Tag Archives: understanding

The faults in our stars

So about a year ago, I sent a letter to a complete stranger. I was fifty-fifty even then on whether I’d receive a reply at all and I still feel like a bit of a weirdo for having sent it in the first place; by now it was to the point where I’d forgotten I’d even sent the original letter. But in the mail this week I received a reply letter, postmarked Louisville, Kentucky. This is what was in the envelope.

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Yes, I wrote a letter to Jennifer Lawrence. Although I have a pretty fair collection of autographed memorabilia (most are books, and most of those are signed by their authors, and most of those are people I either knew already as friends, or was introduced to by friends or family), writing fanmail is not a pastime I make a regular practice of – not only can it be pretty expensive to write letters from Australia to Europe or the US, especially if one would want to receive something back, but in general I don’t have any more admiration for actors, musicians, sportspeople, and other celebrities than I do for any other group of people. Though top-flight actors and sportspeople might get paid ridiculously moreso than virtually anyone else on Earth short of corporate rorting ratfink bigwigs CEOs, they’re just people like any other, doing a job that they’ve trained to do and that they’re paid to do, and my attitude is generally to treat them as such. (Last year, I took a friend visiting from Germany out into the City to have dinner and a beer at an Irish pub I like; while we were in the pub sipping on pints of Guinness – an obligatory first beer for me whenever I visit an Irish pub – my friend all of a sudden recognised a man with a companion at a table behind us, and it turned out the man was Nick Frost, frequent collaborator of Simon Pegg and actor in Shaun of the Dead, Kinky Boots, and Hot Fuzz. And while we were both surprised to see him eating in O’Malley’s on Queen Street, of all places, we made the conscious – and quite easy – decision to just leave him and his companion to enjoy their evening out together. We smiled and nodded at him as we left; that was the sum total of our interaction.) Consequently, I’m not one to go nuts with fanmail.

There have, however, been precisely two occasions in my life where I’ve been moved to write to a celebrity – and more to the point, to someone I didn’t know in person at all – in order to tell them something I felt they deserved to hear, not to approach them as a capital-C-Cᴇʟᴇʙʀɪᴛʏ, but to approach them as a fellow human being who succeeded in touching my life in a small way, just in the same way as I’d leave a friend a note to cheer them up, just as I’d thank someone who picked up something I dropped. The first time was to Delta Goodrem back in 2003, when the news broke that she had been diagnosed with lymphoma. She was 18, and I little more than a year older, at 19; more to the point, though, my grandfather was at that time in the middle of his own long battle with lymphoma as well. The combination of the two was an unsettling first confrontation with the real potential of mortality for the first time in my adult life, and so in an effort to face those grim thoughts head-on, I decided to write a short letter to wish Delta well in her fight. I never sought a reply nor expected one, but several months later an envelope addressed to me, with no stamp and no return address, was dropped in my mailbox. Inside the envelope was a Delta Goodrem postcard, bearing a simple but lovely handwritten message on the back:

Thank you for your letter, and kind thoughts / x D

So that was the only other time. And like the first, the reason I wrote to Jennifer Lawrence wasn’t actually to ask for her autograph. That was a complete afterthought, more or less along the lines of “hell, if I’m going to send a letter to her anyway, I may as well ask if she could sign my copy of Silver Linings Playbook“. I was moved to write to her for another reason entirely, and that was the fact that in the last couple of years, she’s made use of the enormously visible platform she occupies to speak out – more than once – about her experiences with social anxiety. (A couple of articles detailing her opening up about these issues can be found here, and if you read French, here.) As a sufferer of (among other things) a social anxiety disorder myself, and a friend to several others who also struggle with this sometimes debilitating illness, I was almost startled to hear someone speak frankly about their own experiences with anxiety in an open and public forum, and intensely grateful that someone with such influence upon the world’s media was willing to sacrifice her personal privacy in exchange for the betterment of awareness about an issue around which a great deal of stigma still revolves. The same feeling of surprise would have come if it were anyone in the public eye to any degree: a tennis player like Roger Federer, or a royal figure like the Duchess of Cambridge, or even Melissa Downes who reads the Channel Nine news. And so it was that I wrote to Jennifer Lawrence, of all people, to thank her for her forthrightness:

Partly it’s unclear to me why I felt so drawn to write to you, someone I’ve neither met nor seen except on a screen (whether it’s been in your film work, or interviews you’ve given to the broader press). What I do know is that part of my impetus was learning recently from one of your interviews about your confrontation with social anxiety, which hit me in a rather personal way that I wasn’t expecting. Because some unkind people still do stigmatise or minimise anxiety’s impact, as a sufferer myself I’m grateful for your willingness to be honest and open about those issues… though I know that isn’t why you do what you do, I still felt it was important to let you know, and I thought you might like to know, that you’re genuinely inspiring to me as I battle through my own challenges, and I’m sure to many, many others as they battle through theirs.

So I suppose my motive for requesting that she sign the cover of my copy of Silver Linings Playbook was twofold. In one way, the simple fact was that I was writing to her anyway, and I thought that, since I was already paying for postage to the US, it would be nice to have her sign a DVD of the movie for which she won an Academy Award. But the second and more important reason was, I suppose, that to be able to see her signature there – on the front of a movie whose entire plot revolves around the challenges of mental illness, no less – is a reminder of the fact that I was moved to write to her in the first place by her willingness to talk about her own battle; a reminder of someone who’s successfully working through her own anxiety to reach the pinnacle of success in her chosen field; and a reminder that anxiety need be neither invincible nor eternal.

22 Days of Musing: 15

15. Grokking my fullness.

I’d like to talk tonight about how desperately important it is, when you suffer from any kind of mental illness whatsoever – depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, PTSD, bipolar disorder, anorexia nervosa, obsessive-compulsive disorder – to maintain a network of supportive and trusted people around you who can assist you to maintain at least a certain handle on the illness, and can act as a soft place to fall if the disorder should get difficult enough to require that. For a plethora of reasons individually too small to consider problematic but joining together to form a larger and more formidable challenge of my psychological strength, it tends to be my friends in whom I place the most trust when it comes to being open and frank about my battle with mental illness. I don’t know what it is that makes me trust them moreso than anyone else. Perhaps it’s the discomfort I feel with the fact that there’s a societal obligation upon family to care – that blood is thicker than water, to the point where in many cultures the word for “family” or “clan” even comes from terms for body parts, as in Māori iwi “clan” (literally, “bone”) and the Ubykh equivalent lhepq (literally “blood [and] bone”) – an obligation that anxiety makes me sometimes question, even as I tell myself not to be so bloody bone-headed. I ask myself, are they being supportive because they truly want to be? Or rather because blest be the tie that binds and the omnipresent ᴛʜᴇʏ would look poorly upon kinship coming not before all? Having anxiety sometimes makes me ask such terrible questions even as I loathe myself for doing so. And so the hands of my friends, bound by no such ties of kin that might conceivably oblige them to catch me as I fall, tend to be those I trust with my psychological well-being (or lack thereof), because I’m more comfortable, on the whole, with the idea that they’re supportive because it pleases them to be so.

Nkiéjuale mğiéjuale waléwmıt.
(Old friends and old roads will not deceive you.)
– Ubykh proverb

This very evening, in fact, I spent a solid two hours (we can’t seem to help talking longer, always, than what either of us plan!) on the phone nattering with my best friend, ranging over a whole slew of topics and running along glorious tangents at every other turn. The peculiar thing is that it need not be a conversation about anything in particular that helps me to feel better or more positive; I don’t necessarily need to drop my bundle or vent my spleen to get a sensation of improvement. It can simply be the mere fact of having contact with another human being who cares about me for just exactly what and who I am, warts and all, that gives salve for the wounds that respond to no physical cure. When you’re mentally ill, the value of having somebody understand you is incalculable. And I’m not talking here simply about passive understanding, the sage nod of the “oh, I see” from someone who intellectually comprehends the words you’ve said, the scenario you’ve described, and might perhaps even feel sympathy, expressed (or not) in a platitude of some sort. Merely being understood is sometimes not what you need, or at least, is often not what I need. Rather, what I mean is having someone actively understanding you, or (with apologies to the late Robert Heinlein) grokking your fullness: not the mere statement of someone’s understanding, but an activity that communicates that understanding. Actions speaking louder, et cetera. The kind of understanding I most value is that shown not by attempting to “understand” as such at all, but by simply interacting, talking, laughing, commiserating, joking, raging together, in a way that demonstrates – that perhaps even performs – one’s understanding of me. Not of my illness, or of my circumstances, but simply of me. This is exceedingly difficult to describe, and the English language really lacks the lexical and grammatical tools to express the idea as cleanly as I perceive it, but equally impossible to describe is the value I place on spending time with people who’re willing to perform this kind of understanding. And sometimes all that’s necessary is to simply exist in the right place at the right time. On two occasions in 2011 after the “girl from the conference” débâcle, I lost my composure and fell apart in public towards the end of two nights out with a group of friends. In both instances, I realised what was happening and separated myself before I dropped my bundle completely. But one friend noticed my unexplained absence and came out to simply sit with me as I sobbed in the gutter and rest his hand on my shoulder. Both times it was the same friend, and he said nothing as I wept. But he knew, somehow instinctively, that I didn’t need someone to comfort me with words; I just needed someone to be with me and perform an understanding of the fact I just needed to feel like I was not alone. To turn a phrase, he understood the shit out of me on those nights, just as my best friend did earlier this evening. Loneliness is one of the curses of depression, and knowing who your truly understanding allies are can help to fend off that loneliness when it becomes too much to bear; I imagine this could be true for any mental illness, that the establishing of a small group of intimately trusted people who can grok your fullness can save you in those circumstances when your mind is seeking rather to betray you.