‘Talk to someone’, I know in practice it’s great advice. Though there’s just something about the phrase that always makes me cringe. Maybe it’s coz I’ve seen it chucked around so many times on TV, online, in blogs, by teachers/mates/campaigners, that it’s lost all meaning. Or maybe coz if it really was that easy, we wouldn’t exist in a world where people suffer in silence or take their own lives…
Don’t get me wrong, I get that talking can work, and do actually believe that a problem shared is a problem halved. The thing I struggle with, is that not everyone has someone to talk to, so how do we reach those people? And even if you do have someone, how d’you get the words out your mouth in the first place? And what happens if you find that ‘someone’, but they’re not the right person for you?
As a kid, I was pretty introverted, so when I started struggling with my mental health, I played my cards close to my chest. Then when I was about 16, I found a friend (and found booze!!), meaning a lot of things came flooding out as inhibitions were lost at the bottom of a bottle. At first, this friend was a stoic pillar of support, helping in every way he could, being on the end of the phone at 3am, even finding me a counsellor to speak with. But one thing I didn’t realise at the time, he was only 16 too. He had his own life and own teenage brain to navigate, so seeing me crumble when he didn’t have the tools to understand what was going on had its consequences…
One day, he simply told me it was too much and he cut contact. I felt completely isolated. I had done what I was told. I had ‘talked to someone’. To someones. Plural. Yet my friend had walked out on me and the counsellor, we just couldn’t connect, so those sessions fizzled out.
In hindsight, what I wish I had been told, was yes, talking can help but it might be trial and error before you find the right person for you. As it happens, years later I did find a CBT [Cognitive Behavioural Therapy] therapist who I connected with. And to this day, I credit something that she said with saving me.
I was still of the mindset that self-harm was ‘my thing’, some people smoke a spliff, drink beer, exercise when upset, I self-harm, deal with it. She said: ‘Okay, if self-harm is your thing, if you had a kid who was upset would you give them a sharp object and tell them to go cut themselves then say, “See you at dinner in five minutes”.’ No. Obviously no. And it was then that I began to see how self-destructively I was treating my body, which in turn was a pivotal step in recovery.
Just because society speaks the same language, we are still infants when it comes to vocabulary around emotional literacy. We need to be educating young people on how to ask for help BEFORE they hit crisis –whether through role play, group discussion, dedicated lessons – and to consider it as safeguarding. Coz right now, we’re telling our kids ‘don’t cry’, ‘it’ll be okay’, ‘don’t worry’, then 10 years later when they’re battling mental health issues we’re screaming ‘talk to me’ and they don’t know how.
We need to remind young people that ‘talking’ doesn’t always need to be verbal. Try a letter, a WhatsApp, a painting. A poem, an email, a doodle. A frown, a tear, a hug. There are infinite ways to express yourself that we haven’t even scratched the surface of. When my mum confronted me in my teens about what was going on, I made her guess as I just didn’t have the words. She sat on the edge of my bed and we had a ‘conversation’ that involved her guessing things (everything from ‘Are you pregnant?’ to ‘Are you on drugs?’) with me shaking my head until she said ‘Are you hurting yourself?’ I just nodded. I can still remember the relief that someone else finally knew.
Communication undoubtedly has a positive impact in connecting people (after all, we are social creatures) and makes our feelings valid, I just wish I had been taught how to ask for help, how to manage expectations, and how to understand that the listener is only human too, so that talking was an everyday thing and not something that felt like an un-runnable marathon when I was in crisis.
Anyone that knows me, even a little, knows that I’m a chatterbox. I talk to myself; I regularly strike up conversations with strangers; apparently I talk in my sleep; I have a habit of hijacking important work conversation with anecdotes that I often fail to remember the reason for telling (sorry Nadz!) and; when times are hard I’m probably chattier than ever. The trouble is, I talk about the wrong stuff.
It took me years to figure out what the right stuff was. First of all, in order to talk, I needed to be aware that something was wrong. Then I had to learn how to get comfortable talking about it and then find a way to make it a habit. Along the way I noticed that I didn’t just need to learn all these things for myself, most people around me needed to learn too. Selfishly, I don’t mean for them (although I think those skills are important for everyone) but I needed them to learn because my being okay depended on them being able to engage in the conversations I needed to have. It started to feel like I was going to have to teach them. That was scary, no one had prepped me for that.
When we bandy around the phrase ‘talk to someone’ at the end of a heartfelt post on social media – usually having recounted a tale about someone we know who’s going through a hard time or even following a discussion about our own mental health, almost always in past tense – we make it sound simple, but it’s not. It’s not just emotionally tough, logistically it’s no picnic either.
How would you strike up a conversation with someone you care about to let them know that you don’t feel quite right? Let’s say you’re bold enough to come right out and say it, ‘I’m not okay’. Boom! Bosh! KAPOW! You did it, you talked. Now what?
How do people usually respond? When does the feeling of being lighter/fixed/well creep in? In my experience, most people on the receiving end of ‘I’m not okay’ try to pacify, reassuring themselves (and the struggle-ee) that it’s not really happening. I remember feeling like I had been telling people for a long time that I wasn’t okay. Most would say ‘Really?’ I would explain how I knew –a mixture of emotional and physical symptoms. Some of the most caring and empathetic people I know would seek to hush me, mostly by explaining that they were sure I was actually fine. My headaches and blurred vision were ‘because I’d been spending a lot of time on the computer’; it was probably ‘low blood sugar’ that left me feeling jittery; I’d been ‘working too hard’ – that’s why I wanted to sleep 20 hours of the day; the constant crying and short temper? Well, I had a lot on my plate, just like I did three months ago and a few months before that. I’m not saying that all of those explanations aren’t possible, they absolutely are. I also know that all of those suggestions came from the best place imaginable, but I knew I wasn’t okay.
What if people are talking to someone and the rest of us aren’t doing quite so well at hearing them?
SET’s motto is to focus on solutions, not just the problem. So, as a potential solution, I’m throwing down the gauntlet. Instead of ‘talk to someone’ how about ‘talk to me’?
Is that a terrifying thought? Do you feel ill-equipped to deal with whatever a struggle-ee might say? No worries, you don’t need to have the answer, you don’t need to fix it or them and you are allowed to get it wrong. You just need to be prepared to listen and believe. Engage in the conversation the struggle-ee needs to have. Don’t be afraid to sit back a bit – room to breathe is a good thing. You can ask questions, they show you’re trying to understand; your struggle-ee might not always have the answer but food for thought won’t be a bad thing. You might be able to try some solutions out together or point them in the direction of people who can provide more support, but you can only do that once you know what’s actually going on.
This Mental Health Awareness Week, as well as ‘talk to someone’ how about ‘listen to someone’ too?
This is when talking works. When it helps us feel less alone, when we gain an understanding (of ourselves and others) and when we discover ideas and solutions we couldn’t find inside our own heads.