While waiting eight long weeks to discover whether my malignant melanoma was likely to kill me, I became obsessed with counting everything – from hours of sleep each night to completed chores on my daily "to-do" list.
Eventually, my fear of dying became so intense that I was too scared to sleep, in case I didn’t wake up. I was working at a student union at the time – and I remember phoning my boss to tell her I had food poisoning, as I felt too embarrassed to admit that I hadn’t slept for a number of days in a row.
That's why it was a huge relief to see severe mental illness depicted on the front cover of a globally-known fashion and lifestyle magazine. Ever since my diagnosis, I’d carried this mental health condition like a sordid secret – as though it’s something to hide and feel ashamed of.
With its July/August cover, Vogue Portugal has finally shone a light on something that is rarely talked about – and it makes me feel vastly better about myself.
Psychosis means you lose some contact with reality, which can involve believing things that aren’t actually true, like the idea that sleep is harmful. Psychiatrists refer to this as having "delusions" – and when do you ever hear that word used in a non-shameful way?
It’s the same with the word "fantasist" – and let’s not forget that fantasies or hallucinations are the other defining characteristics of psychosis. So, you can only imagine how reassured I felt to see mental illness taking centre stage in such an unashamed way.
Vogue was criticised for presenting an "outdated" and "dystopian" stereotype of treatment on a psychiatric ward. I understand why people may initially think that – but uncomfortable as it may seem, this is the rarely-depicted reality of a psychotic episode.
After an entire week without a moment of sleep, I could barely stand – let alone wash myself. I needed help with even the most basic of tasks, from staying clean to making food. In fact, I could barely tell you what was real and fake – so the world definitely felt very surreal and frightening, almost dystopian.
Though Vogue has since apologised for the cover, saying in a statement that it "has taken the decision to pull one of the four covers of our July/August issue, which depicts a scene of a psychiatric hospital as well as the inside cover story based around the topic of mental health" and "deeply apologises for any offence or upset caused by this photo shoot", I love the historic context of the image. It’s a helpful reminder that mental illness has been around for a long time and that it’s a natural part of the human experience.
What’s more, I feel comforted by the fact that the model in the bath is not alone – it’s great that she’s cared for by two medical staff. I felt immensely lonely during my episode of psychosis. My days seemed painfully long, but at night I couldn’t sleep at all.
By glamorising this sensitive issue, Vogue has bravely drawn attention to one of the last remaining taboos – that of the severe mental disorder.
We all tell ourselves we live in a modern, civilised society – and there’s an illusion that 21st-century life doesn’t condone objectification. It’s why The Sun no longer has glamour models on page three – and it’s why there’s been so much furore around fashion’s cultural appropriation.
The Vogue Portugal cover makes people uncomfortable because it draws attention to the fact that people are often objectified when they have a mental illness. It’s just done in a subtler way – and it comes in the form of fearing people who hear voices; ridiculing those with delusions and making jokes about OCD.
This objectification occurs across all tiers of society, even within the medical profession. While giving birth, an NHS doctor openly told her colleague not to listen to my opinion, as I have "severe mental illness" – thus assuming I’m incapable of making an informed decision regarding my body.
Looking to the future, I hope that Vogue continues to draw attention to the awkward truth – even when it makes us feel slightly uncomfortable.
Everyone knows that severe mental illness isn’t glamorous, but Vogue is a fashion magazine – it’s reasonable to expect them to present a psychiatric ward in a highly-stylised way. It’s what they do best – and if it’s encouraging more people to think about difficult issues like psychosis and schizophrenia, then it works for me.
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