May 21, 2020
EP. 8 — Scarlett Curtis
Activist and writer Scarlett Curtis joins Jameela to discuss her own painful journey with an invisible illness, the biases within the medical system, shared anger over munchausen accusations, how PTSD and mental health struggles can happen to anyone, and how feminism and activism changed her life.
8 — Scarlett Curtis
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:00:00] Hello. I hope you’re well. Welcome to another episode of “I Weigh” with Jameela Jamil. I am personally fine. I am. Nothing much has changed in my life. It’s about to though. So this is the last time you’re gonna hear me calm and rested because I am getting my first ever puppy this week. And it’s very exciting. But I also know that apparently I’m not going to sleep for about four weeks and it’s gonna piss and shit all over me and everything that I love and own. So I might sound a little bit fragile and fraught from here on out and I apologize for that in advance. But I can’t wait. And I think it’s just gonna be good for me. My manager has gotten me this puppy to keep me calm and help me emotionally during this time. And also, I think she’s really doing it to keep me off Twitter. If I’m being honest, I think she’s trying to keep me off social media by distracting me with the dog. Anyway. So I am so excited for you to hear today’s episode because I’m such a huge fan of today’s guest. I’m talking about Scarlett Curtis. She is such a great writer and such a great and inspiring activist and just human being. Everything she survived is so astounding. And I think you will really be blown away listening to her story today. She has published books such as “Feminist Don’t Wear Pink and Other Lies” and “It’s Not OK to Feel Blue and Other Lies”. Both have done very well and have meant so much to so many people around the world. She refers to herself as the Kris Jenner of activism, which I love. And to be fair, she is unbelievably effective and has already changed so many laws even at such a young age. She’s someone who has personally helped me a lot in my own mental health recovery, and I am honored to say that I have fulfilled some sort of similar role in her life. I would like to give you a trigger warning that when we are discussing mental health, we do discuss suicide briefly in this conversation because she did attempt suicide and she talks about that in this episode. And so if you are someone who is not ready to yet hear that conversation, please feel free to turn away. But for those of you who don’t mind, this is a really astonishing and rare story that you’re about to hear. I hope you enjoy it. I hope you love her as much as I do, although I don’t think that’s possible. Scarlett Curtis, you are a writer, an activist and a journalist. You have curated two Sunday Times best selling books and you are the co-founder of the Pink Protest, an activist community partially responsible for changing not one, but two UK laws. Hello. Welcome to my podcast.
SCARLETT CURTIS [00:02:59] Woo! It’s actually, how I demand everyone introduce every conversation I have with them.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:03:05] Good. I want to talk about how we met because I like doing that. You and I met because your dad approached me at a party and told me that he had a daughter who was a fan of mine and that he’d heard that I had, had a very severe back injury when I was younger. And he told me that you had just gone through a very traumatic back surgery and asked if I would come and visit you. So I did. And upon doing so, I learned you are not, in fact, a fan of mine. Your dad had lied.
SCARLETT CURTIS [00:03:42] I was a fan of yours.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:03:44] No. You weren’t. You told me you weren’t on your podcast. So I turn up there all dressed up.
SCARLETT CURTIS [00:03:52] I mean, I had heard of you.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:03:52] All dressed up. That’s not the fucking same. So I turn up all dressed up for you to, like, surprise you. It’s my number one fan, Scarlett Curtis. You were just very kind. Slightly ambivalent. And we ended up chatting for what I thought would be, I think, you know, in my head, you know, smug, I was 23, 24, and I was like, ugh, I’ll go there 15 minutes and absolutely change this child.
SCARLETT CURTIS [00:04:21] Make a wish.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:04:21] Yeah.
SCARLETT CURTIS [00:04:21] Make a wish child.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:04:23] We’ll take a selfie and, and I’ll have done my bit to get into heaven. And then I found myself still there three hours later. This sounds wrong, in your bed. I was in your bed, lying on the bed. I was on top of the covers and we were sitting there.
SCARLETT CURTIS [00:04:39] Yeah, it was a small bed. It was a 60, it was a single bed. I was 14.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:04:44] You’re not making me look any better here. Okay.
SCARLETT CURTIS [00:04:46] No.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:04:46] And we were chatting all about our lives and our mental health and laughing and crying together and overnight. And again, it doesn’t sound, uncreepy, a 14 year old and a 24 year old became best friends.
SCARLETT CURTIS [00:05:03] Yes, that is the story and it is my favorite story in the world. And it’s been so amazing seeing you, someone I wasn’t a fan of, become the most incredible, powerful woman in the world. And it becomes someone I am genuinely a fan of, not even the fact that I know now.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:05:24] About time, mate. Jesus Christ.
SCARLETT CURTIS [00:05:25] You’ve earned your credit, but everything that you do for young girls and young boys across the world is what you did for me originally. And I feel a bit like the sort of test subject of you being this person who can just make people feel seen and heard and known. Because you came into my life at a time when I had no friends, I had no social life, I had no school, I wasn’t going to school, I wasn’t doing anything. And it didn’t matter because I had you like genuinely, you became my everything. And you are without a doubt and I, this is not being hyperbolic, but are without doubt the reason I’m alive today. So I see myself very much in all your actual fans, even though I’m not a fan.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:06:16] Thank you. That was really fucking sweet and I definitely feel the same way about you. I, I went to your house thinking I was going to save your life and you ended up kind of saving mine. So we have a very special, very special bond where you and I have been able to be honest with each other in a way I don’t think we’ve ever managed to achieve with anyone else. And that taught me a lot about myself and people. And I’ve grown so much because of you. And so, yeah. Anyway, this isn’t a podcast where we’re gonna get married.
SCARLETT CURTIS [00:06:48] It’s just a compliment.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:06:51] Would it be okay for you to explain what had happened that led to me, your hero, being brought to your house? Can you tell us what happened with your back?
SCARLETT CURTIS [00:07:05] Yes. So I grew up as a very privileged, very, quote unquote, normal, whatever that word means, young girl. I think my biggest problem in the world was, you know, fights at school and that I couldn’t go to the parties I wanted to go to. And then when I was 14, I went to have a very routine operation on my back for a condition called scoliosis, which is when you have a curvature in your spine. And they told me that it would the recovery would be a few weeks. I was incredibly excited. I was like, oh, my God, I’m going to be so glamorous. Like Madeleine. Remember those books, “Madeleine”, when she came back to school with a scar and everyone thought she was so cool? I was like that’s going to, that’s going to be me. I’m going to watch TV for two weeks. It’s going to be amazing. I woke up from surgery and immediately knew that something had gone wrong and was immediately told that something hadn’t gone wrong and that I was just making too much fuss. And that basically was what the next three years of my life were. I spent three years in constant, crippling nerve pain. I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t, I could walk like around my block. I once did a sponsored walk around my block, which was about the furthest I could walk. And I got kicked out of my school because they didn’t let me go back in a wheelchair. ‘Cause they thought it would be too disruptive. My whole life just changed. And during that time, I was continually misdiagnosed and sort of really quite severely mistreated by the various medical people that I saw.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:08:49] It’s also worth mentioning, I think, that you, you are not, you’re not very responsive to painkillers. They don’t really work on you. And so therefore, you were in agonizing pain and no amount of painkillers could cure, I remember there were times where you couldn’t even wash because of the nerve pain of water down your back.
SCARLETT CURTIS [00:09:10] Yeah. I was very a smelly teenager.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:09:14] Right. You smelled great to me. The creepy TV presenter in your bed.
SCARLETT CURTIS [00:09:21] A BO teenager. I couldn’t wash. I couldn’t have material on my back. So when I look at all my clothes now from when I was 14, they were all sort of size UK 40 because the only clothes I could wear were just basic like tents on my teenage body. And I. Yeah, it was. And what we realized. So I after a few months, they started to develop a theory that I was making the pain up and that it was a psychological condition. And the fact that I, what I now know is I have this problem in my enzymes where I don’t react to painkillers. It just meant they thought that even more, ’cause they were like at one point I had a whole bedside table filled with OxyContin, which is completely irresponsible to give a 15 year old girl. But that added to their theory that I was making it up. And then after three years of getting to a point where I believed I was making up, I completely believed them and thought that I had made the whole thing up and ruined my life and my family’s life. They went in and did another operation and they made me choose if I wanted this second operation because they said it wasn’t necessary. And they took out some of the metal work from my back, which they put in originally. And it turned out that I just had a screw going into my spine the whole time. And when they took it out, the pain went away. And then I had a complete breakdown and once again didn’t leave the house for about three years.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:10:52] Well, I’m not surprised you had a nail that had been left inside of the most painful possible part of your body that it could have been misplaced. And-.
SCARLETT CURTIS [00:11:02] Yes.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:11:03] I imagine the PTSD, not only of the experience, not only of being in agony for three years. I saw you. It was beyond pain. What was happening to you and the despair and the loneliness and the ostracization, because your, teenage friends don’t know how to support one in that experience. And then on top of that, to find out that you’ve been gas lit by all the people around you, by the people you’re supposed to trust the most, which is the doctors, and you’ve kind of ended up being taught how to gaslight yourself to find out that it was all true. I mean, the PTSD from that is unimaginable.
SCARLETT CURTIS [00:11:39] This is what’s so powerful about gaslighting is that if you knew you were being gas lit, it wouldn’t be that painful. It would just be anger. Anger would be the thing that you felt and you’d probably leave the situation. Even after we found out that it was a medical mistake that caused me to be in pain. I still believed for about four years that I’d made the pain up and I thought they’d pretended to take the metal work out to sort of try and trick me. I just had gotten to a point where I completely had bought into this story that I’d been told about myself for years, which was that I was crazy and that I was irresponsible and that I was sort of destructive-.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:12:21] Attention seeking.
SCARLETT CURTIS [00:12:23] Attention seeking, didn’t want to go back to school. I completely bought into it. And, you know, I think this is where we, one of the many, many points where we really bonded, but I couldn’t see a way out of that and I basically thought that I was an evil, evil person. And the thing that got me out of that was discovering feminism and discovering that even though the experience I had was very specific, it was also completely universal to so many women and anyone who’s ever been oppressed, where you start to believe the story that people are telling you, to the extent where you’re perpetuating it as much as they are.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:12:59] Yeah. I, it’s a huge problem in the current medical system, in particular for black women, we are learning more and more, especially right now during the coronavirus, that those are the disproportionate amounts of deaths. But. I am someone who is familiar with the Munchausen’s accusations. Some people may have seen in February I got mass globally bullied and accused of having Munchausen because people didn’t believe it was possible to have so many illnesses and so many accidents because they don’t understand the condition that I have, which is called Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. It’s an invisible disability. It’s a chronic illness. It’s a complete nightmare for anyone who has it. It makes you very clumsy and it affects literally every single part of your body and how it functions. And so the combination of that and the fact that apparently there’s a limit on how many times you’re allowed to be chased by bees. There are a couple of stories where I got chased by bees. I don’t know why I have bad luck with them, but the Internet decided that I’ve been chased by bees one too many times and that in itself confirmed I must have Munchhausen. And-.
SCARLETT CURTIS [00:14:18] You do always smell very nice. I wonder if it’s a scent thing.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:14:20] You reckon? I don’t know what it is.
SCARLETT CURTIS [00:14:22] Yeah.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:14:22] I think it’s the fact that I see them, I run, and then they think I’m suspicious.
SCARLETT CURTIS [00:14:26] Yeah.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:14:26] Exactly.
SCARLETT CURTIS [00:14:28] They tell people as well. You know, it spreads. The news spreads.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:14:31] Exactly. And, and-.
SCARLETT CURTIS [00:14:32] She reacts well.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:14:35] Well, I can say from that experience and that was painful when it happened because I’ve lived in so much pain my whole life that I’ve at times wanted to take my own life because of it. ‘Cause it feels hard to carry on. And I think you can definitely relate to that from those really difficult years. But it’s such, it’s such a unique and excruciating pain to be denied your experience when you’re already having to suffer through it. So to suffer through it and then to be told that it’s all in your head is such a damaging part of our society. And it happens all day, every day to people everywhere, especially when the illness isn’t visible. What happened to you, the nail was inside your spine. You looked like a perfectly healthy, beautiful young child, and so no one could see it physically on you. And therefore they thought you must be a just a classic, hysterical, dishonest woman.
SCARLETT CURTIS [00:15:24] Yeah. And I think, I mean, that thing that happened with you was one of the most painful things that as a friend that I’ve ever been through, because I think something that, you know, we’re just starting to talk about the way that women are treated within a medical context. And I think something that probably a lot of people who don’t know much about this topic don’t know is saying that someone has Munchhausen or Munchausen by proxy is almost akin to saying that a woman is lying about a sexual assault allegation. It is the thing that people throw out very easily. That the patriarchy sort of uses to deny these stories. And I was told I had Munchausen’s for years. It was an easy way for them to sort of justify the fact that they didn’t know what was wrong with me. I was also told, Munchausen, that me and my mom was suffering from Munchausen’s by proxy, which is when a parent makes their child sick. And we were actually, so my mom was told she had to be less nice to me for about two years. She had sort of stopped hugging me, stopped talking to me, really stopped telling me she loved me because they had come up with this theory that we were too close and that that would help me move on from the pain. So these words and these labels have the most real implications on so many people’s lives, even though that incredibly rare conditions. And I think just seeing you be put through that was so traumatic, not just for you, but for so many women who have been misdiagnosed and sort of mistreated at the hands of these systems and something else. Sorry not to like bang on, but something else that really hurt me about that and the whole experience is even if someone’s making up their pain, there is a real psychological reason why that person would be making up pain. And whenever I was accused of making up my own pain, looking back now, I’m like, well, why didn’t you take that as seriously as anything else? Because it was a 15 year old girl has made up a back pain. Like maybe look into that. Maybe don’t just tell her the treatment I was given was I could never be in too much pain. I had to push into my pain at all times. So I needed a wheelchair, but I was never allowed to use it. And I just think you see it again and again the way that women are treated in the medical system and it is something our society needs to wake up to, you know, 10 years ago.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:17:47] It is also unbelievable in 2020 to see people using the word Munchhausen, which is a super serious and debilitating mental health problem, debilitating for you and all of the people around you for people to throw that around like a punch line as if that’s funny. As if it’s a joke, blew my mind. Where, where that would be a very serious mental health. That would be like making fun of me having bipolar or schizophrenia or some other incredibly debilitating and hugely stigmatized mental health condition. That was something that, that really disappointed me in where we’re at with this much information about how to be careful and be thoughtful around, like how many public suicides do we need? How many statistics do we need before we learn how to be careful and thoughtful and responsible and kind?
SCARLETT CURTIS [00:18:37] Completely. And I also think, I mean, that was what I was thinking. I was like, if she had that, you wouldn’t be tweeting about it like it was a joke and it was the same for me when I was sick, I was like, if I have that, maybe take it almost more seriously than if I’m just in pain.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:18:51] Oh yeah. Absolutely. I am. There’s a tiny part of me. I think the whole thing was absolutely horrendous. And mostly not just for me, because, you know, I’m fairly protected. I’m, I live a good life. I have a wonderful support network at home. But I felt really awful for anyone out there who struggles with invisible disabilities, who got very, very triggered, understandably, by that. But there is also one tiny part of me that feels strangely proud that people think that I am, I’ve got such big balls, that if I was actually exposed, quote unquote, for having lied about my entire history of everything, all of like, all of the things that I’ve been through and that I’m just sticking around, putting out a podcast, living my life, carrying on on social media, they must think I have balls the size of Texas. I feel weird. I feel like a bad motherfucker.
SCARLETT CURTIS [00:19:43] And the imagination.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:19:44] I’m not going to lie. The fact that people think that I’m still showing up if any of that had been real makes me feel like Batman. Honestly.
SCARLETT CURTIS [00:19:53] I also think they must think you have the imagination of like-.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:19:58] I’m J.K. Rowling but less transphobic.
SCARLETT CURTIS [00:19:59] Yeah.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:20:00] So yeah, anyways.
SCARLETT CURTIS [00:20:02] I also think something that it, it took me a long time to acknowledge and takes people a long time is we imagine doctors and hospitals and the medical system as something completely neutral.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:20:17] yeah.
SCARLETT CURTIS [00:20:17] Or like, how would that be different for men and for women? And surprise, surprise, just like every other aspect of society, it’s very different for men and women. And I remember seeing it even at 15 when I’d go to a doctor’s appointment with my mom compared to when I’d go with my dad. And the level of respect that we’d get when I was with my dad compared to my mom was off the charts. And, you know, you, you just hear again and again and again horror stories about the way that women are treated in hospitals and then men going in and going, oh, it was, you know, fine. I mean, not for everyone, but it’s something that people find hard to get their heads around, I think.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:20:50] Did you ever get the chance to confront the doctors who told you it was all in your head?
SCARLETT CURTIS [00:20:55] No, I didn’t. And I remember I was still in hospital, but they were very hesitant to admit that they had found anything wrong because they didn’t want to be sued. The reason I didn’t get any kind of revenge or confrontation is that we de-, my family decided not to press charges and not to explore at all purely because of how traumatic that would have been on me, because it would have-.
SCARLETT CURTIS [00:21:23] Re-victimized you.
SCARLETT CURTIS [00:21:24] Just raised everything up again, which I think again is why so many of these types of abuses go unpunished is because the legal system also doesn’t work where the person persecuting ends up being re-traumatized, re-punished and sort of trying to be framed as-.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:21:44] A liar.
SCARLETT CURTIS [00:21:44] A terrible person.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:21:45] Yeah.
SCARLETT CURTIS [00:21:47] Yeah, a liar.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:21:48] Well, I want to talk to you next about the impact all of that has had on your mental health. And I will do that straight after this break. And we’re back. So. OK. You went through this unfathomable trauma and then you came out of it with very legitimate PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder. And what did that feel like for you? How did that manifest for you?
SCARLETT CURTIS [00:22:20] You hear these stories about other sick children. I remember hearing about like girls who were sick and then after they got better, they started a charity or ran million marathons or like hiked up Mount Everest. And, you know, there’s this whole idea of that. And I totally assumed I was gonna be one of them. I was like, great, I’m not in pain anymore. I’m gonna go, you know, grab all my sick child prizes. And I didn’t. I just collapsed. I was almost more debilitated than I’d been when I, when I was living in chronic pain. I couldn’t leave my bedroom. I had a panic attack every single time someone rang the doorbell. Someone left the house. I had to drop out of school again. I tried to go back to school and had to immediately leave. And then it was about that level of it being that bad was about the next two or three years of my life. I was in like a rehabilitation center for a few months. I just I tried every medication. I tried everything. And yeah, it was, it, it was really interesting for me looking back now to have seen such severe physical disability right next door to such severe mental illness. Because I think it taught me a lot about the difference in the way society treats, treats those two conditions. And really, it was when my mental health got really bad, I stopped being able to talk to anyone because the shame of it was so much worse than the shame of being sick or in a wheelchair because I couldn’t explain it.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:24:02] Yeah. And also, again, because you are living in a position of privilege, it’s like, well, well, she’s this, she comes from a wealthy family and she’s pretty and she’s slim and, and, and she has a loving family. Why, how could she still be sad? How ungrateful for you to not be able to control your own mental health and your own trauma?
SCARLETT CURTIS [00:24:25] And if, and I internalized all of that, you know, I was the person saying that more than anyone. I was like, I’ve got this incredible family. I’ve got, you know, anything I need. I’m not in pain anymore. And I cannot stop crying or get out of bed or wanting to die. And that level of self-hatred and I think mine was a quite extreme level because I, I do come from privilege and all of that. But I think everyone feels that to a certain extent with mental illness.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:24:55] 100 percent.
SCARLETT CURTIS [00:24:56] Everyone thinks, what have I got to be sad about? And people say it to you as well. You know, I’ve had so many people in my life go, what have you got to be anxious about? What have you got to, you know, be depressed about? And you’re just, that’s what makes it worse, because that’s what makes you start to hate yourself because you’re having those conversations with yourself constantly.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:25:17] It’s why I think a lot of people don’t seek help because they presume that either, you know, and I think a lot of this comes down to media representation of mental illness that we see mental illness only ever as a sort of schizophrenic murderer. Mostly. Right? There isn’t much representation of just someone who is numb with depression, who can’t feel anything, who, who feels debilitated and cannot emphasize or cannot function properly or however your, your mental health might take form. So we either think that that means you are mentally ill and we associate it with the worst and scariest possible exaggerated sensationalized depiction of mental health. So therefore, we’re like, well, I don’t want to be what that is. But also we think that things like trauma can only come in the forms of something incredibly violent and obviously terrifying and almost physical, like something like re-, coming back from war. We presume that those are the only people who can have trauma or someone who was brutally attacked. We don’t understand how micro traumas can still come in and enter the brain and in, and destroy our capacity to fully grasp happiness.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:26:33] Yeah, and trauma. I always say trauma rots your brain like it literally rots your brain. And when I was diagnosed with PTSD, I remember laughing. ‘Cause I was like, only soldiers get PTSD. Like, I’ve been in my bedroom for five years. I have not been through a war. And now all that, you know, I completely have PTSD and had PTSD. And it’s a terrible illness. And I think something I really experienced I’d only ever seen mental illnesses either, exactly what you’re saying, huge. This larger than life depictions or as like a sweet little girl crying on the sofa and, you know, her mom giving her a hug. And what my mental illness did to me at that time was I just became a horrible person. Like I think often we don’t talk about that side of it. You know, I was mean to my family. I was aggressive. I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I cut everyone out my life. I, I just couldn’t. It was like it was rotting. My, my whole personality was just gone. And I would also almost sometimes see it like a film that side of me, like I’d want to go to someone, I’m really hurting. I need help. And instead I’d go, “You’re horrible. You don’t know how to talk to me, like leave”. And I would watch it happening. And I’d be like, “No, no, no. I want to ask you for help. I want to ask you for help”. But instead, I would just be screaming. And I think so often this is something I, I just find with people I know now and people I talk to through like advocacy work, that their mental illness makes them push everyone away. And that means it’s harder and harder and harder to get help. And that is something that is heartbreaking.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:28:13] And I think it’s probably something that is quite a timely conversation right now with so many people stuck indoors without access to therapy if they were even able to access it in the first place. And a lot of their old issues are surfacing because we don’t have the distraction of day-to-day life. It’s something that I’ve been talking about a lot lately is, is how much must be coming up for so many people, either in family dynamics or just in our own brains. And so it’s great to be able to talk about the different ways in which mental illness can manifest and the fact that you shouldn’t feel any shame around it. And there’s no rulebook as to who can get it or what it looks like.
SCARLETT CURTIS [00:28:51] I think something I learnt so much, so I put together this book last year of 75 essays of different people writing about what mental health meant to them from sort of teenagers to Hollywood stars. And the biggest lesson I learned from that was this sort twofold idea, which is one, mental illness can affect anyone. Your money doesn’t protect you from it. Looks don’t protect you from it. You know, family doesn’t protect you from it. A partner doesn’t protect you from it, but also it doesn’t affect everyone the same. And that’s exactly what you were saying. And it’s sort of trying to hold those two ideas in your head at the same time can be very hard. But I think it’s so important for us, especially now, just to understand that this is something anyone can go through, but also dependent on your race and on your agenda and on your physical ability. It is such a different experience to go through it.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:29:46] And you and I spoke yesterday about taking this conversation one step further to a place where a lot of people won’t, because it’s a very scary topic to discuss. And for anyone who might be triggered by discussion of suicide, now is a good time to turn off the podcast, because it’s something that Scarlett and I have both struggled with. And, and I would like to talk about that with you now. And thank you for being willing to be candid with me about it. So would you talk to me about your experience with suicidal ideation and just generally the feeling that you cannot sustain life on this earth any longer?
SCARLETT CURTIS [00:30:31] Yeah, definitely. And I do think it’s so important to talk about, because it is the one area of my own mental health that I see people are still so ashamed of and so scared to talk to me about. And I’ve been open about this in the past. But it is very, very, suicide is very, very hard to talk about. And there is still a huge amount of stigma attached to that. And in all the work that mental health activists have done, I don’t know how much better it’s getting. But my aunt, when I was 13, my aunt died of suicide. And she had been very sick for a long time. And I had always been very confused by her illness. We, we weren’t really told what was wrong with her. We, it was sort of just all very quiet and not explained. And so that, I think, added to my sort of fear of mental illness. My fear of suicidal thoughts. And when I started having suicidal thoughts, I think when I was 17 and they came hand-in-hand with the PTSD and the depression, like so often they do, cause you just can’t really see a point in being alive anymore.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:31:44] It’s also so exhausting.
SCARLETT CURTIS [00:31:45] It’s so exhausting. And also, it’s for me, it was almost like it was very intrusive. I would just suddenly get this wave in my head like someone shot an arrow in my head that was just like, you should die, you shouldn’t be here anymore. And obsessively thinking about ways that I could do it. And also, there’s this really hard thing that happens with a lot of severe mental illnesses where while at the beginning of your illness, you might have a wonderful life and it might just come out of nowhere. The longer it goes on, the more your life falls apart. So actually, something my dad used to say to me, which is very blunt but very true, is like when I was about three years into it and had lost all my friends, all my education, all my, you know, personality. He was like, anyone in your position now would be depressed even if they didn’t have depression. When I was 19, I made the sort of quite rogue decision to move to New York. And I was living in New York on my own. I was completely alone. I would just stay in bed all day, every day. I’d order food in. I remember at one point everything hurt so much inside that I couldn’t even wear clothes.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:33:01] Emotionally you mean.
SCARLETT CURTIS [00:33:01] ‘Cause it was just-. Emotionally everything hurt, but I couldn’t, I couldn’t have anything touching my skin. I just remember sitting for like a week in my bed naked because the idea of putting clothes on or having a shower or brushing my teeth was just I, I was sort of slowly dying. I couldn’t figure out how to be a human anymore. And then one night I just decided I’d had enough. And I didn’t think it was going to get better at that time. And that’s what your mental illness tells you as well. It tells you it’s not gonna get better. It was gonna get better and it did get better. But mental illness is very clever and it is very tricksy. And it tells you all kinds of things that aren’t true. And it told me that I was never going to get better and I wasn’t worth living anymore. And-
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:33:51] And that you felt like a burden, didn’t you? Because that’s what I felt like.
SCARLETT CURTIS [00:33:55] Yeah.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:33:55] I felt like a burden on everyone.
SCARLETT CURTIS [00:33:57] Well that, that’s what’s so hard. You know, when, obviously, when my aunt died, it broke all our hearts and it was the most painful thing in the world. And it’s hard when someone in your life dies that way to understand why and how. But I was there at 19 with a family who loved me, with friends who loved me. All my brain was telling me was that they would throw a party if I died. Like literally my illness was telling me they would be happier if I wasn’t there anymore. And it’s not that that’s true. It’s not that they’ve done anything to show you that, it’s that you, that’s what the illness is. It’s like when you get flu, you get a runny nose. When you have severe depression, you are told that it would be better if you died. And I, I, yeah, I. And it was a very dark night. And thankfully, it didn’t work. As. That. That’s why I’m here on this podcast today. And I, I don’t really believe in rock bottoms because I’d been told so many times that I was going to have a rock bottom. And I also had been told so many times that this was my rock bottom and then it kept getting worse. And I think we have this magical idea of rock bottoms that you somehow hit this rock and then like shoot back up to the surface and you’re completely fine. And actually for me, I hit that rock and then slowly, slowly, slowly started swimming up to the surface. But I do think after that. It was when I really asked for help and tried to get help and things did very, very slowly get better.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:35:38] So what helped you after that?
SCARLETT CURTIS [00:35:44] I have always been very, very bad at asking for help. I have a lot of amazing people in my life who would help me and I think me and you both do this. But we-.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:35:54] We disappear.
SCARLETT CURTIS [00:35:55] Shut ourselves off. We disappear.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:35:56] James and I call it the bum hole. That’s where we talk about where I go to when I am in trouble. I can’t speak. I can’t, I can’t move. And I be very, very detached and distant from everyone I love, even him. And he’s the person I loved the most in the world. Followed by you, obviously. Calm down. I can already see the rage.
SCARLETT CURTIS [00:36:21] I’m very competitive.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:36:22] Yeah. And we refer to it as this sort of this dark, cavernous place that I go to when no one else can reach me is inside this mythical asshole in the sky. So if anyone else out there wants to use that as a description, you’re welcome.
SCARLETT CURTIS [00:36:34] Beautiful, I might start calling it the vagina hole, and then we’ll be next to each other. Mine’s a bit cozier and cleaner than yours.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:36:44] Fine. You Don’t know about my bum hole. Okay. It’s a fictitious bum hole, that’s very clean.
SCARLETT CURTIS [00:36:52] Gwyneth Paltrow bum hole?
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:36:54] Sure, yeah.
SCARLETT CURTIS [00:36:55] I’m sure that’s very clean.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:36:58] My god.
SCARLETT CURTIS [00:36:58] I just go mad. I do the same thing. I shut myself off from everyone. I can’t speak to anyone. I can’t talk. I can’t eat, I can’t do anything. And I remember after the night that I tried to take my own life was the first time I called someone and said, I need help. And I, you know what happened when I asked for help? I got help. And it sometimes is as simple as that. And it had taken me four years to figure that out and be brave enough to say it. Even though I had been offered help, but I asked for help. And I started to see a therapist and I started to try new medication. And, but again, I mean, it was about two years till I started to feel even vaguely normal.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:37:47] Oh ,it’s a long journey for anyone, but it’s not as long as the out of time you’ve spent being unhappy.
SCARLETT CURTIS [00:37:54] Yeah. And every, every period of that time, it does get a bit easier. And what I found is that the more healed that my brain became, the easier it was for me to ask for more help and get more help. So it slightly becomes like this snowball where the beginning is so hard and you’re not seeing much progress. But then the stronger you get, the more things you can do. You know, I did therapy for a year. Then after a year, I started doing yoga and that helped me so much. And then after another six months, I started on a medication and that felt a bit easier to do because the therapy and the yoga and it suddenly becomes easier. And yeah, but it’s still something I live with every day. You know? It’s something I am hyper, hyper aware of every second of every day. It’s like having a small child in my brain. I have to look after constantly.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:38:47] That’s a great way of putting it. That’s exactly it. And also, I think it’s really important for everyone to realize that it’s not just a constantly upward trajectory. That you have-.
SCARLETT CURTIS [00:38:56] Oh no.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:38:57] You have, you have dips all of the time. As you do with anything. Like imagine if you are training for a marathon. Do you know what I mean? You’re gonna, you’re gonna roll your ankle. You’re going to get nipple chafe. Things are going to happen that are going to slow you down. You going to lose your motivation. As with anything you have to train for, it’s a process. It’s a learning process. It’s a process of growth. And there are hurdles. It’s not easy and it’s not consistent. And I mean, even just in February when all that shit happened to me, I never, I never take people’s personal opinion of me very seriously because I was so disliked as a child, that I-.
SCARLETT CURTIS [00:39:30] Including by me.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:39:33] Exactly. You just didn’t care, which is almost worse. But as a child, I was disliked and, and it set me up for a life of never expecting to be liked, which is kind of perfect if you are in advocacy because no one likes you if you’re a woman in advocacy. But being gas lit about something that has ruined my whole life. And caused me pain every single day. That triggered me in a way that I didn’t see coming. And knock me sideways. And suddenly the suicidal thoughts came back and the depression came back. And the inability to function or bathe or brush my teeth came back for a while. And I was amazed because of how much great work I’ve done on myself since my suicide attempt eight years ago and all of the work I’ve done until then and all the therapy. But I was able to realize that dip didn’t undo all of the amazing hard work I’ve done, and the speed at which I’ve come out of that dip is testament to the fact that it was just I stumbled and that’s okay. And that’s that’s part of the whole journey.
SCARLETT CURTIS [00:40:37] That’s exactly the way to put it, because the way my depression is these days is I get, I’m OK and I’m coping and then I get these crashes where I can’t get out of bed again. I have the suicidal thoughts again. It all comes back. And at that moment you’re like, well, what have I been doing? Like, none of this has worked. But as the years have gone on, those times have gotten shorter and shorter and the bounce back has gotten easier and easier and easier. And it is like building up these muscles. It doesn’t mean you’re not going to twist your ankle or, you know, scrape your knee. It just means you’re stronger and able to heal quicker. And I think also you learn your own triggers. Like I was diagnosed a few years ago with obsessive compulsive disorder. And that, it’s not, I mean, it’s, I have a mild case of obsessive compulsive sort of bout, when I start getting low, I start obsessively cleaning and seeing germs and being very like, I’ll leave my house and all I’ll think about is, you know, a scuff I left on the floor and just need to go home to sort that out. And I’ve learnt now, like, oh, when that happens, you’re getting low. So look after yourself. And I’ve learned all these little tells that I have that mean, I can stop things before they get too bad because I recognized them in myself from a time before.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:42:02] And what’s interesting is that someone might hear you say, well, this terrible thing happened to me and I had this injury and then I was in all of this pain. And then I have this enzyme deficiency, which means that I can’t process painkillers. And then I had anxiety and depression and then I had OCD. And they’re like, well, it sounds like an awful lot. She must be making this up because no one can have this many issues. It’s not possible, whereas no one realizes how much of a dominoes game this all is and how many of these things link to each other, cause or perpetuate one another. It’s not as simple as someone just having one or two things. Everything is inter, interchangeable. Pain is intersectional. It really is.
SCARLETT CURTIS [00:42:47] It really is. And also, the truth is that the two most under-funded parts of our medical system are mental health and women’s health. And actually, when women are having, when women and people suffering from mental illness are having all these labels thrown at them, it’s more of a result of our deficiency at di-, properly diagnosing women’s medical issues and mental health issues rather than someone adding loads of labels to their collection.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:43:15] And also, if you are someone who is doubting someone else’s mental health or physical health struggles, then lucky you, you privileged motherfucker.
SCARLETT CURTIS [00:43:24] Yeah.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:43:24] That you don’t know what this feels like. Lucky you that you imagine it much, that you are so far away from that experience that you can’t fathom that it could possibly be true. You have no idea your privilege for people to think that this is fun or that this is, this is, that people are even. I’m not saying that some people don’t exaggerate or that some people don’t have conditions that make them make conditions up. But to be someone who just with no fact, with no evidence, with no proof, just dismiss someone at their claim. Then you are someone who has never experienced either a loved one or yourself going through this sort of experience. Lucky you. And go fuck himself.
SCARLETT CURTIS [00:44:06] Yeah. I think the, it is the hardest thing in the world to tell someone that you are struggling with a mental illness. So if someone tells you that, the chances are that they’re really struggling because it’s not something you’d ever do for fun.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:44:21] It’s also it’s another invisible illness, isn’t it? We need we need a broken arm. We need to see a physically fractured like sort of almost decapitated.
SCARLETT CURTIS [00:44:31] Oh, yeah. I used to have this obsession where I used to wish I was bleeding out my eyes. I don’t know why that was the thing I always thought of, but I was like, maybe if I was bleeding out of my eyeballs, people would believe me and take this seriously.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:44:45] Yeah. About your mental health?
SCARLETT CURTIS [00:44:46] And, about both. With my physical pain because that was also invisible. And with my mental health. I was, I just wish I had something. I have a few scars on my back from surgery and I’m, I love them because I’m like, it’s proof. All I wanted was some external signifier that my brain and my body were in agony and no one could see it.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:45:08] Well, I always believed you.
SCARLETT CURTIS [00:45:10] Yeah, also bleeding eyes might look cool.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:45:13] It’s very Billie Eilish.
SCARLETT CURTIS [00:45:17] Very Billie Eilish.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:45:17] Alright, we’re going to another break. And we’re back. So all of this that you have dealt with has propelled you into, I guess, a fight against so many systems of oppression, and it’s been kind of your way of, I suppose, recycling all of your trauma and turning it into something positive. And now that’s what’s been the heart of your activism, is that fair to say?
SCARLETT CURTIS [00:45:48] Yeah. I mean, it’s funny because I really struggle sometimes with it being like labeled as this thing that I do for the world, because the truth is that 99 percent of it is what I do for me. Like I spent my entire teenage years and then my early 20s feeling completely alone, feeling completely ashamed, feeling, hating myself and not understanding that I’ve been gas lit. And when I discovered feminism and when I started joining feminist activist groups and when I started talking about my own mental health online as a form of advocacy, it was the best thing that ever happened to me. And in a way, it was completely selfish because it became, it becomes addictive. You know, feminism has given me friends. It’s given me confidence. It’s given me an understanding of my history. It’s given me so much. And I still do all of these things. I think mostly selfishly. But yes. Short story is that what I went through has led to me committing a lot of my life to feminist activism and mental health advocacy.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:46:56] I think there’s also a high when you realize that something that hurt you when you were younger is now stopping at your hands. When you are contributing to the end, to the cease fire of some form of oppression. You know, for me, for example, whenever I have girls messaging me about their eating disorders or the fact that they’ve now started eating again because of “I Weigh” or because, or they’ve, they’ve started to unfollowed influences and throw out all of their laxative teas and doing all these different things. When that happens, that’s, that gives me a rush of, of recognizing that I’m erasing a part of that toxicity. And that feels really good.
SCARLETT CURTIS [00:47:40] Yeah, and I think, I’ve always been, even throughout all of this, I’ve always been quite positive person about the world. I’ve always tried to believe that the world was a good place and they were good people in it. And the older you get and the more experiences you go through and the more abuse you go through, that thought gets challenged and you’re like, hmm, maybe not. There might be some of bad people out there, even though when I was going through it, I thought I was a bad person and they were all just doing their jobs. But the more that you engage in activism and these communities and you see change happen in real time, the more you can reinforce that idea that the world actually is a wonderful place. And there are people out there who want to help and want to make change.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:48:20] And I am definitely someone who grapples with this. I’ve been an activist since I was 19, and I just kind of wasn’t as successful as it, at it until I had the immense privilege of being on a hit show, which is “The Good Place”. And-.
SCARLETT CURTIS [00:48:37] That’s where I know you from.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:48:39] Such an asshole. And so that show gave me a platform to take the words I’ve been saying for over ten years on to a level where everyone got to hear those words and suddenly it was treated as if I’d never said those words before. Now it pissed a lot of people off that I was saying these things now from a position of extreme privilege when I was calling out beauty standards as someone who is on the cover of magazines where I was talking about fat phobia as a slim person, as a person who is now slim, even though before I was big, when I was talking about all of these things. And so I constantly am trying to figure out how to walk the line of trying to fight for rights from a place of privilege and, and working through whether or not the guilt of my own privilege should be the thing that stops me from still fighting for the cause, because they’re not going to listen to the people who are more marginalized than me. Is that something that you can relate to?
SCARLETT CURTIS [00:49:39] Yeah, completely. And I think, you know, when we ask why are so many activists privileged or already famous or whatever it is, it’s not a coincidence. Like activism is one of the hardest tasks that any human can undertake. You’re basically being asked to put your personal trauma. And the worst thing that’s ever happened in your life on screen, on, in the public, for everyone to not only criticize, but debate and undermine and tell you is wrong and have taken away. And-.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:50:13] And then you get harassed. And you get death threats and rape threats sometimes. I mean, it really intense.
SCARLETT CURTIS [00:50:20] And that. And then the other half, you know, I now I’m so lucky to have so many friends who are activists. And even when I think about my trans friends who are activists, the main thing they get asked to do in the public arena is trans debates, which is when they’re there telling about the worst times of their lives. And there’s some, you know, cis white person, they’re telling them that they don’t exist. Like that is not something anyone should ever have to be put through. And people do this because they believe in it and because they don’t want anyone to go through the same thing that they went through. But it is incredibly hard and it’s mostly unpaid and it’s really unforgiving. And I think when we say, when we look back at the feminist movement and we go, oh, why did feminism sort of lull in the 90s? It’s because the women that were doing it in the 80s were destroyed by it. Like when you look at what those women went through when they were all they were asking for was, you know, pay child care or equal rights or even just being treated normally in the eyes of the law. And I think it’s this, we still haven’t figured out a way to make activism a sustainable thing. And I feel the only reason I’m able to continue with it is so far has been because of my privilege. It’s been because I can take unpaid work. It’s been because I do have a support system around me. It’s been because I have had the years and years of therapy that it took to be able to be strong enough, paid for therapy, to be able to be strong enough to put in this position. And I always think if I’m not going to say this, who else will? Like, it’s got to be on me to say-.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:52:03] Well no, plenty of other people will say it, but very few people will be heard. That is the problem.
SCARLETT CURTIS [00:52:07] Yes. Yeah, and no. And I don’t mean say the advocacy, say how ruined the system is and how it does sort of only bring privileged people in. And again, I think it’s one of those things. What’s that quote? The greatest side of genius is being able to hold two thoughts in your head at once, you know? Yes. People who are privileged are maybe not the perfect people to be talking about these issues. And we should restructure this system where people get paid for their advocacy, where they get protected, where they don’t get abused, where they don’t get harassed, where it becomes like a more normal job like politics or anything, but also until we figure that system out, the people that have the privilege should be able to spread these messages, should be encouraged to do it more than anything and should be not torn down in this way that is just so disgusting. And, you know, I see it with you and it’s also, it’s not a coincidence that people tear you down because you’re a brown woman and because you’re, you know, a woman. And it’s just we’re, you know, we’re biting the hand that feeds us. But it’s the system isn’t working at the moment. But the answer to that is not to lash out at the people who are at least trying.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:53:21] I agree. And I think that therefore, the responsibility lies with us, as I’ve definitely seen you do and I’m doing now. Now that I-. Because the funny thing. Right? You have to get the mic before you can pass it. You have to-.
SCARLETT CURTIS [00:53:37] Yeah.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:53:37] Say all the stuff and you have to be outrageous and you have to turn up yourself as the privileged person and, and have these words met by other privileged people. And once you have the mic firmly in your hand, which is hard to get as a woman, then you can pass it. And so what I’ve loved about your advocacy with the Pink Protest is that you’ve used it to leverage other young activists and people who are campaigning for rights and you have helped them with your privilege change the laws that they have been campaigning for. And so I think that that’s very important, that while, yes, we are the ones given the spotlight. And thank God we are saying something with that privilege. We then also have a duty and responsibility to make sure that we bring other people up with us, because then we have the opportunity to shed more of a light on them.
SCARLETT CURTIS [00:54:25] Yeah. And I think that, that in itself sort of is hard to wrap your head around. And I think, you know, it’s like so I was working at the Pink Protest and we did this campaign with this incredible teenager called Amika George. And we got the government to pass a law that said there be free menstrual products in all lower schools and upper schools in the UK. And after that campaign, I was asked if I wanted to do a book about feminism and sort of the work that I’ve been doing for the last few years. And I was 21 at the time and I was like, no, that is not a book anyone needs to read, maybe a podcast episode, but no one needs to read my like 21 year old rich white girl ode to feminism like that, that book shouldn’t exist. But I just because that book shouldn’t exist, doesn’t mean a book shouldn’t exist. And we ended up doing an anthology with 52 women, including you and, but also, you know, including 15 teenagers and activists and people from around the world. And I think there are ways of doing it. But also the answer isn’t just to tear people down, because that’s what we’re all fighting against.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:55:34] Absolutely. Well, I thank you very much for your work. And I am really, I constantly learn from your own self-awareness and your ability to self educate and update, and I appreciate it. And it’s something that I could stand to continue to get better at. But it’s a, it’s a, it’s a learning process, I suppose.
SCARLETT CURTIS [00:55:57] Not true. But also it’s weird with our relationship because I feel like you kind of made me who I am. So sometimes I’m like, she’s just talking to her own creation.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:56:07] You’re my Frankenstein.
SCARLETT CURTIS [00:56:08] It’s like “West World”. Yeah.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:56:11] Oh, my God. Feminist-stine. I-.
SCARLETT CURTIS [00:56:14] Something to think about.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:56:15] Thank you. Thank you for coming on to talk to me about all of these things and, and where can people find you on social media?
SCARLETT CURTIS [00:56:24] You can find me at ScarCurtis on Instagram and Twitter occasionally. Although Twitter is not a nice place. I’m just going to say that.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:56:32] It isn’t. Currently, is it?
SCARLETT CURTIS [00:56:34] Yeah.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:56:34] It’s not Twitter’s fault.
SCARLETT CURTIS [00:56:35] Yeah.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:56:35] It’s human beings’ fault.
SCARLETT CURTIS [00:56:37] Oh, yeah. No, it’s not Twitter’s fault, but it, you know, places, platforms come and go and I’m more in its scrum at the moment. So you can find me that and you can also buy “Feminists Don’t Wear Pink and Other Lies” and “It’s Not OK to Feel Blue and Other Lies”. And they’re not just me banging on there, lots of other great people and all the money from both of them goes to charity.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:56:58] Yay! All right. Before you go, will you please tell me, Scarlett Curtis, what do you weigh?
SCARLETT CURTIS [00:57:04] I weigh my friendships, mostly with you. I weigh my softness and belief that the world is actually a good place. My love of my family, my need to make the world a slightly better place by the time I leave it than when I came here. And my strength, which is something very hard for me to say, I find it hard to say that I’m strong. But-.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:57:37] Why do you find it hard?
SCARLETT CURTIS [00:57:38] I am. I think I still feel weak so much of the time that it’s hard to say that I’m strong, but I am and I’m more strong for overcoming that weakness.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:57:54] I absolutely agree. You’re one of the strongest people I’ve ever met. I can’t believe what I’ve watched you go through over the past decade. But I’m thrilled and honored to have been allowed to be there. And here’s to another decade or five. Thank you so much for listening to this podcast. I just want to give an extra massive thank you to people who helped me make this Sophia Jennings, my producer and researcher, Kimmie Lucas, my producer, Andrew Carson, my editor, James Blake, my boyfriend, who made the beautiful music for this show. And now I’d like to leave you by passing the mic to a member of our community sharing their “I Weigh”.
I WEIGH COMMUNITY MEMBER [00:58:30] I weigh being a supportive friend and partner. I weigh my work ethic. I weigh being a first generation PhD student and a neuroscientist in psychiatric research. I weigh loving my equally ambitious, intelligent and supportive boyfriend. I weigh being a cat lover, a great listener and being someone who empowers others to find their own voice.
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