Anxiety and depression: the rise of the twentysomething life crisis (The Times)

I've got a piece in Times Weekend today accompanied by photos that show the perils of watching too much ANTM.

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This piece was originally published in The Times in January last year. I hope they won’t mind me republishing it here for Time To Talk day. You can see the article as it appeared in print, along with Louise Chunn’s excellent piece on how to cope with depression in your 20s, right here:
Anxiety and depression: the rise of the twentysomething life crisis (The Times)

 

Depression has always seemed an ineffectual name for an affliction with infinite varieties. My illness — I prefer to call it “mind spiders” or “relentless f***ing misery disease” — was triggered by bullying. As a clever, tall seven-year-old I was moved up a school year and missed a year of socialising. Gangly, nerdy and ginger, when I went to secondary school, I was a plum target.

By 12 I felt isolated and awkward, so when a fog settled in my mind, I barely realised it was happening. Maybe I was just a bad child who didn’t deserve happiness. Depression is exquisitely good at papering itself over your personality. How do you know you are ill when your only barometer of normal is what’s inside your head?

In my teens, my normal became my mind screaming at me daily. I had the self-esteem of a potato. Feeling constantly anxious, occasionally cutting my wrist to release the build-up of pressure in my head — that was normal. I loved drama and reading, anything that let me become someone else.

From 13 onwards, when alone I endured suffocating periods of terror that felt endless. I also experienced anxiety, which often prevented me from sleeping. It should have been obvious that all was not well, but despite the fact that one in four people in Britain experiences a mental health problem each year, realising that person is you can be tricky.

Mental health problems, I thought, were something that happened to other people. Yes, I felt appalling 60 per cent of the time and couldn’t abide my own company but still: I had friends, and by 16, a steady boyfriend. I performed in shows and got good exam results. I had a life. It was everything outside that life that was a problem.

When I started my languages degree at Durham University in 2000, it felt like a wonderful escape. I adored life. Sports, clubs and college meant I didn’t have to be alone. I existed in an ever-fluctuating series of mood swings, drinking too much and behaving like a firework that burns out and relights seconds later. I would fire on all cylinders, and then dip, and be so exhausted I didn’t even have the energy to sleep.

Unsurprisingly, I started to fail part of my course and the fear of losing this place where I felt safe became overpowering. I felt shame about feeling broken. Talking to other sufferers, I’ve realised what an obstacle that is to getting help. We are judged on our personalities: what do you do when yours seems to be faulty?

I finally went to my family doctor midway through my second term, aged 18, when I had had a particularly nasty anxious episode. I was blissfully relieved to hear that wanting not to exist and having a suicide plan was not normal. I was given antidepressants but no diagnosis — not that that would have mattered, it was just lovely to know my head could change.

By the time I left that doctor’s surgery clutching a prescription, I had long made my home life a misery. Take your stereotypical teenage nightmare, multiply it by explosive rage and screaming, and you have the joy that was me for several years. I was so frustrated that my parents couldn’t understand — or solve — the fizzing anxiety in my head which I couldn’t explain either. Depression is as singular as the mind, which is deeply unhelpful for both the sufferer and the person wanting to help.

Caring for a friend or relative with depression can be extremely hard, particularly if they won’t admit that they are ill or don’t know. My mum recently told me that she and my dad did a lot of work, such as talking to my GP, which I never noticed, locked as I was in a prison of panic and isolation.

Things stabilised when I was 20, thanks to new medicine and good friends. When I came back from my year abroad, most of my fabulous party friends had graduated. I made new friends in student theatre and journalism and became better friends with girls from my course. I wasn’t good at speaking about how I was feeling to my friends but it helped that I regained some focus. I partied less and hung out with fewer groups.

Aged 21, and heading towards my finals, I insisted on getting some sleeping pills that actually worked. Given my history, the doctor was reluctant to prescribe too many. I ended up with four Temazepam in total and guarded them like jewels for really bad occasions, like when I hadn’t been able to work, or felt unmanageably exhausted and low. I also went on Fluoxetine and felt more balanced than I had done in years.

Depression doesn’t only cause misery; it has other superpowers. However well I seemed to do, I felt like a fraud. When I started working as a journalist in 2005, I was desperate to impress in my personal and work relationships. I put myself under intense pressure and I made bad choices in who I dated and how much I drank, all of which made me stressful to be around.

But the cloud slowly began to lift — I don’t know why. It could have been the routine of adult life and work that helped, or it could just be that my mind changed and I grew out of it. I still felt insecure but the depressive lows began to pass. My mind seemed less jagged. I came off medication in 2007 at age 24, and began to wobble towards healing. I started exercising, first by walking to work, then a bit of jogging. Feeling kindness towards my body was a huge step and something my mind had never allowed me before.

I finally spoke out about depression in 2011 when S, one of the funniest, brightest girls in my school year, took her life weeks before her 30th birthday. I felt total fury at depression for stealing her away from the people who loved her. I wanted to do something, anything. After writing about it, I joined the media advisory board for Time to Change, which campaigns against mental health stigma. I started running seriously in 2013, raising money for the charity Mind, and last year I ran the London Marathon for them.

After experiencing a dip two years ago, I tried cognitive behavioural therapy. Thanks to a brilliant therapist I finally addressed all the stuff I’d packed away: my self-esteem; feeling almost alien because of my untypical appearance; keeping loved ones at a distance in case they realised the real me was too rubbish too care for. I kept the odd note on my phone. One reads: “Today I suspect we got to the crux of the matter with Doctor Steve, ‘It sounds as though you think you are defective.’” That hit the nail on the head. Speaking to people about depression has meant a trail of discoveries that seem glaringly obvious, but aren’t when you’re alone.

These days, I have contingency plans for when I get that prod of barbed wire to the head. I’m more aware of the links between my body and mind, and the limitations of each. My diary is no longer triple-loaded and chaotic. Music and exercise are important, whether parkrun (5km timed runs) and breakfast with friends on a Saturday, or singing in a choir. The routine, camaraderie and beauty of music helped me feel calmer.

I am now, age 32 and 20 years down the line, at a stage where I can acknowledge that sometimes my brain will act in a way that is not “me”. That may never change. But the fact I realise I am not less of a person because of it makes all the difference.

I can now feel dispassionate about my depression. But it is telling that I only really feel confident speaking about it when I am not connected to it on a daily basis. For people who suffer, constantly, speaking up can be extremely difficult. Knowing that other people have been there is crucial because depression feeds on shame and fear. It sneaks up on people in the isolation of their own head.

More information: time-to-change.org.uk; mind.org.uk

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The Shepherd’s Crown by Terry Pratchett – review for The Telegraph

The Shepherd’s Crown by Terry Pratchett, review: ‘a magnificent sign-off’ (27 August, The Telegraph)

One of the most endearing peculiarities of the Discworld, Terry Pratchett’s bestselling fantasy series satirising the beliefs and behaviours of Earth, is that witches know the precise hour of their death. Some hold their funerals in advance so as not to miss out on a good party; all tidy their homes beforehand, ready for the next occupant.

Pratchett may not have known the hour of his death – which in the event took place in March this year, when he was 66 – but having suffered what he called “the embuggerance” of Alzheimer’s since his diagnosis in 2007, he knew it was coming. But there will be no future mastermind of the Discworld. His daughter, the award-winning writer Rhianna Pratchett, once rumoured to be taking it on, has rightfully said that nothing further should be done. And yet in this, his 41st Discworld novel, now his last, Pratchett gets his house in order beautifully.

This isn’t just a great Discworld book, it’s extraordinary; a proper send-off for Pratchett and this mammoth series. It is shot through with an elegiac tone, you have a sense of it being his own “play’s last scene”. If this wasn’t intentional, it’s a bloody good coincidence.

Earlier themes and characters return for a last hurrah (impressively without once feeling like an episode of This is Your Life) anchored by one of Pratchett’s most popular recent characters, young witch Tiffany Aching. Now at the height of her powers, while still very much eligible for a Young Person’s Railcard, Tiffany is forced to confront her old enemy, the elves.  Longstanding Discworld readers first encountered them 25 years ago in Lords and Ladies, a magnificently creepy reinterpretation of A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream with much nastier fairies. They have not improved over time.

Their reappearance calls for a convocation of witches, which means a welcome return for one of Pratchett’s earliest creations, Magrat Garlick, now queen of the hilly kingdom of Lancre, and opera singing Agnes Nitt, sadly AWOL since 1998’s Carpe Jugulum. Pratchett’s trademark footnotes  are filled with references to past stories, and new readers may struggle to keep up – but after all, this is a finale, not an introduction.

Never one to avoid tackling the elephant in the room, Pratchett confronts mortality early on with the death of one of his most cherished characters. Discworld regularly deals with death, but rarely with cornerstones of that universe. Lord Vetinari, Granny Weatherwax, Samuel Vimes: Pratchett’s creations, like the author, feel eternal. That any should die is unthinkable and I will freely confess to sitting dumbly over my book, crying.

Pratchett has never been a sentimental writer, but there is an expansiveness here that is new and reflective.  He introduces a new kind of magic, “calm-weaving”, an extreme form of likeability seen in a boy called Geoffrey who wants to become a witch. Thus the idea of a girl becoming a wizard, first explored in 1987’s Equal Rites, is echoed here with the reverse idea, bolstering Pratchett’s principle that the most impressive magic of all is “headology”, or understanding the human psyche.

Having spent the last 30 years raising an amused eyebrow at the quirks of human nature, Pratchett uses his final novel to examine the power of humanity. Even Pratchett’s most ghastly creation, Letice Earwig (pronounced “ar-wij” ) proves to have something worthwhile underneath her pretensions. There is the potential for decency in all of us, he says.

Touching on 2001’s Thief of Time in which a seemingly inhuman creature develops a soul, an elf has a similar awakening here. Change is happening in Discworld: there is no place for elves and their mindless cruelty. Even trolls and goblins serve a useful purpose, to which I find myself grimly thinking, “if only Pratchett had been in charge of the internet”.

continue reading at The Telegraph

 

When Pratchett died, I wrote a tribute for The Telegraph: Terry Pratchett: just think of it as leaving early to avoid the rush

A chapter by chapter review of Grey by EL James – The Telegraph

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When the new Fifty Shades book, told from Christian Grey’s viewpoint, was released, I live blogged and tweeted reading it. I anticipated being done by lunch. I was not finished by lunch. This terrible book goes on for days.

Grey by EL James – live blog (June 18, The Telegraph)

Chapter One 

Monday, May 9, 2011 

Anastasia got stuck with plain old “Chapter One”, “Chapter Two” in the books written from her viewpoint, but Christian, being an exotic man of mystery and also an excellent diary keeper, gets dates.

Will Grey start with that incredible first sentence from Meet Fifty Shades, the short story at the end of Fifty Shades Freed? Let us recap: “‘Tomorrow,’ I mutter, dismissing Claude Bastille as he stands at the threshold of my office.”

No! No it doesn’t. It starts with a dream in which Christian remembers being with his drug addled biological mother, who calls him “Maggot” (meaningful!). There is a lot of glorious repetition for emphasis, and child Christian sounds like someone’s idea of a child rather than an actual one.

There’s some blather about Christian choosing to go to “my gym” instead of for a run outside (Christian, like cats, hates getting wet) and then we launch into that glorious Claude Bastille line. The entirety of Meet Fifty Shades is pasted in. James must have been thrilled that she’d got that to hand.

I think the chapter is ended but no! There is a strangely formatted but essential background check on Anastasia (she got 2150 in her SATs, FYI).

Later, Christian uses this info to stalk Anastasia to her job at the American equivalent of Homebase. This is no longer Monday, May 9, 2011 – a week has passed but presumably Christian is too brooding for correcting dating protocol.

Oh, hang on, this is actually Chapter Two. Saturday, May 14, 2011 was sneaked on top of the background check and I was too engrossed to notice. Never mind, this is still basically Meet Fifty Shades. There’s some extra paragraphs tagged on to the end of the stuff we’ve already read before, which sees Christian doing admin. Exciting!

Last line: “How the hell am I going to close this deal?” Christian Grey, sex businessman.

Best lines from Chapters One and Two

  1. “My green car is fuzzy. Covered in grey fur and dirt. I want it back. But I can’t reach it. I can never reach it. My green car is lost. Lost. And I can never play with it again.”
  2. “‘Mr Grey.’ His handshake is limp, like his hair. Asshole. ‘Wait up – not the Christian Grey? Of Grey Enterprises Holdings?’ Yeah, that’s me, you prick.
  3. “Peace? I haven’t known peace since Miss Steele fell into my office.”

Chapter Three 

Sunday, May 15, 2011 

We’re at the photoshoot that Anastasia has arranged so that her university newspaper can get some original photogaphs of Christian. Side note: it may be that I went to university 11 years ago when there was never any budget for anything, but who expects their CEO megabucks interviewees to attend photoshoots? I clearly wasn’t ambitious enough. This is after all the work of Ana’s flatmate Kate Kavanagh, or to give her her full name, “the tenacious Kate Kavanagh”.

Then it’s off to have coffee, from Christian’s POV. This was a very chatty scene in the first book, so all there’s really to do here is reprint the dialogue and include some comment in italics from Christian – who seems mercifully free of inner gods or goddesses, dancing lambadas or otherwise. Some examples:

  • Oh, Miss Steele, Game on.
  • Yes, You asked me if I was gay.
  • Interesting.
  • Books.

I’d forgotten about Anastasia’s love of “British literature”. To helpfully underline Rochester/Darcy comparisons, first Ana lists the books, and then Christian spells out the heroes. I’m amazed Robert Pattinson isn’t listed.

I’d also forgotten about Anastasia’s weird relationship-free adolescence which turns her into an absolute fruitcake when Christian tells her he doesn’t do girlfriends, and then again when he warns her to steer clear of him. This is all very silly given that he has taken her for coffee and insisted on holding her hand a lot – oh, and then there’s the moment when she falls into the road and is nearly hit by a cyclist. Sweet, breakable, clumsy Ana!

Ana – I am not on friendly terms with this woman, but it is driving me nuts having to type out that name each time – has an overreaction on a nuclear scale. They have met barely three times! I don’t care if she smells of orchards and has a fabulous ass, Christian, she’s clearly a nutbar. Oh thank God, it’s the end of the chapter and Anastasia has disappeared in a cloud of grammatically improbable metaphor.

Last line: “She disappears into the building, leaving in her wake a trace of regret, the memory of her beautiful blue eyes, and the scene of an apple orchard in the fall.” Anastasia, pour Homme ou pour Femme.

Best lines from Chapter Three 

  1. “My hair is wet from my shower, but I don’t give a shit.”
  2. “‘This is my favourite tea,’ she says, and I revise my mental note that it’s Twinings English Breakfast tea she likes.”
  3. “Her eyes widen. They really are beautiful, the colour of the ocean at Cabo, the bluest of blue seas. I should take her there.”
  4. “But why England? I ask her. ‘It’s the home of Shakespeare, Austen, the Bronte sisters, Thomas Hardy. I’d like to see the places that inspired those people to write such wonderful books.’ It’s obvious this is her first love. Books.
  5. “That means I’m competing with Darcy, Rochester and Angel Clare: impossible romantic heroes.”
  6. “She has a fresh, wholesome fragrance that reminds me of my grandfather’s apple orchard.”
  7. “‘I’ve got this,’ she says, disappointment ringing in her clipped tone.”
  8. “She regards me dispassionately and regret flares in my gut.”
  9. “Whoa. She’s mad at me, pouring all the contempt she can into each syllable of my name. It’s novel. And she’s leaving. And I don’t want her to go. ‘Good luck with your exams’.”

Chapter Four 

Thursday, May 19, 2011 

Breaking news! Christian has a security guard called Barry! This is amazing. Has anyone in the history of America ever named their child Barry? Perhaps he came over on the security guard exchange programme.

Christian has had more terrible dreams, which require staring hatefully at himself in the mirror, drinking a glass of water, and then leaving it in the sink for the housekeeper to clear up. You’re a grown man, Christian, put your own damn cup in the dishwasher.

Wonderful, glorious scenes of him picking out exactly which first edition to give to Anastasia “I love books! British literature!” Steele. This is brilliant. Never had I thought I needed an in-depth description of how a billionaire businessman chooses which “blank notecard” to write a note in, but now I know.

He also replaces the first editions with more first editions because he is minted.

Most of Christian’s staff fancy him, probably because he insists on hiring “tall willowy girls with a pretty face” who really fancy him, but walk around looking sad about it. This is fairly boring. Christian has not been anywhere near his Red Room of Pain, not even to change the batteries.

Last line: “Dismissing the thought, I wonder if that will be the last I see of the books, and I have to acknowledge that deep down I hope not.”

Best lines from Chapter Four 

  1. “She’s an incurable romantic who loves the English classics. But then so do I, for different reasons. I don’t have any Jane Austen first editions, or Brontes, for that matter, but I do have two Thomas Hardys.”
  2. “‘You sound like the ultimate consumer.’ Her judgmental retort from the interview comes back to haunt me. Yes, I like to possess things, things that will rise in value, like first editions.”
  3. “‘We could always air-drop.’ ‘Christian, the expense of an airdrop – ‘. ‘I know. Let’s see what our NGO friends come back with.”
  4. “I take one bite of tuna to assuage my hunger, then reach for my pen.”

(continue reading at The Telegraph)

World Mental Health Day

I went into journalism wanting to be Laura Barton. I loved her writing in the Guardian, I still do. At university in Durham, my friends and I would always turn to her stuff first. On Mondays, we’d sit in Riverside Cafe and pore over the (then massive – oh how things change!) jobs section in Media Guardian and plot our move from the north of England to Fleet Street.

My reason for wanting to be a journalist was that I wanted to entertain people. I had a lovely vision of having a column somewhere, which luckily didn’t happen, because when I was in my early 20s I used even more adjectives than I do now. The one thing I didn’t particularly want to do was to use my life as the basis for features. Again, how things change.

In the last few years, I have been incredibly lucky to be able to cover stories that really matter to me. Sometimes, I’ve used my own experiences. In the cases of a new cancer day unit at Guy’s Hospital (I cannot wait to hear what their cancer centre is like – it sounds amazing), and speaking out about mental illness, I don’t mind at all.

When you speak about an aspect of your health, particularly one with such unsexy connotations attached to it as mental health has, you end up being called ‘brave’. This is a lovely thing to have people think, but it is complete nonsense. In speaking out about depression, and my experiences of it, I am being entirely selfish. I just want people to know more about it, and hopefully, to be able to reach people who might feel incredibly isolated.

I recently wrote a piece for Grazia about my experiences of depression, and I attach a copy here for you to read – sorry about the scanning, that’s never been my forté.

Hope you enjoy it, but most importantly, I hope it makes you think about mental health problems in a new light. Everyone will be affected by them at some point, whether individually, or through a friend or loved one. Let’s break the stigma.

www.mind.org.uk

Click to enlarge:

Grazia depression piece - Kat Brown1

Grazia depression piece - Kat Brown2

Creative Londoners: Storytelling (also: I have a new job!)

Banner for Creative Londoners September 2014 event

Imagine having access to this many crayons. Imagine.

Domestic Sluttery‘s founding editor, Sian Meades, also founded the Creative Londoners networking events. Having entirely failed to attend Sian’s previous events because of choir, I’m thrilled to say I’m speaking at the next one so am guaranteed to go. Continue reading

The gentrification of Camberwell

The Myatt's Fields Park summerhouse...through the seasons

The Myatt’s Fields Park summerhouse…through the seasons

I was thrilled when the Evening Standard announced that they were covering Camberwell in Homes and Property (today, people! Today!). I love H&P. It’s the covetous, property porn jam to my otherwise disappointing Wednesday toast.

And I was thrilled that people were going to see how great the place is. Sarah Waters’ new book, The Paying Guests, has a ‘genteel Camberwell villa’ at its centre, and lots of Camberwell is indeed jolly genteel. So much so in fact that there was much “Wuh?” from SE5 residents on Twitter when Time Out posted a review of the Camberwell Arms (announced today as one of The Good Food Guide’s top 50 British pubs) painting SE5 as a grim, downtrodden haven of grime, and nought else. It was so bewilderingly sniffy that those comments have since been removed from the review.

My brother used to come to Jazz in the Crypt at St Giles all the time, but as far as I was concerned Camberwell was unreachable – largely because everyone told me it was. When I moved here three years ago, I may as well have been moving to Narnia. “You have to walk? To get to a bus stop? For 10 minutes?” I was weak at my under-exercised knees.

Continue reading

“Keep buggering on” – Women in News and life as a female journalist

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Disco panel

Some enterprising high-ups at work have launched a series of events in which high-profile women in different areas talk about their careers and interests. I am surrounded by kick-ass women doing very good jobs, but I also spend most of my day at my desk so don’t get to talk to many of them outside Twitter very often. This was an opportunity to step away from it and hear a varied panel having a chat about their careers and problems. And then have some beers and a natter, which was excellent.

  • Rachel Richardson, editor of Fabulous magazine (chair)
  • Deborah Haynes, defence editor at The Times
  • Deidre Saunders, agony aunt at The Sun (legend)
  • Victoria Newton, editor of The Sun on Sunday
  • Emma Tucker, deputy editor of The Times
  • Eleanor Mills, editorial director of The Sunday Times & chair of Women in Journalism
  • Tiffanie Darke, editor of Style magazine at The Sunday Times

Pretty bloody good panel for a first event. Continue reading

Tied up in knots? Christmas gift wrapping piece for The Times

I adore wrapping presents, but I tend to the same routine “wrap. Tie ribbon. Make ribbon all curly with scissors. Something label something something.”

It was lovely to interview the fabulous professional wrappers Jane Means and Alison Westwood, and I’ve already heard word on Twitter that their advice is going to make wrapping toys a hell of a lot easier.

Click to read the full article
Click to enlarge