Open Mic. opens a week today. I’m so excited to put it out into the world, to have people hear Lottie’s story, see her brought to life so beautifully by Charlotte Turner-McMullan. I am equally completely terrified.
It’s always scary to put something you’ve made out into the world. Making a piece of art is a bit like making a horcrux, you put it out into the world asking people to look at this little piece of your soul and hopefully like it. But this one feels different.
For Open Mic that feeling is intensified, because Lottie’s story is my story.
Talking about mental health – especially your own mental health – never stops feeling a bit uncomfortable. I’ve done it a lot through the process of making Open Mic, and little by little it has become easier to talk about in the rehearsal room. Does that make it easier to talk about in other rooms? Not really. But it has helped me to get in the habit of it, see the value in it – not just for me, for other people too.
Anxiety is a pain in my ass. It always has been. There are little things that are hard every single day. Like, getting out of the car. I have no idea why that’s hard, but it is. So I end up just sitting in there for ages, staring off into space, totally incapable of opening the door and stepping out, and I have no idea why. Just this sense of terror and the tightness in my chest that keeps me anchored to my seat. But as a general rule, on a day to day basis I’m pretty high functioning. You wouldn’t have a conversation with me and walk away thinking “she has mental health problems”. It’s hard to recognise, but that’s the point isn’t it? Mental illness is invisible.
No one can ever truly know what’s going on in someone else’s head. So, if we want to try and share those experiences we have to talk about it. I always assumed that the way I think, the insecurities I have, the obsessions, the nerves that make me throw up, the voices in my head telling me I’m selfish and awful and useless, the innate and all-consuming dislike of myself, was ok, because everyone thought like that, just other people were better at hiding it. That they were stronger than me – are stronger than me – because they could carry on through it.
It took long, hard conversations with friends, family, doctors, to realise just how low my self-esteem was in comparison to other people, to realise that some people don’t have to fake like themselves, to realise not everyone assumes they are about to get disowned when their parents ask them “are you free for a chat?” To realise that maybe my brain isn’t quite normal and to give that a name.
I worry that it means there are people in my life who don’t feel like they can talk to me about their mental health worries – or general life worries – because they think I’m not strong enough to handle it without having a breakdown of my own.
I worry that sharing the way I have struggled in the past so openly and publicly will accentuate that. And
I worry that people don’t feel like they can talk to me because they feel like it’s my “thing”. Like, Hattie’s the one in the group with anxiety so no one else can have anxiety because that would be stepping on her toes? Which would be stupid, and I’m sure isn’t true. At least I really hope it isn’t true. I hope I’m not so self-involved that I wouldn’t notice if someone else was struggling, or wouldn’t be able to focus on their shit without bringing my own into it. But I do worry about that. A lot.
I’m constantly torn between thinking I’m a freak who is crazy and no one will ever love because of the weird way my stupid brain works, and thinking that I’m an attention seeker who has nothing wrong with them and I’ve somehow managed to trick or manipulate all of these people into thinking I’m crazier than I actually am and really I’m just a phony, and I’m normal and just making too big a fuss and as soon as someone gets close enough they will see through me and work it out and so no one will ever love me. I do come back to the no one will ever love me quite a lot.
Somewhere in there I should have made the point that mental illness can happen to anyone, and it’s not necessarily about the things that have happened in your life and what you have or haven’t been through. You don’t have to have traumatic things in your past to be depressed or anxious or schizophrenic or have OCD. You probably do to have post-traumatic stress disorder, but so many millions of things can cause trauma that it doesn’t have to be what people might assume. I look back through my life at the things that have always been there – my obsessions, my reaction to stressful things, my reactions to not stressful things like birthday parties or answering the phone… – and I think I have a pretty solid case for the idea that I’ve always had a form of anxiety, that it was genetically determined. The chemicals in my brain do weird things that make me feel weird ways. Which means it could have happened to anyone, anywhere, and at any time. There’s a comfort in that in a strange way. It’s not something I have control over, so it’s not my fault. For the part of me that is still a sceptical scientists daughter and has a lifetime of cultural conditioning about mental illness not being “real” or “proper” to fight against there is a certain level of validity in the idea that it has a biological cause.
I don’t have the monopoly on mental health issues or on what anxiety looks and feels like of course.
Sometimes, when someone is open about it it can feel a bit like they do. When you’re sitting in an audience listening to someone standing up on stage talking about their mental health it can feel like they’re giving the definitive account of what it’s like to have anxiety, and if the way you feel or handle it doesn’t fit into that exactly – which more often than not it doesn’t, because of COURSE it doesn’t – then if can feel like you don’t actually have what you think you have, or you’re getting having anxiety wrong. Which is not true. I can’t express enough how not true it is. I would hate to think that someone sitting in the audience for Open Mic hears Lottie sharing her experiences of depression and anxiety and thinking that because theirs is different it isn’t as valid, or they’ll get told off for having it wrong, or that “your anxiety looks different to mine so that must mean you don’t have anxiety”. Which is bullshit. I spent so much time not talking about the way I felt because I thought I would just get told that there’s nothing wrong with me, or “that’s not what anxiety is”, or that I was just trying to use it as an excuse for my behaviour.
No one has said those things to me. (Ok full disclosure, that’s not actually true. Occasionally people say some of those things out of ignorance. Very occasionally people say all of them with full understanding. But for the one person who said it, there have been countless others who haven’t, who have been understanding and supportive and validated me.) No one will say those things to you. And if they do, just remember, it doesn’t make it true.
If you come and see Open Mic – and I really hope you do – you might find that Lottie’s story is a bit alien to you. You might think find it interesting, but not applicable to your own life. But you might recognise that you’ve felt something similar sometime. Or it might just help you to see that there are people who will sit and listen.
By Hattie Taylor, writer and director of Open Mic.
See Open Mic. at The Curfew Pub, Bath Thursday 16th – Saturday 19th August. Get tickets at www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/open-mic-tickets