Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Why This Year's I'm A Celebrity Proves We STILL Don't Understand Anxiety

There's a tradition in my household.  For a couple of weeks, in late November/early December, we all gather around the TV to watch (in recent years, some very minor) celebrities eat kangaroo anus, get covered in cockroaches and generally banter or bicker around a campfire.

Yes, it's I'm A Celebrity season.

It's one of those love/hate shows.  Many have (probably with good reason) spoken out against the potential for animal cruelty involved (do those cockroaches really want to be dumped on a reality TV personality's head?!) and it's fair to say that I'm A Celebrity hasn't been without its fair share of drama.  Just two years ago, I wrote about the vile Lady C's appearance on the show, during which she point-blank refused to undertake certain challenges unless she was told in advance what reward she'd get and worse, she violently insulted anyone who disagreed with her, even attacking Spandau Ballet singer Tony Hadley's children.

This year, though, the main talking point for many watching the show, has been the treatment of Iain Lee, radio broadcaster and comedian.  Iain came into the show as a late addition along with Labour MP, Kezia Dugdale and from very early on, was outspoken about his mental health issues.  He talked about the importance of sharing your feelings and explained that he hates the toxic idea that men can't - or shouldn't - cry.  It was quickly obvious to most viewers that Iain is a sensitive person and someone whose honesty is to his credit.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for many of his campmates.

Another celebrity in this year's camp is boxer Amir Khan; a man who fights people for a living, but screams at insects, was the first person this year to say "I'm a celebrity, get me out of here" in order to get out of a trial and claims to be afraid of snakes, despite his own behaviour being decidedly snake-like.  Can you tell I'm not a fan?!

Amir quickly became friendly with footballer's wife Becky Vardy, ex-footballer Dennis Wise and soap actor Jamie Lomas.  Together, this group began acting in a way not dissimilar to scenes played out in schools throughout the land.  They were the "cool kids."  And cool kids always need a target.  That target is usually someone different.  Someone intelligent and sensitive.  Their target in the camp?  Iain.

During a now infamous "Dingo Dollar Challenge," (in which two celebrities are sent out of camp to undertake a challenge, in the hope of winning a treat for the whole group) Amir and Iain won a plate full of strawberries and cream for the camp.  On their way back to deliver the goodies to their teammates, Amir suggested they sneakily eat the treat by themselves and then get rid of any evidence.  Iain laughed at this suggestion (never before made by any celebrity in well over a decade of the show being aired), but it quickly became clear that Amir was serious.  He told Iain: "I'm eating them now, so it's up to you what you do" and sat down to do just that.  Now, Iain should have stood up to him and refused to get involved.  I'm not excusing Iain for joining in.  However I'm also not going to judge him too harshly for the fact that he didn't walk away.  Why?  Because I've been that target, "othered" by the "cool kids."  And I've gone along with things I wouldn't normally have done, in the hope that it might make them treat me as an equal.  It was very obvious by this point that Iain already felt like an outsider, yet here he was being invited to do something naughty with one of the popular camp members.  Add to that the fact that Iain was hungry and missing home, the treat proved too good to resist.  He and Amir polished off the strawberries and cream, then returned to camp, lying that they'd failed their challenge.

But it was what happened next that really horrified me.

Almost immediately after lying to their campmates about the result of their challenge, Iain told Amir that he felt guilt-stricken and wanted to come clean. Amir was absolutely adamant that he should do no such thing, going as far as to say "you tell them it was you, don't you dare mention me."

It's absolutely typical "cool kid" behaviour.  School bullies love to drag the quiet, sensitive one into things they know they could get into trouble for, then deny any responsibility.

To Iain's credit, he owned up and did take almost complete responsibility, refusing to discuss Amir's part in proceedings, when asked by a campmate.  Later on, when Amir's fellow school bully crowd spoke with him about what happened, they were insistent that "you wouldn't do that sort of thing" and Amir was only too happy to go along with their views, confirming to Dennis Wise that "it was Iain, yeah."

Unfortunately for Iain, "Strawberrygate" had made him even more of a target than he was before.  Now, the "cool gang" of Becky, Amir, Dennis and Jamie were constantly whispering in corners about him.  Becky told him to his face that he was a "game-player," after Iain said he wanted to go home.  She claimed he was going for the sympathy vote and worse, in the Bush Telegraph (the jungle equivalent of Big Brother's Diary Room), she declared him "a fake.  As soon as the cameras are on, he wants the limelight."  This, from someone who is supposed to be the ambassador for an anti-bullying charity, really sticks in the throat.

I fully believe that Iain did want to go home, when evictions began.  Why wouldn't he?!  He was forced into taking full responsibility for something he hadn't initiated, he was isolated from the group, bitched about and, most recently, mocked for having failed to complete a trial which Dennis Wise then achieved the top result for.  It's no wonder that Iain, who has been completely open about his mental health issues, has struggled in the face of such playground bullying.  It has made for extremely uncomfortable viewing.

Anxiety is not something to be trivialised or mocked.  I know this, from personal experience, but it shouldn't have to be the case that we only understand something once we've experienced it firsthand.  We need to be more open to hearing how others feel and why they feel that way, even if it makes us uncomfortable in the process.

Those who find Amir hilarious, or who praised Becky for "telling it like it is" (a phrase that needs to die painfully, given how often it's attributed to people who are actually just boldly speaking hate or being judgemental/rude) have claimed that Iain has isolated himself from the group.  Let me explain how that happens, when you're suffering with anxiety:

Anxiety is like a little devil on your shoulder.  When you do something good, it will tell you it was bad.  When you do do something bad, it will gnaw away at you, reminding you of what a terrible person you are.  I have no doubt that this contributed to Iain's insistence on coming clean about the strawberries immediately and I'm certain that knowing his campmates were furious with him (and seemingly less angry with Amir, who ducked out of admitting his full role), will have eaten away at him.  Anxiety makes you paranoid that nobody likes you as it is, so when people are beginning to show signs that they're genuinely not keen on you, you magnify those small signs in your mind, until you're utterly convinced that you are hated.  So, to realise that a group of people who resemble the popular kids at school are whispering about you behind your back, can be absolutely crushing to someone with anxiety.  To see Dennis Wise insisting that the trial Iain failed to complete was "really easy" and that the water that caused Iain such panic was "only a metre and a half," not three metres deep as Iain had said it was (Ant and Dec, the show's hosts have since confirmed that the depth was three metres), will only add to that feeling that you're not liked or believed.  You only had to look at how wounded Iain looked as Dennis crowed about the ease of the task, before Iain magnanimously shook him by the hand and congratulated him. 

When you convince yourself that you're not good enough and that people dislike you, or think less of you than they do of the rest of the group, you tend to go into yourself.  You isolate yourself because you think that's what everyone else wants you to do.  It really is like being at school: if the cool kids don't want you on their table, you sit by yourself, instead.

Some of the other campmates have had the empathy and humanity to recognise that Iain needed a friend (although, laughably, not the one who's meant to be an anti-bullying ambassador).  Shappi and Kezia took him to one side for conversations and tried to include him a little more.  Sadly, those two have since been voted off the show, leaving Iain much more of a target.  Jennie is now perhaps the person best placed to show Iain a little kindness, whilst the likes of Amir delight in running him down at every given opportunity.  Indeed, Amir has insulted Iain's supposed "weakness" when it comes to facing his fears, despite the fact that he screams at the mere idea of something crawling on him.  He even announced that he'd like to punch Iain for his "sneakiness."  

But Iain isn't the one talking behind people's backs.  

There are sneaky people in that camp.  They're the ones behaving like the in-crowd at school.

And yet Iain, still showing a level of decency the others frankly don't deserve, has been consistently trying to rise above everything and force himself to be a team player, even when you can see that he is visibly upset and would rather be alone.  He even sacrificed his own email from home during a recent challenge, in an effort to ensure others got theirs.

In last night's televised challenge, the campmates were split into two groups and put in a taxi, which was then filled jungle critters.  Amir screeched and wriggled, howling at the mere thought.  Iain, who was sitting next to him, tried to reassure him by telling him that what he could feel on his back were not spiders, but cockroaches, knowing that if he knew the truth, he'd freak out more.  But despite Iain's attempts to calm him, Amir continued to shriek and scream throughout the ordeal.  Yet, afterwards?  He spoke in the Bush Telegraph, insisting he hadn't screamed at all.  

This is gaslighting.  And this is what Amir, Becky, Jamie and Dennis are all guilty of.  Each of them has spoken about Iain using words that would be more accurately used against themselves.  "He's sneaky."  "He's playing mind-games."  "He's weak."  "He's got a lot of problems."

Notice how rather than talk to Iain about why he's quiet, why he seems to be isolating himself or why he might be saying he wants to go home, they all simply gather together to talk about him?

For me, this is becoming increasingly disturbing viewing.  As the camp grows smaller, Iain's status as an outsider only seems to become more prominent (although I was pleased to see him having a good time at "The Jungle Arms" pub, last night, integrating much more).  I was bullied at school.  I know what it feels like to be constantly worried that the "cool kids" are talking behind your back.  I know what anxiety can do to your mind and your behaviour.

Honestly?  I would love Iain to win.  Because it's about time we stopped rewarding those who are openly nasty and who try to push their own negative traits onto others.  It's time we tried to understand those who feel isolated.  Those who are different.  Those who are brave enough to start a conversation on the subject of mental health in the first place.

But really, my biggest hope is that we all learn something from this.  If we can, as a majority of viewers, accept that slagging people off behind their backs is wrong and that allowing a clearly distressed person to become more and more isolated is the last thing that should be happening, at least some good will have come out of Iain's experience on this show.

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