Talking Heads reporter Rachel Alexander explores what this year's festival theme, 'Connected', means to her.

The theme of this year’s SMHAF is Connected. To be perfectly honest, I know the sort of thing that I should say. A sense of connection is shown to improve mental health etc etc. But do you know what? All I really want to tell you is how incredibly lonely it feels to be mentally ill, how entirely isolated it is possible to feel on every level. Talking about loneliness can feel awkward and embarrassing, but it would be disingenuous of me to write about connection without acknowledging its existence and its power. In short, I’ve never been as lonely as when I have been in periods of acute mental ill-health: periods when I have conversely needed connection more than ever. Equally, however, I believe that a desire for – and need for – connection is not limited to those of us who ‘enjoy’ less robust mental health.

A sense of self

When I have a particularly severe panic attack, I often feel separated from myself, as if I’m not really present or not really occupying my own body. It’s a horribly confusing sensation and one that’s really hard to explain. The logical part of my brain knows that it’s not possible for me to float away but try telling yourself that when you feel out of your mind with anxiety. Confession: although I’m pretty well at the moment, I still wear my heaviest boots to the dentist to keep me anchored to the chair. As weird as this may sound if you’ve never experienced a panic attack, it’s actually reasonably common, and depersonalisation and derealisation appear on the NHS list of symptoms associated with panic disorder. It’s hard to even think about connecting to others or the outside world when you’re stripped even of a sense of connection with yourself.

As well as this very physical sense of disconnection, anxiety can easily rob you of mental and emotional connection. For me, acute anxiety means that my concentration is gone, and I can’t read. I’ve never made a secret of the fact that I think reading is the answer to almost everything. When I’ve been unable to travel or have otherwise missed out on things, reading has been a lifeline and allowed me to feel a semblance of connection with the wider world. Of course, it’s not the same as being able to go out and do things for yourself, but it can be a valuable interim solution.

How then do you reconnect with yourself? Especially when so many of the things that make you feel like yourself may not be possible: work, seeing friends and family, and otherwise being part of a community. In my experience? Slowly and carefully. Do your best to acknowledge and accept the way that you feel. I realise how uncomfortable the very thought of that is, but I promise that it helps. After all, you are not the sum total of your mental illness: you may be ill, but you are still you.

Feeling disconnected

As I mentioned above, mental ill-health can very easily strip away structures like work and a social life. How do you remain connected to the people and places around you when you’re robbed of these straightforward, natural means of connection? How about when you’re scared to leave your flat? It’s not easy and, unfortunately, it depends very much on the people that you have around you.

A lot of my friends fell away when I first experienced panic disorder. To be completely honest, many have fallen away since too. Those of us who are in the grip of mental ill health can be hard work. Hard work. Flaky. Unreliable. Let’s be real, if you do manage to get together with someone, it’s likely that you’ve got precious little conversation when you factor in the mental exhaustion of making and sticking to an arrangement, and the fact that you’ve probably not got much news aside from medication, therapy and doctor’s appointments.

So, what happens to you when it’s too hard for others to make those connections with you, or they decide that you’re not worth the effort? The loneliness and fear and self-loathing that you’re probably already experiencing bloom and take root. The disordered voices and thoughts that come to you and whisper of your inadequacy have evidence of your innate worthlessness. This is exactly why connection is so important. In short, connection is what can save us.

Being connected

I wrote earlier about the fact that I’ve never felt as lonely as I have when I’ve been very unwell. That’s completely true. However, it is also true that my friendships now are more genuine and more valuable than they ever were before. I have friends who understand me and understand how I feel. This is partly because I’ve been open and honest with them about what I’m thinking and feeling (something best done when you’re feeling stronger.) I used to hide the reality of why I didn’t / wouldn’t / couldn’t do certain things because I was embarrassed or ashamed. This lack of transparency cost me friendships. Being honest with friends and family gives you a better chance of helping them to support you. I’ve said that quite casually, as if it’s easy, and it’s really not. The truth is that you may not feel up to being honest about how you feel. That’s okay. It’s all okay.

If you are going to feel connected to other people and the world around you, you have to be open to connection. This will probably mean that you need to accept that you are worthy of people’s interest and time. You are. You deserve people who will be flexible and open to adapting plans they make with you. Interestingly, being vulnerable yourself allows other people to reciprocate and forges strong friendships; proper friendships.

It’s also important to acknowledge that connection is worth all of the effort and potential discomfort. Finding people who understand you, even better empathise with you, goes such a long way to helping you feel more human. Just as a descent into mental illness can feel like a vicious cycle, where each loss and lack and failure lead to another step back, the journey back “up” is cumulative and success breeds success. Connection is success.

I’ve written this based on my own experience with panic disorder and anxiety over the last fifteen years, but also simply my experience as a human who knows that connection can be tough at the best of times. Please hold on to the hope that things will get better and you will feel more connected in the time still to come. Seek out people and experiences that make you feel worthwhile and understood. Things that give you a sense of purpose. A sense of belonging. A sense of usefulness. Finally, a long time ago when I very much needed to hear it, my Dad told me that “this too shall pass.” Things can get worse as well as getting better, but he’s not been wrong yet.

by Rachel Alexander

Rachel is 36 and lives in Edinburgh. Interested in writing, feminism and mental health, she’s an English teacher to trade, and passionate about learning as well as teaching. She loves stories of all kinds, and believes they are a uniquely powerful way of changing the world. Tweets at @rachalexwrites and Instagrams at @rachjanealex.

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