Beginnings and endings. They are on a constant loop in life – some sad, some welcome, and some that lead to ambivalence. Being certainly uncertain is something I have become accustomed to in my 28 years and it is a seriously beautiful thing when you begin learning to embrace it… Our thoughts and feelings are never static. The way we frame the world is constantly evolving. This can sometimes instill fear in us because we do not want good things to fade away, but thank goodness it’s the case considering the inevitable ups and downs we all face. Individuals experiencing depression are often very disconnected from these absolute truths and ‘the downs’ feel permanent and pervasive.
As it’s Mental Health Awareness week, I’d like to introduce someone telling an important story about recovery from anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation, Kevin Braddock.
I’m one of those weird people who loves networking so when Rubens Filho suggested I meet Kevin I promptly got in touch to arrange a coffee, and purchased and finished his book within a couple days. It’s interesting reading a book like Torchlight before meeting the author because it is an extremely forthcoming and intimate story about experiencing mental ill health. In some ways I felt like I already knew Kevin. Whilst reading I had pictured what his life in Berlin must have been like amongst everyone who was anyone in the art world. I had connected deeply with his raw commentary on the challenges and triumphs of being human. And then I came across a soft spoken, understated man in a coffee shop near Chancery Lane.
^The ending that Kevin’s story begins with… Like I said, raw. So let’s dive into the mind of the man wearing his heart on his sleeve in this utterly necessary publication to continue the ongoing dialogue that is breaking down the stigma that keeps people from asking for help when experiencing mental health issues.
There are people from all walks of life breaching this topic from a variety of angles, but Kevin’s motivation is to harness written word – as he said to me simply: “It’s what I’m good at”. As former editor at The Face, British GQ, The Manzine, Sleek, Made by Many, and Esquire, this is evident when you pick up his book.
So what went through Kevin’s mind when he sat down to write this type of story? What was his main motivation and was there a long-term vision?
“A desire to tell the truth. As for vision, no. But the project developed, with the addition of the Practice Cards [self-care tips], and a subsequent idea to publish further collaborative volumes of Torchlight presenting stories on breakdown, recovery, depression and anxiety from a range of people, some of whom are professional writers and many of whom aren’t. There is no end of fact and information online about these topics, but stories ring true in a way that data doesn’t. Above all we want to show that speaking about these things is one way to begin dealing with them”.
Undoubtedly Kevin has an impressive track record as an editor so writing makes sense, but why is it such a powerful conduit when discussing mental health?
“Writing was a way for me to make sense of my experience of going through a major depressive episode and the subsequent (ongoing) recovery. I’ve worked as a journalist in music, fashion and style, and the men’s magazines sector for 20 years, but the obvious subject – mental illness – had been staring me in the face for years. Not long after I had a breakdown/burnout in 2014 a friend said to me, ‘From now on, Kev, be open and honest about this stuff; confront it all head on. And seeing as you’re a writer, write it all down’. It seemed like a good idea; in fact it changed my life. I’ve long thought that writing is at heart recorded speech or thought, and the next step was moving from writing to publishing – making something out of the story, and making it public, in the belief that sharing it would offer others something to identify with, to help them deal with depression and anxiety. We wanted to make a printed object because print is tactile and empathic in a way that digital isn’t. We call the project Torchlight System because there are three basic beliefs, or a simple process involved: 1: Ask For help: because admitting a problem is the way to start dealing with it; 2: Tell your story: because storytelling can help both the teller and the listener; and 3: Share your practice: find what helps you recover, and share it with others. Zaren’s story here is a really good example of that: http://torchlightsystem.com/firegazing/.
I have asked everyone I’ve interviewed this question thus far and I particularly love Kevin’s response to it. His personal definition of wellbeing:
“Stability of mood, openness to experience and to others, energy, expression and participation. And occasionally these things happen all at the same time…”
That last line – an acceptance that we inevitably have to sit with negative emotions. Being ‘well’ doesn’t mean all of your ducks have to be in a row. We are all constantly becoming (nothing is static!) so our wellbeing is made up of all things good, bad, and neutral at any given time. And taking care of our wellbeing is knowing when the balance is out of whack. I enjoy aspects of positive psychology, but the more I study Albert Ellis (check out REBT if you are not familiar), the more I find immense power in the concept of self/other/life-acceptance over self/other/life-love. Of course I enjoy the amazing moments as much as I can, but accept that there will be not so amazing ones, and I’m prepared to experience them with the same amount of enthusiasm (or learning to). Which reminds me of a quote from Rainer Maria Rilke that Kevin refers to in his book that resonated with me:
“Let everything happen to you. Beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final”.
So I asked Kevin what keeps him going in the process of letting everything happen to him:
“The Rilke quote I interpreted as an accurate attitude towards emotional turbulence: feeling fine one moment and then plummeting into fear and despair the next; ad nauseam. So I took it to mean being about an inner state rather than external circumstances, through there’s a lot to be said of trying to stop controlling everything in life, and allowing life to happen the way it will. But beyond that, for me it’s about the notion of practice: doing something every single day that is either good for mental health, or prevents mental illness. For me that means speaking, making, body (breathing, moving, running, stretching, tai chi), giving, contemplating and expressing”.
I’d also like to share a passage from Torchlight I dog-eared whilst reading that I think a lot of people can relate to, but especially those suffering from anxiety and/or depression:
“A thought came to me quickly, a serious one: why do I perpetually doubt myself? Why on Earth do I – or you, or we, the Depressed and the Anxious – walk around thinking that everything we do, say, and think is in some vague way wrong, inadequate, not good enough? What authority is sitting in judgement, convincing me that I’m making mistakes and am destined to fail? And worse than that, why do I conspire with it?”
Looking back on his experiences and managing his mental health in the here and now, how has Kevin come to stave off this punitive voice, or what has self-acceptance looked like for him?
“Being conscious of it as a stream of thought, for one thing, helps. I get moments where I somehow wake up and glimpse that the doomy, pessimistic narrative in my head doesn’t correlate with the actual reality of being alive. And again, recording it in order to return to it later (and see that it was just moment in thought-time) is useful. This is the basis of the popularity in “journalling” now, though I have to say, having spent over 20 years keyboard-bashing as a writer, I find vlogging an interesting new medium to explore”.
Now as I begin to bring this article to a close, I want to get back to the heart of the message: Ask for help. Or in Kevin’s words:
“Several years ago I was in a situation where I was compulsively thinking of methods to… well, let’s not go there – or asking for help: an alternative voice offering a different way. So I put a status update on Facebook saying “I need help” and some friends came and took me to hospital… and everything began to change. I’d say the message of Torchlight is ask for help, and then keep on asking, but it’s a story instead of a manual. The resistance to asking for help so is often about shame: will people think I am weak, needy, incapable and so on? The second message is that there are ways to live beyond crisis and by accommodating issues like depression and anxiety. This is what I’ve seen since 2014, having met a lot of people who live well day -to-day, despite a diagnosis or a seemingly unchangeable fact of their psychic makeup. But in more practical terms, speak to a doctor, your friends and family, your manager and colleagues. Let go of your shame. Ask for help”.
And alongside this I want to share part of the beginning that is the ending of Torchlight:
“But there’s no ultimate, final, recovered better. Instead there’s changed, and it’s up to me to live changed”.
Considering it’s Mental Health Awareness week, please do share this if you think it can touch someone you know – maybe someone who has experienced mental ill health or might be struggling, maybe someone who wants to learn more about what that experience can be like. But at the end of the day, this is a story about being human and navigating life. And I love seeing someone like Kevin using a dark experience as a torchlight for others.
So what’s next for Torchlight if you want to follow Kevin’s journey?
“As a personal, cathartic project Torchlight achieved everything I hoped for the moment it returned from the printers. Then, everything we printed sold out after a story I wrote for the Observer magazine last August, so we launched a crowdfunding campaign to get it back into print (and beat the target in three days, which was extraordinary). The long-term aim is to get as many of these products as necessary, to wherever people are looking for helps: businesses, schools, community grops, recovery centres, youth groups and, in particular, to people who are caring for others who are suffering. This is the publishing challenge we have (and we have to practice what we preach: http://torchlightsystem.com/support/. If there are any business people who want to make a difference and have some personal empathy with these subjects, please get in touch.)
We (this “we” is me, designer Enver Hadzijaj, editor Emma Warren and a groups of other friends and collaborators) are in the process of making some new products: a guidebook to to the orginal Practice Cards and a second volume with a different theme, which we’re aiming to publish this year. A second volume of Torchlight with a range of stories, for publication early next year, along with growing our YouTube Channel and presenting the project in businesses, school and community groups. There may be retreats and an app next year too. But one day at at time, huh?”
One day at a time… Cheers to that, Kendelle