Jonny Benjamin MBE is a multi-talented, multi-faceted man – difficult to sum up in a few words. So we won’t even try. We’ll leave it all to him.
On the theme of identity, we asked Jonny to write about how he feels about some of the labels he’s grown up with.
Words by Jonny Benjamin
Illustrations by Joe Goldman
When I was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder the psychiatrist told me it felt like my whole world had suddenly come to a halt.
I was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder (schizophrenia and bipolar) at the age of 20. When the psychiatrist told me it felt like my whole world had suddenly come to a halt. Not only had my life been a lie (I believed I was on my own version of the Truman Show) but I now had a diagnosis of which included schizophrenia (that mental illness associated with so many violent mass murderers.) I was fucked. For a long time after my life was consumed by this label and I felt it wasn’t worth living. Watching the Oscar winning film A Beautiful Mind, a biopic of Nobel Prize winner John Nash, changed everything for me. He had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and yet had succeeded beyond all expectation. I was going to prove them wrong and do the same. I’ve still to win my Nobel Prize for Mathematics but I have succeeded in spite of the illness. It doesn’t rule my life like it once did, though it still rears its ugly head from time to time.
People often refer to me as a mental health campaigner, though I always feel slightly awkward when I hear this as I feel like I could be much more of an activist. From schools to prisons to our mental health system, there’s so much that’s so flawed, and so much to campaign on, it often seems an impossible task. I always refer to the famous words of John Heywood when it feels overwhelming, “Rome wasn’t built in a day, but they were laying bricks every hour.”
Not all my family know yet. Though if they’re reading this, I guess they might now. And perhaps that isn’t such a bad thing after all.
I think the first time I realised I was gay was when I was about 10 years old. I was sitting in a restaurant having dinner for my Gran’s birthday when this waiter appeared to take our order. He looked like Hugh Jackman. Boom. Something inside me was aroused. Not what you might be thinking though..I was just 10!I didn’t “come out” till I was 21 and that was tough. Part of the reason for my breakdown and suicide attempt at 20 was due to my sexuality. I couldn’t come to terms with it and was convinced it would bring huge shame on me and my family. At that time, they didn’t exactly throw a coming out party if you said you were gay in the Jewish community. Things are changing now fortunately. If I’m completely honest, I’m still not 100% comfortable with being gay. Not all my family know yet. Though if they’re reading this, I guess they might now. And perhaps that isn’t such a bad thing after all.
My entry into the world of mental health began with video blogging. I started vlogging in 2010, setting the trend for the likes of Zoella and today’s famous YouTubers. I now have over 100 vlogs and 10k subscribers, only 11 million less than said Zoella. I was vlogging under a pseudonym as a medium to talk about my mental illness, until Stephen Fry randomly tweeted one of my vlogs in 2012, and life was never the same again after that.
It’s not something I talk about much but having IBS can make life really shit, quite literally. I feel more comfortable and confident talking about my mind than my guts. It’s still something of a taboo, and definitely something that causes a lot of embarrassment. I was diagnosed with IBS in my mid-twenties and since then my bowels have never been the same. Lately I’ve been struggling with my IBS a lot but putting off addressing it. I’ve had a camera shoved up my backside a few times now and it ‘ain’t pretty! But writing this has made me realise I need to see my GP. I’m tired of suffering with it, mostly in silence. Thanks, CALMzine.
I love writing. I find it easier than talking. It’s always been incredibly cathartic for me.
Poet and Writer
I don’t think I’m a great poet or writer. Actually, sometimes I do. But then other times, and in fact most of the time, I think I’m about as eloquent as a goldfish. I did have a book of poetry published in 2012, Pill After Pill, and next year I’m having my first book published, as yet to be titled. I used to write all the time with other people in mind, but finally I’m starting to write for myself. I love writing. I find it easier than talking. It’s always been incredibly cathartic for me. But over the years the worry of how other people will judge my writing has got the better of me. I haven’t written something that’s been published for a while till this, so please be kind dear reader!
I was heavily influenced by my faith growing up. I used to go to Sunday school each week and eventually attended a Jewish secondary school. I was determined to be a good Jew from a young age. Realising I was gay however put a spanner in the works and looking back was a big contributor to my mental health issues. At 16 I began hearing what I thought was the voice of the devil in my head. It was hell. That voice tortured and tormented me for a long time.When I eventually got my diagnosis and started having treatment I became resentful toward my religion. I remember ranting for ages at G-d one day in hospital. Him and me were through. As I got better I began to reconnect with my faith. Nowadays I’m careful about where I talk about being Jewish.People have strong opinions about religion and I worry that people assume all Jews support Israel’s actions toward Palestine. I don’t personally at all. Hashtag Peace4TheMiddleEast.
I used to loathe myself. Most of my twenties were spent despising myself to the core. But finally, at 30, that’s starting to change at last.
I’m a rubbish man. From the size of my twig-like biceps to my virtually non-existent sex life (I’ve only ever had sex with 2 people but i’ll always say it’s 10-40 depending on which male counterpart I’m trying to impress) I often feel inferior to most other men around me. It is silly isn’t it. Especially since I’m constantly preaching to people to “be their true selves.” I’ve still got a way to go in terms of self-acceptance,clearly, inmany areas of my life. Currently I’m having CFT or Compassion Focused Therapy. It might not seem it but I am making progress. I used to loathe myself. Most of my twenties were spent despising myself to the core. But finally, at 30, that’s starting to change at last.
Follow Jonny at @MrJonnyBenjamin
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