It’s not Mental Health Awareness week. It’s just January 24th 2015. It’s Saturday. Today is not significant.
I’m on the tube and it’s not very crowded. I move towards the middle bank of seats. As I get on, I hear a high pitched noise being emitted from the bank of seats to my left. I sit down. As I do, a man moves from that side to the seats on my right.
I look to my left to see who made the noise. I can’t tell. It could have been any of the 5 people there I can see. I get out my book. I hear the noise again.
I look. I can’t tell who it is.
We get to the next stop. Someone sits down near whoever is making the occasional strange noise.
Another person moves away from those seats.
Finally I see the guy making the noises. They vary from groaning and a sort of heaving sound to woops and shrieks. He’s youngish I think, curly brown hair, pale skin, kind of a big mouth, open face.
I get panic attacks on the tube. Almost every panic attack I’ve ever had has been on the underground. They feel completely random. Maybe they’re linked to stress levels but I can’t consciously tell. It’s horrific when it happens. I get sweaty and hot and I feel like I’m going to pass out or maybe die. My heart pumps faster, I shake, I can’t breathe. It’s like my whole body descends into mayhem for literally no discernible reason. And the fact that there’s no reason doesn’t make it better. It makes it worse. Because I want to rationalise it but I can’t. I can’t explain it to myself or anyone else.
And when I’ve had panic attacks, when I’m shaking and sweating and pale and clearly not ok, mostly no one says a word to me. Twice people have offered help. But one time I’d already fainted so I’m not sure it counts. And I’ve had significantly more than 2 panic attacks on the underground. But I’m not having one today.
So it’s Saturday and I’m on the tube and a third person has moved away from this guy and all I can think is that for every person who moves away from him, I want to move closer. I don’t know his mental state. I don’t know how much he comprehends of the people moving. Does he know they’re moving away from him? He might have Tourette’s and have perfect comprehension of what’s going on around him but find himself unbearably trapped behind tics and noises and overwhelming compulsions. Or he might have something much more serious than that and not have any idea that the people on the train are made so uncomfortable by his presence.
Why is it so uncomfortable? Why have we cultivated this culture where we run away from someone who is different, feeling tense and scared until we walk away to sit two blocks of seats down the carriage where we can breathe a sigh of relief?
I think about it and I wonder if I feel uncomfortable. I don’t think I do.
I think about the people I know who struggle with depression, anxiety, addiction, mania, anorexia, low self esteem…I think about what they look like when you can see those things manifesting themselves and I think about when you can’t. Arguably, that’s more sinister. Because you never really know if someone is OK or not. We have no idea what’s going on behind the faces of all those people we see every day. The ones we talk to and the ones we don’t. But mental illnesses and struggles are not contagious. Why are we so scared when we see them? What instinct is it that tells us to be afraid?
I wonder if it’s because they’re too different to how people see themselves. We are, as a species, notoriously afraid of things that are “other”. Or maybe it’s the opposite – maybe they’re too close and people are afraid that if they look they’ll recognise all too clearly what they see. Perhaps it’s too painful to admit that the guy we call crazy is only one bad day, one life step, one change away from where we are.
There are things that I really don’t like. I don’t like sick, for example. If you’re puking, I’m not going to hold your hair. A 3 year old kid I was looking after had his first ever puking experience from a stomach bug, and when I told my sister about it I said “I was really good and only leapt away from him twice.” She said she was proud, but only after she’d laughed at me. I know why I don’t like sick. It smells bad and it comes from inside you and I have a visceral reaction to it that makes me feel like I’m going to be sick too. Maybe fear of mental illness is the same as that? I don’t know.
It’s a bit more crowded now. I move a few seats closer. Just in case. But by the time I’ve moved through the people and sat down again I realise he’s gone.
I wish I’d had the conviction to move closer more quickly. I wish that I moved when the first person did, not after the third. I wish for him not to have anything too serious, but I also wish that he doesn’t know that he’s the reason people moved on the train.
I’m not afraid of other people’s problems when I’m OK. I’m afraid that there’ll be no one to help me when I’m struggling. I’m afraid of people turning away because I’m sad and can’t make myself be happy and they don’t want to see me when I’m feeling like that. I’m afraid of becoming disconnected from everyone because they’re scared of me. I’m scared of being the person people move away from and I’m terrified of not understanding why I’ve been left alone.
I hope that if I’m in a situation like this again that I can act with kindness, that I can look at the person, whatever his or her struggle, without staring but without seeing through them, like I’d look at any stranger. I hope that I can smile at them without it being forced or patronising. Like I’d smile at any stranger. I hope that I can manage not to define people by the struggles they face, internal or external. I wish, perhaps naïvely, for a society in which, when we see people struggling we move closer to them to help, motivated by compassion, not closing our eyes or running further away because we’re inexplicably afraid.
” *gasp* What’s wrong with your face?”
“Did you just go for a run? Your face is really red.”
“What’s that on your face?”
“What happened!? Your face…it’s so red!”
I have a mark on my face. It’s red and kind of blotchy and it’s been there for as long as I can remember. It might be a birth mark. It might not. I don’t know. I haven’t studied pictures of me as a baby that carefully. But I know it’s there. And that’s partly because when I don’t wear makeup to cover it, people don’t let me forget it.
It’s not the biggest deal in the world. It’s certainly not a disfigurement, à la that character from Mike Leigh’s film Secrets and Lies. But it is something that really affects me and that, for some reason unknown to me, elicits repeated comments from a wide variety of people. I don’t think it’s that weird – it looks sort of like the x you see in maths – the one that’s curved. You know, the one you always need to find. Handy hint: it’s on my face.
One kind soul (who had just uttered the words “what’s that on your face?” and was desperately trying to back-pedal) told me it’s like the Chanel symbol (pictured above). Well if I’m going to be branded, at least it’s by an iconic power house female of fashion, right? If you’re going to do it, do it in style.
Coco and her style aside, I would say one in every three times I don’t wear makeup someone comments negatively on my face.
For the record, this is my makeup-free face, at the end of today, June 12th 2014:
The first two were about 5 minutes after the girl at the checkout decided it was her place to comment on the face of a complete stranger.
In that last one where I appear to be holding myself for moral support (and to stop the camera wiggling) I’ve done a fade filter thing for emphasis. I actually don’t think it made any difference to the red, it just made the rest of my face paler.
I regularly and totally unthinkingly don’t wear makeup and I don’t think it’s a big deal. I have good skin and only ever feel the need to cover it because of the way people thoughtlessly react to the mark on my face. A couple of close friends have suggested it is the wearing of makeup that makes the mark more noticeable when I am face-paint-free. But given that on 1/3 of the days I choose not to cover the mark, people from my grandma, to friends, to the girls at the checkouts in any number of shops or tills at cafés (so, total strangers) apparently think it’s ok to stare at and question my visage, I think it doesn’t make that much difference either way. All I know is that when I wear makeup, no one says anything about my face. It has also been suggested that I look into laser treatments if it bothers me that much (I’ve tried all the moisturisers under the sun and they make precisely zero difference) but that’s pretty expensive and I don’t think the NHS covers that sort of thing. It’s cosmetic and truth be told, I don’t really believe in it. To be honest, I’m kind of angry that I even wear makeup to cover it in the first place. I wish it didn’t upset me when people say things. I wish I had grown tougher and more immune to it. I wish I was braver and didn’t care as much. I wish I didn’t mind the questions. But I do mind, I do care and it hurts. It makes me smaller every time.
I don’t know when it became OK to say to someone “what happened to your face?” but I really do get it a lot.
Please stop it. Please think before you open your mouth. Because I don’t stare at you and ask about your big nose, or wonky teeth, or bad BO problems, or birth marks, or dandruff, or weird gait, or terrible fashion sense (that’s something you can help by the way, you should look into changing that. If I can manage Chanel embedded into my actual skin, you can do better than those horrendous trousers. Seriously.) I don’t pick on your big glaring insecurity and shine a spotlight onto it.
I shouldn’t have to tell you – stranger, friend, relative – that a comment about my face is extremely personal. I shouldn’t have to launch into a short and much-repeated lecture about how I could have been smacked really hard by someone abusive and, you don’t know, and it’s none of your business and wouldn’t you feel bad if that’s what I told you it was, and what would you do then? I shouldn’t be silently mortified by the 13 year old dickhead on the tube shouting about my red face or reduced to tears by the girl behind the counter because I was buying salad and she assumed I was sunburnt. I’m not sunburnt. Nothing has happened. I haven’t been hit. I haven’t been running, I’m not too cold or hot. It’s my face, as it has been for as long as I can remember and it’s the only one I have.
So please, just shut up and leave it alone.
“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place” – George Bernard Shaw
“Electric communication will never be a substitute for the face of someone who with their soul encourages another person to be brave and true.” – Charles Dickens
I’m on my phone a lot. I’m on my computer a lot. I’m a writer – I use a lot of screens. I would say I’m fairly close to being a master of electronically communicated comedy. I’ve got the text shouting thing down pat. A well placed capitalised sentence can induce “Actually laughing on my own, in public” from my recipient. Yeah that’s right. I’m good with the written word. And I can type super fast so I never miss a beat or a joke.
But what is this doing to us as human beings? Is it healthy?
Well, all the evidence would suggest no. It isn’t. I say “all the evidence”…I really mean “my reactions to things”.
If, as many people do, you have an iPhone, I know I can contact you in the following ways:
Face time – also FaceTime voice call
Skype instant message or call
Facebook – wall post, tagging in a status or private message
Twitter – public post and DM
Viber message or call (though I don’t have it so that one might be difficult. But in a pinch, I could download it, check to see if you have it and then if the other 9742 ways didn’t work I COULD GET HOLD OF YOU THIS WAY. At the very least I could invite you to use it. That’s what a sane and reasonable human would do, right?)
Off the top of my head I have just listed 16 different ways to contact you. SIXTEEN. WHY DO WE NEED TO BE CONTACTABLE IN SIXTEEN DIFFERENT WAYS?!
I cannot convey strongly enough how much this freaks me out. And how much of a contributing factor I believe this technology and communications phenomenon is to the ever increasingly psychotic behaviour of people in the Western world.
I am not a patient human being. I’m just not. I do try to be, but naturally I’m impatient with anything from replies to messages and emails to adults understanding basic concepts. I don’t do well with slow people. I operate at a high speed and I expect others to keep up. I suspect I have been made much worse by the high speed and higher speed and higher higher speed internet that makes everything so easily available.
Inevitably this brings me to online dating. We get to know people through screens, via websites and messaging services. We want them to text after a date, not call. It used to be that we waited for a phone call. Now we don’t talk, we text. That is a severe communication reduction. I was once in a relationship where we texted all the time but never really said anything. It’s so easy to do that. It’s not easy to phone someone and then not say anything without quickly realising that something is wrong. As a generation, we have become inept at making phone calls when we should. We have lost out on getting to know each other vocally when we aren’t face to face. Of course there are some people who have never been the type to talk on the phone, but more and more we don’t have conversation, we just chat.
It can be argued that people used to communicate through writing, so actually what we have is a throw-back situation to the days of writing letters. Here’s why that is not true – letters take time, thought and care. Occasionally we may choose to write an email over which we spend a lot of time, but I believe that is quite rare. When someone hand-writes a letter to me and I open it, that is all I see. That letter has been written without distraction. I know the letter has not been interspersed with Facebook and twitter and emails and other things. It has been crafted by hand for me to read. Similarly, I give it my full attention. When an email is written it is probably one of many tabs open. There are 9 million other things you can do on that computer screen. It’s not the same and does not elicit the same response as a letter.
Now let’s talk about mental health. There’s a lot of debate about if mental illness is on the rise, or if we’re just less taboo about it than in previous years, so we’re more aware of it. I think it’s perhaps a bit of both. I also think that part of the reason for the increase in young people suffering from depression, is that we don’t have time to process anything anymore. Living in the age of technology is overwhelming. We’re expected to act quickly on everything. Things have to be done immediately, if not sooner. The brain is wonderful – fast moving, adaptable, fascinating. But conversely, we need time to process information and news and ideas. We don’t have the ability to know things immediately. Ironically, we are given the most time to learn and understand new things as children, when our brains are actually at their speediest.
We are fairly immune to emails now. I have been given the advice to make a phone call when applying for a job so my emailed application doesn’t just fade into the blur of so many others. If you want something done by someone, you should call the person or go and see them – emails are much easier to ignore because we don’t see them as important. We are desensitised to them.
I still like to receive phone calls and talk to people. There are already people who are more comfortable with screens than humans, and seek refuge behind their computers. Our real life, person to person communication is suffering because of our dependency on technology. Look around you the next time you’re on a bus or tube or train. How many people are on phones or electronic devices? Are we even more uncomfortable with making eye contact with strangers than we used to be? Our basic receptors to people are not the same as they used to be.
There are positives of course – the wealth of information we can access, the widespread capability of the news and being able to skype or facetime with a relative or friend across the world. Like magic. Technology in itself is neither good nor bad – it is neutral, but we don’t only use it for good. We replace the validation and understanding we crave from the people closest to us with selfies, Facebook likes, retweets. We mistake these things for popularity. We mistake these things for people caring about us and we mistake the tiny gesture of a click for giving attention. We are simultaneously much more callous and more fragile now – we forget that behind each screen is an actual person just like us, and our relationships are suffering.
I do believe that our heavy reliance on technology and the fast pace at which we insist on moving is psychologically damaging. Nervous breakdowns, stress, depression and anxiety are all apparently far more common now than they were, say, fifty years ago. Although public perception and understanding of these conditions is part of it, there is no smoke without fire. The fire here, in my view, is technology. So goodbye conversation. It was nice knowing you.
NB – written June 2012, reposted September 2013 when blog relaunched.
I’ve noticed there is this feeling that fills my being whenever there’s any talk of jobs at the moment. It’s a mixture of frustration, dread, despair and fear. A heady combination! My understanding is this is how a lot of people feel right now. That actually isn’t comforting. “Don’t worry,” one person said earnestly. “Lots of people are unemployed for 6-8 months at a time.” Oh I’m sorry WAS THAT MEANT TO MAKE ME FEEL BETTER?! That is not reassuring. That fills me with panic. I’ve applied for more than 80 jobs in the last 3 weeks. I have heard back positively for interviews from 3. None of those have come into fruition. The nodding “mmm, yeah it is so hard at the moment” response from those slightly smug but sympathetic folk in jobs at the moment is also not helpful. Stop doing that. In fact, stop asking about it entirely. Thank you for your interest in my dire situation, but unless you’re going to GUARANTEE me a job, you don’t have any platitudes that will help me.
The majority of jobs in the creative world at the moment, however junior the position, seem to want three years’ experience. Three years. That is sometimes to earn a salary of £15 000 per annum for a London based job. Three years’ experience. To earn an unrealistic sum of money on which to survive in London. But how does one get the experience to warrant such a pathetic annual income? How do I make myself worthy of pittance? Oh yes. Unpaid internships.
A slave labour culture has been created in which it has become acceptable for people to work for nothing. I want to be able to work. I want to have a job. I want to get up in the morning with a purpose, go out to earn my living, even if my living is just the minimum wage. I am not above starting at the bottom of an industry and working my way up. But I want to know that I will be working my way up. I want to know that I will not have to start at the bottom four more times, spending a year or more working for nothing.
I have completed two unpaid internships. One gave me a month’s wonderful experience as a junior production assistant in a professional theatre. The second, with a film production company, taught me very little. They kept me dangling with false promises of work at the end of it until eventually I saw through their delaying tactics and left. They used me as a free secretary for five months, taking advantage of my trust and my desperation for work in a creative environment. I started a third unpaid internship, but left after day 2 because I was so miserable there I actually cried. I do not cry easily.
One job description for a fashion writer intern stated that applicants should have a “great fashion PR contacts book”. What intern has a great contacts book? Why would a person with a “great fashion PR contacts book” still be applying for a job as an intern? It is scandalous for a company to require that level of knowledge and networking experience from someone they’re not even willing to pay. How did we get to the point in the working world, where it is acceptable for employers to demand something for nothing? And often it’s not just something – they want a lot for nothing. Some companies cover your travel expenses. That’s meant to be seen as generous. Are you kidding me? Why should I spend my money to come and work for you for free? Travel expenses should be the minimum requirement!
Why has it become so acceptable for people to work without pay? Why is there no legislation protecting people like me from being forced to start their working lives effectively in slave labour? How has this become legitimate practice?
Maybe slave labour sounds dramatic and yes, I’ll admit it’s all taking place in very civilised conditions but actually that doesn’t change what it is – work without pay.
We have developed a selfish society in which it is every man or woman for themselves. Jobs are thin on the ground for “the lost generation” – my generation, whose education did not include a high level of technology but who seek jobs that nevertheless demand it. We have talents but they are wasting away in the face of corporate intransigence.
I am 25, I am a talented, capable writer. I have a variety of skills and I am a fast learner and a hard worker. I have two degrees – a 2:1 BA and a Masters – but in this job market I am worthless. There are thousands of other highly-educated but technologically under-qualified graduates exactly like me, who are desperate to earn even an embarrassingly small sum of money.
It is not the easier road to take this selfish attitude towards employment. Even if you do two unpaid internships, as I have, it is highly likely that afterwards you will continue scouring the internet only to end up right back where you started. Something has to change.
It is demoralising and humiliating for young people who could be tomorrow’s leaders to be treated in this degrading way. It is shameful that cynical employers exploit people like me. I ask for – no, I demand a change in the country’s attitude.
My peers should not take the selfish attitude: “I had to do it – so should he/she.” Think about this in the long term. What projected effect is this having on the economy? What is this teaching my generation about ethical employment? And what lessons will we pass on to those younger than us when we are in charge? We should be shouting: “Let’s stand together to make change happen.”
The following measures should be introduced as soon as possible:
These are reasonable expectations. Employment rights for interns continue to be a grey area because according to the government website (www.gov.uk/employment-rights-for-interns) “the term ‘intern’ has no legal status”. And that’s just the place to start – if the government gives us a legal status, it might force employers to stop patronising us and start treating us like human beings.