At the Bromley branch November meeting we were delighted to welcome Ariane Sherine as guest speaker. Ariane, born on 3rd July 1980, is a British musical stand-up comedian, comedy writer, journalist, and, most recently, author of a self-help book based upon her own experience with mental health issues and therapy. She has written for the Spectator, the Guardian Comment & Debate section, the Independent, Esquire and the New Humanist. She has also written comedy for popular BBC sitcoms, episodes for CBBC and CITV while her comedy pop group The Lovely Electric released their debut album in 2014 to critically acclaimed reviews. Her return to the stand-up circuit featured her humorous Love Song for Jeremy Corbyn featured in the London Evening Standard, though not to everyone’s taste!
So far very enterprising, successful, talented, industrious: she seems to have led a charmed life. But as Ariane explained, all of it was achieved while struggling with major mental health and behavioural issues from an early age. As the daughter of a non-practising American Unitarian Universalist and Indian Parsi Zoastrian mother, her childhood was far from happy. She attended Sunday school and somehow, religion became an abiding, troublesome feature during her formative years. Told she was C of E, without anyone explaining what that meant, she suffered all the negative aspects of religion without any of the good bits. There was the sin, the guilt, the shaming and blaming, the punishment and the fear of damnation.
It all came to a head in 2010 when she suffered a major nervous breakdown, which she attributed to violence by a then abusive boyfriend in 2005, as well as receiving hate mail after the Atheist Bus Campaign. Ariane describes these years in harrowing yet non-pitying detail. But it wasn’t just one episode: her life was dogged with worry, self-doubt, emotional neediness, which culminated in debilitating panic attacks and the inability to function in everyday life. She couldn’t travel on public transport, take lifts, walk down streets, meet people: her creative output vanished. She was diagnosed with paranoia, obsessive compulsive disorder, generalised severe anxiety disorder and underwent psychodynamic psychotherapy at London’s Tavistock Clinic, also trying out different antidepressant medications over the following years.
Ariane is in no doubt that her confused experiences with religious beliefs, inadequate instruction and disturbed messages have been responsible for her mentally distressed condition. In her twenties she encountered atheism for the first time. Her then boyfriend breezily declared that God did not exist, and was not struck down by a bolt of lightning! It was a moment of revelation and, over time, she began to realise that most of the ‘sinful’ choices and deeds of her life were actually reasonable responses and rational actions at the time, therefore not heinous crimes for which she would be judged and punished in some infernal afterlife.
On 21st October 2008, with official backing from the British Humanist Association and the support of arch-atheist, Richard Dawkins, Ariane launched the Atheist Bus Campaign. The aim was to raise £5,500 by running 30 buses across London for four weeks bearing the slogan There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life. It was hugely popular and donations poured in. The fund-raising target was reached within hours and by 9th January 2009 exceeded £150,000. The campaign was welcomed and celebrated by many public and private atheists, who felt it gave them a voice and representation. It was taken up by many cities world-wide, and when it closed on 11th April 2009, the total raised was £153,523. Ariane had made many friends, but also many enemies. She was subjected to vicious, poisonous hate mail, which precipitated the return of her old demons with a vengeance. She retired in despair, unable to continue any working commitments. It was during this time that she gave birth to her daughter, and gradually restarted her life, though she had to take antipsychotics, anxiolytic drugs and antidepressant medication, which she is still on. She was also fortunate to meet a sympathetic, capable therapist and medication that worked for her.
Ariane has emerged stronger, participating in life wholeheartedly again. She is back on social media, talking about therapy and mental health issues, and her own experiences. Now, she has written a book entitled Talk Yourself Better. Signed copies were much in demand after the meeting. Many questions followed the session, which she answered frankly, sincerely and in her cheerful unassuming manner.
We thanked Ariane, wishing her and her daughter peace, happiness and inspiration in their lives.
Review by Brenda McCormack and photo by Graham Bell