The third letter



















The voice of mental illness

This isn’t a blog post about “hearing voices”, in the sense of auditory hallucinations. It is about the tone of voice and phraseology of the thoughts that accompany mental illnesses. For me, each of my mental health conditions has a consistent and recognisable voice. When I have a thought, I can now recognise which condition is doing the talking, or if the thought is of my own creation. Being able to do this is a fundamental part of the toolkit of recovery. 

So how do the conditions sound to me?

OCD: The voice of OCD is insidious, like a snake’s hiss. That should be a massive warning klaxon to the mind, but the mind doesn’t hear the hiss, just the words. 

The OCD whispers that it’s our friend and protector. It puts a reassuring arm round our shoulder, steering us where it wants us to go. And we go. Like someone vulnerable, groomed and coherced by a creepy family friend. 

The voice of OCD is persuasive. Plausible. Believable. No matter how ridiculous the idea is that it whispers to the mind. We know that it’s whispering nonsense. We’re sure that it’s whispering nonsense. But… there’s a sliver of doubt. I’d best do what OCD wants me to do, just in case…

Aaaaaand it’s got us. Hook, line and sinker. Again. No matter how many times we’ve been caught before. 

Then there’s the OCD trigger voice. Like an opera soprano with her hand caught in a car door. Strident. Loud above all else. Screaming the panic into you to take action now. Immediately! If you don’t, the very worst is definitely going to happen. ACT NOW! Carry out the compulsion to avoid certain disaster! Do it before it’s too late! She keeps wailing, drowning everything else out. 

So eventually you do the compulsion. The trapped-handed soprano stops screaming. The panic drops. A tiny moment of calm, maybe even relief. But then the whispering voice starts again. What if you didn’t do the compulsion correctly? What if disaster hasn’t been averted, merely delayed? What if? What if? What if? And before you know it, the careless soprano has her hand trapped in the car door again. 

Doubt is OCD’s weapon. It doesn’t even have to be reasonable doubt, in the legal sense. A single, tiny, poisonous sliver of doubt is enough to pierce the mind and embed the toxin once again. 

OCD is a one trick pony. Sure, it has infinite variations on a theme, but it always plays the same tune. Recognising the lyrics and disbelieving them is the start of putting the hissing serpent back into its basket, with the lid shut tight.


OCPD: If Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder was a person, it would be a US marines drill sergeant. An uncompromising bully for which nothing is ever good enough. Ever. A harrying voice which pushes ever forward. 

The voice goads you to do better, always better. The last success was a fleeting thing, to be improved upon. Never worthy of congratulation, only introspection and analysis of how it could have been done better, how the next thing must be done better. 

Each task is a competition with your previous self. The OCPD says that Old Self was weak. Imperfect. Flawed. Unacceptable. Not good enough. New Self must be better. No excuses. No mercy. Everything is a task. Perfection is the goal. Anything less than perfection is failure, no matter how close it came. Do the task, meet the deadline, be perfect, don’t show weakness, don’t hesitate, don’t slow down, don’t draw breath. Keep the juggernaut rolling forwards, ever forwards. Failure is not an option. 

The voice of OCPD is an absolute bastard. Absolute in its true sense. All or nothing, black or white, win or lose. No room for grey. No room for error. No room for weakness. OCPD is an utter asshole. A shouty, demanding asshole. And sadly, that’s what the sufferer can become in turn. A task driven, order obsessed, singleminded, inflexible, perfectionist asshole. The inner bully begets the outer asshole. 

It’s stressful being that protégé asshole. Exhausting. Lonely. It gets results. Success. But what is all the success in the world worth, if it requires being whipped through life by an asshole in your mind?


Depression: Of all the mental health conditions I have experienced, depression is by far the most deliberately harmful and destructive. It is just as much a parasite as the other conditions, but seems Hell bent on destroying both its host and itself in turn. 

The voice of depression is mean, evil, remorseless. There is no pretence. It wants to do you down. Its vocabulary is scathing: “Pathetic. Failure. Carcass. Dead man walking. Waste of breath. Waste of a soul. Sad little fat failure. You’re better off dead. You are a liability to this world”. The tone is harsh and sadistic , like a Dickensian villain. 

The voice of depression is internalised death-by-a-thousand-cuts. It eats away at you, like a wasp larva, hollowing its way out of its living host victim. 

I get angry at the voice of depression now. When it spits its bile through its gritted teeth, I shout “FUCK OFF!” back at it, sometimes out loud, if nobody can hear me. Depression is an evil thing, intent on killing. It is my enemy. I will show my enemy no mercy. My family motto is “Cut and burn to victory”. I like to summon a little of that family bloodlust when fighting the voice of depression, cutting it down mid sentence. 

PTSD: For me, PTSD is voiceless. That is to say, it has no voice of its own, only echoes of my voice in memories and flashbacks. 

I can hear the voice of my thoughts as I relive or recall events. “You’re trapped. Cornered. There is no escape. You must hide, fight or die. Don’t show weakness. Don’t fall. If you fall, you’re dead. Stay on your feet. No, stop drop and roll! Roll to cover. Head down. Cover vital organs with limbs. Make yourself small. Invisible. Take the pain. Stay quiet. Take it. The pain will stop eventually. Please let me die a clean death God. A bullet to the head. Instantaneous. Don’t let me be blown up. Half dead. Dying. Gargling. Moaning. Screaming. Run! RUNUNRUNRUNRUNRUNRUN! Keep running. Don’t look back. Don’t slow down. Don’t stop. Knife out. Ready to be caught. Ready to defend. Be ready. Be ready. Get home.  Get home. Quietly. Calm your breathing. In shadow. Survive.  Hide. Hide. Hide. In darkness. Silent. Curled. Hide”. 

That is all so fresh in my mind. I can hear myself think it all, because those phrases never went away. The phrases from so many different situations. Some I escaped from, some I couldn’t. 


The worst thing about these voices is that, as for many people who suffer mental illness, there isn’t just the one voice. There is a cacophony of voices from all sides, all the time. Like being trapped in a crammed full lift (elevator), surrounded by people shouting. Some of them constant, never even drawing breath. Others watching for signs of fatigue, weakness, the guard dropping, before joining in the discordant haranguing chorus. All of them heard. Every single word. 

A few moments on the beach or in the woods, with the mind briefly quiet, are blessed respite. 

100% Me

100 words which sum up who I am and what I am today. 

  • Difficult
  • Honest
  • Sincere
  • Damaged
  • Lucky
  • Unlucky
  • Assertive
  • Loyal
  • Witty
  • Sarcastic
  • Impatient
  • Exhausted
  • Intelligent
  • Articulate
  • Stubborn
  • Opinionated
  • Passionate
  • Creative
  • Obstinate
  • Thoughtful
  • Wary
  • Survivor
  • Hardass
  • Resilient
  • Curious
  • Driven
  • Determined
  • Over-optimistic
  • Cynical
  • Contradictory
  • Conventional
  • Eccentric
  • Luddite
  • Technophile
  • Habitual
  • Conditioned
  • Intransigent
  • Pragmatic
  • Sinistral
  • Fussy
  • Pedantic
  • Competitive
  • Self-deprecating
  • Perfectionist
  • Unrealistic
  • Tough
  • Authoritarian
  • Sceptical
  • Fogbound
  • Aching
  • Voluble
  • Brave
  • Foolhardy
  • Controlling
  • Controlled
  • Careworn
  • Overweight
  • Unfit
  • Ageing
  • Mischievous
  • Romantic
  • Nostalgic
  • Outspoken
  • Irreverent
  • Inquisitive
  • Quiet
  • Moral
  • Questioning
  • Insular
  • Celtic
  • British
  • Homebird
  • Battler
  • Capable
  • Persuadeable
  • Calculating
  • Circumspect
  • Cautious
  • Worldweary
  • Fatigued
  • Demoralised
  • Recovering
  • Proud
  • Ashamed
  • Afraid
  • Responsible
  • Overburdened
  • Hypervigilant
  • Tense
  • Depressed
  • Hopeful
  • Intense
  • Domineering
  • Cautious
  • Slower
  • Calmer
  • Transitioning
  • Learning
  • Growing
  • Happier


I seem to swear quite a lot on Twitter and in this blog. Far more than I do in real life. I interpret this as a good sign. It means I feel comfortable and relaxed enough to be spontaneously expressive.

I don’t swear for effect. I don’t swear out of laziness. I don’t swear due to possession of a limited vocabulary. I don’t swear to act the hard man. I don’t swear to appear “down with the kids” or whatever this week’s phrase meaning “down with the kids” is. 

Why do I swear then?

I lived for a long time in Belfast. Swearing was just part of the dialect. More so after drink was consumed. There is a nice staccato rhythm to many swear words. Good hard consonants and not too many syllables. The accents and dialects of Greater Belfast have a certain harsh lyricism to them. An honesty. A what-you-see-is-what-you-get directness. Swearing is just part of the song, a punctuation between phrases. 

This is starting to sound like an anthropology lecture or an expat waxing lyrical about The Old Country and how great it was. Fuck that fer a game o’ marlies! This post is meant to be a little light relief from the usual heavy subject matter that seems to be my forté. 

People from Belfast are great at swearing. It’s a pity swearing wasn’t an Olympic sport. Belfast, Glasgow, New York, Sydney, Johannesburg, Samuel L Jackson, all competing in a swear off. Or should that be a “fuck off”? I’d watch it. 

“And here we have this young Northern Irishman, competing in his first Olympics, going for an ambitious triple motherfucker with a bastard twist. Oh! And he’s carried that off beautifully. I thought he was going to stumble on the second motherfucker, but he recovered magnificently. He has really laid down the gauntlet for the favourites the Australians.”

There is a joy in swearing. My 9yo invented a new swear word so that she could swear and not get into trouble. “Bummocks!”. All the offensiveness of “bum”, all the rhythm and impact of “bollocks”. Genius! I love language of all sorts. I have as many books about language and word use as I do about graphic design and web design. Archaic language, modern language, grammar, slang, the etymology of English and other European languages. I love playing with words as much as I love creating visual imagery. 

Swearing has gotten me into bother a couple of times. When my oldest daughter was still a toddler, I picked  her up as usual one evening from the childminder on my way home from work. As I drove my car out onto a main road from a side road, I realised that I had misjudged the speed of an approaching car. I put my foot hard onto the accelerator pedal and exclaimed, “Fuck it!”. A little voice from the childseat in the back echoed, “Fuck it …fuck it. Fuckitfuckitfuckitfuckit …fuck …it”. She said it for three days solid. Everywhere. 

I’m not keen on swearing for swearings’ sake or lazy use of language. While I find Quentin Tarantino’s films generally entertaining, the amount of swearing is artificial and quickly loses its currency, eventually detracting from the story, rather than enriching it. By the end of Reservoir Dogs I was muthafukkered out. I imagine Tarantino, when writing the script thought, “This doesn’t sound controversial enough. I’d better add three more ‘nigger’s and two more ‘motherfucker’s into the dialogue”. 

What are my favourite examples of swearing?

Hugh Grant’s first words in Four Weddings And A Funeral are funny. 

Four Weddings – click here

The Afrikaans swearing in District 9 reminds me of Johannesburg. 

District 9 Fook! – click here

Mrs Doyle from Father Ted’s effin’ indignation is a classic. 

Mrs Doyle & the Eff Word – click here

So what do you think of swearing? Do you have any favourite examples or do you have a swear box which has never been graced with a pound coin?