As part of Jameela Jamil's guest editorship for HuffPost UK Lifestyle's International Women's Day 2015 coverage, here is her interview with the incredible Scarlett Curtis.
My hero is 10 years younger than me.
She is also bloody impossible to get on the phone. I’ve never felt like more of a stalker. I have spent the last week bombarding her, and even her family with desperate pleas, to tie this young woman to an hour’s chat with me, and I have refused to even consider talking to anyone else, because Scarlett Curtis, like the perfect meringue, is utterly worth the wait.
I was first introduced to her in 2010, when her father, Richard Curtis (the man who wrote Notting Hill, Love Actually, Four Weddings and gave an entire generation of women a crush on Hugh Grant) asked me to visit her, as she was in trouble.
Scarlett was 14 years old when an operation on her spine went horribly wrong, and she woke up in an unspeakable pain, that would not leave her for a moment over the next three years. It would take her doctors that long to work out what was wrong with her and how to fix it.
But by that time, she had been robbed of her adolescence, of her footing on the common ground she once shared with her peers, and most importantly… her happiness. She was left with crippling anxiety, depression, stress, anger and loneliness.
With nobody around her to really understand her ordeal from a personal place, she took to the internet to find and support like-minded people. This came in the form of her personable, witty and heartbreakingly candid cult-following blog, www.scarlettcurtis.com.
A survival guide if you will, to the darker moments life has to offer.
I’ve watched the rapid rise of this blog, and the attention and support it has garnered from the likes of Lena Actual Dunham and Caitlin Actual Moran, and notably, the love it has been received with by those struggling with emotional afflictions. Her unapologetic use of honesty to combat shame and stigma is not only admirable, but it’s working.
Over the past four years I have watched this young woman venture to hell and back. When we first met, I saw a broken, terrified and lost girl, afraid to leave the house. Today I am Skyping her in her apartment in New York, where she has moved, on her own, with a place at the most prestigious NYU.
It has been a hell of journey, and that is why she is my one to watch.
So, Scarlett, five months alone in New York - how’s it going?
It's going well! I didn’t think I’d even make it here a week, so every day feels like an achievement. It’s up and down, some days I feel like this is the greatest city in the world.. and other days its just cold and lonely and a bit scary. But obviously the good outweighs the bad. So far.
Do you think other people around you secretly feel the same?
Absolutely! There are so many people… who haven’t even had a similar experience to me, but who feel the same way. It’s just that nobody really speaks about it, and then that perpetuates more people holding their tongue.
Nobody wants to admit to feeling alone and scared. For years I thought I was the only one, especially because of the way that Facebook and Instagram just tends to show the highlights of people’s social lives.
Which for a long time, made me feel like even more of a freak, and so I started trying to make myself become what I thought these people were, and what their lives were, so I could fit in. Which only made me feel worse.
But from my experience, almost every time I’ve opened up to someone and said how I’m really feeling, they drop their guard, and open up and tell me the most incredible things about what they too are secretly struggling with. I’m just learning to be the first one to put my hands up and admit that I’m having trouble coping. And so often… they are too.
Do you think that’s why you started your blog? To be that person?
A hundred percent. I think a lot of it was just me realising I felt so ashamed of everything that I was. I felt that everything about me was wrong, and I couldn’t live like that anymore. And I knew that reading things that other people had written about similar feelings to mine had in the past, had made me feel so much less alone.
Which was so liberating. I think I wanted to do that for other people. To give them that release from their shame. So I decided to own those feelings of pain and shame, and it’s funny how when you write these things down about yourself, your greatest fears about your shortcomings… you read them back in black and white and realise they aren’t actually that bad. It sometimes even makes me proud of what I’ve overcome.
You get to take the power back. I feel as though anxiety, depression and eating disorders are often just intellectualised when spoken about, and I wanted to write about it all from a personal place, to be able to reach out and see who else was struggling with these things.
What have the responses been like?
Incredible. There are so many people online searching for honesty and companionship. the responses have been amazing. Even from people who I knew, who I would NEVER expect to be struggling with some of the issues I write about, were getting in touch and opening up to me.
Genuinely, even some of the most popular, confident and seemingly together men and women I’ve met. At the core of their secrets is shame, which is so destructive. Nobody wants to admit they are different and that they feel different. It has governed so much of my life until I was able to share it with people through my writing, and I feel so free of it now.
People need to just open up more about what they are going through.
Do you think celebrities should put down the facade of perfection and be more honest with their fans about their own fears and problems?
Definitely, I think the whole aspirational quality of social media is sometimes quite damaging. It’s incredibly helpful when others who people see as a hero and an icon, like Demi Lovato, bring down their barriers and tell the truth, it can be life changing for the people who read that. It’s your idol telling you that it’s okay. They normalise what you feel so broken about.
For me, people like Zoella talking about depression, and Lena Dunham about anxiety, and Portia Di Rossi writing about her eating disorders have helped me and millions of others so much. There is such a hunger for it. We are all looking for comfort.
What do you hope to achieve for the blog?
I want to build on it and reach more people. think something I’ve been thinking about a lot, is creating a platform for other people’s stories of shame and pain.
Just a safe space to be able to say how you really feel without being judged, so you can share with like-minded individuals. It could help us bring down the guards people put up, and hopefully start to chip away at the stigma.
Speaking of the stigma, is it still something that you personally feel is prevalent in society at the moment?
Yes of course. And there is a sensitivity in society growing towards it, but sensitivity isn’t necessarily going to help remove that taboo.
We don’t need people to be careful around the topic, we just need people to talk about it when they are going through it. We need it to become something acceptable to admit to, so that it becomes normalised, and those of us who feel it don’t feel so embarrassed about coming forward with what is actually a very common feeling.
Do you think the government should pressure schools to educate young people more about mental health problems, not just for those who may one day suffer, but also for those who may not, so that they can really understand and develop a deeper compassion?
Absolutely. I think people need to know the basic, fundamental things about mental illness. They need to be taught what things like anxiety and depression feel like. And learn that it’s not something to be scared of.
There are so many things that young people don’t understand about these problems, for example, that eating disorders aren’t always about how you look, and how depression can sometimes be both emotionally and physically debilitating. Almost like the flu. It can weigh you down and wear you out. I think it would help a lot with empathy.
Your site has become something of an emotional survival guide to so many, what would be your three top go-to tips for emotional survival?
1) Not pressuring yourself to get better instantly. In the same way you give yourself time to heal from a broken leg, you need to accept that things have changed for a while, and that’s okay, and it doesn’t make you a failure, you just need a little time.
2) Distractions have been a huge lifeline for me. It’s tempting to just get lost in the pain, but I’m a big fan of escapism. Entertainment like TV, books, film and music, have been friends to me, and kept me company during the darkest times.
3) Hobbies brought me so much joy. It’s so important to have little moments and boosts of even the tiniest achievement, to slowly build yourself back up. It doesn’t have to be anything big or dramatic, for me, it was knitting and crafts and baking, and it just gave me something to work on that had a concrete result.
Does it feel as though anxiety amongst young people is on the rise?
Absolutely. We are bombarded with information and pressure to live a certain way, look a certain way and feel a certain way. And we don’t really know anything yet.
We don’t know what is and isn’t okay to feel. We don’t know who we are or what we want, and the more we feel pressured to create these online profiles of ourselves with these idyllic lives, the more we lose touch with ourselves and each other.
And finally, as it’s International Women’s Day, who is a woman you look up to?
Shonda Rhimes. The creator of shows like Grey’s Anatomy, and Scandal, How to get away with murder. She makes such popular and successful mainstream shows, and manages through them to be such a pioneer for putting women of all ages, race, background, size and looks on screen.
She ignores all the boxes that media tries to force women into. She writes about strong women in such an honest and empowering way. She’s such an inclusive creator, and an example of someone who is changing things for women in such a simple, beautiful and interesting way.
HuffPost UK Lifestyle are running a month-long campaign during March called All Women Everywhere, championing women from all walks of life. If you would like to contribute, please email us here.