When you have an illness, of any kind; it can be a lonely and isolating world.  You’re trapped inside your body and your mind and there’s very little you can do to separate yourself from that.

When you have an illness you’re reminded every time you look into the mirror that there’s something wrong with you.

When you have a mental illness, every time you look into the mirror it’s an introduction to how you’re doing that day.

It’s been ten years since I made the decision to try my hand at public speaking.  In 2014 I couldn’t even read a menu out loud never mind stand up in front of a group of people and talk about my mental health journey. 

Most people I talk to say the thought of public speaking terrifies them, and once upon a time, I would have agreed with them.

Over the years people have asked me…

“…Why? Why would you do such a scary thing to yourself…by choice?!”

My answer is simple…

“Why not?”

When I’m asked why I wanted to become a public speaker, I don’t struggle to find my words.

I got tired of people saying “no” to the things I wanted to do.  I got bored of medical professionals putting the mentally ill into a box and saying…

“This person can’t do this because they’re mentally ill.”

I got frustrated with the world for allowing people to perceive the “mentally ill” as a group of people who can’t function in a society that is far from functional in the first place!

My life today is very simple.  I have not travelled the whole of the world, I have not experienced a tornado of heartache and heartbreak and throughout my 20’s and 30’s I was never ambitious when it came to my working life.  Some say I settled for a basic way of living and I probably did.  But what I would say about that is…

“At least I’m alive.”

A friend once said I should aim higher and look for a proper career.  They said…

“If someone asks you where you see yourself in five years, what would you say?”

I said…

“Alive, hopefully.”

I don’t measure success according to the five, ten, fifteen year plan others set for themselves.  I try to be grateful for what I have and if I am happy with the things that come my way, then I count that as a success.

When I started public speaking I didn’t really know where I wanted to take it or how far I could go with it.  When people ask me what I talk about and my answer is “myself” I always answer with caution because all I can see in their eyes is them thinking…

“What could you possibly have to say about yourself that anyone would want to listen to?”

Well, as it turns out, I have quite a bit to say and people seem to want to listen to it.

Before Covid I was doing multiple talks per month but after lockdown everything didn’t just slow, it came to a halt altogether.  I went from one job where people knew I had a public speaking side show, to a job where no one knew anything about me and any mention of public speaking was most probably seen as either a lie, or not worth registering because there was no current proof. 

Well now there’s proof.  This year I have gone from doing three talks in four years to three talks in one month; and it feels good to be back on that horse.

Every year since 2019 Abertay University have asked me to speak to some of their students. During Covid I spoke over MSTeams, which if you’ve used it, you’ll know it’s a better version of Zoom but still problematic.  Last year the doors of in-person speaking reopened and I had the chance to go up to Dundee again, stay in a hotel and have a little adventure.

I had three rules!  My rules were as follows…

  1. Do not get an ear infection.
  2. Do not get fibre induced acne on face.
  3. Do not have Colitis flare up.

What happened?  I hear you ask…

All flippin three! Every single one of them!  I managed to curb the ear infection and found an anti-biotic spray I’d kept since my last one, so that was that taken care of.

I imagine you’re wondering what fibre induced acne might be.  Well, I can’t digest anything with fibre in it, which is basically anything healthy.  So what did I eat prior to going to Dundee?  A lot of fibre, which then causes my face to break out into a collection of volcanoes that take days to fully erupt and weeks to clear.  I got three of them on my face!

To complete the triangle, of course my colon decided it wanted to shed the insides of itself and have me writhing in agony the night before I left for Dundee, and skating on the edge of a cliff with no toilet insight.  And trust me, when you have no working muscles to hold in the delights of a stagnant organ that never worked in the first place, needing to go to the toilet is the last thing you want to be thinking about.

Picture this… I’d paid for a first class train ticket and as I was feeling like a tired and deflated whoopie cushion, I was beyond relieved to discover I could sit next to a toilet.  That is until they cancelled the train and we were stranded at Preston to then be ushered in to a strange taxi that would take a couple of us to Glasgow.  I was fine.  I was absolutely fine… until I needed the toilet. 

I have never used Tena Lady, but at that moment I would have snatched an old lady’s hand off just for the protection.

I remember finally arriving in Dundee and waiting for my hotel room to be ready and I sat looking out at the busy streets thinking…

“I’m not having a nice time.  I’m not, I’m not having a nice time.”

Sad penguins, not having a nice time…

Rest assured, after that things did get better, and I managed to get the rest I needed before I stood in front of fifty+ people and told them a story I wasn’t sure even I wanted to listen to, never mind tell.

Fast forward a year and I received an email from the course tutor at Abertay University asking me if I would speak for a fifth time.  My immediate response was yes, obviously, but then I thought…

“Are they not bored of hearing the same story by now?”

For some reason negativity is drilled into human nature, particularly me.  Whenever something good happens I don’t just accept it and be grateful for it, I have to find something to counteract that euphoric feeling and question my right to happiness.

When you’ve had people in the past who have said…

“Why you? What makes you so special? I could do that; anyone could do that.  What do people want you for?”

It hurts, and hurt is hard to shake off when it’s easier to add fuel to the feeling of inadequacy.

It’s funny though, I never say no to a speaking opportunity; even with the memory of being stuck in a taxi for four hours with an impending explosion of brain matter that could rival the stench of a million babies nappies in a confined space, still at the forefront of my mind; I did get quite excited about going to Dundee again.

I had three rules!  My rules were as follows…

  1. Do not get an ear infection.
  2. Do not get fibre induced acne on face.
  3. Do not have a Colitis flare up.

What happened? I hear you ask…

Nothing.  Absolutely nothing.  I had no ear infection.  I haven’t eaten anything fibrous in about three months so my face is clear; and my colon has decided to take a break from torturing me – although I did look into the possibility of grabbing a pack of Tena Lady, just in case.

When I arrived in Dundee I had most of the afternoon and the evening to occupy myself.  The very nice man on the reception desk asked me where I’d travelled from and what I was doing and then said…

“Oh you’re here for the uni.  Are you a teacher or a professor?”

I laughed, I did, I laughed and I said…

“No but I’m doing a talk.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Mental health.” 

“So you’re teaching something then, let’s see if I can find you a nice room.”

He wasn’t kidding.  I went up to my room and opened the curtains to see the Dundee skyline and the soft waves of the sea.  That evening I pulled the armchair in the corner of the room to the window and watched the faraway lights twinkle and I thought…

“After last year, I deserve this.”

A room with a view…

The next day when I stood in front of the 45+ people doing their final year of their counselling masters degree, I thought,

“I must be doing something right.”

When they nodded their heads, when they laughed, when they looked sad or disappointed, thought,

“I must be saying something right.”

When they gave me the applause I always shy away from I thought,

“I must have done something right.”

When the class ended a few of the students queued to talk to me, to hug me and say thank you, I admit part of me was still reluctant to accept their kindness and their emotional generosity. 

Death by hot chocolate…

That afternoon as I killed time until my I had to catch my train home, I found a pancake house and had the biggest, most calorie filled, fattiest hot chocolate I could find and I thought…

Isn’t this what I wanted?  Isn’t this what I set out to do?  When I took the steps to become a public speaker, isn’t everything I have achieved over the last ten years exactly what I wanted to achieve.

I wanted to make an impact.  I wanted to prove a point.  My point being, that I could achieve something if I put my mind to it. 

As I write, this I still hear that negative voice inside my head saying…

“People will think you’re full of yourself.  They’ll think you shouldn’t be given these opportunities.  There’s someone out there who is better than you.”

And maybe that’s true.  But I don’t give into my ailments just because something uncomfortable has the potential to happen, so I won’t give up on trying to better myself because something inside me says I might not be good enough. 

The truth is, will any of us be good enough for ourselves?

Over the last few days, maybe even just the last few hours; I have learned that the only thing that really holds me back in life is myself.   It’s me who tells me I am not good enough so it’s me who is responsible for my actions.

My kind of sunset…

The morning of my talk in Dundee I sat in my hotel window with a cup tea and I looked out at the red and orange sky as it reflected off the water.  All I could hear were my slurps, but knowing how hard I have worked to get to where I am in life, despite everything that has been against me, I couldn’t help but think, I can’t teach anyone anything…

…but I can tell a story.