On being brave

This is a Guest Post by Professor Dave Cliff

I once made a video, or should I say: a video was once made of me. It was a talking-head interview, about the time I had a breakdown. Severe anxiety and depression; suicidal thoughts. It’s seven minutes long, and I speak maybe a thousand words.

I did it because I was asked to do so by a colleague, an old friend, who was putting together material for a new non-credit bearing elective course that would be made available to all students at The University of Bristol, where I work. I didn’t give it much thought, didn’t know what questions I would be asked and didn’t rehearse any of the answers. We shot it in one take, maybe 25 or 30 minutes in total, and then the video production folk went away and skilfully edited it down to a more manageable length. Once the final edit was released to our students, and to the rest of the world on YouTube, I started getting feedback, comments — people saying nice things about it — and in those comments something caught me by surprise. There was this one word that got used a lot when people commented on what I’d done, a word that I didn’t expect at all. People said that I was brave.

I’ve thought quite hard about this and, given this opportunity to write about it now, almost 18 months since we shot the footage and more than five years since I got sick, I’d like to explain why I don’t think I was brave at all. Or, at least, why I don’t want to be thought of as brave for making a video.

Should I first introduce myself? I’m a Professor of Computer Science at The University of Bristol, a role I’ve been in for the past 11 years. Prior to that I’d held professorial posts at Southampton and at MIT, plus I’d spent seven years working in frontline industrial artificial intelligence R&D for Hewlett-Packard and for Deutsche Bank. But what I’m writing here isn’t about my CV. Let’s get back to this bravery thing.

If someone was cycling too fast, had an accident, broke a limb, received medical care, took time off work to get well, and came back fixed, that’d be pretty routine. What if that person then made a talking-head video about what happened, how they’d been riding too fast for too long and how after the accident they don’t ride quite so fast now, quite so recklessly, now they know how painful the end-result can be? Would we call that person brave? I think not. When I made this video I didn’t for a moment think that I was being brave, because it shouldn’t be an act of bravery to talk about what is, after all, an experience that very many people go through and in which for many people, like me, the story ends well. I was just doing what I wish many more people would do, talking openly and honestly about mental health. I got sick, dangerously so. I sought help and got good care, for which I remain very very very thankful indeed. And I got better. And then I told people what happened. How does me telling that story mean that I’m brave?

I’m acutely aware that it doesn’t work out this way for everyone: some people suffer from chronic mental health issues that go on for a very long time, lifetimes even; some people don’t find, or ask for, the right help in time; their stories may not end nearly so as well as mine. In these senses, I was lucky.

As far as I’m concerned, me telling my story wasn’t a brave thing to do at all. It was an act of thanks, a little celebration of my recovery. Like getting back on the bike and going for a ride and enjoying the wind in your face and laughing out loud that you’re once again able to do something you love; that you’re fixed, the bad times are behind you, that you’re well.

Looking back over the whole sequence of events, if I had to choose one thing I did that I do think of as brave, it was the moment when I was first sat facing my doctor, took a deep breath, and spoke honestly about what was going on inside my head. Before I could get a word out I was in tears and could barely talk. But I knew I had run out of road, that I’d lost control and that I couldn’t deal with the situation alone. For me that was an extraordinarily difficult step to take, one that I very nearly didn’t. I am so glad that I did, and I guess I’m writing these words in the hope that maybe they’ll encourage someone else to take that first step, to reach out and ask for help. In my opinion, that’s the brave bit: the bit when you ask for help. No video required.

Writing this has made me think quite hard, and I realise now that when I spoke to my doctor that was the first time I’d said those words out loud. I was talking as much to myself as to the medic: it was my first admission, not just to my doctor but to me, that I was in a desperately bad way; the first time I said that I needed help. I wasn’t just telling my doctor I was sick, I was telling me too. For me, that was the really difficult part. If ever I was brave, that was the brave bit.

I’m very glad I took that step but it was not at all easy. If my video encourages others to take the same step when they’re in a bad place, to be brave enough to admit they need help and to seek that help, then I think it will have been useful. I hope that it is.

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