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Throwing off the mask: it's okay to speak out

Friday, 11 October 2013 Jade

Jade is a 20 year old student living in Exeter. She is a musician and a song-writer. She is also a survivor of abuse and struggles with PTSD and DID. She now wants to help fight the stigma around mental health, and also show other survivors that it's okay to speak out, and that they are not alone.

She blogs about why she agreed to take part in Mind's new photoshoot, and what it was like taking part.

Last week I travelled to London to take part in Mind’s photoshoot. There were a few of us there, all with different mental health issues, and all willing to volunteer in this shoot to be the new “faces of mind” on their website/materials. There would also be the opportunity to talk a bit about our mental health. I was looking forward to it, but was exceptionally nervous.

I was nervous...

Why was I nervous? A variety of reasons, really. On a somewhat comical level, I was nervous of navigating the underground…having never done this successfully before. I was fairly certain I was going to end up abroad if I relied on my sense of direction. And yet, the map of the underground is like a map of my head – chaotic, random, a scribbly mess with the only appealing aspect being the various pretty colours. Needless to say, I was not going to be able to rely on the map, and was therefore going to have to rely on signposts and sense of direction in a city I do not know. I was fairly sure this was going to go horrendously – if hilariously – wrong.

I was also nervous for more serious reasons, however. I was feeling very scared because I knew that I was about to speak out, with my face and name known. I realise I’ve been blogging for a while, and my friends know me and my story…but generally my speaking out has been pretty anonymous in terms of the general public. This photoshoot was going to change that. Okay so I wasn’t about to embark on a blow by blow account of the abuse itself, but I was going to have photos of me taken…I was going to talk a bit about DID…and I was therefore about to take the mask off. I was speaking out so other abuse victims may feel it’s okay to do so. In order to do that, I was going to have to stop blaming myself, and feeling ashamed, and hiding behind my mask. I was going to have to accept within myself that to speak out is okay, so that I believed in myself…and could show others that it’s okay to do so as well.

With all of this in mind, the day had the potential of being the biggest day of my recovery so far. I was about to stop being anonymous, about to forgive myself, and speak out. This thought was a met with a mixture of fear and excitement.

I was scared of people calling me names

I was scared of speaking out for other reasons too. I guess I was scared of stigma, of people seeing my face on a website or leaflet and calling me names as a result. I quickly decided with this that I didn’t care, however. I was doing this for me, and for other abuse victims…if people judged that then I decided they needed to take a look at themselves first, and weren’t worth my mental energy to worry about. I was scared of the threats abusers had made to me to stop me from speaking out, but reassured myself – it’s okay. All abusers make threats to keep their victims silent. Go and show them you’re stronger than they thought…

Sitting in the train, it occurred to me how much of my life had been a series of changing moments. That at any one point my life would change. Many of these moments had been frightening and upsetting. Mostly, the moments had been beyond my control. Suddenly, on that train, I realised I now had a moment which was totally within my control…and had the power to stamp on the damage done so far. I had taken control and could empower myself with it, and free myself.

My emotions were stirring around like a fruit salad. A knot of nerves formed in my stomach and I had to keep drinking because my mouth felt so dry. A part of me wanted to run away from this, even though it would be something that freed me…a younger part of me felt frightened by the idea of freedom, with nobody to place strong rules onto my life. But mostly, I felt an overwhelming level of relief and exhilaration. I sat and watched the countryside race past, and cried for a bit…but not sad tears, just emotion. Lots of emotion…that I’d finally reached a point in my life where I could – by myself – travel to London and set myself free, take this god awful mask off, and do something to help others. I had deliberately gone on my own, so that I didn’t have the option of hiding behind a friend or even relying on them to show me around the underground. Nobody could poke me and stop me from running. All of that would have to come from myself. 

I was travelling towards another moment which would change my life. But this time, for the better. To some I suppose this makes little sense – I was simply going to have my photo taken and say a few words. But the reason behind this…that’s where the power and importance lay.

Once in London (and underground navigated SUCCESSFULLY, I thank you…) I went to the meeting point to wait for the person from Mind. A young man about my age approached me, asking if I was here for the Mind shoot. This amused me; there were several people around (we were in a train station) but something about me had given it away. We giggled about this for a bit. He was also a volunteer here for the shoot, and once we’d had a laugh, I felt my nerves evaporate. This is okay. It’s really okay. You’re laughing already! As more arrived, the giggles continued, and introductions were made. We were led to a black taxi with blacked out windows, and with the scene of London around us I commented that it felt like something from the Apprentice…more giggles…

Turning point

Once at the location, I already felt at ease with the 5 other volunteers. We sat around in a circle, with members of staff, and introduced ourselves…and if we felt able to, we could say what our mental health issue was/background etc. I felt my heart jump – this was that moment…that moment where I had to let go; had to forgive myself, had to believe it wasn’t my fault, had to know it would be okay, and had to take my mask off and no longer be an anonymous survivor. I didn’t have to say anything if I didn’t want to, of course…but the moment had been handed to me. This was what I’d prepared myself for. This absolute turning point in my own recovery, somehow.

We went around the circle, and I was moved and touched by the inspirational people around me being brave enough to share their stories. I later said to one of the volunteers how incredible it is…that in a group of strangers in a situation such as this one, there’s a random instinctive bond where we trust each other enough to hold our spirits out for all to see. All spoke in a manner that showed their mental health didn’t define them, and I felt honoured to share that with them.

I would be shown to the world

When it came to my turn, I felt my throat tighten. To any onlooker I don’t suppose this moment would have looked so important. Me saying “I was abused” isn’t a new thing. However, I’ve usually said it to friends, or in a situation where I know my face and name won’t be used or needed. This time, I was going to say this, and then my identity shown to the world. This was my choice…this was my wish. This moment was very important to me. This was like raising two fingers to the abusers. But also this was very big, and I wanted to make sure I did it properly.

I heard the echoes of “you’re not allowed to talk”, and in my mind I blew the sounds away. Gone. I wasn’t being ruled anymore. I’m 20. I’m a survivor. Time to show the world that abusers will not keep me silent, or scared. I introduced myself and said that I had PTSD and DID, as a result of abuse. Someone asked what DID was, and I was happy to explain. I tried to apply some humour, seeing as humour is something which has helped me survive and does play a large role in my life. “Yeah…it can be quite comical…like yesterday, I was reading about what I was supposed to wear for this shoot…two of the younger personalities wanted me to go as a fairy princess…meanwhile a 16 year old male personality wanted me to go in heavy metal black gear…” A few people chuckled. I went back to explaining why I was there, at the shoot. I was there because I wanted to show other people who’ve been abused that it’s okay to speak out, and that they aren’t alone.

It wasn't wrong to speak out

The moment was done. I felt something massive shift inside me, and a wave of strong emotions rush through me. It wasn’t my fault what happened. It wasn’t wrong to speak out. I am a survivor. And that’s something to be proud of. I don’t need to be ashamed. I don’t need to hide. This mask is now worthless…I don’t want or need it. I want people to see me. And now…they can. No secrecy. I was abused. It was out there now. Done. I’d done it. In my head, I visualised taking the mask off, and throwing it away…in front of me. I’m me. Not them.

The rest of the afternoon was amazing. Such a worthwhile – and very fun – experience! The staff were so warm and welcoming, and helped make sure we were all relaxed and feeling okay. One of the volunteers taught us to play UNO whilst we waited our turn (I got too confused. Learning this is now my mission). I spoke to a few of the volunteers and there was just an endless stream of giggles, smiles, heart-warming stories and tentatively raising an eyebrow at UNO with a mixture of amusement and confusion.

Mental health doesn't define people

It really proved the fact that mental health doesn’t define people. We had all been through terrible stuff, suffering from various different mental health issues, and yet there was no misery. Just strength.

I also did a very quick 30-second video talking about what I feel does/does not define me.

My abuse and mental health does not define me. I am a musician and a student. THAT is what defines me. Saying it in such a short space of time had quite a profound effect. I couldn’t waffle around it. I was absolutely to the point of what defines me, and therefore could suddenly hold onto what my identity is. I felt more sure of myself simply by having said that for a 30 second clip…and completely recommend that everyone stands up RIGHT NOW (go on, do it!!) and say what does NOT define you, and rather what DOES define you. Grab your identity and be proud of it!!

The intense bit... portraits

Then came the intense bit. The portrait photography. Me and the photographer, and the camera. Trigger trigger trigger. I told myself over and over do not flashback. Do NOT flashback. You’re doing this for you and for others. Keep hold of that. Keep hold of what defines you. I felt very nervous suddenly, but even more determined that I would manage this bit.

Staring into that camera, I thought about stepping above my abusers. This was me truly fighting back, in a non-aggressive manner. I imagined them seeing my face on a Mind campaign thing, some point in the future. They had not beaten me. On the contrary, I was able to stand, speak and be part of the Mind photoshoot…as well as studying for a degree, being President of a society, and with some incredible friends. The abusers had NOT beaten me. And now they could not. I had won.

It's okay Little One

The photographer asked me to imagine I was seeing my younger self when I looked into the camera. What would my expression be? One of absolute concern and sadness, but also of warmth and reassurance. It’s okay Little One…you can see me here huh? You can see they didn’t win. I know you’re hurting but don’t give up…you make it, I promise… you’re not on your own. I’m right here. So that’s what I tried to convey with my eyes…a message to anyone either still being abused or in recovery that you deserve sympathy and concern, but also warmth and the reassurance from someone that you will be okay…you really will, and you really are not on your own. To begin with I felt my emotions trying to dissociate, but I fought against it. I wanted to do this. I wanted to convey this message. If nothing else, it was an important message for me to convey to my younger self…and I felt the effect of it just on myself as the shoot progressed. The photographer was gentle and caring, and trying to capture real emotion. Not interested in my body. This…was quite a breakthrough in my head. He was interested in helping others, and in helping me convey my emotion… gradually, I felt my stiffened body relax. Bad memories…gone.

What would I say to my younger self? 

It was intense though. Because suddenly I found myself wondering what I would say to my younger self. Could I have done anything different to have saved myself? I tried to push these intrusive thoughts away. I was a child. I am only 20. Maybe I could have done things differently, but I didn’t…so rather than get lost with “what ifs”, I instead will focus on the “what nows?” They are questions I have control over. 

Then, the day was over. I thanked the staff and got in the taxi with the rest of the volunteers. I was feeling a bit emotional. Good emotions, I hasten to add. The day had not only given me the opportunity to speak out for others, and to try and break stigma, and to give something back…. it had also given me the chance to confront some of my own demons, and win. I hadn’t ran away. I’d done it. All of it. That meant that despite threats and fears, despite shame and memories, and despite nervousness…the abusers had lost, and I had won. 

We talked about our experiences of the day; how incredible it had been to meet people and see how strong people can be. We were all grateful for having had the opportunity, and hope to keep in touch in the future.

The demons had been stamped on

Once back on the train, I was feeling drained but so happy. I felt like on some level I had not only triumphed over the abusers, but also over myself. The demons I’d refused to even consider, had been stamped on. I left my mask in the Mind building. I refused to pick it back up. This is who I am. Like it or lump it. I don’t care. 

I rested my head on the window and thought about how much it has taken for me to get to this point. How much I’ve gone through before I could have done something like this. It hit me how much of my life has been robbed. How much has been taken from me. I thought about all the crazy flashbacks and other nightmare-ish episodes simply within the last year…how much it had taken, from so many, not just me. I felt relieved I could have turned it around somehow, and grateful Mind had given me this opportunity. But I also felt angry that abuse had controlled my life for so long and had robbed me of my right to speak or feel…even my right to remember. I felt heartbroken that there are others in the same position. Abuse is so cruel. It takes so much, far beyond the acts themselves.

But we can turn it around. It feels frightening. It feels overwhelming and frankly at times I wondered if it was even possible. 

But it is. Mind gave me such an incredible opportunity, and the day really was the most challenging, exciting and largest day of my recovery so far. No there weren’t fits of tears or extensive processing of memories, but big days in recovery don’t have to involve this. Demons were dealt with…my mask was thrown off by my choice…I could use my story to give something back… and I spoke. I spoke, and my identity was out.

And I’m proud of it. 

Thank you Mind.

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