In partnership with Guernsey Mind
Sometimes life takes you to weird and wonderful places and we were lucky to join travel writer Horatio Clare as he recently spoke about one of his most challenging journeys so far. No, not his trip to the Ethiopian Highlands or his voyage to the point in the Pacific Ocean furthest on earth from land.
Horatio spoke at the Guernsey Literary Festival about his journey with mental illness.
Here are some of the many things we took away from his talk.
Here’s a thought. Why don’t we all take our cue from travel writer Horatio Clare and think about mental health as a journey? We all have our ups and downs, our highs and lows, and we find ourselves considering our mental wellbeing throughout our lives, as we cope with a wide range of symptoms with varying levels of severity.
We can all recognise family, friends, neighbours and colleagues - and ourselves - on various points of the spectrum, and maybe it’s time to acknowledge this as a fluid experience rather than searching for an elusive cure. Certainly, as a travel writer it’s fitting that Horatio would consider his recovery from a recent breakdown as a healing journey.
But this journey is not a trip you want to take alone. In his book, Horatio pays tribute to the many heroines and heroes who care for us in hope that his experiences might help others.
It is so true that we hurt those closest to us the most, and Horatio doesn’t shirk from that knowledge when writing and speaking about his mental health. He is very open and honest when sharing some of the ordeals he went through, and he also talks about the cost to his family. But throughout it all, the mutual love - and frustration that only love can bring - shine through, even in the darkest of moments.
Family and friends know us best. They are the ones who try to keep us grounded and protect us from ourselves. But they are also the ones who have to bear the brunt of the emotional trauma that can come with mental illness, and they may also carry the burden of having to deprive their loved ones of their liberty at times to keep them, and those around them safe. It’s not an easy journey for all involved, but as Horatio’s story shows, time can heal and the healing is less painful when shared with those we love.
Signing books at the event together with his young son was a testament to the love and support Horatio enjoys with his family.
Horatio, and his family and friends, had several encounters with his local police force in Yorkshire when he was unwell and those police officers are some of the heroes of his story. Horatio describes how they repeatedly put themselves out, went that little bit further and stayed beyond their shifts to do everything they possibly could to support and protect his partner, and to protect him from himself.
He has since learned that a huge proportion of their time is spent dealing with people in mental distress, quoting that the police spend 70% of their time looking after people in the community with poor mental health. And often they have no formal training to help them deal with the difficult circumstances they face and their own trauma:
‘Do you get any help – I mean counselling?’ I ask one of the officers as he escorts me from the patrol car to the door of the flat. ‘Your job must be very traumatic sometimes.’
‘It can be,’ he says. ‘Yeah, it is.’
'Something seems to be tearing behind his eyes. I can only imagine what he has seen and had to do, but I can clearly see the effect on him. There is hell and distress behind his gaze. This is something else about madness: there is no hiding from it.'
What is also clear from Horatio’s story is that even with all the support in the world, you still need to take responsibility for your own care. It’s up to you to recognise behaviours and triggers that can cause mental distress. Horatio talks about the demands of a busy schedule and the pressures of overworking alongside his ‘internal staccatos – perfectionism, ambition, inadequacy, guilt’. He also recognises that his ‘secret strategy’ of using cannabis as a stimulant and combining it with alcohol as a tranquilliser, was not the best coping mechanism because cannabis has a history of making him manic.
Now that he is on the road to recovery he has made changes to his lifestyle, prioritising self care:
‘And so I changed my life. I don’t lie now. I sleep. I sleep in the afternoons. I swim. I don’t worry about who I need to be now.’
Horatio is very much aware that throughout his period of acute illness he was treated with respect and afforded a level of care that not everyone is lucky enough to receive. He describes how his:
‘accent, manners, class, confidence and connections mean authority tends to deal with me carefully, affording me privileges and considerations which should be universal, but are not.’
This is because, in general, the poorer and less educated in our society find it more difficult to be heard, along with the most vulnerable people in our communities, such as children and the elderly. They are also more at risk, for various reasons including social, financial and emotional stress.
It is hugely important that access to affordable, or better still free, professional support is available to everyone, alongside free therapeutic activities such as swimming, walking and gardening. It is even more important that everyone is treated equally, regardless of their wealth, education or status in society.
Early in his career Horatio became friends with the Reverend Richard Coles, the 80s pop star turned Vicar, who many now know from his time on Strictly. During his time under section on a hospital ward, Horatio received an unexpected visit from his old friend. The encounter highlights the value of time spent simply chatting about times gone by with someone who knows you well, with no agenda and no judgement. Reminiscing about a lunch date they once had with the late Labour MP Mo Mowlam, Horatio describes the exchange in his book:
‘What do you want to do with your life, Horatio?’ she asked.
‘I want to be a writer.’
‘And what do you want to do, Richard?’
‘I really do think I want to be a priest, Mo.’
‘Well f**king do it then!’ she cried, glaring at us like two shirkers who had finally turned up for a tutorial. ‘Nothing makes me angrier than people who know what they should be doing and aren’t bloody well doing it!’
'We promised her we would’
The rest, as they say, is history, and this serves as a reminder that life is indeed a journey. Yes, there are twists and turns along the way - some we embrace and some we would rather avoid - but ultimately it’s up to us to choose our direction of travel.
If you feel you need professional help reach out to your GP, or get in touch with Guernsey Mind for details of support and services you can access locally if you have concerns about your mental health.
You might also want to take a look at Where to Find Mental Health Support in Guernsey.