The View From London
After Illness, Embracing Life- by Emma Woolf
Nothing like a bit of glamour to brighten up a chilly November evening.
I’m at the Mind Media Awards on London’s South Bank and the place is heaving with celebrities. Mind is the UK’s leading mental health charity, and this year marks the 20th anniversary of their awards. There is a genuine red carpet, on which caper stars like Frank Bruno, former world heavyweight boxing champion, and Ruby Wax, American comedian and mental health campaigner. I arrive with my boyfriend, best friend, and my parents, and we’re too busy star-spotting to mind that the paparazzi aren’t remotely interested in us as we stroll up the red carpet. "Don’t they know who we are?" my best friend mutters, as not a single flashbulb goes off…
I’m nominated in the ‘Journalist of the Year’ category (for the second year running) but it’s my mother who should really win a prize. I remember her costume last year—a full-length cape of forest green, a dramatic peacock silk dress, topped off with an extraordinary hat, trailing green feathers. This year she’s a symphony in scarlet, with a long velvet red dress, magenta cloak, and a red feather boa. While we’re sipping glasses of bubbly she receives countless complimentsfrom those around us. I’m so used to having a mother who wears theatrical hats, gloves and cloaks that I forget how striking she looks in the outside world.
Last year’s awards ceremony was compered by the President of Mind, Stephen Fry. I’d never been a Stephen Fry devotee (unlike his 6.5 million Twitter followers) but in fact he was fantastic. Suave and entertaining,and above all, honest about his ongoing battle with bipolar disorder. He spoke about the stigma which still exists around mental illness, and the difficulty of getting proper diagnosis and treatment. He reminded the audience that mental ill-health can beas devastating as physical ill-health. And being rich or successful doesn’t shield you from psychological illness, just as it doesn’t shield you from cancer or asthma.
This year Stephen Fry is across the pond,making his Broadway debut in a production of Twelfth Night (appearing as Malvolio at the Belasco Theatre, to excellent reviews) so the ceremony is hosted by the Radio 1 DJ Scott Mills. He talks movingly about his own anxiety disorder, which he has learnt to control with a combination of therapy and medication. Like Fry, Mills has experienced the famous face syndrome, where it’s assumed that your public persona—extrovert, outgoing—precludes you from getting depressed.
Prizes are handed out, speeches are made and champagne flutes are topped up. Yet again, I don’t win the award, but it’s lovely to be nominated—and I’m perfecting my gracious runner-up smile. At the after-party we meet some inspiring people, from politicians and actors to magazine editors and athletes. They have all ‘come out’ about their experiences of mental illness, ranging from post-traumatic stress disorder and schizophrenia,to less well-known conditions such as pathological hoarding, and trichotillomania (where sufferers compulsively pull out their hair). It doesn’t feel like a gathering of the mentally unwell: everyone is sophisticated, smart and sociable. The more survivors I meet, the more I think it’s true, that depression is the curse of the strong.
The more survivors I meet, the more I think it's true, that depression is the curse of the strong.
It’s late by the time we leave. The rain has stopped, and we stroll along the South Bank looking for a taxi, the London Eye and the Houses of Parliament brilliantly lit up against the night sky. Back home, my boyfriend runs me a bubble bath and disappears to the kitchen. When I emerge, in bathrobe and make-up free, he’s prepared a midnight picnic. We devour scrambled eggs, tomato soup and toast—simple food, but every mouthful is delicious.
It’s at moments like this that it hits me, how fragile life is, and how precious. Several speakers at the ceremony had recently lost people close to them through severe mental illness. Eating disorders, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, even OCD, these conditions can and do kill. Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of all mental illnesses: 20 percent of sufferers will die, either from suicide or from physical complications.
This is why I believe that mental health matters: depression is not just ‘feeling down’ and anorexia is not just ‘a diet gone wrong’. Of course the media have an important role to play in the accurate reporting of mental health issues, and in sensitive portrayals in dramas and documentary. But equally significant is the responsibility we have to each other, to communicate honestly about how we’re feeling, and to support those who are struggling.
Even now that anorexia is behind me, I don’t take normality for granted. I hope I never will. Recovery was such a painful process that I feel protective of my new-found health. I’ll continue to talk about it and write about it—and to hell with those who call me a narcissist— because I know what it’s like to be trapped and terrified, dropping below 77 pounds, unable to eat, unable to save yourself, your mind falling apart. When you’re at rock-bottom, it helps to know that others have been there too.
This is why, for me, even soup and toast by candlelight is a celebration. When we’re packing the dishwasher and my boyfriend asks me: did I mind not winning the award this evening, I can only smile. Truthfully, I may not have got the gong, but being here now, stronger every day, is a gift.