‘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 Billy Lunn, as told to Harriet Williamson.
My name is Billy Lunn, and I’m the singer/guitarist/songwriter/producer for the rock band The Subways. I’m currently writing, recording and mixing our fifth album whilst studying an Undergraduate degree in English at Cambridge – and therefore losing my mind a teeny little bit.
I love to keep busy. I’ve always considered being a songwriter and a performer as a very primal thing, so I decided to test myself academically, and worked for about four years to obtain the necessary knowledge and grades to get into Cambridge. I’m still actually quite shocked it even worked!
I’m bipolar, and only really discovered this after I met my wife. After years of heavy drinking, drug-taking, and severe and extended bouts of depression, my doctor diagnosed me with bipolar disorder accompanied by alcoholism and borderline autism. I’m now three and a half years sober and in the most stable and creative period of my entire life.
Looking back, I wish I was diagnosed earlier, but I don’t think there were the opportunities or the time – I kept most problems at bay by staying busy, active and always on the move, which touring with the band helped perpetuate. However, when, after finally burning out and being forced to stand still for a second, I crumbled. I’m incredibly lucky I had my wife there to pick me up and put me back together.
I make lists, as well as short-term and long-term goals. I find my biggest problem is being overwhelmed by the simplest of tasks merely because I haven’t processed them properly and formally organised them in my mind, or visually on a piece of paper. Once I know what I need to do, the world suddenly becomes a place I can understand even just a little bit better.
I understand my limitations, and I openly express them – by verbalising them to myself or others so that I remind myself and others that I’m not completely crazy. I just need a bit of extra time to process and deal with what needs doing, and then I’m usually okay.
Anxiety, I’ve come to accept. It’s just a daily thing for me now. But rather than having that imposing itself as a negative, I try and use it to drive me through the day so that I can achieve what I need or want to. Sometimes this fails, and I just make things worse for myself and everyone around me.
Before, when I was in the wilderness from being undiagnosed and in the whirlwind of addiction and touring, my creative process was somehow managed by my vigorous youthhood! Once that had passed, I needed to find a way to channel my creative energies without stifling or suffocating them.
Saying that, I’m one of the lucky cases in the music biz. Clarity is benefitting my creative abilities rather than cutting away from them. I have my own recording studio, which is kind of a safe zone for me, and there I’m able to play all the various instruments I have stashed away there, to read, watch TV, record, and just generally sit in silence and reflect.
I would encourage other creatives to fight against the cliche that we’re meant to be destructive and chaotic. Order and a clarity of vision, as I have found, are just as valuable – if not more so. Embrace this. Know your limitations and be okay with them. Heck, be proud of them! Nobody’s perfect, and nobody knows everything – and even if that were possible, why would anyone want that anyway. And we don’t always move forward.
Society tells us we must always be aspiring and moving forward through our lives. Sometimes staying still or backtracking is beneficial too. Life doesn’t have to be an act of forward progression. Enjoy the scenery, regress, progress, whatever. And reach out to others. Talk and support others. As well as being kind and compassionate, it’s also a very helpful lesson to yourself.