Submission #2: Please don’t call me brave

I speak a lot about my mental illness. Anxiety is a tricky one to speak about. It’s not as stigmatised as other mental illnesses, it’s something people can relate to; we’ve all been anxious. The flipside is people don’t understand or know the difference between anxiety the emotion and anxiety the diagnosis. This is (partly) why I talk about it: let’s educate and break some stigma. I also talk about it because it helps me. Putting words to thoughts and feelings, no matter how irrational, is part of the playbook for treating anxiety. Talking about it openly to other people helps me specifically look after my anxiety. In framing my words to help other people try to understand, I further understand myself.

I’ve never had a bad response to talking about mental health, which is an amazing sign. That I can be so vulnerable and the communities I’m in pick me up and bolster me blows me away. It gives me hope that other people will see it and come forward themselves. I don’t want to corner the market on talking about mental illness in Software Testing.

What I also get a lot is superlatives: real, raw, honest. Brave. The last one makes me twitch.

Before I start unpacking I want to make it clear that I am overwhelming grateful for the support I get. I know that it is a compliment and I appreciate it. I even understand it. It’s taken me years to sort out my issues with this word. I’ve talked it out with a few of you who may be reading this (including a very drunken conversation with Andrew Morton before my talk at Testbash). I’m ready to do what I know will help me: put it into words, and shove it out into the open.

When I’m ill, bravery is unfathomable. I can barely deal with the shower, never mind bravery. If we keep saying that getting help and speaking out is brave, what message are we sending?

I know that getting help is a massive deal: navigating doctors who may not understand, therapists that might not gel, medication that might not work, getting time off work or school, never mind the stigma and the shame: it’s exhausting. But if we keep making a big deal of it, it will continue to be a big deal.

We can’t fix the gauntlet of treating mental illnesses entirely (individual psychology and biology means that it’s always going to be throwing treatments at the wall and hoping something sticks), but we can get rid of the shame and stigma that puts people off going as early as they should. I think part of that is making the idea of talking to medical professionals about any medical condition something that is entirely normal to do.

The same goes for talking out. Again, I absolutely agree that telling someone you’re suffering can totally be a shitting bricks moment, but talking about any bad news can be a shitting bricks moment.

Telling my teammate I have a chronic physical condition and a chronic mental condition should be equally serious (or mundane).

This is a bit more dicey as due to stigma and people not knowing how to deal with people sharing mental health struggles you may have to try to deal with unwanted emotions. This is largely the same with more serious physical health conditions, especially the less understood ones (Chronic Fatigue, Fibromyalgia, etc) or cancers which people generally panic about. I’d rather not be called brave for doing either though.

I’m now a trained Mental Health First Aider. I wear a different coloured lanyard at work, signalling loud and clear that I am willing and able to help people who are struggling. I am a person who is safe to go to. We do lots at work to point people to the resources available to them, and we normalise it as much as we can. I also want to try and offer resources for anyone to use. I want us all to use the resources that work for us to keep on top of our own mental health, just like you do with your physical health.

You mental health is a massive part of your physical health (your brain being part of your body and all). If we elevate one part of it to be brave to even discuss, how can we hope to make it easier to treat?

I also am aware that plenty of people with mental health issues think that it is brave to do this stuff. That thriving when mentally ill takes bravery, and I commend that, I do. I’m not here to say people shouldn’t claim that for themselves, only that it doesn’t feel comfortable to me.

Call me strong, fine. Stubborn, fuck yes: the only reason I’m still in testing is I’m too stubborn to let me own brain screw this up for me.

But please don’t call me brave.

Submission #1: Sean on bereavement

When I’m asked now if I have any brothers or sisters I usually say no. Unless I’m teased about being an only child, or the point is laboured I don’t say that I didn’t grow up alone. It’s just easier because I’ve never really found an easy way of explaining it to people: on 25 January 1998 when I was 22 my 19 year old sister was violently murdered by a stranger she met out one night. I want to try and explain a little as to how this has affected me and how I’m trying to overcome it.

After her death the guy responsible was quickly caught and arrested. There really wasn’t any mystery to what happened: he was a violent man with a history of being abusive to women and something unpleasant was going to happen sooner or later. A trial was set for October. Between January and October my parents and me had constant support from both victim support and police family liaison and we focussed on the trial.

The guy pleaded not guilty but the evidence was overwhelming. We attended court every day but some of the evidence presented was utterly haunting. It’s hard to explain what hearing information like that about my sister, someone I grew up with and was close to, did to me. It completely broke me. The trial lasted two weeks and it took the jury 25 minutes to convict him of murder.

After the trial was over I stayed living and working down near my parents for a while but missed my friends from Manchester and eventually moved back. I started a job with a web development company, got on well with the people that had set that up, and ended up helping to run and grow it over a period of 10 years. I threw myself into that, which kept my mind occupied at work, and would do everything I could at home to avoid being alone in my thoughts.
I was totally emotionally shut down; I didn’t have any kind of relationship with anybody for about 13 years. Since 2010 I’ve tried to sort myself out and re-engage with the world with varying degrees of success. My ability to deal with stress now is much poorer than it was. Being a web developer, the way I look at it is that a large part of my brain’s power is permanently devoted to trying to process this thing that happened, so that when stressful situations do arise I have less capacity to deal with them.

I’ve always had difficulties dealing with social situations. Before my sister died my brain was nimble enough to work around them but now they often overwhelm me. I have difficulties reading situations, understanding people’s intentions and am often just baffled by what’s going on. That leaves me very anxious, sometimes in a deep state of paranoia and when it’s at its worst I feel like I’m in a constant state of miscommunication with people.
So what have I learnt from all this? Primarily the importance of peer support. I’ve 5 friends that have been incredibly patient and understanding. We’ve all been through a lot together and without their support I don’t know what state I’d be in. Secondly, shortly after my sister died I was told “time’s a healer” and I remember feeling quite angry as I didn’t want to contemplate a time when what had happened didn’t matter. Of course it’s never going to not matter but the pain has definitely eased.

I’ve written this down now because this year is going to be hard. The guy who killed my sister has been in prison 19 years and is due for release this year. I need to write a victim statement for the probation service and in doing so think about what’s happened all over again. I don’t quite trust myself to avoid my own self destruction but now I have an imperative because life has been cruel to my parents again: my dad retired in March 2015 and was looking forward to spending a happy retirement with my mum when sadly he died suddenly in October 2015. My mum’s disabled so now suddenly I find myself in a parental role which feels strange. I really need to be a functional human being right now.

To do that I’m going to try and apply the things I’ve learnt. Firstly by talking about how I feel. A lot. Writing this is the first part of that. I think talking to others who have also lost siblings would help. If that’s you and you’d like to talk about it please email me at sean@sean-maloney.com. It’s said that keeping fit and exercise is as good as taking an anti-depressant for mental health. I’ve never been an exercise kind of guy but I’m trying. I’ve found CBT useful in the past for trying to break out of harmful thought patterns and that could be beneficial, especially for the social anxiety. It requires work to be put in to get good results and I need to make sure I do that.

There are no guarantees but I’m feeling tentatively hopeful of getting through the next year or two and staying healthy.