In this series, Lucy Nichol proves you never know who mental ill health will come after next by celebrating the diverse qualities and eccentricities of her lovable friends and acquaintances. This week, she looks to the podium for inspiration.
Secret Santa once bought me a copy of Bridget Jones’s Diary. I had already read it, seen the film and – hence the gift – worn the T-shirt. I think one of my colleagues was trying to tell me, the then 20-something press officer of a theatre company, that I reminded them a little of someone…
Yes, on occasions, I have indeed stepped into Bridget Jones’s shoes and embarrassed myself during a live broadcast. One saving grace was that it was usually a live radio broadcast – so there was no chance of anyone seeing a large pair of knickers flying down a fireman’s pole in full view of the camera lens.
Still, it was totally cringeworthy. Walking into a live studio, being asked a question about a theatre show I was promoting and, like a true pro, nodding towards the mic and asking, “Is it on?”
Of course the bloody mic was on. It was a live show.
That job also saw me delivering my first public speeches. Cue obsessive thoughts about peeing myself in front of my audience. I was usually standing awkwardly and cross-legged, speaking at a thousand miles an hour and noting my nearest exit so I could dash to the loo at the earliest possible opportunity.
It is nerve-wracking. And let’s face it, when the public speaker fucks up, it’s pretty memorable. Sam Fox and Mick Fleetwood anyone? Have they been hired since the 1989 Brits?
When it comes to public speaking, it’s understandable to assume you need a good degree of steadiness and consistency, right? (Oh… and a strong bladder.)
I was recently blown away by a public speaker. Not only because she seemed ultra-relaxed and confident in her delivery, but she was personable, likeable and really, really good fun.
I met Shea Wong at the Time to Change Storycamp, the stigma-busting campaign’s one day workshop designed to support people with experience of mental illness to share their stories in an impactful way.
Shea totally owned that room – and its wider digital counterpart thanks to a live stream.
But Shea wasn’t always a confident speaker. She says: “Looking back, I was one of those quiet kids in school who would only speak up when I was passionate about a subject. I can remember being 12 or so, and having to do a debate style project, and just standing up and destroying my opponent for 10 solid minutes.
“For a girl who wasn’t terribly sociable, this was a revelation. My voice was strong, and it could do powerful things if I was brave enough to let it.”
Hard to imagine this confident speaker as a quiet individual who can still sometimes find too much socialising incredibly draining. But this was one of her passions. She was, after all, speaking at a Time to Change event, the aim being to challenge stigma around mental illness. And Shea is no stranger to mental illness.
Aged 28, she walked into her GP surgery at 8am one Monday morning and slapped a bunch of papers in front of her doctor. These were her journals, documenting her erratic sleep patterns, visual hallucinations, night terrors and racing thoughts.
Shea said: “My doctor, who I had been seeing for years, read my papers, put his head in his hands and said, ‘I need to go home now.’ It wasn’t the most empowering start to my mental health journey, but he was pretty shocked that I had managed to keep my illness a secret for so long.”
“The weirdest reaction I had was someone who exclaimed, ‘But you’re so smart!’ as if they thought having a mental health issue was the same as decreased mental capacity.”
Shea was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and started on her new medication that very day. She said: “This was before the days of social media and the traditional media portrayal of mental illness was confined to slasher movies and the occasional caricature of a ‘crazy’ person in sitcoms, so I had no real people to find commonality with in terms of my diagnosis.
“Luckily, I was an early adopter of the internet, so I knew where to look to find online communities and information. Once I began educating myself on what bipolar disorder was (and, most importantly, what it was not) the fear surrounding my diagnosis dissipated pretty quickly.”
According to the NHS website, bipolar disorder, formerly known as manic depression, is a mood disorder that means you can swing from one extreme (depression) to another (mania).
Shea’s lack of sleep, racing thoughts and hallucinations pointed to the fact that she was, at the time of diagnosis, in the manic phase of her illness.
Swinging from one extreme to another is surely enough to put a whopping great dent in anyone’s confidence surely? I mean, even without a diagnosis, nervy speakers can be struck with palpitations, hot flushes, shakes and, as in my early career days, an unrelenting obsession with needing the loo.
So how does Shea manage extreme mood swings on top of the everyday adrenaline rush of public speaking?
“In a strange way, my lived experience of mental health has prepared me for public speaking, as I’m used to dealing with heightened emotional states,” she says.
“My nerves usually hit hours before a speech, where I’m triple checking my flash drive with my notes and I’m flipping out because my hair won’t stay in a ponytail and I realise my dress has a stain on it from my kids’ hands that morning. But luckily, most of my freaking out is in private.
“However, occasionally, I’ll be sitting in a green room and racing thoughts will begin to invade. This is where I use the skills I learned dealing with my lived experience of mental health issues, such as CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) and breathing exercises to calm myself and re-frame my anxiousness into a positive force for whatever I’m speaking on.”
Shea’s successful career has seen her speak at a number of high profile events, and she also acts as an advisor to the national media regarding the portrayal and treatment of mental health in the news.
“A few years ago I gave a lecture at the University of St Andrews, which was daunting. Not only was it a long journey from London to Scotland, but, due to a scheduling issue from one of the other panellists, what was supposed to be a 20-minute presentation as part of a panel, became a two hour solo presentation and Q and A.”
So, under pressure, with a surprise one-woman show to deliver, how did Shea get through it?
“I remembered that every event, every institution is made up of people. Living, breathing, fallible people, who want to get through their day with as little fuss as possible. Once I remembered our shared humanity, I was no longer presenting to St Andrews, I was having a discussion with a group of people who wanted to learn. The two hours flew by!”
Living with the extremes of bipolar disorder hasn’t forced Shea to cancel any speaking engagements. But she has turned offers down when she has felt that she wasn’t in the best place mentally.
I can tell you that she was definitely on top form at the Time to Change event where I met her.
As someone who has lived with a mental health condition (generalised anxiety disorder) for what feels like forever, I really shouldn’t have been shocked to walk into that room and be confronted with a bunch of friendly, gregarious people.
I’m probably one of them: people find it odd when I tell them I have struggled with confidence in the past. But that’s the point, mental illness doesn’t have to affect your personality.
Shea says: “When I say I have lived experience of a mental health issue, people assume I’m a carer of someone, not a person dealing with their own mental illness. The weirdest reaction I had was someone who exclaimed, ‘But you’re so smart!’ as if they thought having a mental health issue was the same as decreased mental capacity.
“Things like that used to really bug me, but now they make me even more determined to combat mental health stigma with every interaction and discussion I have.”
“Once I began educating myself on what bipolar disorder was – and, most importantly, what it was not – the fear surrounding my diagnosis dissipated pretty quickly.”
Having a good understanding and insight into her illness obviously helps Shea manage her symptoms and enhance her success. Yes, she has bipolar. But first and foremost she’s a seriously engaging speaker, a wonderful mum and a thoroughly fun person to be around.
No, we did not notice any strange ramblings during her speech. No, she did not look up to the ceiling and speak to God and no, there were never any uncomfortable moments when we, the audience, thought, “Oh shit, she’s losing the plot.”
Swinging between extreme highs and lows isn’t part of who Shea is; it’s part of an illness she lives with. If you’re a public speaker who suffers with migraines, you wouldn’t have to ask for a dark room and a Nurofen every time you gave a speech. Illnesses are manageable – especially when they can be openly discussed.
But perhaps some of the experiences that Shea has lived through can also be positive experiences. If you’ve hit both euphoric highs and the darkest depths of hell, dull probably doesn’t feature in your vocabulary.
So the fabulous Shea Wong is definitely on my fantasy dinner party list. I’d sit her between Courtney Love and Louis Theroux. She’d totally hold her own.
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Neurotic hen-keeper, feline friend and mental health blogger. Prone to catastrophisation and over excitement at the garden centre. Caution: do not give Diet Coke after dark.