Monday was Spring Bank Holiday here in the UK. Dressing for a day at the coast, I picked through my collection of mental health t-shirts. Andy “Electroboy” Behrman’s KEEP TALKING ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH tee. Gabe Howard’s iconic :): shirt. One each from Bipolar UK, NAMI, No Stigmas, Stigma Fighters. I chose the Bipolar UK one, zipped up my Time to Change hoodie, and headed out.
Sitting on the train gazing out of the window I suddenly felt deflated. Adrift. A fraud. What was I doing, really? Making a difference? Countering stigma? For a moment I was back thirty-five years or so at a CND rally in Hyde Park in London, taking in the sunshine and the music, eyeing up the women in their rainbow coloured tops and faded blue jeans, affronted by the guy on stage declaring loudly to the crowd “Wearing badges is not enough!” Funny the things that stick with you. I could almost hear him adding “—or bleedin’ t-shirts.”
I’m not completely clueless about mental illness and stigma. I’m primary caregiver and life-line to my best friend Fran, despite us living opposite sides of the Atlantic. Fran lives with bipolar disorder, chronic fatigue syndrome, and fibromyalgia. I know what our relationship means to her. For five years I’ve been her constant companion as she’s ridden the tides of mania, depression, suicidal thinking, debilitating fatigue, and pain. I’ve seen what it costs her to navigate the stigma and ignorance of a society which places highest regard on those who are able-bodied and—especially—able-minded. She’s told me many times she’s only alive today because of me being here. I take that at face value. It is a deeply humbling realisation.
But on the wider stage, what do I have to contribute? Diagnosis-free, with no direct experience of mental illness, trauma, or stigma to share, I stand on the other side of the well/ill divide. It has never been an issue for me and Fran, but for some I am “not mental enough” to help or understand. I get it. I’d probably feel the same way. What do I know, really?
Well or ill, it’s easy to feel frustrated and overwhelmed. Fran has posted daily on social media throughout May for mental health month, and I’ve been with her day after day as she’s handled the fallout. The ones who, well-meaning or otherwise, have failed to get what she—and many others—have dared to share. Stigma comes in many guises. The people on my social media feed today who found it amusing to share jokes about waking up in a psychiatric ward. The sickening trolling and abuse friends of ours have faced on their blogs and social media posts. Not that I always get it right myself, of course. The discord I’ve encountered recently with friends, when discussion has faltered and connections have stretched to breaking point. I find myself doubting my ability to write, to find anything significant or “edgy” enough to write about. My work seems pale compared to that of others I know and admire, Fran included.
Still on my train to the coast, I checked my e-mail and found a message that had come in overnight. It was from Dani at Wearable Therapy, confirming my guest spot on their blog and saying how much she looked forward to my contribution. That might have demoralised me further, but for some reason her words lifted me. The irony of being invited to blog for a socially aware apparel company wasn’t lost on me. I smiled. Maybe I had something to say after all.
I checked my Facebook account. A friend of mine had shared her latest blog expressing heartfelt gratitude to everyone—her professional team, family, and friends—who’d been there for her in recent days. My contribution had been modest enough, but I knew I was included in her thank you. I messaged her to say Hi, and we chatted on and off for an hour or so. On another thread, I saw I’d been tagged by someone I admire greatly and have often felt in awe of, because of her ability to share her story so eloquently and powerfully. Her message was deeply connecting and encouraging. I thought back to other supportive messages Fran and I have received in recent days, both publically and in private, from people who’ve told us how they’ve been impacted by our story. It’s not an ego thing to recognise that what you are doing affects people’s lives, maybe even save lives.
Because it’s not always the “big” things that have the most impact. Like the random conversation I had in a coffee bar that led me to a local literary event on the subject of physical and mental health. I met some great people, people who live their lives and share their stories with courage and passion, and put my name down for next time to read from the book Fran and I have spent the last three years writing. Or the chance comment on Facebook that leads to a lifetime, and life changing, best friendship.
So I will go on. I will go on supporting Fran in all she does and sharing our story, because the story of how a well one and an ill one manage their friendship needs to be heard. I will champion all who are doing their own amazing things. I will call out stigma and discrimination wherever I find it. And I will wear my t-shirts with pride. It isn’t enough, no. Not on its own. But it can be part of enough. Because you never know when a KEEP TALKING ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH shirt might spark a conversation; might give someone confidence and permission to open up or ask for help. And I will keep challenging myself and connecting, living my life and speaking my truth as only I can, side by side with my best friend, shoulder to shoulder with all who are working and hoping, but most of all living, toward the day when STIGMA IS NO MORE. Now that will be a shirt worth wearing.
Martin Baker (“Call me Marty”) was born in Liverpool in 1961. He settled in the north east of England almost thirty years ago. An ASIST trained Mental Health First Aider and member of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Mind and BipolarUK, he is passionate about raising awareness of mental health issues. With co-author Fran Houston, Martin has written a book (currently seeking an agent and publisher) to inform and inspire others who support, or would like to support, a friend living with mental illness.