A Stranger in a Stranger Land
I don’t belong here;
never have, never will –
it is a strange land
and I am stranger still.
I understand their language
but cannot communicate.
I am carried by the crowd,
swallowed by their wake.
I dissolve into the shadows,
sink beneath the strain,
glide across the oddities
for I, too, am strange.
I melt into the background,
enhance the scenery,
but this I know and cannot hide;
there’s none so strange as me.
I wrote this poem almost 10 years ago, at a time when I felt as though my mental illness alienated me from those around me. I felt different, incredibly odd, and very alone. To be fair, I think it did alienate me – it wasn’t just a feeling or a fear. I had no real understanding of myself or my mental illness, so how could I expect anyone else to understand? I was ashamed and embarrassed of myself and I became more and more fearful of everyday situations and social encounters. I isolated myself because I knew I didn’t fit it, and the more isolated I became the certain it was that I was indeed A Stranger in a Stranger Land.
However, perhaps I’m not all that strange after all! 1 in 4 of us will, at some point, experience mental illness: we are not alone.
When I was finally, officially diagnosed with borderline personality disorder I felt relieved. As odd as that may sound to some, it was a comfort to know a) what I was dealing with, and b) that I wasn’t necessarily the strangest person in the UK after all – in short, I wasn’t as alone as I thought.
To me, this is the crux of Mental Health Awareness, and the main reason that celebrities have taken to speaking up and sharing their own experiences of mental illness (to the acclaim of some and chagrin of others) – to let ‘us’ know we are not alone. We are not freaks, we are not weak, we are not unreachable or unhelpable, and we are not nutters or lepers. We are people who, for any number of reasons, have fallen ill and may need some help to get better; help that can come from friends, family and/or professionals.
We are not alone! Nobody needs to face their illness alone, yet with all the shame and stigma that still surrounds mental illness, many people are still too ashamed or afraid to reach out.
When I wrote my book, A Sad and Sorry State of Disorder, I wanted to share my experience of borderline in the hope that others in similar situations would not suffer for so long – feeling so strange – as I did. I wanted to help people to understand what it can be like to suffer from mental illness, and I wanted to encourage people that with the right help and support, things can get better.
I hope my book does all of this – and more, and yet there is still a part of me that feels embarrassed in certain company to admit that I am about to have a book published because, inevitably, I will need to tell them what the book is about. Sometimes I mumble that it’s ‘smthngtodowithmntalhlth’ in the hope that they aren’t really listening, or don’t really care. But once I’ve mentioned the book, I always end up having to fess up – firstly that it is about mental health, secondly specifically about borderline personality disorder, and thirdly that it is about my own experience of learning to live with it and manage it. And yes, it really does feel like a confession!
I should be thrilled that I am about to have a book published. I am thrilled – of course I am – and yet, occasionally I still feel as though I am thrown back to the time where I really did believe that I was a Stranger in a Stranger Land. And suddenly I believe it all over again, because – let’s face it – as a rule we just don’t talk about mental illness, and when we do it’s often uncomfortable and awkward.
This is why we need Mental Health Awareness (week). We need people with (or even without) influence in their various niches and circles to speak openly and honestly about their mental health. We need those who feel they can, to be brave and candid about mental illness, and we need to keep encouraging each other to ask for help when they need it.
We need to cultivate a society where there is no shame in admitting that we are struggling.
Every time I force myself to be honest about my book (in situations where I would rather not be) I am trying to fight the stigma. I am also trying to find my way back – in that moment – to the land that does not feel strange, and to remind myself that I myself am not strange. More often than not I am pleasantly surprised by the response I get, which, in turn serves to challenge my own assumptions about others.
We need to be brave and keep talking until it isn’t a matter of being brave anymore, and it is simply a matter of talking.