In the thirteenth edition of our ‘Just Checking In’ series, we spoke to journalist, beauty podcaster, blogger and mental health advocate Madeleine Spencer. Check out our conversation below:
How are you feeling about your mental health currently?
Pretty good on the whole. I see a great therapist regularly who helps me process any niggles I have. I currently have faith in my ability to cope with bumps in the road, which seems to be self-fulfilling.
That said, I have accepted that I am prone to certain behaviours and fears and that might always be the case, to a lesser or greater extent.
For example, I have recently had a tricky few weeks and the stress has definitely negatively affected my mental health so I am trying to redress the balance and be mindful of giving myself time and compassion as I find my equilibrium.
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 13 when I had my first panic attack. It roared through my body, seemingly out of nowhere. I realised fairly quickly that my mind seemed to spill whatever it couldn’t handle into my body but I had no idea of what the official name for it was, let alone how to manage it or how to diminish the symptoms.
I found sitting through lessons at school hard as I felt so physically anxious. I started to think in patterns, reasoning that if I had a bad day, a good one would follow and vice-versa.
Eventually, I was offered a counsellor through my school, who told me to focus on holistically looking after myself, which helped a little in the short-term but didn’t treat the causes of my anxiety.
What mental health conditions do you have (if any) and how long have you lived with them for?
I suffer from a host of anxiety-related conditions: agoraphobia, emetophobia, somasis and panic disorder. They all started to rear their heads at 13.
If you had to describe how your mental health conditions affect you in your day-to-day life, what would you say?
They wind their way through my life in every conceivable way and have shaped how I go about my days and what I do – and don’t do – hugely.
Understanding them and their roots in my life has meant that rather than feel in the grip of them, I am better able to apply reason and therefore can mostly find it in myself to operate outside my comfort zone if I’d like to.
You’re an accomplished writer, journalist, podcaster and owner of Madeleine Loves. What made you get into writing?
I realised when I was a little girl that stories interested me. I had an innate urge to communicate but it took an English teacher taking me aside and telling me that I might have a shot at crafting words for a living to make me consider writing as a profession.
Once I completed my English Literature degree, it took me years of writing daily in diaries and small pieces in local newspapers, magazines and on my blog to build the confidence to state my opinion on bigger platforms; for me, finding the courage to express myself is an evolving process but I am lucky enough to have very encouraging friends and editors to egg me on!
What topics on the mental health spectrum do you cover if any?
I’ve written on occasion about my experience of mental illness and how that affects me and about some of the issues surrounding the conversation about mental health.
It’s something I’d like to do more of and am keen to profile some people so perhaps I will do something surrounding that in the future.
What effect does writing have on your mental health?
If I’m struggling acutely with panic, I can’t write or read. My ‘fight or flight’ response is extremely intense and it takes sleep or a sensory experience like a bath to jolt myself out of it.
If I am disciplined about writing in my diary and processing my thoughts when I am calm, doing so has an enormously positive effect on my mental health, helping me to find order and logic in my thoughts and to see how and where patterns arise.
What other topics do you cover in your writing?
I write about personal experiences, some opinion pieces, and about wellness, beauty and travel, as well as a few other things that take my fancy. I’m also working on some fiction at the moment.
Who are some of the famous guests you’ve had on your podcast and what topics do you cover with them?
My podcast is designed to tell the story of people’s lives with a focus on the rituals and routines they keep and the products they’ve used, as well as how appearances have – or haven’t – played a role.
My most famous guests include Kylie Minogue, Holly Willoughby, Zoe Sugg and Davina McCall, all of whom were so willing to chat openly and allowed listeners some real insight into how they go about their lives.
What’s been your proudest achievement in your career as a journalist/writer so far?
Unquestionably, when editors and fellow writers I respect have told me something has resonated.
Also, when I’ve recommended something that my readers have said they find life-enhancing or helpful.
What one piece of advice would you give to someone reading this who wants to get into journalism or podcasting?
To simply crack on with it. There are so many online platforms now – and you can easily make your own. I think you learn a hell of a lot more through doing and failing and carrying on.
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?
I’ve always been open about my mental health issues with all and sundry – it’s in my nature to be honest and direct about these things. My friends and family have been enormously helpful and, on the most part, very understanding of all my quirks.
They’ve supported me in every way possible, from hiding in the shower at school with me when I couldn’t bring myself to face the crowd at chapel, to doodling on my books so I could focus my brain on the movement of their hand rather than the seizing up of my throat, to coming to see me when I’ve been housebound as a result of my agoraphobia.
What tools and methods do you find useful in helping you manage your mental health or mental health issues?
It’s a hackneyed term but self-care does affect my mental health. For me, that means trying to get enough sleep, not drinking too much (or any, currently) alcohol, moving on a daily basis and eating a balanced diet.
I find writing in my diary cathartic and being engaged in my work keeps my mind occupied. However, the best tool I’ve found by far is a good psychoanalyst, who helps me to make sense of the things that make me panic and to unpick the causes.
If you could say, what do you think have been your lowest and highest points in your mental health journey so far?
The highest were times when I’ve travelled alone without panicking. I flew to Australia once and didn’t find doing so difficult when, at times, I would’ve found travelling such a long distance alone impossible.
The lowest was absolutely a period in which I was living in Bayswater and had approximately four episodes of panic a day and remained on high alert between them. I couldn’t leave the house alone in case ‘something’ happened (that something was undefined, but it made me nervous) and my throat felt itchy from stress all the time.
Do you think the conversation around mental health is changing and if so, in what way?
I think the conversation is now happening, which is in itself a huge change. When I first had a panic attack twenty years ago, I felt so anomalous and everyone I told about my anxiety seemed to be baffled by it.
Now, I am one of many speaking out. I hope that the collective voices of all we sufferers will provide solace to people going through it themselves and also act as a reminder that mental illness can strike irrespective of where you’re from, what you look like, or how successful you are.
What more do you think needs to be done to ensure everyone with mental health issues get the support they need?
There absolutely needs to be more funding to provide help for those who can’t afford it. I think it’s crucial that anyone with mental health issues feels heard once they’re ready to speak out, either by a professional or by their friends and family.
Community is key.
Madeleine Spencer is the owner of Madeleine Loves This.
Read more Just Checking In conversations here.