Sheena Madden reflects on the politics of talking about your mental health in public, and how that might be perceived in the workplace…
“Jesus lads, it’s fucking tough going some days, isn’t it?”
This is a stream-of-consciousness tweet that I posted during the fourth week in January. A few weeks into ‘Lockdown Three’ and I, like most, was struggling with it. Groundhog Day but with darker skies and pelting rain. I put the phone down and got to work setting up my son’s makeshift classroom in my makeshift office in the box room.
When I looked at Twitter a few hours later, my inane tweet had some 200 ‘likes’.
I panicked. It was happening again.
A few weeks earlier, I had tweeted about my anxiety for the first time, detailing crying fits and panic attacks. That tweet racked up 150-odd likes. On a positive note, I thought, maybe wellness companies might start sending me free weighted blankets and essential oils. Either way, the idea of a few hundred people being privy to my anxiety spells and coping mechanisms was daunting. I mean, I realise that I put it on Twitter. I thought maybe 10 people might find it useful. In fact, I didn’t really think at all. We don’t, do we? We just tweet. And sometimes delete. But it was too late for that now.
There was part of me that felt comforted by the fact that this basic sentiment had resonated with so many people. Mainly, though, I felt anxious about how it would look. Would people think I couldn’t cope? I’ve been an advocate for speaking plainly and openly about mental health – and mental health issues – for a long time. As a former journalist, I have written at length about the subject. As a PR professional, I’ve worked closely with mental health organisations. As a human, I’ve run the gauntlet on more than one occasion. Still, though, there was something about having 200 people – some of them strangers, some of them familiar faces – ‘like’ my tweet about having a tough day that made my anxiety levels rise exponentially.
Two years ago I started my own business and I’m the happiest I’ve ever been, professionally. I run a music and arts PR agency and I get to work with the kind of people I’ve always gelled with every day. There were a number of reasons behind my decision to ‘go out on my own’ – professional ambition, working to suit my own schedule as a single parent, wanting to wake up every day and look forward to work… there were plenty.
But there was also a voice at the back of my head that told me I wasn’t “cut out to be an employee”. I have lived on and off with Clinical Depression since I was about 21 and I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder shortly after the birth of my second child when I was 30. I’m not a huge believer in labels when it comes to mental health, but these are the ones I’ve collected over the years and they’ve been pretty accurate at times.
Throughout my adult life, I’ve always tried my best to live up to my own values and be as open as I feel I can be about my own mental health. What I’ve learned from being open about my mental health issues in the workplace is this: “we support you – as long as it doesn’t interfere with your work”. On more than one occasion, when I’ve been going through a particularly rough patch and turned to former employers for help, they’ve been found wanting. That was a huge contributory factor to me deciding ‘to hell with this – I’ll do it myself’.
So, here I am, fourth week in January 2021, global pandemic, boss bitch of the century and mother of the year (my eldest son just turned 18 so I’m allowing myself this accolade for the rest of the year) – and I’m having a panic attack over a lame tweet.
Because I’m afraid of what people will think. I’m afraid I won’t be perceived as ‘strong’, ‘capable’, ‘superwoman’. I love being perceived as those things. Ironically, the strongest people I know are the ones who can show their vulnerabilities. But I didn’t want people to know I was vulnerable. I wanted people to think I had my shit together. Still, though, the tweet resonated with people for some reason and I was interested in why that might be. I was also confronted with the fact that, if I deleted it or vowed never to tweet anything about my mental health again, I would feel like a full-of-shit hypocrite who doesn’t practice what she preaches. So I gulped and kept going.
I haven’t completely laid my soul bare – there’s still plenty I keep to myself (I’m nearly 40 – I’m not quite of the ‘share-absolutely-fucking-everything-on-social-media’ generation) – but I have been a little braver lately. The other day, I tweeted about weaning off my antidepressants, and how tough I was finding it. A few people replied to say they had experienced the same thing. Even more people DMed me to tell me they had experienced the same but didn’t want to say so publicly. Which I don’t hold against them for a second, by the way. I understand privacy and I’m a fairly private person myself, in my own way. If I hadn’t spent years banging on about the importance of discussing mental health openly, I probably would have deleted that first tweet the minute I realised people had actually read it.
But I’m glad I didn’t. Although Twitter can be a toxic cesspit, it can also be a place for making connections – and heaven knows we need to feel connected right now.
This is what I’ve decided to do. I’m going to try to use this newfound platform of mine to share coping strategies. The thought of this is terr-i-fy-ing. If you’re considering hiring me for your next album release or event, I promise you I’m excellent at my job and very much have my shit together. But I live with anxiety and depression every day, like so many of us do. Right now, we’re going through collective trauma, but we can’t connect. In ‘the before times’, as someone said at some point and it stuck, my coping strategies ranged from the healthy (meditation, therapy, sleep, baths, dialectical behaviour therapy…) to the decidedly unhealthy (whiskey sours, 20 Camel Blue, dancing ‘til 4am… God, I miss dancing ‘til 4am…) but at least there was connection.
Social media is not the same as a social life. Just like seeing my therapist for our weekly Zoom session is not the same as crying big, heavy, therapeutic tears in his office. But it’s the next best thing and it’s all we have right now. So I’ll tweet about my anxiety and depression and how I handle it in the hope that it connects with people enough to lift them, and me, out of that feeling of being so… alone. I’ve also just joined Clubhouse. I might even start a room…