Clare McBrien, friend of the Festival and former team member, discusses her sometimes complicated relationship with her mind. Illustration by Danni Gowdie.
Almost a year ago, while working for the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival, I promised myself I would commit to paper my confused relationship with my mind. I had witnessed so many explore their mental wellbeing (or lack thereof) and felt compelled to do the same. Unsure of why I have finally done this or who I think will read it, my hope is that you will stay with me to the end. What follows is an inadequate homage to friends and family, old and new, who have unwittingly, yet consistently, peeked through the fog and made me smile.
I was 21 when the first doctor looked sheepishly over his glasses and uttered the words ‘anxiety’ and ‘depression’. I rejected his stupidity immediately. What he didn’t understand was that I was going through a complicated break up with the love of my life (I can be a little melodramatic) and had just got back from a year teaching in Peru which had shattered a worldview and faith I had come to rely on. The fact that I couldn’t sleep yet couldn’t get out of bed was clearly a symptom of circumstance. I demanded sleeping pills and marched out of there determined; women in my family are strong, they are independent and they recover quietly. I would do the same.
It was when the ache returned without warning or reason a little while later that I began to reconsider. When a second, then a third doctor suggested the same thing, I told no one – not my new boyfriend, my family or my friends. I didn’t and to be perfectly honest still don’t want people to know. The version of myself I like is smart, confident and fun; she’s the girl people look to for support, the girl that doesn’t shy away from a challenge, the girl who quit her job to go on adventures to foreign lands. I don’t want my friends to treat me differently, or potential employers to think I’m incapable. I don’t want my family to think I am weak or for future relationships to be thwarted before they have begun.
Worse than the fear of damaged relationships was admitting to myself that the confusion and sudden tightening of the chest weren’t circumstantial. When there is no longer anyone or anything to blame and you are forced instead to admit that there is something askew in the way you process the world, it can get a little dark. And much like when you notice an annoying trait in a good friend, that new discovery quickly becomes impossible to ignore. I became consumed by listening to my misguided ego struggle to silence the incessant jabber of a lost child, and in doing so, I got lost.
After a while I came to realise that for me all of it comes down to one thing. I take up space – and I’m wasting it. I oscillate between frantically searching for a way to earn my 5ft 3 inches and exploring ways of making myself as small and inconsequential as possible. At its most gentle, this fixation manifests itself as a desire to eat healthily; at its worst, as a desperate need to apologise for my presence in public spaces. I become acutely aware of the oxygen I misuse, the space I occupy and the time and energy people are forced to spend on me. Decisions become impossible, the future a terrifying nothingness and the past a tedious catalogue of errors.
Please understand, I am fully aware that to feel this way is in no way ‘logical’ and those of you who know me would be forgiven for thinking me ungrateful. I stand on the shoulders of a hard-working, supportive family and my twenties have been fantastic. I have studied languages I love, worked for terrific organisations and travelled to places most people only dream of seeing. I have experienced love, adventure and joy. My neurosis is not that I don’t have enough, but rather that I have been given so much and I have no idea what to do with it.
Except for when I sing, or when I bust out a guitar riff on my clarinet or when I finally find a combination of words to fill the blank page.
The paralysis subsides when you spend ages working out the perfect three-part harmony with me, or when you teach me to dance, or when you asked me to be in your band, or when you send me songs you think I’ll like, or when you cry with me at a gig, or when you sing Les Mis with me, or when you give me honest feedback on a song or article I wrote. In those moments, I don’t feel sorry – I feel proud to be contributing something positive to people I admire.
I’ve spent most of my life convinced that I wasn’t ‘creative’, that it was reserved for those who received a secret sign in their teenage years. Now I have come to need it, because when I am involved in the process of creating a combination of noises, movements or words, my mind is still. I go back to the beginning and renegotiate my place. I give shape and form to emotions I don’t know how to express any other way. I have fun with my friends.
Maybe another wave of anxiety will hit next month, maybe it will be next year. I hold a secret hope it will not return at all. For now I’m enjoying the fresh air, humbled by the realisation that fantastic humans have repeatedly chosen to share space with me, even when I would have given anything to get away from myself. Thank you for showing me that I too am allowed to be ‘creative’ and encouraging me to give it a go. I wish I could find a combination of words intricate enough to convey all the subtle ways you saved me.