This past Saturday, 13th June 2017, I took part in an annual event run by the mental health charity CLASP, called Walking Out of Darkness. This was a 10-mile walk (further than I thought, my legs would like to add) in London, along the Thames, starting and ending in Battersea Park. This is the fourth year that CLASP (Counselling Life Advice Suicide Prevention) have run the event, and this time they also held one at the start of Mental Health Awareness week in Birmingham, before the London one closed the week, and have a third, summer event, in Weston Super-Mare on Saturday 24th June.
It was a great day all round, with a hugely supportive atmosphere, inspirational speakers and real belief in the CLASP slogan ‘you are not alone’ being true. The importance of this motto for anyone experiencing mental illness or mental health difficulties cannot be understated. One of the greatest facilitators of mental illness is the feeling of isolation, and the belief that you genuinely are and always shall be, alone. I did not feel so on Saturday. As well as about 800 others, who genuinely felt like the most positive community to be a member of in the world, 12 friends from work and beyond came on the walk with me. Now, they all had their own motivations of course, but I felt their presence personally as being much welcomed friendship and support.
It is about the value of such support from friends that I want to talk today, and specifically with reference to the ‘In Your Corner’ campaign currently being run by Time to Change. Time to Change are an organisation that focus on challenging mental health discrimination and stigma, jointly run by the charities Rethink Mental Illness and Mind. The focus of the campaign is about the mates in your corner, the ones who prove the CLASP motto of you not being alone, the friends who are there for you, who help you survive, help you win, the fight against the isolating monster of mental illness. I am lucky enough to have such mates in my corner.
There’s so many I could talk about. Today I shall mention three of them.
When I first opened up about my – I don’t know, let’s call it ‘remission’, my collapse back into the worst sustained period of OCD I’ve had – a couple of years ago, it was at work. I was in an appalling mess, and I’m still amazed that I was managing to get to work at all. Or to get out of bed, to stay alive for that matter. My project manager and line manager were amazing: I’m lucky to work somewhere that has a very understanding and supportive management, and in a team that are very much like a ‘work family’. One of this family, Zoe, had picked up very fast, despite my efforts to appear otherwise, on the fact that I was certainly not myself. Usually in these blogs I give people a comical change of name (I considered DJ Z-Box for Zoe), but I think today those that I mention deserve the credit of their names. In a state whereby I was falling apart at any prodding at all, I opened up to Zoe completely. And what a relief it felt after all these years of keeping such episodes, the nature of them, closely concealed from others. It was, it is, almost impossible to explain what I was experiencing. After all , how many chapters of this blog are we into?, and I still don’t think that I’ve succeeded in relating it. But Zoe allowed me that ambiguity without any insistence to fully understand it, with no insistence that we had to sit down and sort this out there and then. She did understand of course – she understood what this was doing to me and that it was real, and that is all she needed to understand. She understood that it wasn’t something she could just give an answer to, or tell me not to worry about and it would be solved, she didn’t gloss over it. But she did also make clear that I could, I would get better, with the right time and support, and that I was not alone, no matter how I felt. She made it clear that I was still Baz, and she was still my friend. Zoe talked to me about getting help, and within a day we’d found the private organisation which I am still attending for CBT and gotten my first appointment for the next day.
There are so many instances of essential moments that she was there for me, but the one that really stays with me occurred about four months later. As I say, this has been the most severe episode of OCD that I have endured in my life, and after some initial progress, I took a big downward turn. A particularly bleak weekend and calls to the Samaritans had led to medical intervention by the local psychiatric crisis team. Monday came around and I was to go off to be assessed at the psychiatric hospital in Burnt Oak, Edgware. I did actually go to work first thing, I just couldn’t bare being on my own, and despite being about to go and get further help, I was scared. I was in as low and dark a place I ever have been, so it was difficult to find optimism, but also the very prospect of those bleak, grey, psychiatric hospital grounds and the difficult conversation I was about to have was scaring me. This may come as a surprise to anyone who has known me a long time, as only my late mum was aware of this, but I spent a very brief visit to such a facility a few months after I graduated from university. It was voluntary, they were there to help and it was a long way wide of the horrors depicted in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but it was a miserable stay which I never want to experience again. In that instance I discharged myself very soon because I simply couldn’t deal with it, and fortunately as an out-patient was doing much better within a few months. I did not know what was going to happen this time. But as I was putting my coat on, Zoe came to my desk and simply suggested how about she come with me. I’ve attended a lot of hospital visits in the past five years with my complex physical health, including for some quite worrying procedures, which I’ve managed fine by myself. There was no hesitation in my tremulous, grateful nod to her offer on this occasion.
It was both a simple and powerful thing that she offered. Just to be there. To talk to me on the train about whatever she would normally talk to me about, even though I was not much capable of contributing; to wait during the assessment; to hug me after as I cried; to take me for a milkshake (my first ever milkshake – can you believe that!). Powerful because she was showing me that I was not alone. Simple, because what was she doing? She was being my friend, as always.
And all of my friends have stayed this way, through all of this. No impatience that I be better by now, no demands that I explain to them what exactly is going on. They just stay my friends. They are ready to spot when a reply of ‘ok’ to the routine enquiry of ‘morning, how are you?’ is delivered without conviction, and to offer their presence and kindness. So reassured am I by their support, that I can now seek help when I need it. I have sent messages to my friend Beth at weekends, evenings, days when we’ve not both been in the same office, because I know she wants me not to try going alone when I am struggling. She has been on the phone so quickly after, or arranged lunch the next day so we can work through the struggle. She takes me through what I have been doing and learning in therapy – I tell her all about it – and she helps me work through it again, refresh and reinforce it. She doesn’t come in to try and fix the problem, she comes in to remind me of what I already know, to help me fix it myself, and realise how far that I have come. Similarly my friend Melissa lets me explain to her the principles of what I do in therapy, and in so doing reinforce it for myself. When I am getting in a mess, I know I can speak to her at any time, and she explains it back to me, clarifying it and making clear how much she cares about me and much better she can see that I am doing – that the bad period I am having is a temporary lapse. Then, like Beth, like Zoe, she will take the piss out of me and draw the real Baz out.
I could go on with example after example, but here is the core of what Zoe, Beth, Melissa, every single one of my friends at work, those who came to Walking Out of Darkness, my mates who regularly go out for burger with me, my friends at the other end of the country who are always there to talk – team Baz, the mates in my corner – are doing for me. They are treating me as me. They are accepting the illness I have as an illness, and seeing the real me. Keeping the real Baz alive. Because when I am unwell, it feels like I am not: I’m not there and never will be again. But they help me know that I – the real Baz – am still alive, still there, which means that this shit is not me, and that I shall win. Therapy is only part of what is getting me better: the mates in my corner are swinging the fight my way. Last Saturday, in that crowd, at Walking Out of Darkness, that’s what I could see all around me. People who were not their illness, not their problems, and the friends who were helping to keep them that way. It’s something we can all do for each other, whatever the circumstances. Turn to your friends if you are struggling. Look out for your friends if you think they are struggling.
Cheers, and my heartfelt thanks to team Baz all over the UK!
If you would like to learn more about the work of CLASP please see www.claspcharity.com, @claspcharity on twitter, CLASP Counselling Life Advice Suicide Prevention community on Facebook. For more about Time for Change, their In Your Corner campaign (#inyourcorner) and their other work please see www.time-to-change.org.uk , @TimetoChange on twitter, Time to Change on Facebook.