This year’s theme for Mental Health Awareness Week is kindness and this could not come at a more important time. In a new world where Coronavirus is dominating all of our hearts and minds, it is probably more important than ever to consider the relevance of kindness.
The world is currently full of some remarkable stories of kindness. You see them on the news, on social media, even on the streets around our homes. Neighbours collecting shopping for the elderly, children raising money for charity, businesses in difficult circumstances still finding the opportunity for generosity. That’s all before we come to the inspiring tales of the brave men and women on the frontline of our battles against COVID-19; the doctors and nurses, the carers and pharmacists, the drivers and supermarket workers…we could go on with so many stories of kindness in our thoughts today.
But here’s one to think about…when was the last time you were kind to yourself?
This picture is a very important one to me and I use it whenever I give a mental health talk. In it, I am about eighteen years old and smiling (please forgive the awesome blandness of the jumper). What are your first impressions of the boy in this photograph?
Is he happy? Is he healthy? Is life good to him?
Whenever I look at this photograph, there is one emotion that stands out more than all others. Hatred.
At this time in my life, I was overwhelmed with depression and struggling to keep my life from falling apart. At the core of this dark cyclone was a pure sense of hatred for the person I was.
This is not an exaggeration. Looking at that picture, I remember thinking at the time that I was fat. I was ugly and worthless, I was to be pitied and avoided, I was nothing more than a waste of oxygen. During those blackest nights, I would lay awake in bed for hours, admonishing myself for my own existence.
I realise now – after more than 20 years of recovery and getting my life back together – that I had no reason to hate this boy. He was actually a decent young man, bright and honest and generous. But I could only see the negatives, never the positives. If I made a mistake, no matter how slight and insignificant, I would pour fuel on the fire of that burning hate for myself so that the smouldering regrets still haunt me to this day.
There was so much potential in that teenager in the photograph but a sense of loathing and unworthiness stole that potential away like a malicious thief. The broken shell of a boy needed a long time to heal into the man I am today.
We all play this game of “what advice would you give to your teenage self” and I have become a master of this as my journey of healing and self-discovery over the past 20 years has brought me back time and time again to the boy in this photograph. Give me five minutes alone with him and I know exactly what I would say to him…
“Be kind to yourself before anybody else. Yes, it is important to treat others around you with respect and benevolence but there is no sense in putting yourself down if it will lead to a path of destruction. Then, who will be around to be kind to others? You are allowed to forgive yourself, to embrace your flaws, to allow for imperfections in your life. Don’t let you be your biggest enemy when you should be your greatest fan.”
It was not long after this photograph was taken that I led myself to my first attempt at suicide. These were my darkest days but I survived them to lead a life of light and happiness today. My teenage years were difficult but not impossible; maybe I could have become a better man if I had learned earlier in life to be kinder to myself. Sharing that lesson – no matter how painful for me – is my small way of being kind to you now.