Tag Archives: mental health

The Conservatory of the Mind Palace

sherlock__s_mind_palace_by_firelight_12-d4oc1nhWith absolutely no disrespect meant to Benedict Cumberbatch, he doesn’t own the phrase “mind palace”.  Using the method of loci (or going to your mind palace or whatever you want to call it) is a very useful thing to do, especially if you’re like me and your memory is about as reliable as Southern Rail.  I’m currently working on a show at the VAULT Festival, and a lot of the conversations I have with my producer Kate rely upon the idea of a mind palace, because we’ve got so many things to do:

“What was that rehearsal technique I said I wanted to use next week?”
“I don’t know, dear.  Look in your mind palace.”

“We said we were going to email Adam about something.  What on earth was it?”
“Er…I dunno, let me look in my mind palace…I can’t find it.”
“Have you checked the library?”
“Yep.”
“The ballroom?”
“Yep.”
“The cupboard under the stairs?!”

So far, so silly.  But what I am discovering is that, quite apart from being just an excellent memory aide, having a mind palace is a very healthy thing to do for emotional reasons.

For example, people talk about burying their feelings or locking negative thoughts away.  This would be very easy to do in a mind palace, because you could build yourself a cellar or a dungeon or whatever else took your fancy.  However, being the proud architect of a mind palace makes you feel the need to be more creative about these things.  For example, when I come across a particular fear or worry I let it loose in the palace grounds to run around the rose garden and splash in the ornamental fountains.  Mentally ‘releasing’ bad feelings is very helpful, because you can acknowledge their existence in your life without constantly feeling the need to monitor them.  They can really get under your feet if you keep them cooped up all the time.

“Hey Vicki, nice mind palace.  Where’s your fear of commitment got to?”
“Oh, he’s running around on the croquet lawn with my concerns about career trajectory.  They’re having a great time, don’t worry.  Would you like some tea?”

The best room in my mind palace is the conservatory.  It has no strange wicker/fabric combo bits of furniture in it, and it most certainly does not have leaves all over the roof.  It is a quiet, calm room where there is always sunlight streaming in from all angles, and it’s very warm and cosy the whole year round.

The sunlight in this room is a concoction of all of the things that make me happy: memories, people and other bits and pieces of life.  Highlights include the moment in Moulin Rouge when Jim Broadbent runs away screaming “LIKE A VIRGIN!”, my friend Andy’s laugh, the smell of coffee, the Dad’s Army theme tune, cheese jokes, watching Christmas movies with my family and excitement about my best friend’s wedding next year.

The reason why I am talking about these big, small and silly things that make me happy in my mind palace conservatory is that they are a huge part of how I maintain my mental health.  I think mental wellbeing is a very specific thing, and a huge part of why we struggle with it is that we always end up feeling isolated by our own thought processes.

One of the greatest and loveliest things about the show that I’m working on is that we teamed up with mental health charity Mind.  Mind do incredible work for people who struggle with their mental health, and I am so pleased and proud that they promote conversation about what is still a pretty taboo topic.  They effectively knock on the door of everyone’s mind palace to check that they’re ok, and to reassure you that you’re never alone.  Mind palaces exist in neighbourhoods.

So to conclude, dear reader, go and build yourself a mind palace that you would love to live in, and invite people in who will appreciate being there.

Have a stupendous evening.

 

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Forget it, Jake. It’s Edinburgh.

Happy Sunday!  Shall we have a roast?  I’ll do the spuds if you don’t mind chopping the other veg.  Ok?  Great.

Today I would like to tell you, fabulous reader of mine, about mental health at the Fringe.  If living in London can be compared with being in a bad relationship, doing the Edinburgh Fringe is like having an affair with the Marquis de Sade.

It’s incredible.  The noise, the people, the flyers, the weather: everything about this festival conspires to give you a complete sensory overload.  The Fringe is very good at casually sauntering up to you and nicking the things you hold most dear, like time with loved ones, decent sleep and a sense of reality.  And yet we love it.

I really do love it, by the way. I know I sound a bit overwhelmed (blame the lack of sleep), but this is my favourite time of year.  It’s something that my cast and I have been working towards for about seven months, and we are determined to enjoy the hell out of it.

The thing about doing the Fringe a few years in a row is that you can usually track your progress.  For lots of people this is in terms of their career: my gorgeous comedian friend Laura Lexx has posters EVERYWHERE this year, which is good because she has an excellent face and an even better show – but personally I’ve noticed more progress in terms of my mental health.

Looking after yourself in Edinburgh should be very simple: eat well, get enough sleep, drink water, exercise, try not to stack it on the cobbled streets.  These all sound very straightforward, and hopefully they are also rules which we apply to our general lives.  But trying to preserve your sanity at the Fringe is akin to balancing a sea lion on a chopstick, so it’s important to learn lessons early and stick to them.  Here are a few of mine:

  1. Exercise.  I’ve been to the gym most mornings since we got here, and at the Fringe most people choose to walk everywhere rather than worry too much about buses.  I cannot tell you how much of a difference it makes to get a few endorphins going through your system before you tackle flyering on the Royal Mile.  (Plus, if you time it right, you might get to overhear some excellent conversations in the changing room at the gym.  The other day I was in there when a group of old ladies had just come out of an aerobics class, and the lewd comments they were making about their male instructor were beautiful to hear.)
  2. Sleep.  I’ve only had one “oh my God when did it become 5am and why is the sun up?” night since I got here, which is definitely for the best.  Last year I wasn’t so much burning the candle at both ends as setting fire to the candle factory, and I can already feel the difference this year.  It’s always tempting to stay out for one more drink or a bit more chat, but the same lovely people you’re talking to will be here tomorrow.  Go to bed.
  3. Eyes and ears.  There’s a weird phenomenon at this festival called “Fringe eyes”, which is when you’re talking to someone and they start to look past you, just in case someone famous or influential is in the vicinity.  It is the rudest and most irritating thing in the world, and people who do it are to be politely moved away from.  In the same way, if you’re talking to someone about their show, you know that this spiel is rehearsed and has been said a thousand times.  Ask questions about the rehearsal process, or where the idea came from.  Listen to the answers.  Treating flyerers and performers like human beings is weirdly rare up here, and they’ll remember you for it.

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    My producer Kate Goodfellow with one of our lovely posters. We were on our way home from the gym, actually. That’s fitting.
  4. Passing Ships.  You will see lots of people you know here: ex-colleagues, very old friends, intimidatingly famous people and that girl who was in that show last year with thingummy-jig, what’s her name again?  Amy?  Alice?  Something like that.  Can’t remember.  Text whatshisname and ask him.  It can be frustrating to only see these people in passing, but the trick is to realise that the month is intense for everybody, and most of us are perpetually late for a show.  Don’t take it personally if your oldest friend is a bit difficult to get hold of, or the person you’re madly in love with is never at the same bars as you.  A month is a decent amount of time to catch up, network, flirt and generally converse.
  5. Treat yourself.  Your mind, body and emotional well-being can take an absolute hammering at the Fringe.  Be nice to yourself.  You’re working hard and you deserve to be proud of your work.  Make the most of your time off, see some shows that interest you and for the love of all that’s good and holy make sure you do something that has nothing to do with the Fringe.  Edinburgh has a lot to offer; climb a hill, jump in the sea, visit the Royal Botanic Gardens and go to the zoo.  The Fringe is only one tiny aspect of an incredible city.  (My main non-Fringe activity is going to be getting a tattoo with my friend next week, but by all means you can go for something less extreme.)

Whether you’re at the Fringe or not, have a smashing day.  I’ll start peeling the potatoes.

Unsplit Personalities

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Good morning!  It’s Noel Fielding’s birthday today, did you know?  On the very small off-chance that he reads this: Happy Birthday, Noel!

Over the past few days I’ve been thinking about personalities, and how very complicated they are.  We have a tendency to separate out different sections of our personalities, because we think that certain bits are anomalous to who we are, and some parts are just plain embarrassing.  It is too difficult and confusing to admit that our bad habits and secret sins are linked to our genes, our upbringings or our life styles.  Much easier to have a persona that can be summed up in three words by the people who know us best, and leave it at that.

We are encouraged to keep up this pretence of simplicity by constantly summarising and censoring ourselves: job applications, CVs, online dating profiles, Twitter biographies and more ask us to reduce ourselves into a few short sentences, and we willingly oblige.  We know that we’re complicated, but we don’t everyone else to know that.

The thing is that every aspect of your personality is linked to something else about you, and that is a really good thing.  Take the anomalies, for instance: I like watching football, which seems a bit random in terms of my other interests, but actually it does make sense.  I like watching events with a large group of people (like when I go to the theatre), I like lots of noise (because I grew up in a big family) and I like having a pint with my friends (that’s just a given).  So even though I’m not a stereotypical football fan, it makes sense for me to like football once you break it down.

When we think of certain personality aspects as anomalous we don’t embrace them for what they are: an important part of what makes us a complete person.  This comes up a lot with mental health issues.  People call depression “the black dog”, which I think is really stupid for two reasons: firstly, making the illness a separate, animalistic entity encourages people to be afraid of it and distance themselves from the issue, and secondly it kind of ruins the third Harry Potter book if you have that association in mind.

I’m not suggesting that mental health problems are a good thing (obviously), but if you have to live with them you shouldn’t have to be afraid of them, as well.  They are part of who you are, but they don’t define you.  There’s plenty of awesomeness in your personality, too, and they’re not necessarily separate qualities.  For example, living with something like depression can give you strength you never knew you had.

Everyone has aspects of their personalities that they wish they could change or get rid of, but you are who you are.  If we refuse to accept the bad things about our psyches as well as the good, we are rejecting a massive proportion of what makes us a real human being.  Think about it: if we didn’t all have bad and good things about us, we would be completely angelic and therefore entirely incapable of empathy.  We’d also be kind of boring.  And you, my friend, are definitely not boring.

Have a stupendous Wednesday.

Crowded Carriages Are All in Your Head

Tube crowding

Good morning, you marvellous creature.  How’re you doing?

Today I would like you to imagine that your brain is a London Underground tube carriage.  What do you think it would be like?  Is it full of commuters?  Is there a school trip of fluorescently-clad children accompanied by one harassed teacher?  Maybe it’s the last train home, and a few sozzled friends are giggling manically in the corner.  For many of us, it will be the one with a homeless person wandering through asking for change, and a baby screaming at top volume.  In other words, our brains are crowded, noisy, awkward and confusing.

There are approximately 34 seats per tube carriage on London Underground trains, but you hardly ever see a train carriage that’s just neatly filled with 34 seated people, do you? In the same way, our thoughts and feelings do not sit neatly in our brains in a designated space; they run around and confuse us.  For example, the items on your mental to do list are like the school kids on a day trip, who run around and worry you in case one drops off.

Life is difficult , and worrying, and exciting.  It’s also going by very quickly.  Particularly in cities and especially for people who have busy lifestyles, it’s difficult to feel properly connected to one another.  (Like ships passing in the night, perhaps.  I have no idea where this transport obsession has come from, by the way.  I’ll be banging on about the “aeroplanes of ambition” next, I expect.)  It’s so irritating in its self-exacerbation: we get stressed out because we’re so busy and we have no time to see our friends and loved ones, and then we get more stressed out because we haven’t seen our friends or loved ones for ages, ad infibloodynitum.

It’s not easy to do, and for some people social stuff goes completely out of the window when the pressure’s on at work or what have you, but we have to keep connections with people during times of stress.  I’ve got a huge to do list on my desk (and I’m genuinely starting to think that it might be sentient), but I am aware that I’ll go loopy if I don’t talk to a good friend today.  Similarly, my friend Laura is studying all morning in the British Library, and her PhD will make her crazy if she doesn’t switch of from it for half an hour, so to solve both of our problems we are going to drink coffee together and have a chat.

Sounds like I’m encouraging procrastination, doesn’t it?  I’m honestly not.  I believe in working hard and doing something you’ve set out to do, but I also believe that burning out and cutting yourself off from people is an incredibly stupid and damaging thing to do.  Thinking that you are alone with your crowded carriage mind is silly, because everyone feels like that.  Also, when did you last see a train with six empty carriages and one full one?  Exactly.  Now go and ring someone who likes you.

Have a fantastic Tuesday.

Percy Jackson and the Inevitable Sequel

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Good morning!  How are you feeling?  All set for a new week?

Yesterday I wrote a fairly heavy entry where I ‘came out’ (if that’s the right term) as someone who lives with mental health issues, and to compensate for showing my darker side I promised you that today’s blog would be full of whimsy.  Let me see what I can do…

It has been said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.  Over the years this nugget of wisdom has been attributed to Mark Twain, Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, David Cameron, my Year 2 teacher and probably you at some point.  (If it WAS you, well done.  It’s a very good piece of sagacity.)  It makes an excellent point that human beings, despite our incredible evolutionary achievements, do not always perceive bad consequences of an action to be a deterrent.  Drinking too much leads to hangovers, eating too much makes us fat and sneakily checking your ex’s Facebook profile is always going to put you in a bad mood.  We know the consequences, but we keep at it anyway.  What’s that about?

It’s the same sort of thing with sequels to films: we think that we’ll like it if the sequel has the same characters, the same actors, similar situations, in-jokes from the last film and a similar narrative structure, but when we get those things the feature always falls a bit flat.  We assume that the reliability of familiarity is enough to keep our attention, but is isn’t.  We like it when sequels introduce new characters, have new perilous circumstances and don’t rely on in-jokes from the first movie in order to make us laugh.

It must be the same in life: we say that we don’t like change (especially given that ‘change’ in this day and age tends to be synonymous with ‘expense’), but if our lives stayed the same we would get unbelievably bored.  Can you imagine if you never met new people, changed jobs or went abroad?  (Please note that I have heroically resisted the urge to make a joke about Americans living in the Bible Belt at this point.)

We don’t always like change but we need it, and if we embrace it we might find that the sequels (or new sections) of our lives are just as good as the original. They could even be better, like Toy Story‘s sequels.  Only try not to fall into a furnace.

Have a wonderful Monday!

Red Dwarf Fixes Everything

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Hello, lovely reader.  I hope you’re having a beautiful weekend.

I had a wonderful evening yesterday with some of my favourite people on the planet, which I then went and ruined by drinking far too much and behaving like a prat.  I am now deep in the throes of PASH (Post-Alcohol Self-Hatred) and I woke up fairly convinced that everyone hates me and that I have utterly destroyed my own life.

Being the incredible and lovely human being that she is, my best friend gave me a massive cuddle as soon as I was properly awake and said all sorts of nice things that I definitely didn’t deserve to hear.  Our other friend was similarly lovely, and on the way home we had a very interesting conversation which I’d like to share with you.

When that whole “time to talk” thing came up a few months ago, I paid lip service to it.  So many friends of mine had the courage and dignity to speak about their mental health issues, and I was (and still am) incredibly proud of them.  I did not follow suit.  I should have, but I didn’t.  I was a wuss about it.

Mental health is a very tricky thing, because in so many people’s eyes (including your own, sometimes), it defines an enormous part of your identity.  It’s so easy to look at yourself in a purely one-dimensional fashion, and to focus on one big, bad thing about yourself.  Odds are that nobody else sees you that way, and that you are a lot less crazy in the eyes of your loved ones than you are in your own.

Ok, so here we go: I have manic depression.  It’s why I tend to overreact to stupid stuff and obsess over trivia.  It’s why I say dumbass things when I’m drunk (and also why I get drunk in the first place), and letting out the crazy when I’ve had a few glasses of wine means that I don’t have to remember it the next day.  That’s not an excuse, by the way: no one forces me to get drunk or behave like an eejit.  I make that (dreadful) decision entirely on my own.

Assuming I manage to sort my self out and stop making terrible choices, will I automatically like myself more?  I don’t really know.  On the way home my friend Vince and I were talking about how difficult it is to like yourself, and wondering whether it’s something that you can change.  Some people seem to be born assured, mature and self-aware, while others (i.e. me and some of my friends) spend a lot of time worrying about who we are and what on earth we think we’re doing.  Emotionally speaking, we are three million years into deep space and we’ve woken up with a traffic cone.

Essentially, it would be lovely to be emotionally self-sufficient and be able to comfort myself when I’m feeling low, but I’m not sure how to do that.  In the meantime, I’ve got an amazing group of friends who forgive me when I’m badly behaved, and cuddle me when I’m feeling guilty/hungover/completely lost.  I also have the Red Dwarf box set, which is a godsend on days like this.

I am very proud of my friends and loved ones who are open about their mental health issues, and I hope that they can forgive me for having been a coward about it.  If you live with metal health difficulties or love someone who does, then you are a wonderful human being who deserves first dibs on all the Quality Street tins from here to eternity.

Sorry this post was a bit more serious than t’others; I promise tomorrow’s will be full of whimsy.  Have a fantastic rest of your weekend.