Finding hope when the lights go dark


Imagine spending months writing a sell-out one-woman show, only to find that days from your opening night, a global pandemic hits and the stage lights abruptly go out. Could you find hope in the darkness? Writer, comedian and Rethink Mental Illness ambassador Juliette Burton spent much of the year pulling on her superhero boots and searching for the elusive beast that is hope. Here's how she got on...

As we approach the end of 2020, I offered to write an article for Rethink on ‘hope’. And honestly, I’ve found it much harder than I expected.

I’ve had times in the past when hope was hard to find.

My mental health history includes being sectioned when I was 17, falling out of education, not treading the path of Oxbridge university and a “proper career” as intended but instead being an inpatient five times due to various mental health distresses including anorexia, bulimia and trying to end my life. And that was all back in The Before Times, when life was, I now see, relatively simple.

In 2020, hope has been hiding a little more than usual, but it’s still there. And there are two things in particular which have helped me hold on to hope: comedy, and connection.

Firstly, comedy. My mind tends towards darkness even when the world is basking in lighter times. And this is why I chose comedy as a career. When I write and perform comedy I feel less alone, experiences are recognised, it’s my surest way of finding hope.

To me, comedy means many things. Comedy is a survival technique. It’s a world of creativity; the welcoming in of new ideas, new connections, curiosity and questioning. It’s my purpose, my reason, my baby, my home, my family. Comedy is a way to bask in the acceptance of the absurdity of life. And hasn’t this year been just utterly absurd?

Comedy also means audiences, connection and laughter. It’s my favourite place to find a sense of belonging, community, possibility, and faith in humanity. It’s hard to deny in a room full of people laughing, together, united that there might be hope for the future.

But this year, there’s not been much laughter. Quite literally. I’ve been doing lots of comedy gigs via Zoom and I never hear whether people are laughing or not.

And when the video call ends, the lights go out. And I’m alone again.

Isolation, loneliness and persistent uncertainty isn’t good for my mental health. This year, I’ve found some alarming mental illness symptoms raise their awful heads once more.

Being trapped in my flat, with no happy, healthy distractions of travel, gigs, friends, socialising, being busy, making positive plans has meant my CPTSD experiences and thoughts having been thick and oppressive. They’ve advanced on me over the year. The longer and longer these lockdowns and tier restrictions continue the more and more I feel the darkness closing in. And the more and more I’ve observed my desire to rely on those old coping mechanisms increasing.

Even persistent suicidal thoughts have returned and been more frequent, thicker, harder to challenge. Life was supposed to get better, it was getting better. And suddenly everything changed and I was powerless to stop it. And because I was powerless, I’m angry. And my anger has turned inwards. Depression is often outrage turned towards ourselves, the heavyweight I physically feel when every day I’m crying all hours is as thick as the fog that descends on the Thames this time of year.

But like many things, the fog is temporary. And when the weight eventually starts to lift, I can put whatever energy I have into finding hope again.

The second major thing that’s helped me to find hope in is connection. I’ve found hope in the people who’ve reached out. Some have been personal pals, others my comedy family. And others are audience members. They’ve reminded me of my value, my power and that I’ve felt this way before but with time and effort it has shifted.

This year more than ever, social media has provided me with a sense of connection. I find hope in connecting with other people’s experiences and knowing I’m never as alone as I might think.

So I thought I’d ask my social media followers where they find this thing I keep losing. Here’s how they Rethink Hope:

"Hope is having things to look forward to. After a year of cancellations, I am finding it hard to trust that anything I am working hard towards will happen." - Dawinislosingthelot

"Hope to me is a tiny pocket of light that lifts you a little. I find hope most often when friends share something funny and I realist they are as weird as I am" - Violetchiroptera

"I hope for smiles. They are infections and inclusive" -SusanMillerJones

Hope is knowing that even if the thing you need to happen doesn't happen, you have the resilience to get through... You are your own light in the darkness" - A Guilded Eye.

"I help others. I find the greatest fulfilment in a smile from someone else. It might sound daft, but that's the biggest one. And home-cooking with fresh food.. that really gives me a lift" - Spudfish.

"I find Hope in past history, That at times when it looks hopeless or scary, that too passed: - SuzieKennedy

"Hope is knowing that impermanence rules. I can surft this wave, I can get through the next minute if nbescessary and then start work on the next one" - Bethany Black

"Hope is knowing that nothing is ever definite. If I know there is an end to something I can always cope with it" - Sooz Kemper

"Hope is planning for the future and looking forward to things... hope is knowing that there is something good happening outside of the current circumstances." - Catherine Edgson.

"Hope is... my wife" - The Grant Perkins.

"Hope is feeling that nothing is fixed and things can change, normally for the best and tro one's advantage." - Neal.

"Hope is that indefinable glint of light in a darkened corridor. It's not always easy to find. It also lives within us. I find hope in friends, their humour and tgheir compassion. Hope can also be found in moments of solitude, walking around a park or green space..." - Barry Watt.

Hope can be elusive for everyone sometimes, but my younger self lost hope many times. And she found it again. That’s the beauty of lost things, with a little bit of time, a little bit of searching and sometimes a bit of help, they can always be found. My experience of mental illness has taught me that hope is not necessarily a question of faith. It’s curiosity. Hope is not the knowledge that things will get better, but the possibility that they might.

Writing this for you has not only reminded me of the things in my life that are a source of hope. It’s also reminded me that I still have my voice, even if recently I’ve struggled to find it. That little rebellious punk-life, kick-ass superhero still lives inside me; that little voice that breathes in light and exhales power and tells me to never give up; that part of who I am that is humble enough to remind me we don’t know what’s around the corner.

Things will change. I don’t know when or how but it will. Perhaps things are already changing and turning ever so slightly towards the hopeful. And once I know I’ve found hope again, I will cling onto it and protect it by sharing it with others, helping others find it. I’ve already started finding hope again, thanks to this article and to you.

Join in the conversation: where do you find hope? What gives you hope? What is hope? Use the hashtags #RethinkHope #LiveInHope #Hopepunk and tag Juliette (@JulietteBurton) and Rethink Mental Illness (@Rethink )

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