‘For a story that is so much about being scared, this is writing at its most fearless.’Matthew Bright, Everybody’s Reviewing.
I’ve counted every minute of the drive from the apartment to this layby, watched the speed limits of different roads and whether Dad obeys them, how long we’ve idled at each red light, how busy the roads are and whether that’s slowed us down. Because every minute we travel means the journey back is another minute longer.From ‘The Fear Talking’ by Chris Westoby
Over recent years we have been talking more and more about mental health, finally giving it the attention it deserves. And yet, as we face more isolation and lockdown as the COVID situation continues, it can be hard to look beyond the platitudes and the ‘top tips for good mental health’ to the reality of living, day-to-day with a complex mental health problem.
In early December, Dr Chris Westoby’s book ‘The Fear Talking’ will be released. The book tells the true story of Chris’s life-long struggle with anxiety, which was undiagnosed during his teenage years. Ashamed of his own thoughts, struggling with his desire to be alone, all day, forever, Chris begins to explore the causes and effects in his anxiety, seeking a sense of control that may just be within reach, but which may come at a price he doesn’t know he’s paying. In this article Chris talks about his anxiety, his book, and how writing in a supportive environment at Hull helped him.
I’ve had an anxiety condition since my earliest memory. It stems from a crippling fear of being violently ill in the sight of other people, and manifests as the avoidance of seeing anyone or being in any situation where I can’t vanish from sight at a moment’s notice. It has become steadily more severe throughout my life, causing me to develop OCD and depression. But I grew up not knowing what was wrong with me until I was twenty. My childhood and early adulthood were spent in constant confusion, fear, secrecy and shame. In 2020, as a culture, we know a little more about mental illness now than when I was growing up in the 00s, but we’re far from there yet. I know there are young people out there who feel like I did, who are having to keep their illness to themselves or question what it is that’s going on with them and live in that same kind of isolation.
I wanted to write the book that I wish someone had handed me when I was younger.
The Fear Talking is not clinical, it’s not written with the benefit of hindsight, it’s not about becoming better or having the answers. It’s just the story. That’s what I needed back then: to hear from someone who was going through something similar, to know others were haunted by the kinds of intrusive thoughts I experienced.
It is vital that we recognise the red flags when it comes to mental health. Whether we have a mental health condition or know someone else who does, the more we inform ourselves about it the better. As The Fear Talking shows, being misunderstood – by others and also myself – was a highly damaging experience to my quality of life and relationships with others. I want this portrait of anxiety to help people understand the condition by offering a peek behind the curtain of someone’s life, revealing the naked details of the thought processes and behaviours it causes.
I feel this is especially resonant in 2020. We’re living in an era of heightened anxiety. There are few things more anxiety-inducing than uncertainty and isolation. Shut away in the various degrees of lockdown we have faced this year, our collective mental health has taken a massive blow. The sharing of our experiences seems more important than ever to help stave off anxiety and other mental health issues. Intrusive thoughts thrive when they’re kept inside of us; they want us to keep them secret. It took me the majority of my life to learn how to open up about mental health; even today, that first leap of disclosing what I’m going through to someone else can feel like too great a leap. I therefore recommend doing it indirectly. For example, talking about a book, a film, music, news, or any event that covers the topic of mental health can be an inroad. Writing was how I learned to initiate such a conversation. I was midway into my MA in Creative Writing here at the University of Hull in 2011 when I chose to bury a tiny mention of my condition within an otherwise comedic article about my hometown half-hoping no one would notice:
“Barton’s edges were the unclimbable fences of my enclosure. I never left. Unable to attend college, unable to face home. I walked about, most of the day, most days, for a year and a half. As far from eyes as possible.”
But it was enough. Writing allowed me to make the leap into openness, and this wouldn’t have happened were it not for the safe and non-judgemental space cultivated by our tutors here at Hull. We could try new avenues of writing, take risks, experiment and face down difficult subjects; they offered an invitation to step into the unknown, alongside peers doing the same. This tiny snippet was the seed that grew into what is now The Fear Talking.