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Updated: Apr 2, 2021

Kathryn O'Driscoll is a Bristol slam champion, spoken word and page poet, who talks openly about her disability and mental health in her wide range of poems. She will jump on any project that helps normalise talking about mental health. Today, she is taking in part in this candid interview with me about her own experiences and I'm thrilled to have her on board with this project.

1) Hey Kathryn, how are you?

Hey Jemima, I’m good thanks. Bit tired but that’s normal.

2) How are you really?

Uhhh - haha - I think I’m alright. I have mood dysthymia so my mood is usually lower than it should be, but I take emotionally stable days, days that don’t have any piercing feelings, to be good days. So I’m okay. I am trying to focus on the positives.

3) Why did you feel it was important to share your story today?

I love any opportunity to talk about mental health because it has affected every stage of my life so far so deeply, and through all those years of mental illness I found that, for me, the worst part was the loneliness. I think particularly for people with personality disorders that affect the way they process emotions or thoughts - its too easy to feel like you’re broken and you’re the only one who feels that way. And that thought process takes me down a very dark road. I don’t want other people to go there. It’s not nice there. But I know that a lot of people who have been there, or who are in that kind of place, can’t talk about it. So I feel like because I can, I should. To help those who can’t… If that makes sense.

4) Do you believe that judgements around mental health issues can be changed through gaining more knowledge around the subject?

Absolutely, I think in my lifetime I’ve seen understanding of depression, anxiety and self-harm really evolve in my country (every country is different). I have always been super up front about my mental health issues, whenever relevant, no matter who I’m talking to or what situation. Even in job interviews. But nowadays when I do it people seem less taken aback by my honesty, which gives me hope. I definitely think more work needs to happen in the understanding of other mental health conditions, but any progress shows that people can learn. It’s really hard for me to imagine being neurotypical, so I imagine it’s just as hard for someone to imagine not being - but the more personal accounts that are available the easier it is for people to try to imagine I think.

5) What are your mental health diagnoses?

Mixed Personality Disorder, Acute Social Anxiety Disorder, Mood Dysthymia with Major Depressive Episodes, Suicidal Ideation, Complex PTSD, Complicated Grief, Binge Eating Disorder. I think those are all of the diagnoses. They also recognise I have intrusive thoughts, compulsions and self-harm but those are part of the existing diagnosis I believe.

6) What is it like living with mixed personality disorder?

I feel like this is the hardest one, although, it took me over a decade to figure that out. My social anxiety disorder stopped me from leaving the house for ages, so I always felt like that was my biggest problem, but I’ve had years of psychodynamic psychotherapy now and I see patterns in behaviour and thoughts that extend way beyond that and from before my social anxiety disorder kicked in. In my day to day life, it just makes me feel very alone. I struggle to stop my brain from interpreting a neutral comment as a criticism. I always assume that people hate me, that I’m a burden, that I am unwanted and unwelcome. I have to work really hard to do simple things, like go to a shop, because in my head people are repulsed by my mere existence. That’s draining to fight every day. I think that fed into it just being easier to just stay indoors. I also don’t regulate my emotions well. I can have people say nice things to me all day and feel nothing, and if someone says something slightly critical, I will plunge immediately into a depressive episode that can last weeks. Then I feel guilty for my carers for making them look after me, for being upset by one small thing. It can be a vicious cycle, I’m still trying to understand all the ways it affects how I process information and stuff.

7) Do you feel there is a stigma attached to personality disorders?

I don’t… I haven’t experienced that personally. I know lots of people say they have. I think the reason for that is, I’ve been talking publicly about my mental health through social media and poetry since I was about 14 - so no one who has those kinds of negative impressions of personality disorders would end up being my friend to say those things to me. I find it really scary that I have to declare my personality disorder on my driving license though. That’s the only time when I’ve really felt specifically, not just my mental illness but that one specific diagnosis, was being used to make assumptions about me. I don’t think it affects my ability to drive at all. Like many people with a personality disorder, I prioritise other people’s safety way higher than my own and would never drive when in a state of distress because of that. I’m probably a more cautious driver because of that. So that’s odd to me.

8) Tell me about the depressive episodes you experience?

So, my average day rarely goes by without depression rearing its head. My mood is usually low, I think of my scale of bad day to good day as low in relation to the ‘average person’… but the depressive episodes are much more than that. Lately a depressive episode includes not being able to finish my sentences, not being able to remember a thought half way through thinking it, losing words, sleeping up to about 30 hours at a time, not eating, not washing, not getting dressed - when things are really bad I become non-verbal and experience a sensation of heaviness in all my limbs, so it can take me up to an hour to be able to physically move. Some of these symptoms are only a few years old. A major depressive episode has always been, sleep a lot, blank brain, no hope, no energy even to cry, pain… but now depression can inhabit my whole body as well as my mind. The worst ones are when I am experiencing high levels of anxiety simultaneously. It’s bad enough to be lying in bed, staring at a wall, unable to move - but if you add racing intrusive thoughts, the desire to end it all, and heart palpitations - those are my worst days.

9) If you're going through a depressive episode, how can someone else be of the most help to you during that time?

My partner Kasha is actually amazing every time and has been since before we were together. Sometimes we just focus on one thing at a time, like my dog’s fur. Sometimes she asks me questions that I know the answers to (what’s her favourite colour? Green etc) to try and prompt me to verbalise again. But on the day to day it’s so regular for us that we just balance as much as we can. If I’m having a really bad day, she’ll cook a simple meal and suggest tv to watch to try and distract my brain from the intrusive thoughts.

She has her own mental and physical conditions so on her bad days I try to push through and cook for her. We’re a good team. I’d say that the best thing we do for each other is break everything down into single tasks. “What do you want to do?” is so overwhelming when you are in horrific emotional pain, but “Do you want to watch Masterchef?” is one thing, it’s way easier to use your limited mental energy to make a decision like that. So that’s what I appreciate most.

10) How has your mental health impacted you getting out of the house and going about your everyday life?

As I mentioned earlier, when I was 17 I stopped leaving the house. Primarily due to my acute social anxiety disorder and my personality disorder, I was convinced that people hated me. If someone looked at me, I would think of all the horrible things they must be thinking about me. My mum would say, ‘what does it matter what they think of you?’ but the truth was, those were the negative things I thought about myself. My brain was using other people as an excuse to trigger this negative internal dialogue.

I spent 7 and a half years completely inside, only going to my grandparents house (driven to and from) to help them a couple of times a month, and to the doctors / psychological evaluations a couple of times a year. I lived online (which has meant my accent now has Australian and American tones sometimes) and I just couldn’t go outside. I’d panic and feel sick and want to hurt myself every time I thought about it. So eventually I just stopped trying.

11) How does leaving the house feel for you these days?

Not too bad. I eventually did leave the house. I got to a point where it was literally do or die… I did an access year and then a degree at Bath Spa where I lived on campus, went to the Edinburgh Fringe three times, ran a comedy and a spoken word society, I was a trustee of the SU, I even worked behind the bar for a while. When I got there, I really WENT FOR IT. Because I had almost 8 years to make up for.

My final year included some bad stuff, some gaslighting and being encouraged to commit suicide by my friendship group so by the time I graduated, I was barely scraping by to be honest. I then fell back into not leaving the house for about two years. I had just started going out three times a week (which to me is a lot) when lockdown hit. But I know that I can do it, because I did it once before.

These days leaving the house feels scary but empowering. Every time I do it I think, 'next time it’ll be easier. Next time I’ll be glad I came out today.' And because I went from housebound to the extremes of my degree before, I know I can do it. I know I want to do it. I don’t want to die, and if I’m going to live, I want to do the things that make it worth enduring the pain.

12) Do you have any techniques to help you to leave the house?

I know my own limits so if a day is not going to work, I just don’t go out. Mostly I push myself, and I have safety nets. If I don’t know the bus route and I’m anxious, I get a cab. If I don’t know anyone who’ll be at a poetry event, I invite someone. I always work to make the things my brain recognises as ‘safe’ to be a part of what I’m trying to do, to maximise my chances. That’s my hot tip. I also got a dog. Whenever I’m out with him, people look at the dog. They focus on his cuteness. It’s like an invisibility cloak. Dogs are my number one suggestion for anyone experiencing anything similar to me. They are comforting, and distracting.

13) Have you tried to hide your social anxiety from people in the past? If so, how did that feel?

No I don’t think so. I grew up with a severely physically disabled sister so very early in life I learned that being ‘different’ wasn’t a negative thing. That some people might see it that way but they aren’t your people. Or they just need to be given the opportunity to learn. I’ve never hidden it. People on my access course, my lecturers, people at uni, people in societies, at job interviews - I tell people, I experience x y z, and I want to be here because of it. I will work hard. I will sometimes not be able to do a b c, I will tell you as soon as I can, I will communicate as much as possible to make this work for everyone. Everyone’s been really receptive to that.

I think the only time when hiding it would be nice is at poetry events. I think people mistake my anxiety for nerves. I grew up doing theatre stuff before my social anxiety disorder started so when I’m on stage I am completely happy and calm and in control usually. But when I get off stage if people say nice things, my mind immediately erases them and I don’t know what to say back. I’ve gotten into the habit of hitting record on my phone when I get off stage after a gig, so I can listen back to what people say and write it down. I genuinely don’t remember compliments otherwise.

14) What advice would you give to someone who is friends with someone with social anxiety?

Keep inviting them to places, and when they show up, try to work together to understand what made this situation manageable. Why did they show up today? It could be a person, the location, the route to get there, or just a good day. But it’s important to figure out what those things that can go right are - as much as it is useful to recognise what goes wrong. Then you can try to work out how to reproduce those circumstances. If you want your friend there but they need to bring another person, then invite them and say, ‘I can get an extra ticket if you need to bring them’. That kind of stuff makes them think about it and assess how many safety nets they can use to optimise the chance that they can complete it. Try not to take it personally if we don’t make it. Trust me, we feel bad enough and it is not due to not caring about you.

15) What have you learned about yourself through your mental health diagnoses?

For me, I like to be able to use language to make sense of the world. And for me, diagnoses are just language, just a short cut to be able to convey to someone else what I experience. I love my diagnoses because trying to explain the complexity of how my brain messes with everything I come into contact with is really hard. It’s hard to explain how your brain is dysfunctional when you’ve not experienced a traditionally functional (neurotypical) brain. So mostly the diagnoses have helped me acquire the specificity in language to help others understand why I don’t react the way others would to something.

I also learned that I am not some broken toy destined to die. I am just a person who has a different way of thinking, or being affected by my brain. And the word for that already exists because other people who have felt these things exist. So I’m not alone.

16) If someone is reading this today and is struggling in any way with their mental health but is not seeking help, what would you like to say to them?

I would always say reach out. I would always encourage people to go to their GP or a mental health professional because our friends and family love us and don’t want to see us in pain, but they don’t always have years of training on this specific thing, and neither do you.

If you think about how long someone has to train to be a psychiatrist or a psychotherapist… of course you’re not going to be able to ‘fix this’ yourself without help… otherwise the professionals wouldn’t have to spend years learning how to try to. Just because it’s your brain, doesn’t make you the expert in how to help it. It’s okay to accept that someone who has years of medical training might be able to help you.

Then I would say, you deserve help. You deserve to be working towards a goal of being in less pain, and you don’t have to do that journey on your own.

17) Do you have any particular coping mechanisms which help you through a difficult day?

Laika the dog, of course. I spend a lot of my time staying busy. For me, and my particular brain, staying busy helps me stop my intrusive thoughts from spiralling to a point where they are in control and I do something I regret. I have many spreadsheets, and online communities which I am involved with, so that no matter what time of day I have something I could do that takes up enough brainpower that it stops those thoughts creeping in, but not so much brainpower that it leaves me exhausted. I watch TV, play games, write poetry, and generally don’t give myself a hard time if my day doesn’t look as productive as someone else’s. I’m just trying to survive the brain I’ve been given.

18) Tell me more about your poetry...

I write a lot about mental health. I used to share my poetry on DeviantART, an online art community, and a lot of people said that through my poetry they found a way to explain to their family and friends what they were going through… and whenever I feel lost about my personal direction in life, I cling to that. I can help people just by being honest about good and bad days. That in itself has a value to someone. Right now I’m trying to find ways to explore my personality disorder, my eating disorder and my PTSD in poetry because I feel like I’ve written a LOT about depression and a fair amount about anxiety and suicidality, but these subjects are getting talked about more and more in the spoken word community and so I am trying to focus on the things I don’t hear talked about as much.

19) Does feeling heard when you're speaking have a positive impact on your mental health?

Absolutely. If after a gig my partner says, ‘do you remember that lady said your poem touched her because her daughter is a self-harmer and now she understands?’ I will sit with that and think, see brain, I am not worthless. I improved a stranger’s life, I deserve to be alive. Whilst that sounds like the most basic thing, ‘I deserve to be alive’, there is very often a direct link between poetry and feedback at gigs, and using that as a tool to remind my brain of this statement that it only half believes.

20) How do you feel after answering these questions today?

I’ve rambled a lot, so I feel anxious about that, but that’s the anxiety disorder trying to twist things I think. I feel good, I haven’t shared anything that I feel worried about people reading. I am not scared of the response. I wish that I could talk more in depth about my eating disorder - but I’m not quite there yet. Because of the link between body image and my social anxiety disorder, whenever I talk about it I know that my brain is going to assume people think mean things. I am pushing back against those thoughts, trying to prove them wrong (I hope) by continuing to talk more and more about it, little by little. Today I basically only mentioned it by name, but that’s something. I feel accomplished. I feel hopeful that it helps someone, and nervous because I don’t know how to explain my personality disorder very well, so I hope other people with personality disorders don’t get angry and feel I misrepresented them. Mixed personality disorder is a really broad diagnoses (it can be something like 9000 different combinations of eligible symptoms so two people with the same diagnosis can be experiencing something completely different) so hopefully people will understand that I’m just talking about me. Thanks for doing this Jemima. I love your work and your dedication to talking about mental health in public forums, I respect and admire it so much. So thanks again.

Kathryn, thank you so much for answering these questions honestly today and being so incredibly informative. I’d like to reassure you that everything you said was spot on, true to you and your experiences, clear and informative, and will go a long way to helping those who read it to either understand themselves or other people. You’ve been helping people for years through your openness and continue to do so today, I’m excited to meet you on a poetry stage in the future!

You can follow Kathryn’s poetry on her Instagram @yellowleatherjacketpoet

If you’re struggling with your mental health, please REACH OUT! Speak to someone you trust, see a GP, or go to the ‘SUPPORT’ page on this website where you’ll find contacts you can reach out to for help.

If you’d like to share your own mental health experiences through an interview on this blog, message me via the ‘CONTACT’ page on this website.

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