The ‘Time To Change’ campaign has been running since 2011 and its purpose is to challenge mental health stigma and discrimination by getting people talking. I’ve wanted to talk about my experiences for some time now so thought this would be a good opportunity to get things out in the open.
This article is a little self indulgent in the sense that it’s all about me and my experiences. Writing it was quite therapeutic and I do recommend giving it a go, even privately, as I felt getting it down on paper gave me a lot more perspective on my life and allowed me to see how far I’ve come. I will say however that I don’t offer up any miracle cures and advise that if you are affected by anything I’ve mentioned you should check out the links I’ve posted at the bottom or go and see your local GP.
My name is Jo Whitby and I make music as Laurence Made Me Cry. I’m also the co-founder of Cat On The Wall and sometimes illustrate things as I Know Jojo. I’d like to start by eradicating any myths about my musical moniker ‘Laurence Made Me Cry’. This name is in no way related to any events in my life that are in the slightest bit melancholic. In fact it is inspired from a daft newspaper headline about the TV show ‘Changing Rooms’. If anything it’s my lyrics that give away my darker moments and I still have them, not as regularly as before but ‘the void’, as I like to call it, does return sometimes unexpectedly.
Mental health and its ever reaching arm has been a part of my life from an early age via close family and friends. I’ve seen the inside of a mental institution, the mint green walls of the visiting area, the worn out sofas in front of the television and the never ending squeak of shoes on the NHS standard tile flooring. I was not a patient but I remember the facility clearly. I’ve waited in the car as a family member attended the funeral of a friend who committed suicide and heard the story of another friend who jumped off Clifton suspension bridge… and survived.
Growing up around mental illness gave me an insight into the sometimes unpleasant world of ‘healthcare’ for those whose minds are a little out of kilter. This was the 1990s and I’d like to believe that things have changed; thankfully I’ve never needed to visit a hospital like that since. I also witnessed the stigma associated with mental health and still feel uncomfortable when people say ‘nutter’.
My own story began in my early twenties. The downward spiral started in 2004. In fact it was more like jumping into the abyss with the guide rope falling after me. Everything that made sense in my life was crumbling before me and I was left feeling useless and powerless. The event that triggered my breakdown was a phone call from my boss at work asking me where I was. I had booked the day off months in advance but this had seemingly been lost on the rota. I learned on that day that I don’t deal with pressure and confrontation very well. I had always tried my upmost to play by the rules in my life, sometimes rigidly so – the tension was like a chip in a windscreen and this small incident created the cracks that would soon bring the glass smashing down around me. On that day it felt like I had lost my mind completely. I was a shaking, weeping mess convinced I was a failure and that my life was over. Needless to say my boss didn’t understand and subsequently fired me.
This wasn’t out of the blue though. I was becoming frequently ill and dreaded going into work so much so that I envisaged throwing myself down the stairs in a bid to render myself incapacitated. Looking back I wish I had paid attention to these signs but hindsight is a beautiful thing isn’t it?
This was the first time I asked for help from a GP and I can’t say it was particularly useful. I was young and apparently eligible for free counselling which is great if the thought of talking to someone one on one doesn’t send you into a blind panic (also apply this to picking up the phone to book said sessions). Needless to say I didn’t go down the counselling route and was not at this point offered anti-depressants. I decided to try and go it alone. What followed was a bleak year of unemployment, two family deaths and several journals full of the most miserable writing that makes even Les Miserables seem like a jolly good romp. Amongst the darkness I did manage to start my own drum tuition business and generally tried my best to stay afloat. On the creative front I joined a songwriting group which initially was a great help and turned into a kind of group therapy session. Unfortunately ‘pressure’ and ‘confrontation’ reared their ugly heads again after joining a few bands with members from the songwriting group and I had to retreat. It wasn’t a particularly pleasant exit and it certainly didn’t help my state of mind.
My drum tuition business was starting to feel the bite of recession with less and less clients coming for lessons. My income was decreasing rapidly and after a stressful turn of events with the landlords of my rented home I moved back with my parents. My self-esteem was at an all time low, I was numb and lost.
The void: When I’m feeling depressed there is what feels like a black hole in the middle of my chest, which aches. Combined with this ache is a constant chatter of negative thoughts and silly ideas particularly when standing on a train station platform. The chatter is loudest when I’ve settled down to sleep and this has sometimes resulted in a panic attack. I am however a good actress and do not ‘look’ depressed in social situations. Nobody likes a party pooper right?
The second time I asked my GP for help was when I’d quit a Christmas temp job at a department store. The reason on the sick note was a stomach bug. The real reason was that every day whilst restocking the Christmas gifts section I felt the overwhelming urge to kill myself. This was new and it frightened me. I couldn’t go on like this. Enter Citalopram which made me feel sick and brought me out in a rash. I can’t say it really helped but then I was only on it for a few months before I stopped taking it. I already felt numb and didn’t need to feel any less connected than I already was. At this point I was travelling to Cardiff regularly meeting up with my best friend who had moved there and helped distract me enough from my thoughts to begin work again.
I was spending more and more time in Cardiff until I eventually moved there. I still wasn’t completely with it but it felt like the new beginning I needed. I decided it would be a good time to go to university and spent 3 years working hard, having the most amazing mood swings and finally releasing the music I’d recorded almost 5 years previously. I’d gained a considerable amount of weight as well as a degree at this point too, my emotional armour only adding to my appetite for self-loathing. Things were moving though. People were listening to me and my music. Cardiff was becoming my safe place and the more I immersed myself in the city and its culture the more positive I felt about myself. I believe that where you live can really have an effect on how you feel. I’ve also made some fantastic friends who do not judge me and do not expect anything of me which I find refreshing.
Settling down in Wales was one of the best decisions I’ve made and gave me the boost I needed to begin working on clearing out some of those demons that have accompanied me for the past 10 years. Getting in the way of my own success has been one of my consistent gremlins and last year I started chipping away at the little bastard. I got my act together and recorded my debut album and this year I released it. I’m doing music full time and I’m finding it incredibly exciting. It’s also the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done and after the initial elation of finishing my first long player the darkness slowly crept back in. It might shock some to know that I regularly think of suicide but I don’t think publicly airing my deepest thoughts on social media all the time is healthy. When I need to reach out, and I have, I do it privately and I find this to be the most rewarding. If anything it’s shown me that the friends I have right now are keepers.
The reason I’m baring all right now is that many people are still afraid to talk about mental health for fear of being judged or misunderstood. I don’t think mental illness can be ‘cured’ but it can certainly be managed and I’m working on finding ways to manage mine – I may eventually give in and get some counselling. Depression hasn’t stopped me from achieving things but there are moments when I need to take a step back and recharge my batteries. I’ve not quite reached the point yet where I feel comfortable saying that I can’t do something because my world has imploded and I need to put myself back together. I do feel embarrassed and would rather make up an excuse than actually tell someone I’m feeling depressed. This is why we need to talk about mental health and why it’s important to end the stigma associated with it. Most depressed people don’t want someone to hold their hand. They just want to know that when they reach out there will be ears ready to listen.