Not only admitting, but realising, the origin of my self-harming and how it’s inextricably linked to my behaviour today.

15th October 2017.

I was reluctant to opt for that verb “admit” when titling this piece because to admit something implies one of two things: that one has done something wrong – normally of detrimental effect to others, or that one has done something that brings upon shame. If you’re aware of me as a person, or any of the pieces I’ve written in the past you’ll be more-than-aware that I am a fervent advocate of speaking openly about mental health. I hope that you will agree that my candour and, at times, rather raw honesty helps to define my writing. It is therefore reasonable to assume that I am not at all ashamed of my struggles with poor mental health, and, in the main, you’d be correct. In recent weeks I have discovered that there is an aspect, a symptom, of my condition that I was, albeit subconsciously, ashamed of. That aspect: self-harm.

I wish to stress at this juncture that I haven’t cut myself (probably the most common action associated with that broad spectrum of “self-harm”) now for just over two years. For a long time I thought, and indeed have previously written, that my first bout of self-harm in my early-twenties was born from intense anxiety. When I was first consciously aware that my inner struggles were beginning (and rather rapidly beginning) to reveal themselves physically – short temper, frequent crying, increased alcohol intake, thoughts of suicide (the list could go on) – I began to attempt to override heightened panic and fear, curtail the panic attacks and slow my breathing, by transferring the pain to self-orchestrated physical cuts. In the midst of panic the overarching aim is survive the next thirty seconds, the next minute, the next ten any way possible until the panic begins to subside. My method of choice for a period of about a year was to retire to an area where I knew no one would go and scratch, gauge, or slice my arms, but normally legs, with a compass. Little did I know at the time that this was in fact not the first time I had self-harmed through cutting.

June 2017. I was having lunch with two dear friends in London – two friends who have reached the upper echelons of a career in broadcast journalism, two friends who I am honoured to know and proud to dub them “role models.” We reached the point in the conversation when we began discussing my career aspirations and how they wanted to help. The inevitable was uttered. “Nathan, we can only help you if you start to help yourself – you’ve got to stop using social media the way you do. Think about how you’re portraying yourself and just how publicly you do so.” This prompted me to write a piece entitled Managing Your Social Media and Being Aware of Its Effects on Your Mental Health ” in which I wrote ‘Something that has sadly come to define my own online presence is the fact that I prolifically used (and the past tense is very much deliberate) Twitter as a platform to cry out for attention when I was going through a period of poor mental health.’ I was, rightly so, forced to re-evaluate and was pleased when I managed to rather rapidly alter what, and how, I “broadcast” online.

August 2017. I was, once more, in London and coming to the end of a lovely, yet sadly for me relatively infrequent, time with a man to whom I owe my life. He knows I always find parting from him difficult so has been so kind as to learn to “warn” me if he has to leave early, or has other arrangements so I have time (if I need it) to prepare to say goodbye. This was one of the times when he had to leave early – I was aware of this from the outset. Nevertheless, any time I get to spend with him is to be cherished. I thought I was well – that evening, after his departure, it was clear that I was far from it. The last thing I remember of that day is saying goodbye to him around 3pm in the beer garden of  a Soho bar. I know I arrived home, back to Hampshire, ten hours later and I know that in the interim period my friend had received a pathetic barrage of text messages pleading for him to confirm our friendship, tell me he’ll never leave, reassure me that he won’t forget me and that he’d see me again very soon. I was terrified, for no concrete reason, that that last meeting would be just that – the very last. I was, once more, absolutely convinced that I was nothing, no one – worthless, pathetically clinging on to those I love desperate to feel love back, desperate to be a priority. I just wanted him to be excited to see, and sad to leave, me. I think – no, I know – he was, but I couldn’t see it. My default setting: I was worthless and he was leaving me. In that moment I had no one.

In my last post I wrote that ‘upsetting [the friend in question is] something for which I will forever find difficult to forgive myself.’ And while this still stands, I have opted to use this to delve further into my mental health; I want to continue to explore, explain and understand it with an aim of reaching substantial periods of stability – some semblance of “recovery.” And so to the crux of this piece. I realised a couple of weeks ago, and for the first time vocalised yesterday, that I’d repressed some early childhood instances of self-harm for over twenty years. I had totally forgotten that between the ages of five or six to ten I used to purposely injure myself. In recent weeks I’ve allowed myself time to, in a safe place, try to remember. Quite specific memories began flooding to the surface of me slicing my knee with a piece of flint at the bottom of my garden – I remember two occasions, one of which occurred when I was approaching my sixth birthday. I recall rubbing both of my wrists on the patio to give the impression that I’d fallen and tried to use my hands to anchor myself. At primary school I would often rub my knuckles, or an elbow on the surface of the playground – once I remember cutting the base of my right leg with a stone and putting little bits of sand and grit into it as if I’d been running and accidentally tripped up. All I wanted, all I’ve ever wanted, was to be picked up – hugged. Even at that young age I’d convinced myself that I was worthless and the only possible way I could find happiness, or safety, or love, or human contact was if I injured myself. The only way I would ever be noticed and valued – just wanted – was if I were some form of victim, a victim who was eligible for pity. I was incapable of being loved. But being loved is all I’ve ever wanted. I still don’t believe that I am worthy of love.

At twenty-seven years of age I am far from comfortable, even able, to say that I love, or value, myself. It’s still difficult, but getting easier, to not look at myself without an overriding sense of revulsion and hate. Feelings of worthlessness were born at a very young age – something, evidently, I have only realised in recent weeks. As I near the end of my third decade it still summons all of my energy to accept that I’m okay (not even handsome, or special, or talented), just “okay,” when friends tell me such. That fear of loss, that fear of being forgotten and that fear of inadequacy is an ever-present thread that has run, and probably will continue to run, through my life. Every day, week, month and year I continue to survive, however, that thread becomes a little more shredded, a little weaker. In the same way that I “cried out” for help back then, I can now see that I unknowingly transferred that behaviour into the ether of social media. What was I hoping to achieve, or receive, when I wrote “I am worthless, I am nothing” on my Twitter feed? Was it for someone, anyone – a stranger, to say “No you’re not”? Would I believe them if they did? Probably not. Would it convince me to carry on if they did? Maybe…but certainly not long-term! I want to reach a place where I can allow myself to believe that I have worth – value – based on my character, that I offer something positive.

Self-harm amongst children is something that I haven’t personally read much about, but I certainly cannot be alone in my experiences. I hope that by writing this it prompts a conversation, but also goes a step further in helping those around me understand my struggles that little bit more and assures them that I am trying to get well, I am trying to get better and find techniques to help me prosper. As Stephen Fry quite rightly said, “It’s hard to be a friend to someone who’s depressed, but it is one of the kindest, noblest and best things you will ever do.”

Twitter: @NathanEChard

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Not only admitting, but realising, the origin of my self-harming and how it’s inextricably linked to my behaviour today.

Update: Autumn takes hold and my self-doubt skyrockets. Part 1.

22nd September 2017.

I’d long anticipated that a change in the seasons (more specifically, the transition from Summer into Autumn) would, like many previous years, have a negative effect on my mental stability. In the past few weeks, however, the heightened intensity that such a change has caused this year has revealed itself. I’m reluctant to attribute my increased self-doubt and general feeling of unease solely to the environmental changes associated with this time of year, but it certainly has contributed to everything seeming to be that bit more daunting; every feeling, emotion, or perception has been exaggerated. Upsetting my best friend (something for which I will forever find difficult to forgive myself) when I last saw him a few weeks ago has forced me to reflect on, and accept, this latest challenging period that I find a way to navigate.

Self-doubt and low self-esteem is far from uncommon. However, when your self-esteem is so stunted to the point of non-existence, a vast array of problems can arise. This is something I know all-too-well. I could almost handle not feeling able, or worthy, of fulfilling my ambitions – accomplishing and reaching where I wanted to be career-wise – almost – if I didn’t have to try to over-compensate for what is lacking where relationships are concerned. The old adage encouraging self-acceptance, asking how can anyone expect someone else to love them if they don’t love themselves may be a tad trite and over-simplified, but there’s something to it. It’s no accident that I’ve never had a boyfriend, never been on a date, could count on one hand how many times I’ve shared a kiss with someone. I’ve never loved myself, never seen anything in me that’s attractive, an asset – there’s nothing desirable or unique about me. I haven’t learnt to even like myself yet – at twenty-seven years old I don’t know if I ever will. That scares me. I suppose it’s rather paradoxical for someone who doesn’t feel worthy of being loved to give out so much, but I do. What I’m unable to absorb, I give out tenfold. Never will I not tell people how much they mean to me, never will I not try to make someone’s life a little easier. I’m the first to accept that time spent with me isn’t the most entertaining – there’s always someone else that everyone would rather be with than me. For a long time this was just how it was, how it was supposed to be: I accepted that it had to be Nathan second, everyone else first. Now, though, it’s just too painful.

I’ve slipped back to frequently drinking heavily alone to block out feelings of utter worthlessness and I’ve started to distance myself from friends. When I’m struggling it’s better for them if they don’t have to withstand me – how can I inflict myself on those I love? I can’t, and shouldn’t. Sometimes, however, I cave – I am only human after all. Humans need a modicum of interaction to survive and I try to not feel guilty for sometimes being utterly desperate to hear from someone I love. Simply sending a text asking “how are you?” would only make the recipient feel obliged to ask me the same back and, when I’m not too well, I don’t want to lie and say I’m okay, nor do I want be honest and inevitably launch into a lengthy reply detailing my struggle – that’s not fun for the other person. I’ve written before that I struggle to find common ground with people – my fellow homosexual friends, for instance. Consequently, being able to “join in” with friends as they partake in fun activities is difficult – I either feel like I’m intruding and sapping the energy, or lack a point of reference to show an interest. It’s rather pathetic really – I’ve never been to a concert for instance, haven’t got a love life, haven’t been further than Bath in the past fifteen years – what have I got to talk about and engage someone with? There is one thing that people do associate with me: watches. I’m desperate to convince certain friends to be “watch people” so I can share my enthusiasm with them and claim a common interest.

Anyone who knows me will be aware that I have an extremely strong penchant for watches – it’s one of the things I always notice about a guy, I think they signal something about the owner and consider both their aesthetics and functionality vital. I also like to give them as gifts. I have sent watches to some very special people in my life and seeing them wear them makes me smile and brings a huge amount of joy. While the foremost reason for presenting friends with these gifts is to make them smile, I do have an ulterior motive.  In my (futile it may be) attempt to reduce the risk of being forgotten entirely, I take comfort in the fact that when the friends in question put it on, or go to check the time they may just think of me. They may just think of me in a positive light. They may just make contact with me.

After a period of not hearing from loved friends, my default with certain people hasScreenshot_20170402-111034 reduced to starting a conversation with “are you wearing that watch I bought you?” Do you still like it? Can you let me know when you wear it next? Is it holding up okay?” Sadly this doesn’t engage, it only irritates. I can’t even successfully share an interest and this has to be down to my active orchestration of it.  The aesthetics of the watches do genuinely interest me, but more important than that I just want to be included and feel like friends and I share something special. Is that ridiculous?

Losing friends and actively increasing distance between me and those I love isn’t the only consequence of this heightened level of unease and doubt. You may well be aware that I have a dream of forging a career in TV News (at this stage I’m unsure into precisely which area, but that arguably-redundant position of “newsreader” has always been a goal) and last week a friend who works for the BBC once again took me to visit New Broadcasting House. IMG_20170916_143536_016I’ve never been to a place where I’ve been so overwhelmed by the feeling that this is where I need to be, this is where I belong. A position here, or in any newsroom, has to be earned. Is it attainable for someone who doubts and criticises himself so much? When I was sat at this newsdesk, for a moment, a fleeting moment, I thought “yes, yes I can do this – I’m capable and worthy of sitting here and broadcasting for real one day.” I sat proud, took in my surroundings and, crucially, let out a broad, heartfelt smile. I felt happy. And then reality hit. Firstly, the practicalities of getting here – I’m about to reach my nine-year anniversary of being in a minimum-wage job which completely pushes me to my limit – I can’t therefore afford to take time off to re-train, or risk a decent amount of unpaid work experience, nor do I often have the energy on my days off to write, apply, learn and raise my profile. And then those other feelings came back – I have to take beta blockers to combat anxiety of day-to-day living (leaving the house, speaking to people) – how could I ever broadcast live to the nation? I have a stammer and cannot control my speech overly well. This only gets worse in times of intense self-doubt as I struggle to make eye-contact and rush my words as I don’t feel worthy of “holding the floor.” More often that not I have to actively fight to control my breathing to speak coherently, how could I ever be a conduit who verbally delivers the news? I couldn’t. I can’t. Again, I’m not good enough.

Returning to the notion of everything around me feeling intensified with which I introduced this piece and I’ve become aware that twilight makes me incredibly scared. As day turns into night, which, seems evermore noticeable and doom-laden at this time of year I panic. After leaving work on Monday my heart-rate dramatically increased, every sudden sound made me jump, car headlights seemed almost blinding, people’s footsteps seemed louder, I was edgy, shaking. Only once darkness had totally fallen did my anxiety begin to dissipate. My obsessiveness and paranoia has also increased in recent weeks – something “new” that I have started to really worry about is how many “X”s certain friends use to sign off their texts I receive. I’m embarrassed to admit this, and can’t bring myself to ask the two, possibly three, friends to who this refers. The person I cherish more than anything else would always, without fail, end his texts to me with three. Now it’s two at best, sometimes none. Have I done something wrong? Am I going to lose him? The rational Nathan, the Nathan who is well and competent and able would never qualify a friendship by how many kisses feature at the end of a brief text message, and I know that the person concerned might actually feel hurt and angry that I’m bringing our friendship down to a letter of the alphabet that’s meant to represent a kiss. I’m not. I know that we’re stronger than that. But the rational Nathan, the Nathan who is well and competent and able hasn’t been around for quite some time now. I’m petrified he won’t come back and that I’m going to lose everyone because, after all, isn’t that the fate I have painted for myself? If I go on believing that friends are only staying with me out of pity, that if our friendship dissolves I’ll end it all, what hope do I have of ever being happy? 

I’m working to find ways to combat these feelings and in my next blog, which I hope to publish in the next few days, I will describe some of the practical ways I’ve found to get back to some semblance of “wellness” in what is turning out to be the midst of a particularly distressing and self-punishing period. Focusing the mind on something positive, or creative (even writing this blog), even for just a little bit, helps alleviate some of the dangerous thoughts and enables me to re-think and re-assess.

Update: Autumn takes hold and my self-doubt skyrockets. Part 1.

Princess Diana’s death: Breaking the News pre-digital revolution.

1st September 2017.

“Where were you when…?” is perhaps the most clichéd question posed when reflecting on a major news event. It has the ability to sound a tad trite if not reserved for times of shock, tragedy and, crucially, national significance. In truth, there are relatively few occasions when the question is not only valid, but prompts a resonant, vivid and accurate response. One such occasion came in the early hours of Sunday the 31st of August 1997 when Princess Diana was tragically killed in a car crash in Paris. If you lived through the ensuing week twenty years ago you cannot fail to recall not only where you were when you heard the news but also your immediate reaction, the overwhelming sense of mourning on a national, indeed global, scale and the immense palpability of a country coming not only together, but to almost a complete standstill. I was seven-years-old at the time and I recall so vividly coming down the stairs on that Sunday morning. My mum had filled and turned on the kettle, then the radio and we were met with a fervent rendition, on a loop, of the national anthem. Diana 1Moments later and I remember her saying, “Oh, I bet the Queen Mum’s died. What a shame.” Eager to find out more I raced into the living room to turn on the TV. Martyn Lewis was staring back at me, with a photo of Princess Diana inserted behind her with the caption “1961-1997.” It wasn’t the Queen Mother.

In an era before smart phones, where Internet usage in the home was minimal (some figures state that less than 10% of households were online) and we were yet to enter the social media age we all received the appalling news broadly in the same way – whether you were up late into the evening and saw the story developing on television, or awoke to blanket coverage the next morning on TV and radio. Even now I’d still wager that if you were asked what the two “main” TV channels are you’d respond by stating BBC (One) and ITV. This certainly was the case in the late-nineties. Owing to the fact that there was a very small window where, and crucially how, each of us could first hear of the news the intensity of an already tragic story was immediately heightened; no possible dilution could occur as we trawled through our social media feeds as bits of information slowly dripped through as would happen today. There were just two simple banner headlines as the news was broken – initially “Princess Diana injured in a car crash” and, subsequently, “Princess Diana is dead.” Being in the era when we were on the cusp of the digital revolution meant, too, that citizen journalism was virtually non-existent – there were no eyewitness accounts in the early stages, no photos from onlookers (thankfully) and reports only coming from official channels: verified news wires. Speculative comments and unverified information were minimal, indeed news organisations would not broadcast details that weren’t validated by multiple sources. I’ve watched the coverage that is available back multiple times in the intervening years and what is striking is that interviews from members of the public at the scene (and there would have been many people enjoying the Paris nightlife available) are non-existent; the technology simply wasn’t yet available. One could argue that the next “major news event” would be 9/11 and by 2001 the practice of using footage and/or commentary from passers-by by mainstream news outlets was starting to become increasingly common. So, when Diana’s death was finally confirmed, therefore, for those at home the news quite literally flashed – there it was in an instant. A deep intake of breath followed and the ensuing reaction, and fallout, could now commence.

Viewers who had stayed up late on the Saturday evening first received news of a car accident involving Princess Diana by senior BBC News presenter Martyn Lewis on BBC One and the overnight duty newscaster Tim Willcox on ITV shortly before 2am as both channels interrupted their scheduled programming for a news flash. Details at this stage were minimal with both channels only able to report that Diana had been injured in a car crash in Paris and that her companion, believed to be Dodi Al Fayed, had been killed. Within a minute, and for the time being, both channels had returned to their regular programming with further updates being promised as details came in.

“We interrupt this film to tell you that we are getting reports that Diana, Princess of Wales has been badly injured in a car crash in France. French radio is saying that the accident happened in western Paris when the car she was travelling in collided with another vehicle in a tunnel. The Princess is reported to have been taken to hospital. There is no news of her condition and as yet the report is unconfirmed. It’s also reported that a passenger in the Princess’ car was killed. One report quoting French police says it is her friend Dodi Al Fayed. It’s also reported that the driver of the Princess’ car was killed. I must repeat that these reports are unconfirmed. We will bring you more news as soon as we have it.” – Martyn Lewis, BBC News.

ITV had been broadcasting short news updates overnight since the nineteen-eighties, so having a newsreader at ITN in the early hours was the norm, whereas BBC One would go off-the-air each night. The continuity announcer would sign off after the last programme of the day, the national anthem would play and the screen would fade to black, or show looped pages from Ceefax until Breakfast News came on the air in the morning. The practice of “Closedown” was, as it happens, coming to an end as the BBC was just three months away from launching their new digital rolling news channel, BBC News 24, which was planned to be simulcast on the corporation’s terrestrial channels overnight. At this stage, therefore, the BBC had just one live channel that broadcasted twenty-four hours a day – BBC World – the news service, however, was still limited overnight with presenter Maxine Mawhinney being the on-air representation of a very skeleton staff.

Diana 8
Nik Gowing and Maxine Mawhinney.

To mark the twentieth anniversary of Diana’s death Mawhinney spent the day speaking to various radio stations about her memories of that night at BBC Television Centre. At 00:58, two minutes before she was due to read the headlines at the top-of-the-hour a line flashed up on the computer – “Diana injured in a car crash in Paris.” Recalling the moment she said “I turned around to my producer and said, ‘That’s quite interesting. Shall we mention that?’ and he said, ‘Yeah, if you think you’ve got enough to say.’ So the music is running, I do the headlines, and then I said ‘Just before we move on, we’re getting reports from Paris that Diana, Princess of Wales, has been injured in a car crash.’ That’s all we had. Then, in my ear, the producer asked me to just keep going.”

 

By 02:30, it was evident that this was very rapidly turning into a major news story – for the first time BBC World was to be broadcast to viewers in the UK as it was clear rolling news throughout the night was the only option. Nik Gowing, a senior presenter on the channel, was called in to anchor the BBC’s international coverage. ITV also decided to go “open-ended” with its news coverage – Dermot Murnaghan was called in to present, being joined by Nicholas Owen, the then-ITV News Royal Correspondent, for context and comment. It would be Gowing and Murnaghan who were to have the unenviable duty to first announce to the nation that Princess Diana had died – a duty that would ultimately arrive at 05:15.

Diana 9Pictures of the wreckage began to come into newsrooms across the globe. It was arguably only then when the extent of what had happened could be fully realised. Professional broadcasters often have to be the conduit that delivers distressing news so it is necessary, upon entering the studio, that they separate themselves from their role – almost “play the part.” Sometimes, of course, emotions cannot be contained. The reactions of Gowing, Murnaghan and Owen were palpable – no one could mask their shock when those pictures flashed up. Indeed, it is well-documented that Martyn Lewis momentarily lost his composure, on the air, after former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s “People’s Princess” statement. He encapsulated the feelings of the nation. Speaking of that Sunday morning Lewis said,

“It was for me the biggest professional challenge that I’ve had in my thirty-two year television career. The challenge of newscasting when you have a major story breaking around you, and you’re live on air, is that you must not convey any emotion to the viewer, you must not convey the emotion of the story. And I remember the Prime Minister made a very powerful speech…the job of the news presenter is to repeat some of the things that the Prime Minister has been saying. And I was doing this and I got to a particular point – a very powerful, emotional line – and I started to crack. And then out of the corner of my eye I saw the next interviewee coming into the studio to sit down beside me and I realised I had to pull myself together.”

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Martyn Lewis moments after Tony Blair’s “People’s Princess” statement.

Martyn Lewis had recommenced presenting coverage across the BBC network from 6:30am, with many television stations across the world “opting in” and broadcasting the corporation’s output before Peter Sissons took over at lunchtime. Bar a retrospective programme on Diana’s life presented by David Dimbleby, Sissons would present until nearly midnight with Jennie Bond, former Royal Correspondent, completing her contributions after a near-eighteen hour day. ITV also scrapped their regular schedule proving Diana 16blanket news coverage through the day with a special edition of GMTV, which was also broadcast on the American news network CNN, then rolling news from ITN and a special programme with then-News at Ten presenter Sir Trevor McDonald. TV schedules would not totally revert to normal until after Diana’s funeral the following Saturday. Indeed, in an unprecedented move, for a second night in-a-row the BBC One broadcast news coverage from its international channel. The traditional Closedown would happen the following night. This was an event, a tragedy, like no other. Even at the time the immense strain that it put on broadcast news organisations was realised – a couple of weeks later The Radio Times explained how BBC News covered the story. I was fortunate enough to track a copy of this issue down a couple of years ago which I have included below for reference.

 

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Princess Diana’s death: Breaking the News pre-digital revolution.

Admitting defeat and giving up on happiness.

27th August 2017.

Since I first started writing about my mental health I have always been keen to tell my story as truthfully and frankly as possible and without sugar-coating it. The nature of the beast ensures that in bad times it is exceptionally difficult to remember that there have been, and once again WILL BE, good days. Likewise, when things are easy and life seems to be continuing along smoothly it is hard to relate to times past when the darkness completely enveloped and everything was a struggle. Personally, therefore, it has always been important for me to document both the ups and the downs, be it publicly or privately, in an attempt to improve my understanding of my depression and overall mental health; although my character ensures that I naturally gravitate to writing in, and about, the bad times as opposed to the good. Allowing myself to remember the good times is something I’m very keen to work on going forward. Nevertheless, as I’m sure you’ve gathered from the title I am currently writing in the midst of a tricky time and, sadly, with an underlying sense that this is just the beginning of a longer period of ill-health. I don’t feel worthy of burdening anyone with this directly, so this blog once more has to act as an outlet – an outlet that I hope some of you have entered. I’m reaching out in the hope that I will receive some reassurance, so, if you’ve chosen to read this, I thank you.

There’s a painfully poignant line from the season finale of the penultimate series of Cagney and Lacey that has stuck with me since I first heard it over a decade ago. As Christine’s alcoholism reaches its peak Mary-Beth, with a sense of exasperation, comments that “nothing ever fills [Christine] up, nothing ever makes [her] feel all right.” I stress that this piece isn’t directly concerned with substance abuse, but it is important to note there is a strong link between mental illness and addiction. Those clichéd phrases of someone attempting to “mask the pain” or “fill a void” are arguably a tad trite. They do, though, hold water. Depressives, like myself, are constantly looking to find something that is lacking, without even knowing what that something is. I’ve written before about the intense loneliness that I regularly experience, how I often feel detached from society – hungrily desperate for someone to drag me in and make me feel a valued part of their lives. I’ve also written about the less-than-nurturing upbringing that I experienced, so I’ll refrain from regurgitating that. What I will say, however, is that twenty-seven years of believing that I an incapable of being loved, twenty-seven years of feeling worthless, twenty-seven years of never quite being good enough is proving extremely difficult to overcome. And filling the void, or, maybe I should say maintaining the filling of the void has been getting so very difficult of late. Impossible. The frightening truth is that until I manage to overcome then I can’t progress and grow – become a better, more valuable person. At twenty-seven years of age I should not be thinking that I’m at the end, I should not be giving up, I should not be passively falling ever-deeper. But I am. I no longer feel that I’m meant to be happy. That. That is the hard truth. No one ever promised me happiness, no one ever told me I was meant to be fulfilled, so why do I feel so very short-changed?! I can’t even really think of a prolonged period of time when I have been happy, even content. I’m prepared to accept that I will never be “happy” (whatever “happy” is!) – happiness is what other people experience. I just want to be well, I just want to be able to function. Too, I don’t think that I’ll ever be loved – I just want to get well enough to ensure that I am liked! Dating, relationships, even going on holiday or for a picnic with someone – these are things that maybe I just wasn’t meant to experience. Just once I want to be someone’s first choice, or for someone else to text first…for someone to be as excited about seeing me that I am about seeing them. I always find myself returning to this:

I have been privileged to have met some truly exceptional people in recent years – people who I feel safe with, who I laugh with and who I am always very keen to see more of – and, yes, people who I am letting myself call “friends.” I’m concerned though. Sometimes I wonder if I’m just rather pathetically clinging on to their coattails by my fingernails frantically hoping to be dragged along and included and live a life which I crave, even for just a little bit. Never having been in a relationship only exacerbates that feeling I have of never being someone’s priority. More and more I have in the back of my mind that thought that people wished my seat were filled by someone else. 

Am I saying that I have never been happy, there is nothing in this world that brings me pleasure? Not at all. I’m at my happiest when surrounded by good friends – some of the “truly exceptional people” to whom I refer above. I may be incapable of being loved, but certainly not of loving others. And I do, I do love many people in this world – and, am in love with one. As long as I’m living I shall endeavour to help the lives of those I love easier, for I cannot make them better. Prince once said that “parties weren’t meant to last,” and this is true – though because moments of happiness and contentment are so very fleeting for me, I am desperate to eek out every second and orchestrate it that the situation lasts as long as possible. This, I have discovered, can be counter-productive and detrimental to friendships – begging someone to “please not leave me” will only ensure that they’ll leave me that bit quicker! I don’t like begging for company, I don’t like forcing myself onto a group, but I am fuelled by convincing myself, maybe even lying to myself, that I matter. This is easier when I’m with people – being forgotten by someone you love is hard when you’re with them, less so when you’re sat alone! In the past month I have taken myself for dinner four times and every time I’ve been the only lone diner. There isn’t any shame in dining alone, indeed sometimes I rather relish it – a nice glass of wine, my newspaper contribute to a marvellous combination after a long day at work. I just wish I had somewhere to go afterwards – it’s always a necessity to dine alone, never a choice. I look around, trying to rationalise the envy (sometimes anger) and upset I feel when I see groups of friends all laughing together, all talking about something that interests then, all having a shared experience. Why not me? Why have I never been on a date? Why have I never had a boyfriend? Why do always end up feeling so alone? Maybe it isn’t an accident, maybe I wasn’t meant to be happy.

Now, I might be able to deal with all of this if I had the ability to function and be “well.” But when it regularly summons all my strength and energy to do even the simplest of tasks – answering the phone, going for a walk, tidying the house – it only emphasises and exacerbates my sense of insignificance. I’m rapidly approaching thirty years of age and I cannot drive a car, I’m yet to move out of home, nine years after starting I’m still unable to move on from my minimum-wage job where I’m treated (not by colleagues) like something people have scraped off their shoe on a daily basis. Why? I suppose a well-rounded, fulfilling live and “happiness” are inextricably linked – there’s something cyclical about it. Nevertheless it doesn’t make it any easier to accept that I seem incapable of regularly just being happy. But accept it I must. I don’t know if I’ve got the energy or strength to keep battling to find longstanding fulfilment. It takes a lot to merely function and I sense it’s about to get harder – no one ever promised me happiness, so why do I still keep fighting for it? Fighting and failing. I can’t take any more failure. There is one rather bleak question that arises; if I’ve given up on happiness, which, at this point I have, is there any point in continuing at all? What am I continuing towards?

Admitting defeat and giving up on happiness.

Confessions of a Compulsive Hoarder

6th August 2017.

Since I was a young child I’ve always had a very strong sense of sentimentality. I’ve forever placed a, perhaps, unhealthily-intense focus on memories, no matter how seemingly insignificant or painful they may be. I’ve written before that I suffer from a rarely-discussed phobia known as Athazagoraphobia. This deep-seated fear is defined by two distinct feelings, the first of which I have previously always levelled a heightened focus – the fear of being forgotten or ignored (passive), or the fear of actively forgetting. It is perhaps this very conscious act of needing to have a tangible link to times past which has contributed to the mental health condition that forms the basis of my latest piece.

In recent weeks I have been forced to admit that I have a severe problem with hoarding. I’ve purposely used the word “confessions” in the title of this piece because it is probably, out of the various conditions with which I suffer, the one I feel most conscious – embarrassed – about. Compulsive Hoarding Disorder, although a recognised condition, is still rarely discussed, with the causes largely unknown and difficult to pinpoint. Nevertheless, the links to depression and anxiety are clear. Over the past few days I’ve been looking into potential reasons why certain people hoard, what causes heightened susceptibility and why “hoarding” is markedly different from “collecting.”

To deal with that final point from the outset, people who collect will present their items in an orderly fashion – they tend to be displayed neatly, proudly and have a common theme. If not on show for public consumption, then collections are easily accessible and stored securely and tend to have significant monetary or sentimental value, or signify a passion or interest. With hoarding, however, the categorising of amassed items is either impossible, or not a priority; there is no aesthetic value and they resemble “clutter.” Their monetary value tends to be low and the sheer quantity of items gathered is potentially hazardous as they increasingly overtake and commandeer floor and surface space. For more details of signs and symptoms of Compulsive Hoarding Disorder, please visit the NHS website.

If you’ve read any of my previous posts on mental health you will be aware that, when able, I am always keen on writing from a very personal perspective. I’m very much aware of the importance, and such a firm advocate, of “putting a face to the illness.” Indeed, since I first began publicly discussing mental health it was clear to me that the only way we are ever going to break down this still-present stigma directed at mental illness, and those of us who suffer with such, is if the rather fluid notion of “mental health” takes on a more tangible form. To that end I, for the first time, will admit to some of the things that I have amassed over the years, the majority of which I haven’t yet fully been able to dispose of.

Probably the most obvious thing you will notice if you enter my bedroom (and this is definitely a point of the hypothetical form as no one has been allowed past the threshold in about fifteen years) is the prevalence of old newspapers. This is actually one of the things I now find easiest to dispose of – I probably gather four or five small piles’ worth before I take a deep breath and hurriedly throw them in the recycling bin before defiantly slamming the lid down. What you won’t see, however, is the masses of Radio Times that dominate a good proportion of my wardrobe. I may have stopped buying them a couple of years ago, but still can’t bring myself to throw any I’d previously bought away. Judging by the size of the stacks, I’d guess that there may be two-and-a-half years’ worth of weekly editions, some in bulging boxfiles, most precariously balanced on top of each other. About a year ago I had, what some may call, a “breakdown” rooted in frustration at being unable to easily cross from one side of my room to another. The most obvious factor in preventing easy navigation was the scores of plastic bags that littered the floor. In my fury I was aggressively determined to rid my room of each-and-every bag that I had accumulated. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that around 500 plastic bags were removed. Sadly, since I reached that zero mark, as I look around today I see that the numbers have slowly started to rise once more. You, too, cannot cast your eye around my room without noticing that it is strewn with pens. hoarder-4.jpg

My desk playing host to a scattering of around one hundred is the proverbial tip of the iceberg! In preparation for this piece, and to settle my natural curiosity, I wanted to count just how many I actually owned – some still in bulk-boxes unused, some expensive (most not), highlighters, ballpoints, markers – pens of any make, colour, style. I gave up counting after I got to 1,247, having unearthed two shoeboxes-full of pen lids (yes, just the lids) in the process. The final significant element to my obsessive hoarding takes the form of drawers of blank VHS tapes (showing how far back this issue goes!) and spindles upon spindles of recordable DVDs. For a period of about five years, possibly (and in hindsight) when I was at my worst, I would routinely record hours upon hours of rolling news and TV news bulletins, the majority of which never watched again, but stored away. I have, though, conquered some of my past hoardings; I no longer hold on to empty deodorant cans, used batteries or shop catalogues! Nevertheless, with my wardrobe and drawers filled-to-bursting with masses of the aforementioned items it means that my safe space, what should be my sanctuary, is full of chaos – having my clothes (functional items), for instance, displaced from their natural home – draped over chairs, still in their shopping bags, neatly folded into piles in the corner – has to be detrimental, or at the very least, unsettling, to my general wellbeing.

The vast majority of my hoarding takes place in the home, away from where people can see it. Despite knowing that it is a recognised condition, one linked strongly with other mental illnesses, I still feel a lot of shame and embarrassment. I hope very much that “coming out” about it and talking honestly will, in time, enable me to progress and gradually dispose of my accumulations. I also hope that it will help others who may be suffering and help to increase, as far as possible, the understanding of the condition. I earlier said that I have allowed no one in my room for around fifteen years – I’m adamant that nobody can see the extent of my hoarding, even as a young child I remember feeling uncomfortable having friends around; I didn’t like them entering my personal, safe space. In hindsight, this has continued into my twenties. Again, socially, I have missed out – I can’t entertain, I can’t have people round for dinner or drinks. Hoarder 3Sometimes, however, my hoarding unavoidably leaks out to where people can notice it. Firstly, my wallet is frequently the subject of ridicule. I don’t blame people for noticing, and commenting on, it – it’s hard to ignore! But it does make me very conscious when out in public and is a constant reminder that I’m perhaps not as well, or stable, as I would like to be. Admittedly, loose change is partly to blame for its cumbersome nature, but I can’t deny that I find it rather difficult to comfortably throw away receipts, train tickets or appointment cards. Secondly, in recent weeks my hoarding has become noticed, and commented on, by people at work. I’ve been able to squirrel things away until now – hiding them where others wouldn’t have need to go. But my desk slowly, but surely, began to reveal signs of my issue;  the stacks of paper got higher, the drawers became increasingly harder to close, the various seemingly redundant “bits-and-bobs” appeared to multiply exponentially. I was called on it. My reaction caused therefrom caught me by surprise – when my manager (who happens to be a very good friend) exasperatingly snapped and forced me to “sort it out,” I shut down. Fighting back the tears I furiously threw everything into a box (including a supportive note he’d written me that I’d looked at every day for encouragement), labelled it “Desk” and stored it in another part of the building. I get defensive, almost angry, when people question me about it – maybe I react in such a way to mask, or suppress, the anxiety. I now knew, however, that not talking about it, not admitting my problem was unavoidable.

I’ve dedicated some time in recent days to exploring the reasons that have perhaps led to the point at which I now find myself. I’ve written before about the intense loneliness that I feel, and the realisation that something important was lacking from my childhood.  I can only deduce that I’m physically filling up the gaps around me in a subconscious, albeit futile, effort to fill the emptiness, to fill some form of void…to inundate the space that should be filled by something that’s missing. It’s always been somewhat comforting to be surrounded by “things.” Am I trying to replicate what’s lacking in the emotional by over-compensating the material? I can only imagine that I’ve placed certain emotional value on these possessions – the idea of ridding myself of them makes me incredibly anxious. But I know I need to. Maybe now I’ve admitted not only to you as readers, but also to myself, that this is something that desperately needs to be addressed I can begin to move on. I turned twenty-seven last month and I am so painfully far from where I want, and need, to be. It shouldn’t be this difficult. Maybe one day it won’t be.

 

Confessions of a Compulsive Hoarder

My London Pride 2017

9th July 2017.

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Trafalgar Square, 4:30pm as the Parade comes to an end.

Like many other LGBT people in this country, the annual London Pride is a very important event in the calendar for me that resonates incredibly strongly. Last year I wrote about its continued importance and its value in 2016 and whether or not it still has a place. It shan’t come as a surprise when I conclude, and staunchly affirm, that its presence is still very much needed and indeed positively feeds other vital aspects of society – the acceptance and embracing of others, unity and collaboration, and education through discourse. This year’s celebrations culminated in the capital yesterday with annual Pride Parade featuring more than 26,000 marchers supported and cheered by around 1 million spectators. With 2017 marking fifty years since homosexuality was decriminalised in the U.K it’s no surprise that this year’s festivities were the biggest in the event’s history. It is perhaps unavoidable not to enter into the realm of the cliché when describing the atmosphere in Central London yesterday – one really did need to experience it in person to fully appreciate the incredible amount of camaraderie, admiration and celebration displayed by all in attendance, regardless of sexuality, race or nationality. Many of the city’s retailers and food outlets showed their support by adorning their storefronts with rainbow flags, balloons and banners, along with signs proudly proclaiming this year’s official slogan “Love Happens Here” and the Pride in London logo. Following the spate of horrendous terrorist attacks that have targeted the U.K in recent months, it was even more pertinent for the city, the country, to stand together, proclaim our unity and to not be cowed by fear and persecution. Such an overt demonstration of solidarity transcended sexuality more than ever this year, resonating with the wider society. The sense of “togetherness” was truly wonderful.

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Chris Holliday and Emma Goswell from the LGBT radio station Gaydio commentated on the Parade from Piccadilly Circus.

From a personal perspective, my annual trip to London Pride allows me to fully embrace my sexuality – something that I don’t feel I can do when I’m at home in Hampshire. There isn’t a “gay scene” where I live, and while I’ve only ever experienced mild overt homophobia where I live, there is a definite sense of an underlying lack of acceptance. I am open to the fact that this could solely be my interpretation, not shared by other LGBT people in my area. Being the only openly gay person out of my friends to whom I live near, and therefore see more often, is sometimes difficult. The experiences my local friends and I bring to each other are, of course, not at all limited to our sexuality, but being the only gay man does limit how much I can profit (if that’s the correct term) from our social interactions. I often feel, through no fault of their own, a little excluded and markedly different from the friends I see on a regular basis. Sometimes I need to be surrounded “by my own kind.” Admittedly, I’m only an hour away from the capital and visit London relatively frequently (on average once or twice a month), nevertheless when I do make the journey it is imperative that I fully immerse myself in “city living” and take full advantage of the surroundings, the diversity and the freedom the place gives me. I also need to spend as much time with those friends I’ve made in London over the years. I feel fuelled when in their presence, taking positive memories home with me and taking the encouragement that I may just be worthy. I never feel as safe as when in Soho, an area that I utterly adore, and I still get excited when a visit here draws near. This may be due to the fact that I don’t live this life everyday, so on the occasions when I do get that opportunity I relish the chance to soak up the wonderful atmosphere and the vibrancy of the environment and learn from, and enjoy, the company of my LGBT peers.

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Crowds fill the streets of Soho. Old Compton Street.

Now, obviously during Pride, everything is heightened, the scenes over this particular Summer weekend do not represent the true norm – the crowds are larger, the music is louder and everything seems that bit more intensified; it is somewhat of a one-off. Yesterday proved to me that despite the overwhelming positives, such a boost in the physical viewpoint can have a negative effect on my frame of mind. Pride is about people: people coming together, people celebrating with friends, people supporting each other and sharing an experience. It can be incredibly upsetting, therefore, if you find yourself without people with which to share such an experience. During an interview on depression with American singer/songwriter Judy Collins, Bill Moyers from PBS refers to “the boy starving at the feast.” This quote has stuck with me ever since I watched this interview many years ago, and perfectly encapsulates an unfortunate sentiment I brought home with me when travelling home late last night and one that I cannot shake.

I have been privileged to have met some truly exceptional people in recent years – people who I feel safe with, who I laugh with and who I am always very keen to see more of – and, yes, people who I am letting myself call “friends.” I’m concerned though. Sometimes I wonder if I’m just rather pathetically clinging on to their coattails by my fingernails frantically hoping to be dragged along and included and live a life which I crave, even for just a little bit. Never having been in a relationship only exacerbates that feeling I have of never being someone’s priority. More and more I have in the back of my mind that thought that people wished my seat were filled by someone else. 

I first wrote the above last year when writing a piece about the profound loneliness I often feel. Over the past twelve months such feelings have become less intense, but on the occasions when they re-emerge they can still be so exceptionally debilitating. I’d been looking forward to attending Pride for months, and as the day drew closer, I was keen to make arrangements to ensure I could meet up with four or five key people who, even if the feeling isn’t reciprocated, mean a great deal to me and who I greatly miss. I earlier hinted that the beautiful nature of any Pride event, and the fun resulting therefrom, is best, and therefore fully, experienced when it is shared with loved ones. Until late afternoon I was lucky enough to be accompanied by a dear friend, who lives in the city, and the event couldn’t have been any more enjoyable. We managed to get a good view of a good portion of the Parade as it travelled along Regent Street.

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Crowds gathering to watch the 2017 London Pride Parade as it passes along Regent Street.

When we were later separated and once I was ultimately destined to spend the entire evening alone, longstanding feelings of isolation revealed themselves; my confidence was all-but-eradicated. I stayed in the city until my last train home departed shortly before midnight, spending the preceding six-and-a-half hours largely alone, with an occasional brief chat with a stranger, clinging onto any slither of hope that I might see someone I knew – I didn’t, or that someone would make contact with me and invite me to join – no one did. In each bar I went into I ordered two drinks in a vain attempt to convince the bar staff I had company. I’m sure they didn’t actually even care! In each bar I entered, I was the prime target to be pushed out of the queue, an easy entity to remove if the small area in which I’d found to stand was desired by a group; it’s easier to pick off one lone person than a group. I felt physically safe, yet emotionally very vulnerable. I was an intruder, someone once again “pathetically clinging on.” Confidence sapped, I felt unable to dance, to sing, to celebrate. At home I am not “out” to my mum (I had to hide my London Pride T-shirt and any traces of glitter!) and my dad won’t even discuss the fact I’m gay – I overheard him drunkenly telling a friend mine, “Nathan says he’s gay, but he can’t be. And if he is, he’s not fully gay.” So, the chance to be as “loud and proud” as I’d like was so exciting – to fully live that life for just one day. It saddens me that I couldn’t even do that.  The stark contrast between groups of friends, and the big group photos that were beginning to appear on social media (some from those known to me) and me, stood awkwardly alone looking on was so very painful. All I wanted was that group photo, that sense of togetherness, that sense of truly belonging. I’m not ashamed to say that I sobbed throughout the journey home. Everyone had their own plans, their own groups of friends to celebrate with. I was no one’s priority and what right do I have to intrude? The answer. Evidently none at all.

Do I regret attending London Pride this year? Not at all.

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Pride events are not just about the outlandish costumes, the glitter, the rainbows…the partying. It’s about the LGBT community being visible. Historically marginalised, criminalised and killed because of our sexuality, it is incredibly empowering and a privilege to be able to join together at an event which celebrates, embraces and positively presents the LGBT society, a society of which I am so proud to be a member. Let’s not forget that it was only fifty years ago – that’s in my parents’ lifetimes some of my friends’ lifetimes – that homosexuality was decriminalised in England and Wales. Being gay was still illegal in Scotland until 1980 and in Northern Ireland in 1982. In 2016 the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) published research showing that homosexuality is still illegal in seventy-four countries. Shockingly, in thirteen of these, being gay is punishable by death (Sudan, Pakistan and Mauritania for example). LGBT people are more likely to suffer from mental health problems – I’ve written previously on the link between homosexuality and mental illness link between homosexuality and mental illness –  and, the most recent study on such matters (Cambridge University’s The School Report, 2017), found that 45% of lesbian, gay, bi and trans young people are regularly bullied at school solely because of their sexuality. There’s no doubt that momentous steps have been made, but we’ve still got a long way to go.

London did itself so beautifully proud yesterday. Its residents, visitors, the countless heroic, inspiring LGBT charities and allied organisations were the perfect ambassadors of the capital and the country. The city truly was at its best. I’m both fortunate, and honoured, to call a country doing so much for the LGBT community home. The countdown to London Pride 2018 begins now! We attend to stand as one.

#LoveHappensHere

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Rainbow balloon arch welcoming people into Soho, Wardour Street. 
My London Pride 2017

Managing your social media and being aware of its effects on your mental health.

23rd June 2017.

No one can deny that social media is a prevalent, omnipresent and, indeed, intrinsic aspect of modern life. The world is so much smaller than it once was, so much more accessible. I recently wrote about the dangers of having such heightened access to information about tragic events that occur across the globe and how a constant, almost inescapable, stream of distressing details emerging in real-time can have detrimental impact on emotional wellbeing. Enhanced accessibility to resources, people and information does, of course, have many advantages. Communication is quicker – the physical distance between individuals no longer necessarily dictates the relationship; I can send an email to someone on the other side of the world and get a response within seconds for instance. For the purposes of this piece, however, I want to focus on that term that I mentioned in the opening sentence – “social media.”  What precisely does it mean? We can all give examples of social media platforms (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram – the list is ever-growing). In the simplest form, social media encapsulates all forms of electronic communication – the sharing of information online. I wish to expand a little and focus on the fundamental characteristic that it is dependent on user-generated content. This may seem obvious, but having focus on the “user” as an individual, crucially as an identity, invites noteworthy comment.

Drawing from my personal experiences of, and relationship with, social media it is evident that learning how to navigate the various platforms available is both crucial and something may not come easy for some people. Before you, as the user, produces and publishes (generates) subject matter (content) you need to consider who may see it, who has easy access to it, why you are posting it and, crucially for me, what response do you want to receive. Now, clearly, the fact that there is such a range of social media platforms available demonstrates that each have a slightly different purpose – I wouldn’t, for example, publish a blog on Snapchat! They all, however, are rooted in communication, relationship and receiving a form of response or feedback. In recent weeks I have become increasingly aware that I have fallen into the trap of almost exploiting social media in order to get affirmation, attention – some form of acknowledgement. The reasons for this are numerous; I’ve written previously about the desperate consequences of loneliness, for instance. Being part (or thinking that you are a part) of an online community can be very reassuring if you feel isolated from peers, or don’t feel able to communicate verbally, face-to-face. This poses a great risk. I wish to emphasise that I maintain that social media is an extremely effective tool, but it has to be used correctly; the consequences of generating your own (and indeed viewing others’) material need to be realised. What exactly do I mean by this? Well, it is perhaps best illustrated by some examples from my personal experience.

facebook likedThe extent to which you desire your audience to engage with your content (selfie, blog post, comment) is determined by how much importance you level on the platform you use and how much value the extent of engagement from others has. Put bluntly, does it matter if your filtered selfie on Facebook only gets ten “likes” and your friend’s have thirty? The answer will be different depending on to whom you talk, but I imagine for the vast majority of people they do secretly, or overtly, have concern over the popularity of their posts. We shouldn’t, but human nature dictates that we (to varying degrees) do have the tendency to compare our acceptance by others and draw conclusions therefrom. It is important to keep perspective of these conclusions. People (some friends, some strangers) not affirmatively acknowledging your content does not translate into them not liking you, as a person, in real life. This is something that I need to keep reminding myself. Does my best friend not “liking” my latest string of photos mean that our friendship is over? No. The very fact that I’m having to make this point perhaps demonstrates that our investment in social media, our prolific use thereof, and, sometimes, our dependence on it, can supersede interactions in real-life. I myself have no embarrassment in admitting that my confidence takes a knock when something I post online goes almost unnoticed. After all, surely we broadcast to entertain or inform our audience, don’t we? If there’s no obvious audience there, no one listening and no one seemingly interested, then have we wasted our time? Again, no. That being said, one thing that I do still struggle with is realising that my heartfelt, honest accounts of suffering with depression, or learning to cope with anxiety (written primarily to break down the stigma of the illness and to help others) gets considerably fewer comments, shares or affirmative interaction than someone who posts a funny gif, or a photo of them topless in the gym mirror. This, however, transfers into real-life. It upsets me that some close friends don’t read my posts, don’t support the “cause” by advertising the link to other friends, so I probably can’t “blame” social media alone for this (and I don’t). The way in which I suppose I will handle this is to focus more on why I am writing these pieces and for whom. If someone who needs help and is actively searching online for personal accounts of mental illness, then the chances are my blog may appear – the message will get through to the right people if I persevere. It is upsetting, however, that from my standpoint (and I am aware that this is tainted by underlying issues with self-esteem) the way to gain popularity, and to be noticed, on Twitter and Instagram is to be funny, attractive or use the latest popular words and phrases. It’s a constant battle to not cave in and “tow the line” in order to get noticed. I have to believe that my content does have worth and will be appreciated on its own merits.

Once you realise that the continued success of social media is based on, and rooted facebook photo guidein, the users thereof and the material they (we!) produce it is acknowledged that we hold the power – we determine our online persona. This has two broad consequences. Firstly, that we are able to play a role online, we can be a totally different person with a different identity than in real-life. There is a sense of anonymity where the “online you” doesn’t have to be “the real you.” People can choose to totally reinvent themselves, be an exaggerated version of who they really are, or conversely actually be themselves! This can be incredibly liberating – I’m thinking of people who, for varying reasons, aren’t able to come out as homosexual to their family, colleagues, classmates for instance. Having an online community where no one really knows who you are enables you to talk with people with the same interests, the same issues, the same sexuality. Secondly, we have the power to choose precisely what we do and don’t publish online. We can tailor our appearance (filtering a selfie, only posting “perfect” photos), we can cherry-pick the news about ourselves we share (racing to tell followers we’ve got a new job, but neglecting to mention we were fired from the last one) and we can choose to let people just what we’re up to (someone uploading countless photos of them quaffing champagne against a backdrop of a crystal clear sky and golden beach doesn’t mean that’s their norm). For the audience that can be extremely disconcerting. I constantly compare my life, job, activities, happiness levels to friends online. The rational Nathan is fully aware that false idylls are rife on social media – that many are only promoting a “perfect” lifestyle, but I do find myself comparing how dull and mundane my life is compared to those I follow online. Remembering that the user dictates what the audience sees is key. If social media usage plays a substantial role in your daily life, it is vital, for your emotional wellbeing, that you can make the distinction between the virtual (the online) and real-life. Don’t get tricked into a state of mind where online gratification replaces a hug from a friend, some verbal kind words or physical social interaction; don’t blur the line.  

Listen to Me Sign Person Tries to Get Attention in CrowdFinally, the aspect of social media specifically from the user’s point of view, and something that sadly has come to define my own online persona is the fact that I prolifically used (and the past tense usage there is very much deliberate) Twitter as a platform to cry out for attention when I was going through period of poor mental health. You can read about the background to my mental illness so I shan’t regurgitate that here, but a longstanding feeling or worthless (which, yes, does still exist to varying degrees) and an overwhelming sense of loneliness and isolation has resulted in me needing, far more regularly than normal, to be told that I’m okay – that I’m more than okay, that I’m important in someone’s life, loved, not always second best or the last resort. I suffer from Athazagoraphobia – a debilitating fear of being forgotten, ignored or replaced. I only actually realised a few weeks ago that growing up I only received a loving response, or affection, skin-on-skin contact, when I was injured. I often found myself sitting alone during my school years and would only be noticed (heard) when in tears – I never gained emotionally or socially on my own merits – I always excelled in education, but even when seventeen years of schooling culminated in getting a First Class degree at university, I still didn’t feel valued or worthy of respect. Desperately Tweeting statements like “I am nothing,” or “Why do I always end up alone?” only makes (and has made) people turn away. Desperation is a very unattractive trait and one that absolutely does not result in what I wanted – to be told that I matter. With all of us now having an audience, small or large, to broadcast ourselves to, it’s all-too-easy to throw out a cry for help, to grasp any slither of affirmation that may come from someone behind a computer screen. We need to be mindful of the value, and significance, of such. I have made some truly wonderful friends through social media and I need to believe that this has happened not due to them pitying me, or having to be nice to me in case I get upset, but because I play a positive role in their lives. 

How we portray ourselves online and the degree to which we immerse ourselves in social media has varying consequences, both for us as users and our audience. How we form relationships is evolving, how we interact with the wider world is shifting. As technology continues to develop and the role social media plays in society grows ever-larger, we need to remember this now more than ever and take precautions to enable us to use it wisely and prudently. 

Managing your social media and being aware of its effects on your mental health.