Saturday 23 May 2020

Wearing T-Shirts Is Not Enough

Monday was the start of Mental Health Awareness Week here in the UK. Dressing for my day working from home I picked through my collection of mental health t-shirts. Andy “Electroboy” Behrman’s KEEP TALKING ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH tee. Gabe Howard’s iconic :): shirt. One each from Bipolar UK, NAMI, No Stigmas, and Stigma Fighters. I chose the No Stigmas one for the start of the week.

I made myself a cup of coffee and turned on my work laptop. My new post for Mental Health Awareness Week would be going up on the work intranet. I’d have emails and calls through the week with the mental health and wellness team. Content and activities to plan. But what was I doing, really? Making a difference? Countering stigma? I suddenly felt deflated. Adrift. A fraud.

For a moment I was back thirty-five years or so at a CND rally in Hyde Park in London, taking in the sunshine and the music, eyeing up the women in their rainbow coloured tops and faded blue jeans, affronted by the guy on stage declaring loudly to the crowd “Wearing badges is not enough!” Funny the things that stick with you. I could almost hear him adding “— or bleedin’ t-shirts.”

I’m not completely clueless about mental illness and stigma. I’m primary caregiver and life-line to my best friend Fran, despite us living opposite sides of the Atlantic. I know what our relationship means to her. For the past nine years, I’ve been her constant companion as she’s ridden the tides of mania, depression, suicidal thinking, debilitating fatigue, and pain. I’ve seen what it costs her to navigate the stigma and ignorance of a society which places the highest regard on those who are able-bodied and — especially — able-minded. She’s told me many times she’s only alive today because of me being here. I take that at face value. It is powerful and deeply humbling.

But on the wider stage, what do I have to contribute? Diagnosis-free, with no direct experience of mental illness, trauma, or stigma to share, I stand on the other side of the well/ill divide. It’s never been an issue for me and Fran, but for some people I am “not mental enough” to help or understand. I get it. I’d probably feel the same way. What do I know, really?

Well or ill, it’s easy to feel frustrated and overwhelmed. A few years ago Fran posted daily on social media throughout May for mental health month, and I was with her day after day as she handled the fallout. The ones who, well-meaning or otherwise, failed to get what she — and many others — dared to share. The people on my social media feed who found it amusing to share jokes about waking up on a psychiatric ward. The trolling and abuse friends of ours have faced on their blogs and on social media.

Not that I always get it right, either. I’ve encountered discord recently with friends when discussion has faltered and connections have stretched to breaking point. At such times I doubt my ability to write, to find anything significant or “edgy” enough to write about. My work seems pale compared to that of others I know and admire, Fran included.

I thought back a few years to when I landed the opportunity to write a guest post for Wearable Therapy. The irony of writing for a socially aware clothing company wasn’t lost on me. I smiled. Maybe I had something to say after all. I pulled that guest post up and read it for the first time in years. It might have demoralised me further but for some reason it lifted me. I recalled how a friend had written expressing heartfelt gratitude to everyone — her professional team, family, and friends — who’d been there for her in recent days. My contribution had been modest enough, but I knew I was included in her thank you. I was tagged on a social media thread by someone I admire greatly and have often felt in awe of because of her ability to write eloquently and powerfully. Her message was deeply connecting and encouraging.

I thought back to other supportive messages Fran and I have received over the years from people who’ve told us they’ve been affected by our book and our story. It’s not an ego thing to recognise that what you are doing affects people’s lives, maybe even save lives.

Because it’s not always the “big” things that have the most impact. Like the random conversation I had years ago in a coffee bar that led me to a local literary event on the subject of physical and mental health. I met some great people that day, people who live their lives and share their stories with courage and passion. Or the chance comment on Facebook that lead to a lifetime, and life-changing, best friendship.

So I will go on. I will go on supporting Fran in all she does and sharing our story because the story of how a well one and an ill one manage their friendship needs to be heard. I will champion all who are doing their own amazing things. I will call out stigma and discrimination wherever I find it. And I will wear my t-shirts with pride. It isn’t enough, no. Not on its own. But it can be part of enough. Because you never know when a KEEP TALKING ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH shirt might spark a conversation; might give someone confidence and permission to open up or ask for help.

And I will keep challenging myself and connecting, living my life and speaking my truth as only I can, side by side with my best friend, shoulder to shoulder with all who are working and hoping and living toward the day when STIGMA IS NO MORE. Now that will be a t-shirt worth wearing.


Based on Wearing T-Shirts Is Not Enough, Stand Up : Speak Up, June 2016.


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