‘Illumination’ is a brand 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 mental health struggles 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 Naomi Joseph, as told to Harriet Williamson.

My name is Naomi Joseph and I’m a writer, performer and spoken word artist. I also provide freelance arts admin and digital marketing support. My work primarily explores the relationship between individual identity and cultural belonging. I’m also a fierce advocate for breaking down barriers regarding mental health.

I strive to look after my mental health, mainly because I’ve struggled to during previous personal experiences (bereavement to name one). It’s been a struggle to maintain self-care at times, and I guess it’s not until I had these experiences and sought help that I really realised and valued the importance of looking after my mental and physical health.

I also come from a family who – loving and as supportive as they are – see seeking help as the very last resort. I think that this makes me fight harder to talk about mental health. I think it’s dangerous to wait for a moment of crisis before we pay attention to our mental health and wellbeing.

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I’ve been through counselling, and it’s really helped me.

One of the benefits of being freelance means that I can look after my mental health at my own pace, because I am working at my own pace. I realise this isn’t necessarily the case for everyone (it isn’t always the case for me), so I have different measures in place depending on whether I am working from home or located elsewhere e.g. based in an office or in rehearsals.

Everyday Measures:

  • When I get up and when I go to bed I try and think of one thing I am grateful for. It helps me keep things in perspective.
  • If I wake up with particular anxieties or worries, I write them down to get them out. Sometimes I revisit them at the end of the day, so I can see the progress I have made because everything is always worse in your imagination.
  • At the end of my working day I try and write an achievements list – every single step can be an achievement – there’s no hierarchy, no pressure – it might include ‘did a load of washing’ or ‘edited an article’.
  • I ensure I take my full lunch break regardless of whether I’m working from home or I’m located elsewhere.

Measures for when I’m Working from Home:

I try to keep to a routine. For example, I keep office hours – it’s easy to get caught up in working all the time because your workspace and home space are the same space (!) and when you work from home people assume you’re accessible all the time. Keeping working hours helps me maintain a balance and feel less overwhelmed.

I also make sure that I get out – working from home can be isolating and lonely so I either find public spaces with free wifi, go for a walk or run a minor errand. I’m also fortunate that I have other freelance buddies and we sometimes buddy up together and have ‘office’ days – it’s motivating and sociable and makes work less overwhelming.

Measures when I’m location-based:

  • I always take my full lunch break – whether working from home or not
  • Leading up to production week/rehearsals I food prep – it saves any added worry or stress to what is usually a stressful time in the creative process!
  • Being honest and communicating with those I’m working with if I’m struggling – I find that particularly in theatre in rehearsal rooms we seem to be more open about talking about our struggles.
  • I maintain my support system around me and communicate as I go by keeping in touch with family and friends with how I’m feeling, talking to colleagues I trust etc
  • I also just check in with myself throughout the day – I have a little conversation with myself – ‘how am I feeling?’ It stops me from accidentally neglecting my self-care which can be easy to do when you’re working with lots of people creatively.

Sometimes my mental health influences the creative process. Sometimes I write for catharsis, without the intention to share it publicly, especially if it’s something personal that I haven’t yet processed for myself. Sometimes it turns into something more, sometimes it doesn’t. I don’t believe in exploiting myself to create authentic art – that’s dangerous and unsafe, not to mention wanky.

If I’m writing from a personal place (but for a creative purpose) I try to address what I am/not comfortable with exploring and why (i.e. I don’t want to close myself off but again, I don’t believe in making myself vulnerable unsafely).

For instance, my solo show Motherland explores cultural identity, it’s a very personal piece but it’s also darkly comical and heartwarming. However, during the very early writing stages I set up boundaries for myself because there were some aspects of my personal life that I wasn’t ready to share or hadn’t fully processed privately. As time has gone on, I’ve been able to push myself creatively with this project and reach a point where I could approach it as writer/actor, but that’s only because I made sure to take care of myself during the early stages.

My mental health doesn’t just impact my creative process, it affects my attitude to the industry as a whole – particularly with performing. There’s so much pressure to look perfect. On the whole, this is just really dangerous. At the times in my life where I’ve struggled, I didn’t really taking care of myself and I didn’t look after my physical health as much as I should have. Even though I can now say I am in a much better space and have moved on, I still feel guilt or see the effects for myself, even if no one else can.

My mental health affects my attitude to the performing aspect because I just can’t afford to take on board those superficial, external pressures of looking perfect – it would be detrimental to my self-care. I treat myself as a human first of all, rather than some sort of superstar creative – and that’s my attitude to the creative process. When I know I’m continuing self-development work and looking after myself, I feel good in myself and that’s all that matters – and what’s more, that shows.

I seek out opportunities to discuss mental health creatively. I’ve always been interested in the power of creativity (be it performance or writing) to communicate and reach out to people so I have purposely sought opportunities to explore and utilise this. I most recently collaborated with We Co Produce and performed for West London Mental Health Trust. I feel really humbled to have had the opportunity to share my experiences and my work directly with organisations and service users. I would love to continue to work creatively in this aspect.

Mental wellbeing comes first. Always. Self-care and personal development should be viewed as a continuous process. I know people who have bought into the romanticised artsy lifestyle – forsaking food for travel money for auditions or constantly dieting to stay thin etc. – nothing is worth sacrificing your health.

Find your allies – both inside and outside of your industry. Family, friends, professional help. The stronger your support system, the easier it will be to manage on days when you do have a wobble. Also, if you do create personal work, it’s important to share how you’re feeling with your collaborators.

With regards to the work you create, don’t feel pressured to share more than you are comfortable with. It doesn’t make you more or less of an artist depending on how much you are willing to reveal about yourself. (Although it might be worth exploring why you are setting up boundaries – e.g. is it because you would rather some things stay private or have you personally not yet dealt with these issues?)

Redefine success for yourself. If you’re constantly comparing yourself to others in your industry, you will always come out feeling like a failure. It’s not healthy and it’s also not true! You are cultivating a career for yourself, not other people.

Work at a speed that lets you to look after your mental health – sometimes the creative industries doesn’t always allow you this, but it’s vital. The sacrifices you’re willing to make might not be as some others. If that means turning down a commission because you know you don’t have the time or you don’t want to participate in a workshop about a particular topic because it might be triggering – that’s totally ok.

Have a life outside of your creative work. It helps put things into perspective and give you balance.

Interrupted (A Work in Progress) // @i_am_naomij

Posted by:harrietpwilliamson

Writer