By Tom Whitfield
‘My story’ sounds like a documentary offering an insight into some glamorous showbiz lifestyle. The thing about ‘My story’ is that I have only recently started to understand how important it is and how powerful it could be for somebody else to hear about it.
I have always been very privileged, growing up in a loving and close-knit family who provided everything I could ever ask for and more. My childhood was everything anyone could wish for and for this I owe it in particular, to my Mum and Dad who worked tirelessly to make sure myself and my sister had the best opportunities in our lives.
The problem was that from the age of 10 I knew there was something not quite right. Pictures, sounds and even scenery would influence my mood if only for a short period of time. I was sensitive to anything that could be perceived as negative and this often led to negative thoughts and behaviours of my own.
These thoughts would interfere with my life on a consistent basis and sometimes, in the worst case scenario they would enter my mind even on the good days. I knew then that this wasn’t ‘normal’.
Now I might not use the right phrases or the politically correct terms but I mean no offence by this. I am simply writing about how mental health has affected me.
There is no tragedy, no fall out, no life changing moment that would make daily struggles far easier to understand for someone who has not had mental health issues.
The first time I knew something was not right, the first vividly memorable moment when I knew I needed help was when I was 16. That day I made the short journey to the bus stop to get to Sixth Form College. I always got there early and was often the only person there. I stood there and absolutely wept, floods of tears streaming down my face. No trigger, no warning, no other thoughts other than a feeling of absolute doom. My whole body was tense and I could barely move, I thought I was going to die there and then. What happened next is to me the most amazing part of that day. I got on the bus, went to college, went to all my lessons, sat and was the life and soul of the Common Room at break times. I went home that day on the bus singing and generally being a clown all the way home. Looking back I see that as the day I became an actor, although in reality I had been working on my part for a lot longer.
It was my choice to embrace the role of the ‘class clown’ and be the centre of attention. For some people, this might not have sat well with them. I craved the positive attention and the constant distraction from my thoughts and my own mind. I would try and make a joke out of anything, no matter what the consequences were. I still do this to this day in many situations almost through habit. People think I am confident, loud, care free and above all happy. Some may even think I am arrogant, short tempered and outspoken. Only a handful of people know the real me though and my inner demons and struggles. It is important to make it clear that I would never try and justify the bad choices and mistakes I have made by citing my mental health as a cause. It is also important that on a personal level, I do not seek sympathy or any ‘lucky breaks’ because of it. I only seek the simple support and empathy that others in my position would ask for.
When I was 17 I visited my local doctors’ surgery with my Mum knowing that if I didn’t try and do something about this, I could lose control of my mental health.
Even at that young age I knew that I needed to do something quickly. Being told that I had severe depression and anxiety was like a weight being lifted from my shoulders. That may sound ridiculous to some people but what it meant to me was that I was ok. I could now recognise what was wrong with me and give it a name. I wasn’t just ‘different’ and I wasn’t the only person who was going through this. Strength in numbers you might say.
The medication I was given helped and I remain on that medication to this day. There have been times where I would have slept in a Sheffield Wednesday shirt if it meant I could feel just 1% better (for context, I’m a Barnsley fan so anyone who knows me knows how bad it must have been for me to consider this). I would literally do anything to stop having to listen to my own thoughts at various times in my life.
I could tell you about the time I sat looking at a bowl of pasta for 4 hours without touching it. I could tell you about the time I drove over 100 miles away from where I lived just so that I didn’t have to trouble anyone close to me with the way I felt. I could even tell you about the hundreds of times I have made up an excuse so that I didn’t have to go out for any number of different occasions because my head wouldn’t let me. At one point, my mental health condition deteriorated to the point where I have sat in an empty room and considered what would happen if I wasn’t here anymore.
There have been many dark times and the inevitability of even more in the future no longer fills me with dread and anxiety. I don’t have to fear these things because I have come through it all before, sometimes battered and bruised but come through it nevertheless. I no longer feel like I must hide my illness. Only a handful of people the closest to me knew of my battle but recently I took to Twitter to share what I thought was important for people to know. I don’t want people to feel trapped, isolated or scared of telling people how they are feeling, nor am I saying that being open and telling people is for everyone, each person must deal with it in their own way. The most important thing is that you take steps to find what works for you and remember that there is always somebody to talk to.
I feel privileged to have been asked by Freddie to write this piece and would not hesitate to help in the future. If anyone would like to chat to me or wants me to listen then feel free to add me and contact me @tomwhitfield87 on Twitter.
Do not feel like you have to battle alone, there are plenty of people ready to take up the fight with you and remember you are far stronger than you can even imagine.