In the eleventh edition of our ‘Just Checking In’ series, we spoke to author, blogger and mental health advocate Charlotte Underwood. Check out our conversation below.
Hi Charlotte, how are you feeling about your mental health currently?
I was in a bit of a funk recently, with the festive season and cold nights, I was exhausted and a bit out of touch with my motivation. I took a break from writing as it’s important to have a rest now and again but it’s proving hard to get back into my groove.
When was the first time you became aware of your own mental health and realised that it wasn’t just physical pain you experienced?
I was 14 when I noticed that something just wasn’t right. I didn’t grow up understanding mental health. I was made to feel like I was a drama queen and that some people were just more emotional than others. I had no idea that there was more to my feelings and that I wasn’t alone. It took developing an addiction before I realised that there had to be something more to this all.
What mental health conditions do you have (if any) and how long have you lived with them for?
This is where it gets tricky. At 17 I was diagnosed with Generalised Anxiety Disorder but it seems that it has not been recorded on the new medical record system so I am not certain that it counts as an official diagnosis. GP’s have frequently told me that I have chronic depression, anxiety and insomnia but I have been refused a diagnosis as they do not think it will help me – I plan to get private therapy to understand my mind better, when I can afford it.
If you had to describe how your mental health conditions affect you in your day-to-day life, what would you say?
I am always so tired, it means that my life is always so up in the air. Walking to the shop, seeing friends and doing basic tasks outside the home feels as scary as going on stage or doing an exam. Waking up, doing chores and having a bath feels as exhausting as doing a full cardio workout. It feels limiting and honestly, I am unpredictable in my mood.
I can be so happy and motivated one moment and then detach myself from everything for months or years, just to snap out of it again at the most random moment. I guess living with anxiety and depression makes me feel like I am walking on this type rope that I have been forced onto. I can’t move forward or back so I am uncomfortable and trying to balance just so I can keep myself alive.
You’ve been a mental health writer and advocate for several few years now. When did you realise you first wanted to write about mental health professionally?
I lost my dad in 2014 to suicide and it took me a few years to get past the deep grips of grief. I felt so lost and I struggled to know what life would hold for me. With my father’s death, my family crumbled. We moved and I lost a lot of friends and parts of the life I was used to. I had to start fresh but I didn’t know what path to take.
Eventually I had to leave my job for the sake of my well-being and I became bored. My husband encouraged me when I mentioned possibly writing as a hobby and it sort of flew from there. It just felt right, because I was never doing this with the intention to save the world. I just wanted to save myself and the people who had lived similar stories.
What topics on the mental health spectrum do you cover?
I talk about anything and everything. It’s even more likely that I will cover a topic when it is taboo or awkward for society to accept.
My only rule is that I will never personally write about a topic I have not lived or experienced; in which case I accept things like blog posts from people who know first-hand what it is to live with certain mental illnesses.
What effect does writing on yours or others mental health have on you? Is it cathartic, uplifting etc?
I find writing extremely helpful for me to make sense of some of those jumbled thoughts in my head. I suppose in a way, writing helps to ground me. Our thoughts and feelings can be so overwhelming when they are running loose in our heads but on paper, when you are face to face with them, they just seem less scary.
How have you found the reaction to your writing in your own community or social groups?
It’s been super encouraging. Honestly, I think I would have given up a long time ago if it wasn’t for my Twitter family. I don’t get much support in the real world and my only cheerleader in my family seems to be my husband, so it helps to know that people like what I do and my husband isn’t just being nice!
You’re a published author and your latest book is entitled ‘After Suicide’. What inspired you to write it?
When I quit my job, I struggled and I knew that I needed to do something. I mentioned that I liked writing to my husband and he encouraged me. I wrote at least three book ideas down and drafted a few chapters of each of them, all of which ended up in the trash. I considered what mattered to me, what shaped me and all I could think of was my Dad. I remembered that there was so little help online for those left behind after a suicide and there were books but they cost a lot of money.
I just wanted to contribute something free to the world, so that if someone felt like they needed a bit of hope while grieving, I could be the one to give them that.
What reaction did you receive from it and has it inspired you to write more books?
I was so terrified of publishing it. A few health professionals have mentioned I may have dyslexia and it’s also hard to know how people will respond to a topic like suicide, so I certainly expected the worse.
Thankfully, people looked past the grammar mistakes and really focused on the story, one person said it even saved their life and that really filled me with such a pure form of joy!
I want to publish a new book but that is entirely dependent on finding an agent or publisher who has faith in my story!
Have you told anyone close to you about your mental health issues like your friends or family and have you asked for support for them?
Even though I’m open online about my mental health and practically anyone could find out about my personal battles, including my family, I still struggle verbalising it.
I am getting a lot better with communicating with my husband about my relapses and I am still working on it with my closest friend, but like everyone else, I can only keep working hard on it and fight my phobia.
What tools and methods do you find useful in helping you manage your mental health or mental health issues?
It may surprise your readers but writing is my main tool. It seems to annoy many people when I tell them that. I have no secret healing tool that helps me get through the day, a lot of it is just accepting my falls and allowing my husband to help me stand up. I am always working on self-care and more importantly, self-respect. Learning to be friends with yourself can be the strongest tool of them all.
If you could say, what do you think have been your lowest and highest points in your mental health journey so far?
After my father passed and I made it through his funeral, I started to get ill but I didn’t realise it. I was being both medicated and self-medicating which led to me trying to take my own life. The pain I felt, my readiness to die and the stigma that pierced through the hospital walls was such a horrid experience that it will forever be the lowest point in my mental health journey. I had lost both my faith in myself and the system that was supposed to keep me alive.
The highest point happens every day, because I make it through the night, which is hard for me as that is when I struggle the most. I grow a little bit more confident in myself and the person I want to be. My Blog, my Twitter account, going on TV and radio, writing and being featured, that all counts as high points.
Getting married, finishing college and being accepted to university, they trump it because when things were bad, I told myself that I would never deserve or have any of those things.
Do you think the conversation around mental health is changing and if so, in what way?
It’s difficult because in many ways, we are being provided with more options for treatment, things like the well-being service didn’t really exist when I first sought help.
However, things like treatment from your GP, hospital or secondary service are so dire that people are losing their lives and like me, have given up faith. However, more known faces are coming forward with their stories, more funds are being raised and people are improving their language. I have full confidence that in my life-time, mental illness will be accepted and mental health will be as commonly talked about as the common cold.
What more do you think needs to be done to ensure everyone, but especially men and boys who have mental health issues get the support they need?
We just need to accept that mental health is a part of all of us. We all have brains filled with emotions and thoughts, which is a beautiful thing but we would not be able to cry or have these feelings if we were not meant too.
When we accept mental health in conversations, in our daily lives and through all schools, workplaces and services, we will find ourselves healing because there will be less fear and less stigma.
For now, if we continue to grow and learn, if we talk about our feelings and we remind each other that it is okay to cry or show emotion, then maybe it will get better. I’ve always thought, as the next generation of parents, maybe it’s our responsibility to make sure our children taught about mental health from an early age; it doesn’t have to be a scary thing.
You can visit Charlotte’s website here.
You can also follow here on Twitter @CUnderwoodUK.
See more Just Checking In conversations here.