Thursday, 1 February 2018

*Anxiety Episodes*: my anxiety as a TV show. Time To Talk day 2018.

'Anxiety Episodes' 
OR 'my anxiety as a TV show'

This was taken 7 days before the events in this story. In retrospect, those aren't happy eyes.

The scene unfolded like a page from a screenplay that had slipped loose from the pile and floated down into an average Wednesday morning before shouting ‘Action!’.

“You need to go home” she said, her arm outstretched behind her back, stopping her cigarette smoke from drifting into our conversation, on the chill November air.

“You need to go home, and you need to see your doctor” she repeated. Emphatically.

And there was something so sincere, unequivocal, about how she said it that, not only did I know that she believed me, it led me to believe it for myself. A case of “Shit, if someone outside my head can see the trouble I’m in … then I guess it must be real after all”.

Because, until that moment, sitting on a bench, talking to a work colleague, I hadn’t especially believed it.

I’d only starting feeling unwell on campus a week before that cold morning when I simply could not face going into work. Only three times I’d struggled to sit still in lectures, watched the clock, felt nauseous, crampy, sweaty. How can something that had only happened three times feel this insurmountable this quickly? How could it be real? It must all be in my head.

And it was:
  • it was in the constant, incessantly racing thoughts that impeded my ability to function, like a computer virus slowing down a laptop. 
  • it was in the negative self-talk that made me feel pathetic, childish, neurotic, for suddenly struggling with something I’d done regularly for over a decade. 
  • it was even in the positive self-talk I ceaselessly narrated while I was flailing. ‘You’ll be OK, this is nothing, you’re just exaggerating, you won’t pass out, you’ve been anxious before and never thrown up or fainted, just get through this next hour without jumping up, rushing out and making a show of yourself. OK, f*ck the hour, just get through the next minute, second …” and repeat until home. 
All of which had no effect, except to exhaust me.

So yes, it was all in my mind. But, funnily enough, your mind’s kind of a useful thing to have on board to get you through the day.

It kind of keeps the whole ship running. And if there’s a mutiny, well, nobody wins, you all just get scuppered, wrecked, pulled under with the tide.

But right then, when she said: “You need to see your doctor”, like Cinderella’s golden coach and snowy white horses, the reality of my mental illness suddenly materialised before me.

This thing was real. This wasn’t normal behaviour. Even for me. Something was wrong.

So, I did exactly as I was told. As instructed I went home and, the next day, I went to see my GP, who also believed my new – no longer a pumpkin – reality and signed me off work for a month. Just like that.

The explanation on the sick note read: ‘Anxiety episodes’. Which at least gives me the title for the TV drama, when I write it.

‘She’, by the way, is my closest colleague on the university campus where I’ve worked, part time, for over 11 years. Let’s call her Anna.

Anna is self-effacing, generous, funny (she can spin a good yarn, often complete with actions); the kind of person who knows everyone who passes by and who, somehow, also knows all their names, and they hers.

The kind of person who, without missing a beat, can turn someone’s month around, all while finishing off her morning ciggie and take-out coffee.

I’d been mooching around, unable to settle, when I spotted her outside and went down to join her. After waiting patiently, fake-smiling and laughing all the way while she chatted to one of the groundskeepers (who she knew by name, naturally) – I eventually did something very un-British:

When we were finally alone, and she turned and asked how I was, I didn’t say ‘Fine thanks’. I told the truth.

“I’m feeling anxious” I confessed, "And I just don't know why." then she pretty much intuited the rest.

“For no reason?” she suggested.

I nodded.

“And you thought if you came to talk to me it would help distract you?”

Another nod.

“But it’s not working is it?”

I shook my head half in laughter, half sadness.

That’s when she instructed me to go home and talk to my GP. Hell, she even offered to talk to the administrator in our office to explain why I had to go home. 

And – just like that – Fairy Godmother style again, there was the administrator, walking across the square in front of us. And Anna went over to her and the morning continued to play out like a TV show; now I was in one of those scenes where the protagonist can’t hear what the others are saying, but there’s enough gesturing and glancing in their direction to know they’re the topic of conversation. 

Then she was back by my side; obstacles magically removed; deal sealed: I was going home.

And I did go home. But, before I went, and before this story ends, let me tell you one more thing Anna did for me that day …

When I write ‘Anxiety Episodes’, (the hit TV series), it’ll include a scene that everyone watching will think is a little far-fetched, a bit on-the-nose, purely there for broad comic effect. Everyone, that is, apart from you, me and Anna because, we’ll know that it was 100% based on true events.

These events in fact.

While we were talking Anna’s student, a wheelchair user, arrived in the car park so we headed off to meet her. And there, while waiting for the student to get her belongings together Anna made me promise to text her when I was safely home, before uttering that simple, matter-of-fact phrase, often used by allies of the mentally unwell:

“There’s nothing for you to feel silly about” she chastised “You wouldn’t think anything about being off work if you had a broken leg, would you?”.

And, of course, she was right. Our society really shouldn’t still be finding mental illness so much harder to comprehend than broken bones, vomiting bugs and runny noses. But, it does. And, on that day, and for at least a few weeks afterwards, I did.

But, as I nodded in half-hearted agreement with her sentiment, Anna’s face changed, her eyes bulged, she tried to hold my gaze while wordlessly indicating something with a tilt of her head.

“I can’t believe it” she gasped. “Here’s me going on about broken legs and then …” the head gesturing grew more pronounced forcing me to turn around just in time to watch a student slowly, but determinedly, hobble past us …

… on crutches …

… with her a leg in plaster.

I swear!

So there we were. Two disability support assistants, trained to the hilt in inclusivity, loitering in a carpark while appearing to be – hang on, no, not ‘appearing’ to be – but actually, hooting with laughter at a hobbling student! Wheelchair to the left of me, crutches to the right, here I am, stuck in the middle with you.

Anna, with the aid of the impeccable comedic timing of the benevolent universe, gave me laughter too that day. Right when I needed it.

And I hope the ripple reached you here. Have a smirk on us. And maybe pass my 'Anxiety Episodes' story along to someone who might need to hear it.


Thanks for pausing with me and Anna today. I should tell you that I’m feeling much better now, so there’s no need to be concerned about me. But I’m gratified to think it might have crossed your mind to worry.

Anxiety Episodes’ is my contribution to ‘Time To Talk’ day (1 February 2018), a campaign to tackle the stigma and discrimination surrounding mental health.

For more stories and information: 
And if you’re struggling with a mental health issue: 
  • please know that you are not alone. You might have your own Anna to confide in – even if you don’t recognise it at first. I’d never imagined how OK it would be to say it out loud until that morning. 
  • When our inner voices are telling us we’re useless and feeble, we judge everyone else through that filter. But most people are more understanding than we give them credit for. Plus others can be better than we are ourselves at appreciating that something’s wrong, as they have the benefit of distance and clarity. 
  • Alternatively, follow this link to the Time To Change resources page which contains many sources of information and support: 
  • And there’s always your GP. 
And if you're a potential Anna ...

  • if you're someone who might be able to listen without judgement and guide without criticism then, don't be afraid to engage.
  • You don't need to solve all the problems for whoever confides in you.
  • But listening, and even laughing, can be the perfect opening scene where someone can begin to share their story  ... 

Thanks for stopping by today.


Thursday, 18 January 2018

2017: A Year in Bad Portraits

Hello you, and happy 2018!

As is now customary round these parts (this is the 5th year running), my first blog post of the new year is:
  • my factory reset for the ego; 
  • my rejection of photo filters;
  • my antidote to all the tasteful, vetted, photos of myself I've shared unapologetically throughout the previous year; photos like these: 

Because, after another year of carefully curating my selfies, today it's time to for me to share ...

My Year in Bad Portraits: 
The 2017 Edition.

(If you’re new to the project then do treat yourself to the gurning, gawping and glaring of previous years here: 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016. I'll post links again at the end of this post so you can't possibly miss any of my ridiculous faces. You're welcome.)

Before I begin ...
... for some reason, this year there weren't so very many #BadPortraits for me to choose from. Not because I became miraculously more photogenic in 2017 - although, maybe I have learned more about which angles suit me! But for a few other reasons which I've narrowed down to:
  1. It might, in part, be James's fault. (Yeah, why not, sounds like a likely cause). In previous years, some of the worst photos of me were taken by my beloved (although goodness knows what that says about how he sees me) but he doesn't seem to take as many photos these days, so my awful stock-photography levels have been depleted. BTW: he makes an appearance with a #BadPortrait of his own later in this post. It's not one for the faint-hearted. Don't say you weren't warned.  And ... 
  2. My concept of what constitutes a 'bad' portrait has changed. Having done this for 5 years now, I'm getting used to seeing imperfect photos of me for longer than it would take for me to hit the 'delete' button. (Remember I even got to feature on Marie Claire UK with them?! They're hanging around out there.) And, in response, I'm becoming a bit immune! My ‘bad’ portraits bar has been raised so high that I have to look reeeaaallly bad for me to even notice.
  3. Plus - this year - I've started talking/appearing on my Instagram Stories (short videos that only last 24 hrs) and around 90% of the time on those I'm not wearing make-up and am often in my 'working from home no one will see me' clothes. So, again, I'm losing a level of self-consciousness and accepting what I actually look and sound like as just part of the 'real' me behind the careful social media presentation. 
Case in point: 

All that aside ... there were plenty of perfectly imperfect portraits on my hard-drive so how about we dive in?

As ever, you are free to laugh at these! In fact, please do, because otherwise ... what am I even doing here?! 
  • If you can see it - it's fair game: of course there are some shots throughout the year that don’t make me laugh, that make me feel awkward, weird, or unattractive. I don't share those ones, and so you're safe to laugh at the ones I do! 
  • This project is never about body-shaming or self-critique. At worst it's self-deprecating ... at best, it's a healthy self-assessment, and I share mine in the hope that it'll make you feel better about yours
So, let the guilt-free voyeurism commence ...

My Year in Bad Portraits: 
The 2017 Edition.

The glamour of 'Champing*'
I can honestly say that, in my 40+ years, until the day this photo was taken, I had never undressed in a church before. I mean, I might have taken my coat off on occasions, but even then ... that would have felt a bit risque. But, when James and I spent a few days Champing (*camping in a church) last year, I learned just how quickly I can take off one item of clothing and replace it with a nightie (And a dressing gown. And a vest. And a hat. And bedsocks.) in order to mitigate the sheer unrelenting awkwardness of  - I'm just going to say it - of having my boobs out - in front of saints and angels.

And wasn't the end result a glamorous one? Not for us an anniversary spent at a fancy hotel!
For the record:
  • Yes,the door was locked. 
  • No, there was no congregation in at the time ... 
If you'd like to see more photos (and a couple of videos) from Our Great Big Anniversary Champing Adventure then do visit the blog post I wrote all about it.

This next one was taken in MIMA gallery where I spent part of the summer writing, and co-hosted a Snipped Tales workshop for the dementia friendly craft group there, as part of my stint as Writer in Residence.

And don't I look professional?

That thing I'm doing there - the whole looking upwards and away thing - is not, sadly, an isolated incident. Whatever look it is I'm aiming for ... be it 'really engaged in my surroundings', 'dreamy', 'wistful' or whatever, it never works. So why am I a repeat offender?

Exhibit B:'First her eyes rolled up into her head ... then she started doing impersonations of a chicken' ...  

No, I don't know what's happening here either. Let's blame James again shall we.

And, apparently, when my eyes aren't trying to escape my skull, they're glazing over instead ... 

Here I am stumbling bravely over that fine line between the pose that says 'I'm a deeply pensive woman' ... and the one that says 'that evil witch made good on her threat to turn me into mannequin':
I mean, for someone who generally can't sit still for two minutes, in these photos I'm doing a pretty good impression of something made entirely from fibreglass.  

And, when I wasn't playing the mannequin in 2017 ... I was in charge of making one speak ... 

Ladies and gentlemen, allow me introduce to you: Little Fitz and his ventriloquist dummy Ziggy:  
No, there isn't anything I'd like to reveal to you about my private life. And no, this isn't how I generally dress at the weekend, honest guv, but this long weekend away in a cottage with friends (yes Jean, that includes you! I know you'll be reading this!) had a Murder Mystery theme.

Jean had bought a mystery game in which we each had to take on a role and find a suitable costume to bring with us. I played 'Little Fitz' (and Ziggy, because my acting talent is nothing if not versatile), and managed to source everything except the trousers (a loud check pair I found in a charity shop) in my own regular wardrobe. My instructions stipulated a bow-tie ... and I even had a choice between two. (I opted for silver in the end, because, why wouldn't I?)

What exactly does it say about me that - at the drop of a hat - I can open my cupboards and dress like a 1900s Musical Hall performer should the whim arise? 

And it''s all - literally - fun and games when you're trying to make people laugh with your appearance, but it's not such a joy when you're not ... 

Sometimes you think you're rocking '60s Beat poet in smoky Parisian cafe' chic ... when you're actually more like 'toothless French poet gets door-stepped by paprazzi':

Ah, the gap between intention and outcome. That can really punch you where it hurts!

Similarly, judging by these next two, things go strangely awry when my intention is to convey how happy I am ... and yet, what gets captured instead is this ...

I call these my 'Wow, Julie looks thrilled' poses:

Because, the thing is, I was happy, on both those occasions. The left one was taken before we went to a comedy performance, and on the right I'm standing in front of the first Snipped Tale to feature in a public exhibition!

I genuinely was happy. It's just ... no one had told my face.

Same again here.

  • I'm purely trying to get a decent shot of myself. 
  • I am not under duress. 
  • No one is bothering me. 
  • I'm entirely alone ...

So why do I look snotty, and disapproving, and all 'Errrm, excuse me? Can I help you?'
Surely there's someone out there working on an app that can talk to you while you're taking selfies ... one that drops gentle, friendly hints like 'Hey Julie, you might want to stop frowning at invisible people' ...

The next couple of shots are from a time when I wasn't alone, and when the other person with me definitely wasn't invisible. And while they're not strictly 'bad' portraits ... you'll be able to guess why neither made it on to my Instagram grid - @withjuliekirk - in 2017.

Part 1: The Photo Bomb
To quote Sophia from the Golden Girls 'picture the scene' ... it's a Saturday morning, in our hallway, and - as is often the case - I'm trying to take decent 'Outfit of the Day' shots, to share on Instagram.

And then, with my camera propped up on the pew, and set on a timer, this happens ...

But ... two can play at that game Mr ... 

Cut to a month later, same hallway, same day of the week, same posing for an outfit of the day shot, only this time, the tables are turned ... 

Part 2: The Photo 'Bum'
Genuine conversation in our house last week:
  • Me: "I've been looking through photos for my Bad Portraits post and there's one of you, on the stairs, tying your shoe lace, and well, you're jeans are a bit low. Are you OK with me using the photo? ... It's not that bad ... my finger is covering most of your bum crack".
Reader, I showed him the photo and he agreed to let me share it with you all. Feel free to judge his exhibitionist qualities as you will. 

And, while we're in the hallway, here are another few, taken in the same spot, that I took by accident. Obviously. Because who would deliberately pose like this? 
There's something a bit creepy, voyeuristic, about that left hand side one. Like it was taken by someone hiding under a bed or something. *Shudders*. (It was actually my phone propped up in a shoe and my hoodie had slipped over it, which isn't so sinister after all.)

And from ones I didn't pose for , to one I kind of did ... 
Here I was trying to capture the strange new hair growth  that I've noticed in the last few years. Before you ask - no - it's not pregnancy related, I've had it for around two years now and, last time I looked I wasn't an elephant, so I think we can rule 'gestation' out as a cause.

It was almost like I turned 40, got lots of presents, a big cake ... and a second fringe.

I reckon it's 'hormones', because isn't it always? I might stop trying to photograph it though; that level of close-up does no one any favours.

As for these two near-identical poses ...

I'm calling these 'Oh Jesus, did I lock the back door?' and 'Mardy teenager gets asked to do the washing-up':

I honestly don't know what happens to my face once it becomes aware that I'm trying to capture it! Although - I should make it clear that with these I was capturing the shots in a public space and ... I don't know ... I know I share a lot of photos here, and a lot of people see them, but ... it doesn't make me any less self-conscious when snapping photos when I'm possibly being observed by strangers.

I mean, who wants to grin and pose all perfectly perky? I mean who would do such an annoying thing?? Who???

Oh yeah ... me:
Don't take this the wrong way but - when I look at the Julie in this photo - I could just give her a swift kick. Nothing too violent, but just enough to stop her being so painfully perky. 

Of course, the difference between Perky Julie and Glazed-over-emotionless-android-Julie selfies is that no one can see me in my hallway! It's far easier to attempt to be human from the privacy of your own home. I'm a much less convincing human in public.

However, my true self can probably be found somewhere between the overly keen Julie above ... and  the overly emotional Julie below ... 

This pose is called 'Julie watches Billy Elliot the Musical for the first time - particularly the bit where boy-Billy dances with adult-Billy': 

Oh man. That show. It drained me and filled me up at the same time. 

I love the film version. Jamie Bell's performance in the Town Called Malice scene is a perfect 3 minutes of cinema. If he never performed another creative act that routine alone is lifetime's worth. And so ... I'd always - wrongly - expected a 'musical' version to be a bit, well, tacky

Then I watched it. And I cried. And cried. And made everyone I know watch it too. Then they cried. 

I've never been happier to have been proven wrong! 

And now, after all that crying ... let's just check that there's nothing untoward happening in the nostril area ... 

Because no year of #JuliesBadPortraits would be complete without an up-the-nose shot. You're welcome:
What was I thinking? Well ...
  • I was thinking: wouldn't it be nice to get a shot of me walking along the road, in the snow, beneath this clear blue sky
  • But I was also thinking: yes, that would be nice but ... I don't want all the people going past in cars to think I'm a total narcissistic tit who takes selfies while walking down the highstreet in the snow. So I tried to be surreptitious and hold the phone low down. Which resulted in nostril central here. Mystery solved. 
Of course, the irony is that - as much as I don't want people to catch me taking selfies in public - I do rather defeat the object of all that coyness by then collecting them altogether and broadcasting them online! 

Even the bad ones! 

So ... there you have it - my 2017 in Bad Portraits - I hope you enjoyed them.  Let me know your best of my worst in the comments!

Now, this is where I usually set out the rules for if anyone wants to play along (only photos of yourself, no body-shaming, the photo MUST make YOU laugh first) but ... no one ever does join in. Not that I blame you. It's not for everyone.

But ... if you fancy giving it a go during 2018 here are my tips:
  • Ease yourself in by simply not immediately deleting the awful shots. 
  • Let them hang around in your phone for a while.
  • If they make it that far ... save them to your laptop/harddrive/cloud.
  • Set up a 'Bad Portraits 2018' folder and start dragging them over into there.
  • Add to the folder throughout the year.
  • Delete any that make you feel bad about yourself.
  • Keep the ones that make you laugh, that free you up a little, that make you see the absurdity that is being human!
  • If you feel brave enough - drop them into a blog post sometime in January 2019! 
  • OR if you share any on Instagram - no matter what time of year - use the hashtag #juliesbadportraits or #badportraits and let me know @withjuliekirk and will hop over to look/laugh along with you. 

Thanks for dropping by to see me in this shiny new year. May 2018 bring you all that you wish for yourself ... plus good camera angles.

Julie x

Psssssst, before you go: if you've ever missed any - fear not - here they all are again:

 If you're a pinner will you save this to Pinterest to spread the #BadPortraits word? Thanks!

#BadPortraits 2017