‘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 Milly Thomas, as told to Harriet Williamson.
I’m a full-time actor and writer. I originally became a writer because I couldn’t stomach the thought of waiting for my face to be the right fit for a role. I wanted to take matters into my own hands. In the beginning it never occurred to me whether or not I was any good at writing, I just wanted to work and to play roles that I hadn’t seen.
It came out of a love of telling stories. In the pub, to my family, on stage, on television. It was only once I started that it no longer became about acting – it morphed into something bigger than me. It became my way of engaging with the world and having conversations I was too scared to have face-to-face.
I write about what I don’t know. Anything I know too well instantly becomes preachy. I drop myself in the deep end so I’ve got to frantically doggy paddle my way out. When I don’t do this I sometimes find my writing stagnates. I’m still figuring out how to make work in a calm way, or if that’s necessary.
My mental health and I are only just starting to become friends and it’s very much a work in progress. In the past my anxiety and depression battled each other for precedence while I felt like an immobilised third party. I don’t remember a turning point at all – it just felt like something that got progressively worse as I grew up. Suddenly I found myself at fifteen and utterly unable to cope. Afraid of the stigma, I said nothing.
Fast forward six years, and every day felt like an acting job that I sucked at. I’d thrown myself headlong into work as a means of distraction which was working – a bit. There are symptoms that sneak up on you. Back pain. Stomach upsets. Headaches. Irritability. Insomnia.
I’m a high-functioning depressive so it’s never affected my ability to work. A blessing and a curse. It’s only in the past few years I realised that enough was enough. Suicide Ideation was plaguing my every day and it was hard to think of anything else until I shared how I was feeling with friends. Now I approach my life in a very different way. I’m keen to talk about mental health because I feel like you have to be ‘well’ in order to discuss it.
Right now, it feels like society says it’s okay, and even encouraged, to be open about having needed or sought – note the past tense – but it doesn’t yet feel okay to say you need help. It’s okay to say you needed help. Then. But you’re fine now. I’ve had the idea for this show in my head for a few years now and in late 2016 I suddenly thought ‘if you wait ‘til you feel ‘okay’ you’ll never make it.’ I felt I had to do it now and question later.
Moving in any way, shape or form helps me manage my mental health. I find the only way to quiet my mind is to move. I’m at my most content when I’m between places, knowing I’m on my way somewhere else. I listen to a lot of mindless pop music. I’m often to be found walking long distances with my headphones in.
It won’t be the first time anyone’s heard this but exercise, exercise, exercise. If you figure out where the motivation to exercise on a bad day comes from then please let me know.
Make sure to see friends. I have found my mood changes dramatically when in the presence of my nearest and dearest. Or if you can’t face going out, have them come over. But a brisk walk in fresh air every single day is something that has kept me from self-destruct.
My struggles with mental illness have made me value truth in my work. I still want to entertain first and foremost, but I’m very aware of the power of truth and place of truth within that work. By truth I don’t necessarily mean ‘autobiographical’, but I mean the truth that makes an audience lean in. It’s made me want to experiment more with form.
Sometimes the form of your work ends up shifting to accommodate what your mental health will allow you to do that day. With Dust it’s definitely made me strip the text further and further back so that it’s as stark as the subject matter. But the myth that mental illness makes for more creativity and the notion of ‘the tortured artist’ utterly boils my piss. It’s grossly unhelpful and dangerous. But truth. Truth is important.
When looking at Dust, I know what happens when someone survives an attempt and the road to recovery but I’ve also seen other families who’ve lost people suddenly U-turn and paint their loved one as someone they simply weren’t. Telling that story is hugely important to me. If people leave the show having seen something they haven’t seen before, and understanding something new that little bit better, that really excites me.
I’d want to remind everyone that poor mental health is not binary. We’re all on a spectrum. The empathy and support that can come from your colleagues can and will make an enormous difference. Finding empathy in different groups of friends is hugely important. Your colleagues and peers will be able to empathise with the struggle of making the work, friends and family (outside the industry) give your life meaning and context.
You are not your work, but if you’re a workaholic or high-functioning it can sometimes feel that way. I’ve found it dangerous to siphon yourself off into work that’s only transitory. What we’re doing is hard and has the capacity to feel quite meaningless sometimes. It isn’t, but it can feel that way. Perseverance and being kind – to yourself and others – is what’s going to make this a joy, not a career slog.
Dust, Underbelly Cowgate (Big Belly)
Brutal Cessation, Assembly George Square (The Box)