I Never Fail, I Either Win Or I Learn
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
My name is Juliette Burton, I’m a comedian, writer and actor plus a mental health charity ambassador for ReThink Mental Illness and do mental health training workshops. I have a long history of mental health conditions and I love the Muppets. These two things are in no way linked.
I was sectioned under the mental health act when I was 17 and spent my 18th birthday in hospital. I’ve been hospitalized 5 times for my mental illnesses and have been diagnosed so far with 12 conditions. I’ve been in therapy for over half my life. I talk openly about my mental illnesses in my comedy, my writing and my work. I believe passionately there’s nothing to be ashamed of when it comes to mental illness. We all have mental health, just like we all have physical health. I wouldn’t be ashamed to have a physical illness, so why would I be ashamed about my mental illnesses? I also love the power comedy has to break down barriers, increase understanding and make a tense topic more accessible. If we’re laughing together we feel less alone.
I have a degree in journalism from University of the Arts London and a diploma in writing and producing comedy from the National Film and Television School. I’ve worked for the BBC, IPC Media, written for Cosmopolitan, The Indepedent and Huffington Post and many more. I’ve toured across the UK and worldwide to Australia, New Zealand with my comedy shows and I’ve sold out my runs at Edinburgh Fringe in 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018. For fun, I love board games, running, cooking, walking tours and exploring London’s hidden gems.
When did you begin to first notice signs or symptoms of a mental health issue?
I first experienced signs of mental illness when I was about 7 or 8 years old. I began gaining a lot of weight and becoming obsessive around food. I also exhibited what I now know to be signs of depression, OCD and anxiety disorder. But it was a long time ago, and therapy wasn’t the done thing. So my conditions morphed to become anorexia which was my first diagnosed conditions aged 14. I was first hospitalized aged 15 and fell out of education over the next few years. I was diagnosed with bipolar, depression, anxiety disorder aged 16, then OCD aged 17. I experienced psychotic hallucinations when I was sectioned and paranoia subsequently. Aged 19 I went from a size 4 to a size 20 in around 6 months due to compulsive overeating disorder and experienced persistent suicidal thoughts. In my 20s I was diagnosed with bulimia. In my 30s I’ve been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and separation anxiety disorder.
I’m aware I have very complex mental illnesses that are all inter-related. I think of it now like a tree – there are the roots which are PTSD, the trunk which is bipolar, the two main branches of depression and anxiety disorder and then other conditions that developed as a way of coping with those original deeper conditions – eg OCD, eating disorders, separation anxiety disorder.
I’m still in therapy to uncover and deal with the deeper root causes of my mental ill health at the same time as living a full and exciting life which I adore. My career has been the main turning point for me. Making people laugh is my absolute favourite thing in the world and gives me a reason to keep going.
At what point did you realize this was something you had to take care of, and what was that beginning process like?
I didn’t want to get help for many years. I didn’t realize the severity of my anorexia. It felt like a solution to all the emotional distress I had been feeling. I didn’t want to get help with my bulimia – it was to me a coping mechanism to survive. Our brains are incredibly creative and will come up with new ways for us to survive extreme emotional distress. I didn’t want to take away my best survival tool as I saw it.
But over the years there have been many individual moments of realizing I needed help, new help. For some people mental illness is a short term experience they learn to find their way back to themselves. For me, my illnesses went undiagnosed for so many years that they became ingrained into who I am. I now know I can learn to manage my mental illnesses well or I can choose to manage them badly. My illnesses still surprise me and from them I can learn a lot. Asking for help each time they start kicking my arse is something I still find hard to do, but I’m aware the alternative is a surefire way things will get worse.
What has your experience been like with trying to find what works for you treatment-wise? And do you have a routine that you’ve settled on?
Due to the number of years I’ve been in therapy I’ve been lucky enough to experience a lot of different therapies. I see it as a tool belt of different things I can call upon to help me when I struggle with my conditions. From CBT to meditation, psychotherapy to counselling, self help and group work to reading about other people’s experiences, gratitude lists and breathing techniques, exercise and affirmations… I can draw upon a whole armoury of different lessons and tools when I need them. It doesn’t mean it’s easy, it’s never easy. But I do have those tools at my disposal now.
I see a therapist once a week. I go running regularly as a moving meditation. I listen to podcasts that I find positive. I reach out to friends on similar mental health journeys who are in recovery. I used to find massage therapy really helpful but sadly it’s not affordable for me. So I try to focus on other ways to get myself into my body and comforted.
Where are you at today with your journey?
Where I am at is I’m still on an ongoing journey. Recovery is not a straight line. It wiggles and veers off in directions I’ve never expected. Life doesn’t stay constant, the world doesn’t stay constant, I do not stay constant. But my understanding of myself and of human nature and my illnesses has, I believe, deepened. And new challenges thrown my way has humbled me in new ways. I’m an ongoing work in progress and I’m focused on progress not perfection. While I feel I have the ability to manage many of my conditions well I’m still in the infancy of understanding others. I’m currently in trauma therapy and it’s teaching me so much more than I’d expected. It’s shining new light on my experience of other conditions too. Mental illness can be a gift. It’s certainly given me deeper insight because it’s forced me to. I’d not survive without that.
Something we try to do our best to promote is the idea that it’s possible to create something as a way to transform ones pain. Is there anything you’ve created as a way to cope with pain or a painful experience?
My whole career is based upon my mental health experience. The pain I’ve felt due to my conditions and the circumstances that caused my conditions is the foundation upon which I’ve built a strong voice, empowered and able to find the funny. All my solo comedy shows have included an aspect of my mental health journey, intended to inform, educate and entertain.
Creating comedy is a way for me to find light in the darkness. My mind can take me to dark places and the only way I can survive that is to constantly seek out the light.
I am who I am because of an in spite of my illnesses. I wouldn’t be half as empathetic or resilient or strong or committed or motivated were it not for my mental health experiences.
Looking back, how do you feel you have changed as a person since the beginning?
I have changed for the better. But that is a little innocuous of me to say given that my first experience of mental illness was around 20 years ago. Of course I’ve changed. I’m now a woman, I was a child. It’s hard to answer this question because it’s impossible for any of us not to change as we grow older. The best we can hope for is to learn from experiences constantly and to rise to the challenge of taking those new challenges as opportunities to grow. I never fail, I either win or I learn.