on the (im)possibility of speaking

Do you want to be afraid?
Do you want to be afraid?
For life in the cage where courage’s mate runs deep in the wake
For the scariest things are not half as enslaved

Sufjan Stevens, Impossible Soul.

I came off mirtazapine on May 28th. After almost six years of pouring chemicals into my soul to stay in the game I was so bored. And so ready. There is no moment in which this shift in readiness became apparent. Four years on from a second breakdown and from my Mom’s death, it is just time to get well, and to do so clean. To finish therapy clean. To try to exist a little more on my own terms. To try to excavate and own my life. Because being ill and covered-up and false is so fucking dull.

<NOTE: my mirtazapine journal features 1 year on 15mg, 1 year on 30mg, 2 years on 45mg, 1 year on 30mg, 6 months on 15mg, 2 months on 10mg, 1 month on 7.5mg, 1 month on 5mg. All of this in close dialogue with my GP. How I loathe it for the weight-gain. How I miss its ability to help me sleep.>

Increasingly the black cloud is less depression, because I am able to recognise the shades of sadness, grief, mourning and loss, rather than locking onto melancholia. There is something so humanising about sadness, grief, mourning and loss, rather than locking onto a dehumanising melancholia. However, what has been left is an acute awareness, or perhaps an acute reawakening, of levels of chronic anxiety in spaces where I should feel safe.

I have described elsewhere how, in the face of my second breakdown in 13 years “the very thought of travelling and being away and presenting and being alone was too much. Too unsafe. Overwhelming. Unliveable.” I went on:

Given what had been unlocked, living my life felt overwhelming.

And in wondering whether living my life was self-harm or self-care, all that was left was confusion.

And now I remember the on-going, missed opportunities to stay and engage with people. Because on one warm April day, it became the fight of my life simply to agree to speak, and then to get on a train and to stay on a train. And what was normally normal was lost. And the disorder of my anxiety became the order of the day.

This inner trauma of being out of control, and of being in harm’s way, and of potentially losing my mind, and of not being able to perform, and of the world simply not being safe. Of normality not being safe. Because, when the only thing that feels normal is anxiety, what is normal? And unfortunately I am really good at re-producing really fucking epic levels of anxiety.

And I was in some mutually-reinforcing shit-storm of anxiety about travelling and anxiety about speaking. About being out-of-control. About being unsafe. So that travelling became a problem because getting on trains and sitting on them waiting for the doors to close was too painful. Not that I ever failed to get on one and to stay on it. But still, with cortisol flooding into your marrow, it wears your soul thin.

Always looking for exits.

Praying that my mind would just reboot.

And wanting to be asked to speak, because it’s the only way to reboot myself. And because people ask you when they want to listen to you, and that is lovely and hopeful, and needs respecting. And there is hope wrapped around finding some faith and some courage in myself. To find some peace, if I can find my voice. Is this self-care?

And dreading being asked to speak. Because I’m a Professor and it’s expected, and this reframes the relationship between pressure and anxiety. And because what if I can’t do it and have to run? And what if I let people down? And what if I fail? Is this self-harm?

Stuck in an apparently unresolvable quantum position. Voice/silenced. Self-care/self-harm.

Schrödinger’s academic: neither dead nor alive; both dead and alive.

Oh, I know it wasn’t safe, it wasn’t safe to breathe at all
Oh, I know it wasn’t safe, it wasn’t safe to speak at all

Sufjan Stevens, Impossible Soul.


Since 2013 I have spoken at 59 academic events, and yet each one was a trial. Lost sleep. Panic attacks. Occasionally on the phone to my therapist 90 seconds before I was due to speak. A test of faith and courage. A test of survival. Each one an act of defiance. Each one a refusal. Each one a moment of excavating my soul. In retrospect.

Excavating my soul from the compacted layers of trauma.

A few months ago I was asked to keynote the Oxford Brookes Learning and Teaching Conference. A few weeks later a second request came in to keynote the University of Worcester Learning, Teaching and Student Experience Conference. Both conferences were slated for this week. Back-to-back. Amazing to be asked. A privilege. Having to say yes. Wanting to say yes. Fearing saying yes.

Trying to forget them and hoping that I would be well in time.

Trying not to voice the fear in my head that was trying to make my perceived failure concrete.

Ignoring that they might in themselves be healing.

Unclear that they might in themselves be healing.

Lacking the ability to comprehend that they might in themselves be healing.

Forgetting to live in the present, to be present, rather than to be entombed by future fears.

In retrospect the pattern of hope/self-care plus dread/self-harm was different. Being awake at 3am the night before was different, because whilst the anxiety felt the same my mind was also fixated on what I was going to say. Visualising what needed to be said; what wanted to be said; what I had to say. Now this is exhausting, this duality of chronic anxiety gripping the chest and also rehearsing the act of living. But the anxiety wasn’t in my stomach, and so hadn’t reproduced itself as panic. An alternative possibility. A normal possibility: to be normally anxious. Because I always remember Mike Atherton stating that the day you aren’t nervous walking out to bat for England is the day to quit, because it doesn’t matter enough.

And speaking really matters. And I spoke. With a normal level of anxiety. A normal act of solidarity. My speaking is always an act of solidarity.

And I remembered that years ago I wrote:

As Maggie Turp argues in Hidden Self-Harm, the issue pivots around enabling voice, and voices in association, to be found and heard and respected. Respected in faith and with courage. And this is a spiritual reckoning, and one that is less about outsourcing the power-to create our lives so that living becomes survival, and more about taking ownership for the decisions and realities of our own self-care.

And as I sat on platform 2 at Worcester Foregate Street yesterday, I processed why I was so close to tears after I speak. Why speaking and its aftermath enabled so much of my life to be processed and mourned, and as a result to be liberated. During the afternoon I had written:

emotion // anxiety // exhaustion // soul // projection // give everything // all played out // being heard // solidarity // worn thin // weeping // do I matter? // do I have a voice? // will it be okay? // mourning // liberation

And I texted a friend to say:

My urge to weep after I speak has really affected me this week. Something about being heard/solidarity, and something about how I’m all-in emotionally when I present. How much of myself I need to give.

How much of myself I need to give, in order to recover myself.


And there are a set of timelines that converged these past few weeks. Feeling physically stronger, as I remember that it took me 4 years to recover my strength from my first breakdown, and from chronic fatigue, and to trust my body. And kicking the chemicals because qualitatively, in my soul, something had shifted. And now travelling first to Inverness, and then to Oxford and to Worcester, and speaking. Telling out my soul.

And the tears are for finding my voice. For persevering whilst the trauma was unpicked, and the scabs formed, and then the scars. For knowing, in my soul, that it won’t always be like this.

And there will always be an opening in my soul for Inverness and Oxford and Worcester.

Boy, we can do much more together it’s not so impossible
It’s not so impossible

Sufjan Stevens, Impossible Soul.


This is the playlist I made along the way.


One Response to on the (im)possibility of speaking

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.