Tag Archives: public speaking

Mental Health: In Which Steff Calls a Spade a Spade

A couple months ago, I proposed to talk about writing for therapy, how to kinda “go there”, via blogging.

The conference was yesterday. It was an “unconference” put on by end-patients and people who work on the peripheries of mental care.

Why did I want to get involved?

For a million reasons. I’ll get to most of them shortly.

But, first: I proposed my talk without knowing the conference’s “reputation” or anything like that. I just wanted a forum to talk about depression.

Unbeknownst to me, I stepped into the thick of a controversial “unconference.” It wasn’t until Friday that I really realized just how controversial it was. Whether it’s because ballsy speakers like Steven Schwartz speak in dismissive vernacular, saying edgy-yet-funny adjectives a lot of boring people object to, or because of who was organizing it, or even the press some of us speakers were getting, the reactions were ridiculously sharp and pointed.

Late Friday night, I saw comments some anonymous dumb fuck left on the Mental Health Camp’s website, and I got pretty riled up. Since then, all the comments were deleted, which I take serious issue with.

Me, I never would have deleted the comments. We convened the camp to fight stigma against the “idea” of mental illness, so why would you delete, and not fight, that stigma when it stands up and attacks you? Deleting and silencing the attack does nothing to neutralize it. But that’s where I stand and it’s not my blog. So, yeah. Moving on.

The asshat’s comments varied, but the most offensive of them all were that a number of those involved in the Mental Health Camp were doing so only to propel their image and get their allotted moments of Warholian fame. Media whores, basically, all faking their interest to get noticed.

Heh. Yeah, okay. Fucking shrewd, that.

A line in the comment made me wonder if I was one of the people they alluded to, just because I had the audacity to do an interview with CBC about the conference.

Here’s the deal, all right?

I’ll be the first to admit there were organizational issues with the conference. That’s what happens with not-for-profit amateur/volunteer organizers, people who have organized a conference just to have discussion and don’t have experience organizing them.

Oh, well. That’s life. It happens. But it’s not about the organizing.

It’s about the messages explored — mental health, stigma, and the fact the lives are destroyed by mental illness every moment of every day, and the fact that EVERYONE in their lifetime will experience mental illness at some point, and YET we don’t talk about it.

Well, I do, and I have for years.

I’ve been writing about depression, weight issues, self-esteem, lack of confidence, and everything else I’ve battled in life since 2005, and blogging since 2004. I’ve been getting real fuckin’ raw and honest since 2006.

There are a whole lot of things I’m willing to do to have success as a writer. Do you know what the least smart of them would be?

Letting myself in any way be any kind of poster girl for any mental illness.

Let’s see, when was the last time a Hollywood publicist suggested their celebrity client embrace their mental illness for the public as a means of netting better starpower in the press? Um, never.

Know why?

No one wants to be thought of as “nuts”.

Why?

Because people who are strong, intelligent, articulate, engaging, and well-liked don’t come out and admit their mental illnesses. They don’t talk about them. So stigma exists because all we see are the nutty fucks you try to avoid in hallways, or the whackjobs they put on television shows.

But those are extremes.

When assholes like that anonymous commenter attack a conference whose only purpose is to bring the overly-shamed and constantly-silenced issue of mental health to the forefront only because they dislike the people behind it, and they use that opportunity to suggest it’s basically Starfucking by those involved, it’s an insult to the seriousness of the issue.

It also suggests they have no fucking idea what it’s like to have been, in my case, an otherwise strong and intelligent person who took the wrong medication and considered suicide before spending the next year-plus trying to claw my way out of the depths.

It suggests they have no idea what it’s like to live under the clutches of your mind, body, and chemistry’s whimsy on a day-in, day-out, year-by-year basis, never being able to rise above a sick world of fear, chaos, and hopelessness that can’t manifest outwardly, that you hear inside your head every time you wake or lie down to sleep.

It suggests they don’t fathom that mental illness is the most costly and insidious of sicknesses in society — it destroys the fabric of life, of all the lives around the sufferer, not just the body of the afflicted. It ends relationships, destroys marriages, causes debt, and is the largest reason for employee leaves of absence in the modern workforce.

I don’t WANT to talk about depression.

But I need to.

Because what happened to me can happen to anyone.

Because it happened to my mother, and, as a 17-year-old girl, I walked in on her attempting suicide with the very pills that caused her chemically-induced depression — one like I myself would experience 17 years later.

Because doctors will tell you birth control pills don’t cause depression.

Because I know my birth control made me want to kill myself and feel like life could never have hope again.

I need to talk about depression because I’m tired of bi-polars, schizophrenics, and other more acute or rare mental health concerns having the limelight in “mental illness,” when it’s depression that’s most likely to touch, and destroy, the average life.

I feel like their more “stereotyped” afflictions make it less likely for seemingly average Jolenes like myself to come out and say, “I’m not that afflicted, but it still really fucked me up, too, and no one saw any big signs…”

I am a good writer. I’m a really, really good writer. I’m a passionate speaker who will not mince her ideas. I don’t back down from a fight. I’m engaging, funny, and even self-deprecating. I’m a great communicator with friends, family, everyone.

And yet depression almost took me out of the game of life.

But I survived.

I made it to the other side. I’m stronger than I’ve ever been. I’m happy most of the time.

Still, I’m surrounded by people I see who are skating through life with the cool indifference of someone struggling with depression. I see it everywhere. And we’re NOT TALKING ABOUT IT.

You want to attack my IDEAS? Go for it.

But don’t fucking attack ME or any of those people who’ve had the STRENGTH to write about all the things YOU make fun of, that YOU won’t trust, or YOU can’t admit about yourself.

We’re out there only for the reason that we can’t be silent anymore. Society can’t AFFORD our silence anymore. We need to hear our thoughts expressed on the page, we believe our experiences are real and representative of the whole, yet largely ignored by the mainstream.

And we’re not going to be quiet about it.

Not anymore.

Until you’ve lost your job — like I once did — for writing in the public eye about your darker self, until you’ve had the courage to write without tempering your weaker thoughts and fears, until you’ve been able to admit you have an affliction the majority of society can’t understand and doesn’t know how to act around, you have no right to criticize us for the moments of acknowledgement we might finally receive after years of having the courage to tell our stories no matter what the prices have been.

Now it’s easier for me. But where the fuck were you in 2006 when I wanted to commit suicide only 9 days after writing the most harrowing things I’ve ever published? Where were you when my traffic dropped to nothing as I used my blogs to work through my depression? Where were you when I lost a job and nearly my home for having a voice on less acceptable topics? Where were you when I struggled to maintain faith in speaking out? Where were you when I constantly had to lower my voice when I said what I wrote about?

Sure, now you know about me, but I’ve been doing this for a long fucking time and I’ve paid a LOT of steep prices for my honesty.

But I’ve paid ’em and now you can’t shut me up. Just try it, honey. You’ll only wind me up more.

If I finally have an audience and a wider means of getting my message out, you’d have to be a fucking moron to think I’d walk away from that opportunity.

Oh, and being single and getting press for having gone nuts, been suicidal, and longterm depressed? Yeah, that’ll be a fucking brilliant way for me to get laid. I hear men are wild about that shit.

Marketing GENIUS, clearly.

Whoever you were, you anonymous spineless motherfucking commenter: Grow up. You’re a fucking idiot. Open your eyes. See that some battles need to be waged with faces on them.

At least I have the guts to show mine.

The Bucket List Shrinks

On Friday, I spoke at this year’s Northern Voice Blogging Conference at the University of British Columbia. I spoke on a panel Saturday, too, but that’s another story for another time.

The conference was great, but I’ll leave the recaps to others.

Speaking? Whew. I was fucking terrified of my speaking engagement.

Not because I think I can’t talk. I know I can. Just because I knew where it had to go.

In a nutshell?

I started “sex” blogging to discover where I really stood on my own sexuality. I went from 75 hits a day to 1,000 inside of my first three weeks, then as much as 5,000 within 7 months. I was getting raves all over the web in places most writers hope to get mentions — Nerve.com, Salon.com, Fleshbot, et al.

At the same time, in “real” life, in only a FOUR-MONTH period?

I ran out of unemployment insurance four months earlier than expected, came close to losing my home, started onto a birth control pill that would cause a massive chemical depression for two hard years and lead me to suicidal thoughts within 3 months of my blog’s peak, with a cry for help to a therapist when I thought I was gonna harm myself, lost a job for sex blogging, got laid off on my first day at another, had a relationship go horribly awry then end, and a few other little things.

I mentioned the whole going-completely-suicidally-nuts-with-chemically-induced-depression thing?

The gist of my talk?

Wanna write a blog and have people read your story as you figure out where your little blogging journey’s gonna take ya?

Careful what you wish for, honey. The worst thing that can happen to you is to have 30,000-plus people a week reading your figuring-shit-out journey every time you post something. Especially if you start the wrong meds a few months later and take a walk on the Dark Side.

What DIDN’T I get to say in the 30-minute speaking engagement?

That I would do it again — I’d walk away from a failing blog and say “Fuck it” and focus on my life. In a heartbeat.

I kept blogging, but I didn’t care about traffic, I didn’t try to get ads or advertising product, I stopped reading blogs so I wouldn’t be writing much about “hot-button issues” that might draw attention to me, I didn’t try to write great content or be relevant to any cause or way of life, I didn’t engage my audience anymore or even try to gain their loyalty.

I just… wrote. For me.

And I’d do that again. I’d walk and figure my shit out and use my writing for me and only me.

(But I’d share it still. We all need to do that more. We owe our truths to one another. Strength in numbers isn’t just a cliche.)

Know why I’d walk so casually again?

Because I wrote the content that made me a success in the first place. When I wrote that early content, my life was going much as it is now — fairly smoothly. I had time to write and a willingness to do so.

Now, though, I’m different. I don’t doubt I can write, I don’t doubt that was my “golden” period in writing. I don’t think I’m done for. I’m not really sure where I want this to go right now. I’m just… ready to give it a shot, ready to say something.

Ain’t worried at all. Because it’s about just being real, going where you need to go.

I have the guts to go there. It’s my THING. It’s what I DO. Truth is good. Knowledge is power. Like I said Friday, rip the fucking Band-aid off and just go.

I’m looking forward to the journey back into sometimes-sex-blogging. I know where I’m at in much of my life, and this is a path I’m willing to retake. It’ll be a fun ride. And I’m pretty confident my voice and what I have to say on the matter is relevant. I’ve got that part covered.

That’s one thing about having had the ticket to ride, getting that acclaim and that success so easily before — I know precisely how I got there. I think I can get there again. It’s about content. Period.

And how do I feel about my speech?

Fantastic. I’m loving how many people took the time to tell me how much they got out of it. I love that I got to talk to a lot of my audience over the two days, and how genuinely they seemed to dig what I had to contribute to the Northern Voice experience. People who pulled me aside to make  sure I heard what it meant to them really rocked my weekend, and I thank them for returning the sharing.

It was a big fear, getting up there and being raw and talking about my experience with mental illness and how it crushed my creative soul and killed my opportunity, and the price I paid to win that fight after I made all the horrendous decisions through which I killed my blog and walked away to quietly lick my wounds and return to figuring myself out.

I mean, that’s vulnerability, man.

“Hi. I’m a fuck-up who went a little nuts and wrote really hot shit about sex, got lauded in important publishing centres as an exciting new voice, and sorta became famous for five minutes and then pissed the opportunity away. LOVE ME. Hear me!”

For 30 minutes.

Ouch.

But I really, really, really wanted to go there.

And it was a fucking awesome ride for me. Awesome audience!

I knew it’d be scary — the first real time I’d addressed a crowd since I was 20, in college, in 1993. More importantly? First time I’d ever talked in person to a crowd about sex blogging, why I do it, what I wanted, how I fucked up, or how nuts I kinda went.

And I barely scratched the surface, but that’s why I want to write the book, I guess. Whew. There’s a wild ride, baby.

My only goal?

I wanted to tell the truth and be honest and raw. I wanted to make no excuses and pull no punches. I didn’t want my shame to get in the way of what I had to say, I didn’t want to hide behind my pride at the expense of not teaching others what to learn from my mistakes.

I know it’s powerful when people tell the truth, and I really wanted to be genuine and honest.

I told my two best friends Mark and Jon on separate occasions that all I wanted was to be like I was in our quietest, most real conversations. I wanted that conversational and open tone, the snarky humour and the quiet vulnerability that I get when I’m with a really good person I trust.

I just wasn’t sure I could conjure that side of myself for an audience of 125, plus standees.

That I’m told I did conjure her just blows my mind and makes me so happy. I loved it. I’m thrilled I’ve given people food for thought, and I look forward to speaking more often and being a part of a new dialogue on both mental health and healthy sex.

My engagement was probably as cathartic for me as some people in the room tell me it was for them, too.

It’s a really, really, really great gift of an experience on a weekend that, for 10 years, has usually sucked. I hate Mother’s Day thanks to the Dead Mom Factor. I miss my mother a little today. But for the first time in a long time, I’m not sad this Mother’s Day and I’m not angry.

Getting the fear of opening up in public speaking off my back? What a gift.

I’ll probably be writing about things this weekend has stirred up for a while.

It might not be the kind of conversation and end product Northern Voices normally results in, but I think it’s true to the life of the conference — the belief each of us needs to not only find our voices but sound them out.

It’s a message I’ve been on for years.

Speak up. Being heard is a beautiful thing.

Own who you are, live out loud.

The video will be aired on the web someplace and soon, when it is, I’ll post some linkage for those who are curious and couldn’t be at the engagement. Thank you to everyone who wished me well.