INTERVIEW: Claire Eastham, mental health blogger and author
Claire Eastham is as down to earth as they come. Self-deprecating, honest and very funny, it’s no wonder she’s won awards for her blog, We’re All Mad Here, where she discusses mental health problems in a humorous and relatable way, and is a best-selling author of a book by the same name. Her witty writing throws the jargon surrounding mental health out the window, preferring to use personal anecdotes from her own experiences (and the odd profanity) to help others through their own. A born and bred Bolton girl, Claire regularly speaks at events and on TV and radio about anxiety, truly leading the way in changing views on mental health. We chatted about her own personal journey with anxiety, how her blog became a book and what the future holds for mental health.
“I was diagnosed with social anxiety disorder in 2013, but I think I was born that way. I knew from about the age of 8 that something wasn’t right because I struggled going to family parties and sleepovers, I just couldn’t relax. But I, like a lot of people do, ignored it. That wasn’t a good thing in the long run because I’ve now given myself a benign tremor, which we think is to do with the stress I was under for so long. But I didn’t let it stop me from making friends or pursuing my academic career: I got a degree, then a master’s degree and then moved to London to do my dream job in publishing. I was sure it would go away then, like I’d left it behind. But after about nine months, I noticed it creeping back in. I was irritable and lethargic most days, I couldn’t focus on my job and if someone spoke to me I would freeze. There was a constant stream of negative abuse in my head: “People think you’re a freak, they think you’re a loser, they don’t want to talk to you, you’re boring.” It’s hard to concentrate at a social event when you’ve got that screaming in your head – I would look for signs when I was talking to people that they were bored and would try to find an escape from the conversation. It got to the point where I would take ten flights of stairs to our floor at work rather than the lift to avoid bumping into someone I knew and having that awful, uncomfortable conversation you have in lifts. Great for exercise, but really bad for sweat.
Eventually, I had what I now know as a panic attack. I went for an interview and I remember being sat there and this wave came over me, it was like having liquid terror injected into my veins. I got up, ran out of the office and all the way down the street. And that was my nervous breakdown. I was signed off work, went to the doctors and she diagnosed me within 60 seconds with ‘textbook’ social anxiety. I was prescribed medication and therapy, but that’s only the beginning of healing. I’m in a really good place now and have been for a while, but it took about a year to get back to myself.
I recently did some mental health-related training, which I was very excited about because I love learning, I’m a bit of a geek. I forgot classrooms are one of my triggers because they remind me of meeting rooms, but I thought I’d be fine. I tend to forget I still have social anxiety and, even though it’s under control, it can be exacerbated if I don’t take care of myself. It was a nice environment with lovely people, but it was constant group work and suddenly I realised I was holding my stomach and muscles really tight and I wasn’t breathing – I was doing all the stuff I used to do and slipped back into the mind-set of just getting through it. Before, I would have just tried to power through, but I thought to myself, you can’t do that again, you must respect your body, so instead I spoke to the trainer and asked if I could have five minutes to decompress.”
On her blog and book, We’re All Mad Here:
“I started the blog during my recovery. I made the mistake of googling social anxiety when I got home from the doctor and it came up with all this stuff that was really jargon-heavy and I didn’t understand it, or it was forums of people saying how it had ruined their life and they’ve never got over it. So, I decided I would document [my journey] with the techniques that helped me. It felt amazing to be able to vent and share some of the stuff I’d learnt that actually worked; every time I wrote something it would feel like part of the weight had shifted. I think creativity is really underrated when it comes to therapy.
I always thought I’d love to write a book but I’m from a background where creativity isn’t encouraged so I never thought it would happen, but I got approached on Twitter by a publisher, they’d read my blog and were interested in turning it into a book. I wasn’t expecting it to do well, but it did and it’s just fantastic. It’s all the best bits of the blog structured into a book; it’s part my diary and part top tips [on how to deal with social anxiety]. Half of it was really easy to write because the material was all there in my blog, which is a writer’s dream. That provided the core structure of the book and then it was a case of working with an editor to push myself that little bit further, thinking how can we add to this even more, or we haven’t thought about it from this angle…
It was weird because I hadn’t thought about my nervous breakdown for quite a while. When you’re writing about it, it’s hard because you face things you don’t want to because you never want to think about horrible things. I thought, Christ, that happened and I remember how unhappy and afraid I was; you do kind of go back to that girl and mourn her. During my nervous breakdown I did some really dangerous, awful things – I didn’t talk [about it] and it’s amazing how the brain can almost lie to you.
When I receive praise for my blog and book, it’s tricky because I’m not good at accepting it. But when someone does say something like that it makes me want to burst into tears because I’m glad someone has found something that can help them and not get as bad as I did. It’s a huge achievement to get through a mental health condition, because you’re trying to get through every day with a faulty brain. I always use the broken leg analogy: if you were trying to walk on a broken leg and you got through the day, that’s quite an achievement – it’s the same thing for the brain.”
On the future:
“I’d like mental health to be given the same respect as physical health. Over 6,000 people took their own lives last year – to put that into context, 1,700 people died in road traffic accidents. I appreciate the NHS is in real trouble at the moment, but something’s got to give.
For myself in 2018, I’m writing book two. It’s all new material and it turns out I don’t know how to write a book at all! But it’s challenging me in new ways and I love that. In terms of long term plans and goals, I know I want to stay within mental health, but I think my brand is more at the preventative level and I really want to get in there early with the millennial generation. We get a lot of shit, we’re under more pressure than anyone ever has been, so I want to get some kind of education in there in terms of this is what you’ll be dealing with, this is the help that’s available and this is what you should be doing to take care of yourself. I want to be there right at the beginning, before they start university, really. It’s the time when you’re forming your identity but you have no idea who you are.”
Quick fire questions:
Your ultimate girl power song?
Katy Perry, Roar.
Your female icon?
My grandma. She’s as working class as you can get: my grandad was a miner, she had two kids, no money, worked doing school dinners and on top of that she still found time to work in the local council. She’s a force of nature.
Who inspires you who isn’t a celebrity?
Again, my grandma. She had aspirations – she wanted to be a politician, unfortunately she never quite got there, but she did the local council stuff, like organising holidays to Blackpool for the local kids.
What makes you happy?
Walking my dog with my husband and being silly, like dancing in the kitchen while you’re cooking.
What puts fire in your belly?
Creativity. If I come up with an idea, that’s it, I become a slave to it, in a good way.
This interview has been edited for clarity.