Joining The Circus

My shaking finger was poised and ready; I was aiming at his head. I had never shot royalty before and now it all came down to this one moment.

He was on the other side of a small room in conversation and bound to turn towards me. I had dug myself into a real hole. I had one shot; failure was unthinkable.

The conversation seemed to be coming to a close. The back of his royal head was beginning to twist and reveal one of the most famous faces in the world. Instantly, I fired.

Prince Charles immediately stopped and closed his eyes, half blinded, his face screwing up in displeasure and discomfort. I could hear him muttering expletives before he regained his composure.

I could have died. The flash-gun had unleashed a grossly disproportionate payload of white light into his eyes as he turned from his dutiful examination of the shop owner’s wares.

I immediately looked at Camilla standing directly opposite me, barely a few yards away. Her eyes met mine and in that moment we both understood each other. A secret smile, the faintest of expressions, told me that it was alright; she understood and she sympathised and I wasn’t going to the Tower of London to be consigned to a life of torturous incarceration in its infamous dungeons.

Following Lady Diana was like replacing Keith Moon. The media scrum that was never far away, the circus that Charles so obviously despised, was interested only in insulting and deriding her. She had only had bad press, a little like Linda McCartney, the woman who had dared to marry Beatle Paul. I didn’t have a particularly high opinion of Camilla or any of the royal family. That moment of kindness, however, was very gracious.

Inside the nauseous claustrophobia of the tiny Cornish art shop she had been standing facing me, so close that we could have whispered to one another, and I hadn’t been sure whether I should photograph her or not from such close range. She couldn’t have avoided me and I could have clicked away a hundred shots. I found it excruciatingly embarrassing and couldn’t make myself do it.

I felt that I couldn’t initiate contact because I was supposed to be invisible; I wasn’t to interfere in royal business, I was there to document it in a silent and respectful manner: but It was almost as bad ignoring her as it was invading her privacy by shoving my lens in her face. Looking back, when I replay it in my mind, as I do sometimes, I wish I had asked her permission for a photograph. I think she might have said yes.

As far as I was concerned coverage of the royal family was just another media soap opera designed to sell newspapers. I found the media’s obsession with them distasteful and embarrassing. There was no doubting, however, that Prince Charles was one of the most recognisable celebrities in the world and that upsetting him was a big deal for a naïve photographer like me.

Charles didn’t look at me once as he filed past, almost brushing my jacket, as though he didn’t want to give me the satisfaction of knowing that I had upset him. It was just another chapter in his daily battle with the paparazzi he so despised.

I was in a strange dream and had been from the moment that my bad-tempered boss had called me up to tell me that he was sending me to photograph royalty. It was my thirty-second birthday and the very day that I was moving in to my new home in my new city, living in my new life and doing my new job. All of a sudden I was facing a very different assignment to the routine cheque presentations I had been expecting. It came out of nowhere and when I asked for advice from my boss (as he had urged me to do a matter of days before) I received an ear-full of abuse.

I loaded my equipment up, strapped some of it to my back like a marine going into battle, and wandered through the drizzle into the circus scrum.

My first instinct was simply to follow the pack and do whatever they did. The village was tiny and most of the shops were too small for more than one photographer to go in with the royals. With unusual fairness and civility, it was decided that we would take it in turns.

A few of us followed them into a tiny church shortly after their arrival. As soon as the doors opened the Women’s Institute burst with fervent enthusiasm into song and did for Prince Charles’ considerable ears what I was later to do for his eyes. The royal couple did well to remain in the building and not turn around immediately and flee.

Later, my turn was to be inside the tiny art shop. That was my showdown with the heir to the throne.

When the showdown was over, back in the office, I went through the usual routine of cataloguing the pictures, choosing the best, printing out photocopies of them and delivering them somewhat warily to the picture desk where my boss may or may not be lurking and poised for attack.

At the end of the day I made my way to my new home. My wife and I sat on the floor in the conservatory, overlooking the wood, looking up at the stars and sharing a takeaway meal whilst waiting for our furniture to arrive. We felt excited and optimistic but I was living through an out-of-body experience. I could scarcely process what was happening to me, but a small, rational, part of my mind, didn’t trust any of it.

Ten Ways To Help Your Child Or Relative With Their Mental Health Issues At University

Please note that I am not and never have been a mental health professional. I have been through university with a mental illness and have done a little research. I have children but they have not been through university.

1. Understand the challenges faced by students

Saddled with debt; likely to suffer from stress; under pressure to complete their course and get the qualification they need; living unsustainable and damaging lifestyles that may lead to alcoholism or drug addiction; struggling with abusive or failed relationships; trying to understand their mental health difficulties; coping with the realisation that they are not the top of the class anymore, not such a star on the sports field, not as perfect as they thought; vulnerable to anxiety or eating disorders; dealing with being independent, and experiencing some intense life lessons for the first time: student life is fraught with potential difficulties.

2. Choose the right university

Although this may be dependent upon how many offers your child has to choose from, (and on how much influence you have), choosing the right university has to be done wisely.

You might want to consider things like choosing a university that is close enough to home for you to go and visit them regularly: this could be more important than you might imagine.

Consider being influenced by where his/her’s friends are going.

3. Be influenced by the adequacy of the university’s’ mental health services

Check out the website and read up on the university’s mental health support services. Compare it the other university’s that you are choosing from. Give them a ring and talk about it. Understand how many staff the university employs in the area as this may determine the length of the waiting lists for counselling services. Consider choosing a university that has a specialist mental health advisor.

4. Inform the university about pre-existing mental health issues before arriving

This way a plan of help can be made quickly.

There is more help than you might imagine for people who arrive with existing mental health conditions. They can have a mentor or extended deadline dates, for example.

Being open about these things is much better than suffering in silence and these days it shouldn’t affect your application.

5. Spot the signs of depression

Go and visit your family member at university don’t remain stuck on the end of the phone. On the telephone you can’t read facial expressions and you can’t get a feeling for their circumstances, where they live, where they go. Look at their body language: do they look at you in the eyes or do they look away from you? How much do they smile? Is there something different or unusual about them? Do they sound overly pessimistic and negative about everything? How do they dress – have they lost interest in how they look? Have they lost interest in things they used to enjoy? Have they lost or gained weight suddenly?

If your child or relative is withdrawing from you in any way it may be because they are becoming depressed.

Of course, some people are too hard to read, too good at acting. They are the centre of the action, the life and soul of the party, permanently smiling, doing well in their studies and having a great social life. Sometimes making your friends roar with laughter can be a depressing experience: I know because I’ve done it. In that moment you are the only person not laughing and time seems to stand still. Your night out can’t get any better than being the centre of attention and being Mr. popular. So the only way is down.

6. Educate yourself about mental health

Make sure that you understand that depression does not improve simply by ‘jogging around the block’ or ‘going out for a laugh’. The fewer old fashioned clichés that you use the better. Being knowledgeable and understanding will help you give your child the right advice should they choose to ask you for it and will help you yourself cope with his/her’s challenges.

7. Communicate

Foster the best relationship that you can with them so that you can get them to open up about their problems. Keeping it to themselves is not going to help them at all. These days there is less stigma around mental health but it does not mean that admitting you have a problem is easy. As a parent, you will likely be one of the first people that they can trust with their problems. Being able to talk to you is vital.

8. Encourage them to give counselling a go

Talking therapies work. Talking can be the most effective way of treating some mental illnesses and often it starts with traditional counselling that may be available on campus. Other therapies can follow through referral from a GP or privately.

9. Take the pressure off them

You can take the pressure off them by telling them that it is ok to feel the way that they do. You can tell them that it is better to quit and come home than to suffer with suicidal thoughts. Once home they can work on getting well enough to move on with the next stage of their lives. Getting a degree isn’t the only stepping stone to a successful career.

10. Be a good listener

A good listener does not have to give advice but must listen sympathetically and intently. Don’t zone out. Try and summarise what you think they are saying occasionally to show them that you are listening and don’t be afraid to ask them questions. Whatever you do, don’t start talking about yourself. It’s not about you! Avoid lecturing them or making them conform to your view of the world and how you think they should live. It’s great that they are confiding in you!

Recovering

Clinical depression is a morbid illness. It kills people. It killed my grandfather – even the Nazi’s couldn’t do that. It tried to kill me.

I have spent most of my life wishing for death.

I have stood on the edge of a sheer drop, my toes over the edge, palms sweating and heart thumping.

I have a strong primal instinct for self-preservation. I fear pain. I suffer from vertigo. When you stand on the edge of that drop your mind says jump but your body says stop.

My suicide attempts were all failures. Some were half-hearted cries for help. Some were the only way I could be taken seriously and get some treatment at last. Some were meant to kill me and some very nearly succeeded.

And I’m still alive.

And what’s more, I’m feeling better than I have for many years. I’m recovering.

Clinical depression morphed into anxiety and I ended up in an acute hospital. I rolled around the floor of a deserted corridor having one panic attack after another. The staff just left me to it. I could barely eat. I couldn’t lift my fork to my mouth. I lived on pieces of melon. I couldn’t sleep. I was scared of being murdered in the night by psychopathic patients. Every moment was a hell words cannot describe.

When they let me out again I saw a private psychiatrist for a one-off consultation. She prescribed anti-psychotics instead of anti-depressants, as none had ever worked, and she gave me tablets to help me sleep and to quieten my out of control nervous system.

I slowly began to learn how to function again.

And so here I am: a survivor.

My new diagnosis of BPD is unhelpful and, yes, anxiety is a daily battle but I can actually feel again. Instead of a flat-line low mood occasionally dipping into crisis I can now enjoy the good things about my life and my mood can go up as well as down. I have a wonderful wife, two amazing children and my faith.

Standing on the precipice I never would have believed that I could feel so well or have so much to live for. So I say don’t give up. It’s never too late for things to change.

Still Alive: The First Eighteen Years

All schools ever said about me came in the form of whatever was written in my yearly report. I did well. My reports were good. Teachers liked me because I was bright and polite. They called me ‘quiet’ and ‘conscientious’.

However, my ‘brightness’ and ‘conscientiousness’ didn’t endear me to the rest of the children and being the teacher’s ‘pet’ singled me out as a target. I was different to most of the other kids I neither condoned nor condemned their behaviour in their hearing but by not joining in I earned their wrath. I was scared every day of my school life, at primary school and secondary school, in term time or out: scared of abuse, either physical or verbal, and scared of being mocked and humiliated. I was ostracized at times and tormented at others. This was always going to impact on me both then and in the future.

I was rarely involved in fights because I could run fast and I could make myself scarce at the right moments. I slipped in and out of school through a hedge and managed to avoid being kicked and punched on most days. There were exceptions but nothing was ever done about them. In a way it was for the best because those kids would have hated and persecuted me even more if they had been punished for attacking me. My trials slipped under the radar.

And so, I was just ‘quiet’.

As I excelled in sports (I was virtually always captain of both cricket and football teams in primary and secondary school) along with the academic side of school life teachers must have thought that I was coping with school life better than anyone. Unfortunately, the more they praised me and promoted me the more I was hated, and the more I achieved the more scared I became.

I lost my grandfather (I idolised and loved him more than my own father) when I was ten: he committed suicide on Christmas day. Now I can sympathise with what he must have been going through but I’ll never be able talk to him about it, I’ll never be able to try and help. It gave me a deep wound that has hurt for over thirty years.

My problems only seemed to get worse at secondary school. It was an achingly sad time. In fact it would be fair to say that I spent most of my days in desperate anxiety, dreading every school day and getting more and more nervous from the moment the Friday home time bell went to the moment Monday morning came and my next week of distress began.

The school bus was hell. Sometimes I was persecuted; spat upon; mercilessly and ceaselessly mocked for thirty minutes twice every day. It hurt to take it without fighting back. I kept my anger inside because of cowardice and a hatred of confrontation. My main battle was to keep from blubbering every day.

My mother asked me for permission to divorce my father. When I said yes I felt terrible. I’ll never forget watching him packing up his things in the back of a van and leaving, or the time I saw him crying and said nothing. I sided with my mother but it was still heart-breaking.

I came to live with my father because one of us children had to go with him rather than leaving him totally alone. It meant that I avoided the bus as he had moved into town. Unfortunately we had never got along, I had always lived in fear of his moods and hurt by his lack of praise for me and the atmosphere in the house quickly became poisonous.

During my A-levels my doctor first used the word ‘depression’. Nothing, however, was done about this and I didn’t bother mentioning it to my parents. I was scared of it and didn’t want to be stigmatised.

I left school with good enough qualifications to go to university but also with a lifetime’s worth of issues.

Conclusions

Was it really a surprise that I began to develop stress-related problems, depression and social anxiety? It is not a cliché to look back at these formative years and see problems in later life. There is a reason for psychiatrist’s being interested in our childhoods.

Child and young adult psychology should be made more available than it is now. If it’s not, parents and teachers at last need to be talking about mental health.

I was lonely and isolated and I was being picked on. That’s not just ‘kids being kids’. Teachers should pick up on this and have a conversation.

School time is an intense social experience for children exploring relationships for the first time: relationships with each other, with their teachers, their parents and the wider world. Those children who seem to have trouble with these relationships need to be looked after and monitored.

Is there training and funding for specialist staff in the field of child mental health? Do teachers know enough about what is happening to their pupils at home? What should they know and how should they find out? Do parents know enough about what is happening to their children at school? Does the government care about any of this?

The signs that I was having difficulties were that I had few friends; I was unusually quiet and I was moody; I wanted to run away from home and I was extremely sensitive; I never felt rested after sleep and so I felt tired and weary at school; I was always sad. If they had talked to me they would have picked up on a lack of self-esteem and problems at home.

There are no ‘loners’ in the school system that should be ignored. They need to be dealt with sensitively. If I had the opportunity to talk to someone during my time at school, someone I felt that I could trust, I would have admitted that I faced serious challenges. The long and short of it is that parents and teachers need to understand how important mental health is for kids. They need to see the signs and know where to go to get help.

Every class or year group should have access to someone they can talk to. It’s so important.

I suppose, as with most things, it comes down to money. If the government is serious about targeting mental health it needs to give schools sufficient funding. If we get it right early on we may see the benefit later. The state has had to fund care for me: maybe it could have saved itself from this burden if I had help earlier on in my life.

Every school day I make sure that I talk to my son about how he felt during the day. I give him the vocabulary to be able to answer that question; when he was younger it used to be: was your day ‘good’, ‘ok’, ‘bad’ or ‘really bad’? Sometimes we would say was it a ‘normal’ day or an ‘abnormal’ one (he liked this because he was learning about similar structures in grammar)? I always ask him if he played with the other children and if there were any tears. How is he getting on with his teacher? Is there anything worrying him? Does he want to talk to me about anything?

I try to get him to open up and tell me everything. I would thoroughly recommend this approach to all parents. One thing we know for sure about mental health is that talking works.