I’d like to tell you a story about a conversation. Well, a few conversations really. And despite the fact that I was originally going to call this post Preventative Psychology, not all these conversations involve a mental health professional.
Before I continue, I’d also like to tell you what I’ve been up to in the past two weeks. Since my last post, I’ve had an article about my Black Dog Blog published in Australia’s mX newspaper, and I have now reached over 20,000 site views. The word ‘delighted’ doesn’t even touch the sides of how this makes me feel.
I also decided since my last post to start spreading awareness of my blog more heavily through Twitter. My plan was to tweet to a few Aussie celebrities and ask them if they would retweet details of my blog to their own followers. Given that some celebrities have tens, hundreds of thousands, in many cases even millions of followers, I figured I had nothing to lose and everything to gain in sending out a few harmless tweets.
I realised it was a long shot, and couldn’t believe my luck when Australia’s Next Top Model Judge, Charlotte Dawson kindly obliged within a matter of hours by tweeting my blog to her 11,000+ followers. And then they began tweeting like flies. Or to put it more accurately, I got ever so slightly addicted, and began bombarding an embarrassingly high number celebrities over the next two weeks. I even went international! And about ten percent of them actually obliged!
Please excuse me if I sound like I’m name-dropping here, but I’m sure you’ll soon agree that my story wouldn’t have the same impact if I didn’t. My blog has now been tweeted about by over 25 celebrities, mostly but not all Australian, including Megan Gale, Rob Mills, Chrissie Swan, Tom Arnold, Kevin Pollak, Wendell Sailor, Harry O’Brien, Glenn McGrath, Eamon Sullivan, Geoff Huegill, Natalie Coughlin, Rachael Finch, Paul Daniels (as in Now That’s Magic), Erin McNaught, Irene McGranger, Ryan Fitzy Fitzgerald, Wil Anderson, Adam Hills, Jimeoin, Natalie Gray, Yvonne Keating (as in Mrs Ronan!), Shannon Noll, David Kochie Koch, Tracy Grimshaw, Brett McLeod, Giaan Rooney and Andrew Robb MP, author of the book Black Dog Daze. Even local Melbourne Celebrity Priest Father Bob Maguire, God bless him, sent my blog to his 50,000+ (Twitter) followers. Aussie 3AW Radio Presenter Neil Mitchell also sent me a good luck tweet, and British Radio Presenter Zoe Ball has promised to have a read before Christmas and get back to me. Last but not least, I also got a shout out on Facebook from my former school classmate Sanjeev Kohli, best known as Navid Harrid in the Scottish Sitcom, Still Game.
But there is one celebrity tweeter in particular, one of those conversations I mentioned above, that I would like to tell you about in a little more detail.
One evening, I stumbled across the Twitter details of none other than Holly Johnson, best known as lead singer in 1980’s band, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, and now an accomplished artist of the paint and brush variety.
I tweeted my standard request to him, mentioning my blog, what it was about, and asked if he could he please retweet it. Because of the 140 character per tweet limit, I had to spread my message over two consecutive tweets.
Much to my delight, he tweeted back, saying that although he wasn’t anti-medication, it was interesting that I appeared to be advertising drugs on my website – and had I tried the herbal antidepressant St John’s Wort?
I tweeted right back again, thanking him for his frank(ie)ness (groan factor ten, I admit, but I couldn’t resist). I told him that he had made a very good point, but that my blog is not meant as an advertisement for drugs to combat anxiety and depression. Rather it is about taking action against them, whatever that action may be – and yes I have in the past tried St John’s Wort, but to no avail. I also told him that I would I would make specific reference to his comment in this post. This time, as you can probably imagine, my message was spread over about eight consecutive tweets.
And then, he replied again! This time he said that it is worth pointing out that St John’s Wort can speed other medications through the system, so it is not suitable for everyone.
OK, so you might argue that what I have described above doesn’t exactly constitute a conversation. It sounds more like I bombarded a famous person with a dozen frantic tweets, and he replied in less than 280 taps of his keyboard. But come on, this is Holly Johnson we are talking about! Welcome To The Pleasuredome! Relax! Two Tribes! 1980’s controversial music man himself, conversing online – with me! The fact that at the time, he was probably sitting at a PC 17,000km away ‘conversing’ with a few other Twitter fans he had never met is, in my humble and starstruck opinion, quite frankly (pardon the re-pun) irrelevant.
Regardless, I realised that if I could be giving the wrong impression to one man, I could easily be giving the same wrong impression to others. It was also very timely feedback, given that my plan always was for this, my seventh post, to be about psychologists and counselling. So before I delve into a conversation about actual conversations, I just want to reiterate the point.
My blog is first and foremost about making people realise that anxiety and depression are both commonplace and normal. It is also about encouraging people to take action and face up to their black dogs, to do whatever it takes to beat them into a corner. That does not necessarily mean taking medication; that is just that worked best for me. My blog is also about encouraging others to not be ashamed of whatever action may be necessary. I’ve already discussed my views on the stigma and myths around medication in previous posts; this post is about doing the same for counsellors and psychologists.
Well, just like going on medication, going to see a psychologist was not a decision I made lightly. I felt that the mere act of going to see a psychologist would be a sure sign I was weak. Someone I know might even see me going in or coming out, and my secret would then become the discussion of office or neighbourhood gossip. I would be branded for life! I would walk around for the rest of my days wearing a jumper with a great big proverbial letter P emblazoned across the front.
There were so many stigmas and stereotypes associated with seeing a psychologist. I imagined myself walking into a sterile, white-walled room with a big black desk at the far wall. I would be greeted by an emotionless face sitting atop a clinical white jacket behind the desk. A small torch would be sticking out of the breast pocket of the jacket. The emotionless face behind the desk would look like they would calmly hypnotise me, try to mess with my head, tell me what I should be thinking, that I was wrong to worry, be anxious or depressed. I might even come out ‘converted’, in a trance, different to how I went in.
As I will do my best to convince you below, nothing could be further from the truth.
Regardless of all the stigmas and stereotypes, I had been curious-but-not-convinced for years about what it would be like to see a psychologist and what the benefits might be. Just over ten years ago, around the year 2000, a friend of mine who appeared outwardly very confident told me that he had recently finished a course of ten sessions with a psychologist. While he wasn’t suffering from anxiety or depression, he explained that he did have some issues, some inner demons that he needed to deal with before he could move forwards with his life – and he managed to do so without pills. “Go see a counsellor, make ten appointments, and stick to them”, was his advice. “It’ll be the best thousand bucks you’ll ever spend”, he added as a matter-of-fact PS.
Well, as matter-of-fact as his PS might have been to him, this mere statement flicked my tight-arsed-Scotsman-mode switch into the ‘on’ position, and the idea was well and truly put to bed – for a while anyway. But this conversation had also sparked my curiosity. For years on and off afterwards, I couldn’t help but continue recalling the other part of his advice about how this would be the best money I’d ever spend. I remained curious, albeit still unconvinced.
Along came mid-2007, and I had a small pack of black dogs growling at my door at the same time. I was about to change jobs, adding to my pre-existing stresses. I also knew that the thoughts and worries racing through my head were irrational, but at the same time I couldn’t convince myself they just might happen, that I might lose everything I held dear to me.
And so I went to see my local GP for some general help and advice. It was the day that I was first prescribed Xanax as a short term boot to beat my black dogs into the corner with. At the same time, my GP introduced me to the concept of the Mental Health Plan. Under this scheme, he could refer me to a psychologist for up to twelve sessions a year. And then came the best bit – Medicare, the Australian publicly funded-healthcare system, he explained, would cover approximately $80 per session. Och aye, noo we wurr talkin’ mair ma’ language!
A quick calculation in my head and I realised that this could instead be the best three hundred bucks I would ever spend. My tightarse-mode switch then flicked itself back into the ‘off’ position. But with everything else going on in my busy life at the time, and with a box of Xanax in the cupboard that I used occasionally, it took a further three months and my black dogs to growl a bit louder for me to actually use the referral and make an appointment with a psychologist.
Well, as I soon discovered, finding the right psychologist who works for you is the same as finding the right medication – you may not get the right one first time. The first one I went to see initially asked a few questions about me – but then she did most of the talking. She went on to suggest that I needed to think more positive thoughts, listen to happy music, but didn’t do much to delve into me and my past. I came out feeling more confused than ever, so I put the idea back to bed for a couple more months.
And then in early 2008, with my black dogs still growling loudly at my gate and refusing to move along even with the occasional help from Xanax, I decided that I really did still need to talk to someone about them. Perhaps I had just not found the right psychologist first time after all. Perhaps it was also a sign of my desperation building that the curiosity v unconvinced scale began to land more heavily on the side of the former. Well, after all this time, my convincing was just around the corner.
In the interest of privacy, I will refer to my next psychologist as Kate here. Sitting on Kate’s couch for the first time was like coming home after a very long journey and just sinking into your own couch in your own living room again. Instantly I felt relaxed, comforted and, more importantly, connected.
Kate spoke in a calm tone, cheery but at the same time matter-of-fact. She began by asking me why I had come to see her. When I opened the flood barriers, she listened carefully, and then asked me a few more questions in order to delve a little deeper and confirm her somewhat miraculous understanding. She also ask me what I made of it all; at other times simply replied “that’s interesting” and let me keep doing the talking.
The more I spoke, and the more she actively listened, the more I began to realise that much of what I was worried about was highly unlikely to ever happen. I started heading for home after just that first session with a huge non-medicinal wave of relief washing over me. I felt energised, full of life, full of confidence. Of course, the feeling didn’t last too long, but it was a start, and a reminder of what was possible.
For one hour a week over the next several weeks, the pattern continued. I would sit on Kate’s couch and talk to her, Kate would listen, ask, and delve a little deeper. At times she would summarise what I had told her, and then give her own view on what I had told her. Not once did I see a white jacket, a torch sticking out of a top pocket, or a copy of ‘How To Hypnotise Anxious & Depressed People For Dummies’ sitting on Kate’s bookshelf. I also never stood up from her couch feeling different or converted. I did, however, start to feel more and more convinced about the power of psychology, and I would always head for home feeling very, albeit temporarily, relieved.
All this time, all I was doing was sitting on a comfy couch having a conversation about my favourite topic – me – while paying someone to professionally listen. Someone who also knew from experience in dealing with others in similar situations what questions to ask. And of course, best of all, the government was picking up nearly 80% of the tab.
Sometimes I would sink into Kate’s couch feeling okay, and she would start asking some questions which would actually rouse up the black dogs slightly. But even by the end of those sessions, I would leave feeling better than when I went in. Why? Because I also came to learn that it is only in the presence of friction that we begin to truly develop, learn about ourselves, and move forwards.
So what else did I learn about myself from my conversations with Kate? Well, first I learned that all my life, I’ve often done things I don’t enjoy because I enjoyed the outcome or because I felt it was expected of me. For most people, work falls into this category, and I’ve touched on that in a previous post. But even in my spare time, I would often, for example, go for a run. Yet I can honestly say I have never enjoyed a single run I have been on. I have however always enjoyed the fact that I run regularly, because it keeps me fit and helps keep the black dogs at bay, albeit briefly. Praise be for the gift of those endorphins!
As a further example, I also got from talking to Kate that just because I was never good enough at football at school to be picked for the annual five-a-side tournament squad didn’t mean that I wasn’t good enough to have all the good things in my life. So despite how I might be feeling in the present day, people, events and sheer fate were not conspiring to take them all away from me.
I began to see how just seeking counselling by could itself be enough to help some people out of their holes. But no matter how outstanding a psychologist Kate was, and no matter how many times I went back to see her over the following years – often with long breaks in between sessions – I just knew that these conversations were not going to be enough for me. More powerful medication, as I outlined in a previous post, would soon be called for.
What I can say, however, is that in comparing medication to counselling, for me being on medication was like resurfacing and smoothing over the highways in my brain. It literally provided my thoughts with a road to travel more smoothly along. All those sessions on Kate’s couch, on the other hand, helped me to fine tune the car, to have my thoughts rationalised. There’s no point in paying to travel on a smooth toll road, after all, when you are driving an old banger of a car.
Some may still wonder what good on earth does it do talking about things with a complete stranger? Well, to them I would say give it a go for a handful of sessions and stick to them. Don’t knock it till you’ve truly and fully tried it. The outcomes can be both unexpected and unparalleled.
Counselling can also be very confronting because in verbalising your irrational thoughts with a real person rather than within your own head, you are also making them seem that little bit more real. But the unexpected outcome from briefly making them real is that you often come to realise just how irrational they are. Sometimes just talking about them can in fact then make them dissipate. Sometimes they are like the trick birthday cake candles that re-light themselves every time you blow them out. But even those candles run out of wax eventually. The simple secret in trying to tame the black dog is to do everything you can to strip off all the wax.
If you are still not convinced about psychologists and counselling, consider my rule of thumb. In my humble opinion, if someone suggests that you might benefit from talking to a professional about your own issues, and you say you don’t need to – well, you are probably in denial with yourself about something. It is also worth at the very least considering what being in denial might entail.
In closing for now, there is another observation I would like to share with you. We are all willing to spend several hundreds of dollars or pounds each year on services and preventative maintenance for the actual cars we drive every day. But only very few of us ever tend to do anything about the proverbial cars within our own heads, and only when something has already gone wrong. I now firmly believe that each and every one of us should be going to see a counsellor or a psychologist at least once every few months for some of that preventative psychology – albeit probably not under the tag of a Mental Health Plan.
In doing so, we would surely lift the stigma around seeking help from mental health professionals. We would also be able to talk openly about the little issues in life while they are still little enough for us to be able to acknowledge. If not, they are bound to become big issues that we then become in denial over.
So why not make an appointment for yourself, to protect your greatest and most important assets – your marbles? All it may take to protect them, after all, is a simple conversation. Think of it as a Christmas present to yourself.
Better still, think of it as a New Year’s Resolution.
Footnote: All I Want For Christmas…
One thing I didn’t mention at the start of this post was that when I first started asking celebrities for retweets, a couple of people suggested I might be overdoing it just a tad. Point taken, my head nodded in agreement, and I was about to take my foot off the gas pedal.
But at that same time, I kept getting tweets back from people I’d never heard of before saying things like “keep spreading the word”, “the more awareness out there the better”, “thank you for this tweet”, “thanks for writing this, it helped a lot”, “I’ve been suffering for a year now, your blog helps me know I am not alone” and “thanks for sharing and retweeting guys, sharing these stories is good for us humans.” The one that struck a chord with me the most was “I’m so glad your retweet requests have brought your writing to our attention”.
And so I kept going, pedal to the metal.
I’ve also found that the more followers someone has on Twitter, the more messages they receive, so the less chance any individual retweet request has of being read. Top Tweeters like Lady Gaga with over 17 million followers or Katy Perry with 13 million followers, for example, tend to receive about 20 requests a minute, 24×7.
Just to put things into perspective, the biggest retweets I’ve had so far by region are: Kevin Pollak (USA) 234,000+ followers, Paul Daniels (UK) 38,000+ followers and Wil Anderson (Australia) 143,000+ followers. I consider myself incredibly lucky to have had these public figures and others retweet about my Black Dog Blog, and to each and every one of them, once again my sincere thanks.
With all that in mind, and with the spirit of Christmas in the air, I’d like to ask for your help with a Yuletide Challenge I’ve set myself. Please excuse me if what I am about to ask sounds in any way arrogant, because anyone who knows me would tell you that is absolutely not who I am.
Put simply, all I want for Christmas is to make as many people as possible feel they are not alone – especially at this time of year. My Christmas challenge is therefore best summed up as follows:
All I want for Christmas is a million-plus tweet.
Given that Mr Kevin Pollak has already got me nearly 24% of the way towards my own American Dream, I do not consider this challenge impossible by any means. I am going to keep asking away for retweets, at the rate of a small handful of celebrities a day, some big fish, some not so big. And here is where you might be able to help. If you know someone, or if you know someone who knows someone who knows someone who has more than a million Twitter followers (or anyone who may be interested in sharing really) and who just might be able to oblige, my Twitter handle is @MarkPacitti and the URL for my full story so far is http://www.dancingwiththeblackdog.com . They will know what to do from there.
Think of it as a call to keyboards this Christmas in the ongoing battle against the black dogs of anxiety and depression.
My colleague, Social Media Guru and author of the book Connection Generation, Iggy Pintado, and I came up with this idea over a coffee recently. Iggy has been instrumental in providing me with initial advice for setting my blog up as well as supporting and advising me along the way. He has also suggested that I be 100% transparent about what I am asking for here. Some people, for example, may read this and wonder whether I just want to generate as much traffic to my website so that I can turn it into a commercial venture. Well, I’d be either lying or in denial myself if I said that commercial viability hadn’t at all crossed my mind. But I assure you that is all it has done – crossed my mind. It has never once been a driving factor. However, what I can say that if I ever generated any revenue whatsoever from my blog, I have already assured myself that a significant portion of it would be given away to charity. Otherwise it would completely change the nature of what I am doing and why I am doing it.
Rather, the motivation behind my Christmas challenge here remains the same as the overall purpose behind my blog. I will continue to do my bit to spread the message of hope no matter what.
Anyway, as I found out when Charlotte Dawson gave me my first celebrity retweet, if I don’t ask, I won’t get, and all I am doing is asking.
Over to you then to see if we can create a minor miracle together this festive season. Who knows, we might even give a few others an unexpected Christmas present.
Until my next post in early 2012 then, a Merry White Dog Christmas and a Happy New Year to you, one (million-plus, hopefully) and all… and thank you, Mr Johnson.