Episode 29: Literal Bedlam made me see the light

In which our protagonist faces the past of mental health, and plots a better future

Last week, I leaned in hard (though maybe not in the way that Sheryl Sandberg intended). I thought, well, if I’m going to be in a permanent state of melancholy, I may as well take myself off to Bedlam. Yes, I said Bedlam, as in the Bethlem Hospital, as in the infamous lunatic asylum of yore. The place that’s synonymous with neglect and pain, gruesome “treatments” and general dumping of difficult family members (often wives). Naturally, I thought it seemed like a good place for me to spend a hot summer’s afternoon.

Dear reader, it was delightful. OK, so I didn’t get the horrors of the past that I would never admit I was actually looking for, and so it wasn’t in the same building as the famous version (it moved from grotty central London to a gorgeously leafy Beckenham campus in the early 20th century); however, instead of dark tourism I got a chance for gratitude, arguably a more long-lasting thrill. 

In wandering the exhibit, I became grateful that the modern age provides me with access to multiple options for both treatment and self-care. I was grateful that the sun was shining and I felt able to pick myself up off the couch and go out for a drive. I was grateful that art therapy meant I could view beautiful paintings by former patients and consider how I could channel my own needs into my own form of art. What started as a day meant for wallowing and research became a celebration of how far I’ve come and how lucky I am. 

From shunned to visible

Treatment of mental health might still have a long way to go - particularly in terms of access and waiting times - but we are living in a comparatively lucky age. Science has learned so much about how our brains work, and how neuroplasticity means we can continue to mould them and make them work better for us. Once upon a time, my chronic depression may have seen me dumped at the gates pictured below - these guys are known as Raving and Melancholy, and they used to sit atop the gates of Bedlam in the 17th century - but today, I can write this letter to you openly and authentically without fear. 

I’ve been both praised and chastised for how honest I am in this letter. I’ve been asked if I’m worried it will impact my ability to get work, if it will impact my reputation, how people see me. The truth is, I’ve always been honest about my mental health when asked. It’s not the first thing I’ll tell you when we meet (it’s not a badge of honour) and I don’t often volunteer information, but if I’m asked a direct question then I will answer as best I can. That approach has caused me issues, yes: it’s changed the way employers view me and my abilities, it’s made people treat me with kid gloves or avoid me or view me as weak or an invalid. 

That used to make me worse - it used to leave me ruminating and berating myself - but I’ve since come to recognise that’s their issue, not mine. I made a vow some time ago to live authentically, and that means being honest, warts and all. I come with chronic depression and anxiety, and that means sometimes I’ll be a hermit for weeks, and sometimes I’ll cancel plans at the last minute, and sometimes I’ll be snappy and grumpy for no apparent reason. Those that hang around, who can be around me at my worst as well as my best, are the ones that matter. And I’m grateful to have a few of those people sticking around.

Turning the lens of curiosity inwards

Because the other thing I’m coming to realise is I ain’t all bad. As I emerge from my burnout/breakdown stupor, I’m finding it easier to embrace my good points. I’ve even taken a few photos that don’t make me want to hide in shame. I’m learning the importance of self-compassion, and I’m learning that self-compassion is not an excuse for inaction.

That’s the next step for me: what Dr Kristin Neff calls “fierce self-compassion”. I’m immersing myself in her world at the moment - masterclass yesterday; mid-way through the new book - and I’ll report back in due course. Suffice to say, the godmother of self-compassion believes there are two sides: the tender self-compassion we need to give ourselves a break and embrace the right now, and the fierce self-compassion that leads to action and change.

So maybe I wouldn’t have been dumped at the gates of Bedlam. I am nothing if not a functioning melancholic, after all; I can mainly hide behind the mask and fake the smiles. My work is all happening underneath, in private, away from prying eyes and poking minds (not quite the contradiction to earlier statements as it may seem). Historically I’ve believed I can focus on everyone else and neglect my own needs. That stops here. If we are all truly connected, then I need to treat myself the way I treat others - to give myself the same sense of curiosity, kindness and support that I give to those around me.

Despite the somewhat ironic title given to this letter, I’m not talking about becoming self-involved or self-absorbed; there is a balance to be struck. Writes Neff:

“When we include ourselves in the circle of compassion, our priorities start to change. We don’t put our own needs first or last, but instead take a balanced approach. We say yes to others when we have the energy, but we’re not afraid to say no. We judge our own needs to have equal weight in decisions about how to spend our time, money and focus, giving ourselves full permission to care for ourselves. We decide what we value in life, then align our activities with these priorities. When our goal is to alleviate suffering by meeting our own needs, the three elements of self-compassion - self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness - manifest as fulfilling, balanced authenticity.”

It’s not blind self-esteem or self-confidence that’s needed; it’s grateful self-compassion and self-kindness. And right now, what I need is more of its fierce side, the energetic movement that drives change. I need to stop floating around in a stupor, making excuses, and start taking action.

Learn from the stories that surround you

I hate to be a cliche, to get all woo-woo and such, but it’s true that “thoughts become things”. I can sit here every Monday and tell you how shit life is, or I can lean into the kindness, the gratitude, the possibilities. I’m really going to try to do more of the latter in future. 

At the Bethlem Museum of the Mind (to give “Bedlam” its actual title), a 1998 quote from the psychiatrists Paul McHugh and Phillip Slavney is painted on the wall. It reads:

“Every person is a story, and every story has the capacity to teach something about every one of us. There are as many stories as there are lives, and there are many stories within each life.”

I’m learning so much from the stories around me, and I hope to never stop learning. I hope to never stop learning what my own story is and where the next chapter will take me. Without learning, there is no growth. Without growth, there is only darkness. Melancholy and raving mania. And that is not a place I want to go back to, ever.

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The week ahead 🗓

I’ve been feeling rather overwhelmed and out of control again, so I opened up my daily planner this morning and realised I hadn’t used it since 31 May. Whoops. Back to the routine then…

  • Writing: I’m doing some town planning this week! No, seriously. I’m fleshing out the setting of my folk horror.

  • Work: Taxes and such just got paid and it’s now clear I need to start planning my return to work - eek!

  • Health: Daily walk. Daily walk. I can do this. Just a little walk. Just around the block.

  • Routine: Self-care in the morning; work and study in the afternoon. Plus, join me and hundreds of others at the LWS Writers’ Hour every weekday: 8am London, New York, California and NZ.


On the stereo 🎧

My lovely drive in the sun last week was soundtracked by 6Music, and they just kept on introducing me to new (to me) amazing things. Here are three that I’ve since been playing on repeat.

Chaise Lounge, by Wet Leg

Mr Lauren said he’s heard this called the track of the summer, and I can see why. Reminds me of the synth revival of the mid-noughties and the likes of Ladytron and CSS.

Jackie, by Yves Tumor

How to describe this incredible artist? They are part shoegaze, part early Cure, part anything goes. I’ve been binging on their back catalogue since I first heard this track.

To Have You, by For Those I Love

An Irish Mike Skinner backed by a lush experimental orchestra? Sure, sign me up.

Off the shelf 📚

Fierce Self-Compassion, by Dr Kristin Neff

Guilty secret time: I’ve never read any of Dr Kristin Neff’s work. I know of her work, of course - this is the woman who founded the modern self-compassion movement and has dedicated her academic life to researching the impact of self-compassion on humans of all shapes and sizes. But the opportunity arose to attend a masterclass taught by Dr Neff based on her new book, and I jumped at it. 

The new book is written for women in the wake of the various social movements that have emerged in recent years. It’s her way of showing women that “self-compassion” does not mean accepting the status quo, that it can actually be channeled into affecting real, meaningful and lasting change once we recognise the interconnectedness of humanity. Unfortunately for this reader, she leans heavily into maternal instincts and “momma bear” attitudes that don’t resonate with me, but the overall message is still useful. 

“The goals of self-esteem and self-compassion are polar opposites. One is about getting it right, the other is about opening our hearts. The second option allows us to be fully human. We give up trying to be perfect or lead an ideal life, and instead focus on caring for ourselves in every situation. I may have just missed my deadline or said something foolish or made a poor decision, and my self-esteem may have taken a big hit, but if I’m kind and understanding toward myself in those moments, I’ve succeeded. When we can accept ourselves as we are, giving ourselves support and live, then we’ve achieved our goal. It’s a box that can always be checked, no matter what.”

Visual confirmation 📷

This smirker got some new reading glasses. The plague has taken more of my eyesight than I’d care to admit, but at least I got something funky out of it.