Illumination 02 – Sarah Graham

Journalist, content writer & editor Sarah Graham gives tips for compassionate self-care and greater productivity.

‘Illumination’ is a new series that explores the relationship between mental illness and creativity. I’m interviewing people engaged in art, music, theatre and many more creative avenues and inviting them to open up about their mental wellbeing and the way their struggles with mental health may inform their work. 

If any of the issues discussed in this interview affect you, there are lots of online resources that can help. Visit Mind or the Mental Health Foundation for more information. Alternatively, you can call the Samaritans on 116 123 at any time of the day or night.

Words by Sarah Graham, as told to Harriet Williamson.

I’m a freelance journalist, content writer and editor, specialising in feminism, women’s health, and mental health. I’m particularly interested in the health implications of sexism and gender inequality, and the areas where feminism and wellbeing collide – so anything from reproductive rights to male suicide rates.

Creatively my focus is on feature writing and blog content, telling human stories with empathy, honesty and compassion. For me, that’s the most powerful way of raising awareness of the issues that matter, but which don’t always get the coverage they deserve.

I’ve suffered from (relatively high-functioning) depression and anxiety most of my adult life, and was recently also diagnosed with PTSD following a serious car crash at the beginning of the year. My mental health right now is definitely the shakiest it’s ever been.

A combination of medication, talking therapy, and self-care. Being able to be flexible with my time helps enormously. I’m a big advocate of naps as required, long lunch break swimming sessions, and going for a run before/after work to clear my head. I try and make time for all the classic self-care type stuff too, like bubble baths, going for a massage, taking time out of each day away from a screen to just sit and read, that kind of thing. And just listening to myself really – I’m (very slowly!) getting better at knowing when I need to stop or ease off, and when I’m feeling well enough to push myself.

Writing has definitely always been a part of my self-care, so it’s what I instinctively do when I’m struggling anyway, and I often write some of my most raw and authentic work when I’m in a really bad headspace.

That said, it can also have the exact opposite effect. I’ll have days on end where my mind just feels full of thick, dark fog and I can’t get my brain to cooperate on even the most basic tasks – let alone find the words necessary to move and engage my readers. That can be incredibly frustrating. It’s usually writing something personal or creative (unrelated to my paid work) that gets me out of that slump though – and there’s always something therapeutic about handwriting in a proper notebook, with a beautiful pen! So I find it works both ways: sometimes inspiring, sometimes paralysing.

I’ve also read a lot recently about the impact of freelancing and self-employment on mental health, but for me personally it’s always helped far more than it hinders. Of course, it’s really easy to fall into the trap of isolating yourself and not leaving the house or getting out of your pyjamas for a week, but working to my own agenda definitely helps me manage both my mental health and my creative process.

I’ve never been someone who has my best, most creative ideas between 9am and 5pm anyway, mental illness or no mental illness! I think it’s just about understanding how you work best, and not being too hard on yourself when you have a bad day.

Get up, get washed, get dressed, work at a proper desk, and eat proper meals whenever you feel able to. Don’t beat yourself up when you can’t. Make time for whatever makes you feel better, even if some days that’s sitting in bed devouring a packet of chocolate biscuits and binge-watching Netflix.

In fact, just generally be kinder to yourself. That’s advice that’s easier to give than to take – I’m very much still working on it! I think creative people generally have a tendency to be perfectionists, and to pile the pressure on themselves. I know I’m definitely at my least creative when I’m sat staring at a blank screen (or Tweetdeck, which is worse!) yelling at myself for being useless and pathetic, and to get the fuck on with it. There’s literally no time when that has ever helped.

I once almost cancelled a massage because I had a deadline looming and was feeling completely blocked about the article I was trying to work on. In the end, I realised I wasn’t getting anything done anyway and went for the massage – I drafted the entire article in my head while laying in the salon being pampered for an hour, came home and wrote it up without a problem. Self-care works! // @SarahGraham7

Author: harrietpwilliamson