doing.  No matter the expression on the faces of the audience I would speak out, even if it was purely to annoy the people who didn’t want to hear it.

When I first started out my nerves were all over the place, everything about me broke into a sweat.  My hands would shake, my heart would rattle my rib cage like a crazed inmate running a tin cup across the bars of an American jail cell.  My mouth dried up and I’d get a scratchy throat, it just wasn’t a good look. 

When someone I used to work with asked me if I ever felt nervous before went on stage I said…

“Yes! Massively nervous.  I’m a train wreck.”

She said…

“What’s the point then?  Why bother if your nerves are that bad?”

I said…

“Because fear is not a reason to stop doing something.”

…plus, the more opportunities I got to step on stage the more practice I got.  My nerves are still there but I’m not scared to get up and be honest in front of people.  I actually thrive on that nervous energy.  I like it when my heart races!  I enjoy the pounding in my chest because I know what I’m doing is right.  If I’m holding a mic and my palm is sweaty I just hold on tight.  If my mouth dries up I take a minute and I sip water from a plastic cup and I say…

“Excuse me while I water my tongue, it’s like a camel’s armpit in there.”

My trusty plastic cup

I can have fun with my nerves because I remember when I did my first speaking bootcamp with Richard McCann, he told us…

“Never tell your audience you’re nervous.  Because then they’ll see it and they might never have noticed before.”

I try to give off the illusion that I know what I’m doing when really I treat every single presentation like it’s my first because even though I’m not a blank canvas anymore, every audience in front of me is fresh meat.

People automatically assume that large audiences are scarier than the smaller ones.  But honestly?  It’s small audiences that absolutely terrify me.

When I speak at BAND in the Recovery training sessions I have my name on a screen and I fire up my PowerPoint and I stand in front of an audience that can range from two people to up to sixteen. 

Tiny audiences are the biggest challenge.  As a speaker eye contact is key, you have to look at people to get them to engage and feel like they’re part of your story.  But if people are shy and they don’t want to look at you, how you do know if they’re even listening because they just look bored? 

Sometimes people don’t want to listen and I can spot a bitter audience from a mile off.  They usually cross their arms when I walk into the room.  They question the relevance of my presence.  What could I possibly say that will make any difference to their everyday life?  What is the actual point of me?

About three years ago I did a presentation to sixteen people.  I’d been with the group all day but I never mentioned I was going to be speaking after the lunch break.  When I got up to speak I put my plastic cup on the table in front of me, I got out my clicker that I’d never actually used before and I felt like a proper pro!  But the atmosphere in the room changed instantly.  I could feel the resentment coming at me like a pack of English Foxhounds, they eyeballed me, their lips curled with distaste and I thought…

“Ooh, tough crowd.”

Most people who know what I do will know that I start off my presentation by explaining who I am and what I’m like and what I was like growing up.  I call myself weird and strange and I show them pictures of the dreadful jumpers and hideous dungarees I wore as a teenager to try and hide myself from the world.

The Sweater Shop

I’d been doing the same speech for about three years; I’d showed the same slides with the same pictures and no one had ever taken offence and I had never been cut off mid flow so that someone could point out how much of a terrible person I was…

“You can’t say things like that!”

“You can’t use words like weird and strange, its offensive.”

I’m offended. Is anyone else offended?

“You’re being nasty to everyone who wears those jumpers and they might like them.”

…you know that term…

“…rabbit caught in the headlights…”

…that was me.  I floundered and I swallowed the lump in my throat and I said with as big a smile as I possibly could…

“I’m really sorry, I’m not trying to be offensive. Maybe I wasn’t clear enough.  This is just to paint a picture of me, I’m not referring to anyone else.”

When they said…

“But what makes you so special?  Any of us could stand up there and talk about ourselves. Why are you the one doing it?”

I felt like the Titanic.  A sinking ship, only everyone on board had been rescued and I was left frantically running around looking for some form of floating device so that I wouldn’t drown in my increasing self-pity.

I’d like to stay it stopped there, but when someone stood up thirty seconds later to make themselves a coffee and I had to shout over the boiling kettle that was just to the right of me, I thought…

“Heck, this really is a tough crowd.”

When that person returned to their seat I lowered my voice but I had to turn it up again moments later when another person decided they too fancied a coffee. 

I can cope with most things.  I have a pretty thick skin by now.  You can tell me I’m ugly, you can whisper about how horrible my jumpers are, point out that I am the most uninteresting person you have ever met and that you will die of boredom in my presence!  That is fine my friends! Fill your boots and I’ll throw in a few more insults to help you along your way.  But the most hurtful thing in that room, the one thing that tipped the poisoned arrow right at my heart was when the person who had been a bit thirsty and really needed their coffee stood up and said…

“I’m not listening to this.”

…and they took their coffee and they left the room.

Holding on for dear life

I am extremely lucky that this has only ever happened once. In six years I have only ever had one soul destroying audience and to be honest I am grateful to them. In that room there was contempt, there was hatred and I have no idea how I got through the rest of my speech when from start to finish it was just one big disaster. But it opened my eyes to a challenge that I hadn’t prepared myself for. I knew in advance that I was facing a group of people who understood mental illness.  They had either experienced it themselves or they were close to someone who had.  I can actually understand their initial doubt of why I was there and I get why they wondered what made me so special?  But its not about being special is it?  It’s about looking at a situation and saying…

“What can I do about this?”

When I stand in front of an audience its not about boasting about who I am because I am well aware that I have nothing to boast about.  I didn’t start public speaking for Instagram followers or Twitter attention; (I don’t even know how to use Twitter!) I stand up to speak so that I can tell people…

“No! It is not okay to be told what you can and can’t do according to a diagnosis!  It is not okay to be pigeonholed because you have a mental illness.  And it is not okay to take this lying down.”

I love public speaking because I’ve been able to meet a million varieties of people.  I have done so many incredible things and the best thing, the best feeling, the ultimate achievement through all of this is looking at my audience and seeing them cry, hearing their laughter, seeing that show of hands when I ask them…

“Does anyone like Milky Bars?”

…because then I know I’m doing a good job.

When I speak to teenagers I know I am playing with fire.  I know they could quite easily rip me to shreds and send me home crying.  But I love teenage audiences.  I love them because they’ve got cheek!  They like to test the boundaries but what they don’t realise, when they’re raising their hands for every question I ask them and I know for a fact they have no idea what I’m talking about, I love that, because it helps me and it shows me that they’re actually listening (so more fool them!).

Zac’s Bar 2018

Not everyone likes me, oh I know that only too well! Not everyone wants to listen to me, I know that too.  But I also know that when you’ve been dealt a tricky hand of cards you can do one of two things…

Give up…

Or

Grow balls…

Trees growing balls…ish

February 2020 was the last big presentation I did, pre-Covid.  It was to around one hundred and fifty students at Bolton College.  I had to shout really loud because I’d asked for a mic and a speaker but when I got there they said…

“Sorry, we couldn’t find one.”

I was getting a bit tired of going to places, usually schools and colleges and them not having the equipment I needed, even when I’d asked for it.  So in the summer when the restrictions were eased I decided to pull my finger out and invest in the things I needed.

I trotted down the HW Music Megastore in Bolton and I got fully kitted out by Bob and Richard with a mic, a speaker and all the connecting bits in between.  The store is amazing and I half wondered what the hell I was doing in there surrounded by guitars and drum kits.  At the top of the store they have a mini theatre and studio where they set up the equipment and they showed me exactly how to use it. 

The stairway to Heaven… I’m sorry I couldn’t help it.

In June I was still climbing out of an episode and I’d lost every bit of self-esteem I had, so when Bob handed me the mic so that I could test it out I had to pretend that I knew what I was doing.  I had to feign confidence and remind myself that I wanted this and that I could still do this!  Richard showed me how to set up the speaker and he said…

“Right, try it out and see if you’re comfortable.  This is how you turn up the sound.”

I stood there, in the middle of the stage, staring up at around two hundred empty seats with two guys on either side of me waiting for me to speak.  I looked at the mic in my sweaty hand and the speaker at my side and I thought…

“Now this is getting real again”

Six years ago I wanted to tell my story and I wanted to make people laugh and cry along the way.  I believe that I’ve done that and those are my successes.  It’s not always smooth sailing, I still get people in the audience who hate me, but that doesn’t put me off.

In life you can never know it all and everything we experience is a learning curve…

…I am not a student, but I had an idea and now I have a speaker…

We are ready!

Dedicated to Tammi for the most genius of statements and for our friendship.

Also dedicated to Bob and Richard at HW Music Megastore…I’ll be back for that equipment refresher when I get my next gig!

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