Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Coming out from the corner

This post is inspired by two things. The first is Deborah Orr’s article in the Guardian in April about what not to say when your friend is diagnosed with cancer. The second is the charity Time To Change’s recent survey into mental health clich├ęs (now closed). 

Having depression is no joke. There are many different types of depression, but each is no less serious to the person suffering with it – and those closest to them. And each is no less catastrophic and soul-sapping to the person suffering with it.

But it can be difficult for friends, colleagues, family to know the right thing to say. Hopefully, these people haven’t experienced depression themselves so they’re lucky not to have first hand experience of this living hell – the kind of hell that makes you spend hour after hour imagining the smallest possible hole in a corner of your house, and how you might crawl into it without anyone noticing and ever finding you again.

But by not having experienced it first hand, it’s hard for them to appreciate how unbearable depression is.  And I understand that. Many years ago, before I was diagnosed, a colleague was signed off for six months with stress. I laughed to another colleague, “Well, I’m stressed, too. Why can’t I be signed off work for six months? Brilliant!” He tried to explain that stress was an illness, but I didn’t get it. Looking back, I’m ashamed of myself for being so callous. That said, by having been that person, it gives me the perspective to recognise ignorance of mental health for what it often is: genuine ignorance. Blissful ignorance.

What follows is my top ten of ignorant things people have said to me in an effort to help. NB: these are all genuine things that have been said to me by well-meaning people during the heights of my depressive episodes.

1               “Just cheer up.”
2               “Snap out of it.”
3               “You’ve been signed off work indefinitely? Nice one!”
4               “You should rewrite your Will.”
5               “Think of Madeline McCann’s mother. Her situation is much worse than yours.”
6               “At least you’re not dead.”
7               “At least you’re not Kerry Katona.”
8               “There’s plenty of people worse off than you. You’ve got a family who love you, a job and a house. You’re so lucky.”
9               “When will you be better?”
10           “Oh, not again.”

Someone on Twitter told me that when they were signed off for a long period with mental illness, a colleague asked who their GP was because they wanted to be signed off, too. It’s this culture of misunderstanding mental health AND of thinking it’s a good skive that means a charity like Time To Change is needed more than ever.

Time To Change is England’s biggest ever attempt to challenge the stigma and discrimination that people with mental illness face. They are doing an incredible job, and I thank them for that. I’ve seen Time To Change on the internet, Facebook, Twitter, in libraries and on TV… it is everywhere and it needs to be everywhere, because people with mental illness are everywhere. Worse, the people they encounter are also everywhere, with ignorant comments and unhelpful suggestions, coupled with behind-your-back sniggers about ‘the mad woman over there, shh, she’s coming this way’.

If you know someone with depression and you’d like to help them, here is my list of suggestions:

1               Don’t be frightened of them. This person is your friend, not a monster!
2               If you don’t know what to say, or they don’t feel up to seeing you, send them a text or email asking them how they are, or telling them something daft you’ve just seen.
3               Talk to them in exactly the same way as you did before you knew they were ill, about exactly the same things – because they’re still exactly the same person.
4               But make allowances for the fact that they’re feeling fragile, and maybe going to a loud bar or a crowded place isn’t ideal right now.
5               If you’re coming round to visit, ask if you can bring anything. They might not feel up to going out, but they still need milk, biscuits etc.
6               Let them know that you’re always there if they want to talk, but don’t be pushy.
7               Try not to be judgemental, even unintentionally.
8               Even though it can be hard work spending time with someone with depression, try. It makes such a difference knowing people don’t hate you.
9               The little things count. When I was at my most unwell, my best friend, who lived in a different part of the country, would send me postcards with a silly in-joke that only we shared. These made such an enormous difference to me – they told me that my friend didn’t judge me, that she still wanted to be my friend even though I wasn’t well, and that she was thinking about me even when she didn’t need to be. They still mean a lot to me, and the person who sent them is the best friend I will ever have.
10           Most of all – ensure your friend knows you aren’t going to break their confidences by gossiping about them. When you achieve that, you’re really getting somewhere.

It takes courage to talk to someone about their mental illness, and to talk about your own mental illness. So cut yourself some slack… you don’t need to get it spot on first time. Just being there and being open to it is a huge step in the right direction. Good luck.

Friday, 25 May 2012

'Crunch' by Gary McNair

Concluding my Mayfest triptych is Gary McNair’s solo show, Crunch, at the Brewery Theatre, Southville.

Aping an American-style motivational lecture, Glaswegian Gary appears on stage in a sharp suit, with his hair slicked back, banknotes poking out of his pockets, and to the accompaniment of Bruce Springsteen-esque power rock – reminding me of David Brent’s attempt at motivational speaking in The Office. Gary spends the first few minutes silently making eye contact with every person in the audience, before saying he has a good feeling about us, that he believes that we’ve got it in us to be winners, and that we all look lovely today.

Gary is good at what he does. And what he does is beautifully mock the motivational speaker genre, while talking absolute sense about the unhealthy relationships humans have with money… harking right back to the age of bartering.

Throughout the evening, Gary introduces us to his five-step programme to revitalise our relationship with money, and to show us that we are worth far more than any amount of money. And he does this via some really engaging audience interactions. With one woman, he tries to barter for her cardigan. With another, he offers to donate to charity a £10 note if only she’ll shred one of her own £10 notes. And the centerpiece of his show is an auction, where he asks the audience to spend three minutes bidding on an unspecified amount of money in a sealed envelope… which ultimately proves his point that winning a sum of cash generates a huge rush. And also underscores our distasteful belief in money, and our greed for money.

Gary leaves us with a closing thought, which is that next time we’re thinking of frittering £10, £20 or more away on an impulse buy… why not stop and consider donating that money to charity instead, where it will never be frittered away.

Crunch is a really interesting idea for a show, and Gary is great at delivering it. He’s funny, he knows what he’s talking about it, he has great rapport with the audience, and he leaves his audience thinking more about his ideas. A job well done.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Legs 11

It’s been almost 24 hours since I watched Tom Marshman’s one-man show Legs 11 at Arnolfini, part of Mayfest 2012. And still I don’t know what the point of it was. I thought that if I left Legs 11 for a while, I might think more kindly about it. Or if I kept going over it, I might suddenly realise why it had been put on. But nope, I’ve got nothing.

Legs 11 is Tom’s performance piece about his relationship with his own legs. Having read the promotional material beforehand, I’d believed this to be a piece about a man who had undergone enormously invasive surgery to his legs, or who maybe suffered with a disability to his legs.

The blurb on the flyer says: “The personality of my legs is courageous. This is a classic story of triumph against adversity, and this story is yet to reach its happy ending.” Huh? What I learned about Tom’s legs in this very long hour was that they are about 40 years old, they’ve had varicose veins, and they didn’t win a tights competition marketed at women. So what?!

Legs 11 has no direction, no purpose and no narrative. It is simply a self-indulgent excuse for a man to claim funding (and funding he has, from the National Lottery through Arts Council England) in order to satisfy his ego and put on a show about himself, and which benefits nobody else. There are so many performers out there, talented ones with actual stories to tell, causes to highlight and messages to share, that it annoys the hell out of me to see self-indulgence like Legs 11 not only take up theatre space, but also receive valuable funding to do it.

I’ve seen one-man shows about the protagonists before. Ones where the characters really have triumphed against adversity, such as Mayday Mayday – when actor Tristan Sturrock created a genuinely moving and powerful piece about having to learn to walk again after breaking his neck; or Prima Doona – when comedian Doon MacKichan describes the break-up of her marriage and the subsequent awful discovery that her child has cancer. Both Tristan and Doon performed in a self-deprecating, humble and generous manner. Clearly one-man shows about a personal story don’t need to be self-serving and vapid. Nor do they need to scream “Look at me, everybody! No really, look at me! Me!” Sadly, Tom’s show does all of those things.

From the atmosphere in the (uncrowded) Arnolfini theatre, it seemed that most of my fellow audience members felt likewise.

* This article was amended on May 28

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Minsk 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker

Mayfest is upon us once again, Bristolians, so last night I hotfooted it over to the Tobacco Factory, where the Belarus Free Theatre are putting on Minsk 2011: A Reply To Kathy Acker.

The performance, directed by Vladimir Shcherban, runs until Saturday, May 26, and is presented in Russian with English subtitles. Think that’s intimidating? That’s the least of your worries...

"Right rib, left rib, sternum and the rest of the ribs. In 1996, at a ralley on Chernobyl Way, I was seized by riot policemen and brought to the KGB inner courtyard. I spent three hours being stretched wide open against the wall. 

"Scars adorn a man. Many girls find it sexy. In this regard, Minsk is a beautiful and very sexy city. Welcome to Minsk! The sexiest city in the world!"

Dzenis Tarasenka, member of Belarus Free Theatre

Strip clubs, underground raves and gay pride parades pulse beneath the surface of a city where sexuality is twisted by oppression. If scars are sexy, then Minsk must be the sexiest city in the world. Minsk 2011 is billed as a response to American artist Kathy Acker’s piece about sexuality in New York, NYC 1979. However, Minsk 2011 takes a more twisted slant on this, highlighting the brutal repression of personal and sexual expression in Belarus.

Performed by a nine-strong cast, Minsk 2011 is the angriest piece of theatre I’ve ever seen. Many of the cast have served time in prison, gone into hiding or been exiled… largely for nothing worse than attending a protest (Natalia Kaliada, Nicolai Khalezin, Svetlana Sugako, Yana Rusakevich), and many have lost their jobs or been heavily fined simply for being a part of the Belarus Free Theatre.

It is the knowledge that the stories are performed by people who have experienced the hell they describe that makes Minsk 2011 all the more chilling and compelling. Because while this is a blunt and aggressive performance, Minsk 2011 is also an important piece of political theatre, sharing the grim reality of life under Europe’s last dictatorship to the privileged UK. For many people, Minsk means nothing more than the remote-sounding city where Phoebe’s scientist boyfriend moves to in Friends.

The audience is confronted by aural aggravation (distorted feedback, human screaming, glass clanking, endless thumping)… and by uncomfortable visual spectacles (violence, degradation, a woman stripped naked and painted entirely in black ink before her shape is printed on paper). Perhaps the most heart-breaking scenes are the ones where the female cast members simulate lap dances for a male actor, under the desperate illusion that what they are doing is art and will fund their lives. Couple this with the story of a woman, inexperienced with men and consumed with self-hatred, who invites strange men into her home, where she strips and dance for them in the belief she will be respected. Together, they form the most soul-destroying images of women forced to sell their bodies in order to exist and feel like they are worth having faith in.

This belief becomes even sharper towards the end of the performance, when we hear that mayor Mikalai Ladutska decreed in February of this year that 42 sex workers who were serving time in Minsk prison be released during the harshest, coldest winter to clean the impacted snow from the streets. Ladutska joked that the sex workers were making the streets a nicer place for themselves to work on when they were released from prison.

While Minsk 2011 is a grim and often confrontational piece, it is also extremely well done: well performed, well devised, well directed and a piece of political theatre that is well worth seeing. Not least to broaden your own knowledge of what is going on in Belarus.

Please click here for more information. Minsk 2011 is also touring the UK, so even if you’re not in Bristol, please check to see if it is coming to your city.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Tom Mach, Angels at Sunset

The long-fought campaign for women’s suffrage was equally important on both sides of the Atlantic, and Tom Mach’s recent novel Angels At Sunset tackles the battle our American sisters won less than 100 years ago.

With a foreword by Coline Jenkins, a relative of the American suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Angels At Sunset is instantly steeped in authority, and is painstakingly well researched throughout.

The novel follows Jessica Radford, a former suffragist in her elder years who is reminiscing on her activist past while her stepdaughter writes her memoirs. But Angels At Sunset isn’t simply a suffragist’s memoir, it is also the mystery story of a man who is plotting to kill the ageing Jessica, and the two stories run parallel to one another.

Combining true life figures (Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Alice Paul et al) alongside fictional characters, Angels at Sunset really brings the US campaign to life and stresses the importance of voting… both in the 1910s and 1920s as well as now. And with the recent local elections in the UK having seen a turnout of less than a quarter, perhaps this is a message worth repeating to contemporary voters.

Angels At Sunset catalogues the humiliations and horrors that the suffragists endured in their determination to secure the vote for women for generations to come. But it wasn’t simply the right to vote that our American sisters fought for, they also campaigned for married women to be permitted to own property, sign contracts or keep custody of their children should they divorce their husbands.

Our heroine Jessica has fought against slavery as well as for suffrage, she has endured prison, fire and all number of tortures. And her story takes us across a range of time periods to incorporate a variety of essential historical events that shape our world to be the place it currently is. Although the dialogue is somewhat stilted at times, and the characters seem to share the same voice, Angels at Sunset is a gripping account of the suffrage campaign from the US perspective.

For more information about Angels at Sunset, please click here. The book is also available in print and as an e-book from Amazon.

Monday, 21 May 2012

The Woman in the Mirror

 It’s hardly a secret that we are a world obsessed with what we look like. And we’re confronted with a multi-media menagerie of images and platforms that want to make us even more concerned about our own bodily foibles – whether it’s our funny looking toes or our broken nose that never quite aligned itself.

Gossip magazines, women’s magazines, TV shows about looking ten years younger… film stars who we know are 70 but who look 30 (and weird) thanks to excessive surgery, and the publication of an endless amount of rubbish diet books… these are just a few of the things marketed to make us hate our bodies.

Dr Cynthia Bulik tackles the issues head on in her new book The Woman in The Mirror: How to Stop Confusing What You Look Like with Who You Are (Walker Books). Bulik is a professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University if North Carolina School of Medicine, and a director of the UNC Eating Disorders Programme, among her many other qualifications. And she has spent her career trying to help women who are struggling with their self-esteem, and helping them see that body confidence is not the same as self-confidence. In her new book, she transfers some of what she has learned onto the page, to help others.

The opening half of the book is particularly hard-hitting, as it takes each life stage of the average woman in detail (from being a baby, to starting school, getting married, having children, going to work, growing old etc) and really examines where opportunities exist for outside influences to creep in and distort our self-view, from a very early age. For instance, Bulik points out that even the words: “It’s a girl” (when said to a mother just moments after she has given birth) already instil in most mothers a subconscious ideal of what her new daughter will wear, how she will behave, and the kind of choices she will have as she grows up.

But if gender conditioning begins from the very first seconds of life, is there really anything we can do to change it? Well, Bulik thinks there is. The second half of Woman in the Mirror is dedicated to various CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) techniques that she has used with patients to help them reassess how they see themselves and those around them, and to build their confidence back to what it should be. The book includes case studies and exercises to help readers, and in many ways is a work book or self-help guide.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

The School of Life comes to Bristol

On Thursday evening, as part of the Bristol Festival of Ideas, four of the authors from the School of Life led an inspiring evening of leading thought at Bristol’s Arnolfini.

The School of Life is dedicated to exploring life’s big questions, and invites contemporary thinkers to help unravel ideas of work, sanity, money, change, technology and sex (among others) to try and make life just a bit more manageable to everyday folk. However, taking on board that the self-help genre is largely left wide open to ridicule, the School of Life takes the concept in a new direction.

Published by Macmillan, the six current School of Life titles hit shelves on May 10 (priced £7.99 each), and the series is edited by philosopher Alain de Botton. Four of the authors came to Arnolfini to speak about their individual subjects: psychotherapist Philippa Perry about sanity; writer Tom Chatfield about digital culture; Bristolian-born broadcaster John-Paul Flintoff about changing the world; and founding School of Life member Roman Krznaric about work.

Each had 30 minutes in which they led a slick presentation structured around five sharp concepts relevant to their topic. And this was a tidy operation. The School of Life has no place for mismatched Powerpoint slides, or untidy fonts… everything about the evening implied pride in their work, and confidence about what they were doing. Which is exactly what you’d want from the authors of a self-help series, but not always what you get with some other series.

It was impossible to leave the evening without taking away a few ideas for my own self-improvement, or making my own life that bit easier. For instance, I shall try to follow Tom Chatfield’s suggestion of turning my iPhone to flight mode for an hour a day, to facilitate a productive, interruption-free hour where my mind can actually concentrate on just one thing. And at least once a week I shall try to follow Philippa Perry’s suggestion of doing a thought audit meditation – this is also described in the ‘exercises’ section of her book if you’re interested in finding out more.

In short, this was a really positive and inspiring evening that definitely turns the self-help genre on its head and shows this isn’t necessarily a market aimed at so-say sad singletons, but at absolutely anyone who finds modern life a bit too much sometimes. Which is surely everyone?!