‘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 Kate Sawyer, as told to Harriet Williamson.
I’m Kate Sawyer, an actor and producer who has recently revived her writing and directing pursuits too. So I guess you could say I have a portfolio career- yuk! I just do lots of creative things putting one foot in front of the other and if that doesn’t make me enough money to live in London I also waitress!
I was about five years out of my acting training at Webber Douglas (yes, I went to Webber Douglas before it closed, I am fully aware that means you can calculate my age..!) before I realised my deep dissatisfaction with the progress I was making in my career could be relieved with making my own work. I set up The Curious Room, my production company, exactly a decade ago and adapted, directed and produced my first show. This was adaptation of Anglea Carter’s radio play ‘Vampirella’ for the stage. I say stage – I found a back room of a pub in Brixton that I had read used to be one of Brixton’s many music halls, sweet talked the bar manager, got myself some builder’s uplighters, fold out chairs then hired some talented actors and went for it. It was a success and I caught the bug of making my own work.
Over the last ten years I have produced in Edinburgh and re-established Open Air Shakespeare in Brockwell Park with The Curious Room, before finding creative companions in another theatre company The Faction, of which I have been an ensemble member since their first production and produced for until 2012.
My work as The Curious Room developed (as I had always had an inkling it would) to encompass film as well as theatre last year. In the past year I have written, produced, directed and performed in three short films. I think it’s safe to say that after a period of concentrating on my craft as solely an actress, the fire in my belly for creating my own work has been well and truly stoked once again!
I have struggled with my mental health since I was a teenager. From talking therapy I think I’ve identified a couple of formative incidents that could have been the origin of self-esteem issues that developed into cyclical bouts of depression but I am sure there are chemicals in action there too.
I have always found that circumstances are what instigates a period of low mood or depression but I find it so difficult to navigate my way out. Once circumstances (nearly always beyond my control) have initiated a downward spiral mastering my thoughts and feelings become almost impossible. I feel out of control and at the mercy of impossible sadness that I can’t see my way out of.
Late last spring, I found myself as depressed as I have ever been. On the surface, everything was pretty good. I was working in my chosen career, I was living with my best friend in a lovely house, my friends and family were all healthy but my mind was dark. I was so sad. So lonely. That’s how it feels. It feels so deeply lonely. Because no one can understand how sad I feel. And I feel selfish. Really selfish for feeling that way because I am one of the lucky ones in this world.
Thinking about that makes me feel even worse. A few weeks into this sadness (having ruined what should have been a lovely weekend with my family, struggled with the social aspect of rehearsal and a nuclear falling out with my best friend, who moved out) one night for the first time ever, I thought: “Fuck this. I don’t want to live in this place anymore”. And it scared me, because those moments of wanting to annihilate myself completely started slipping into my thoughts more and more often. Thankfully there was still a small sentient part of me that remembered the repercussions of a dear friend’s suicide when I was barely 20 years old and I decided that I needed to seek some help.
In the past I have tried all manner of things. Talking therapies, nutrition and supplementation, yoga meditation, journaling and general self-care. All have provided some temporary and sometimes prolonged relief. But I had never had suicidal thoughts before and I knew I needed to take some decisive action. I booked a doctor’s appointment (for which I had to wait two weeks) and also found a local hypnotherapist that I managed to negotiate an ‘artists’ rate with.
I saw the hypnotherapist at the end of week and by the time I saw the doctor three weeks later my suicidal thoughts had almost entirely dissipated so I decided, on the doctor’s advice, to continue with the therapy before being prescribed any medication.
The hypnotherapy was bizarre. It was not easy, each session though conducted in hypnosis was profoundly emotional and physically quite draining yet a few hours after each session I found myself more hopeful, less sad and slowly more driven.
After 12 weeks of sessions, my therapist advised me to try a week without her support and I found that I was actually feeling pretty buoyant. Little in my circumstances had changed but my perspective on it had shifted unrecognisably.
I returned to my self-care routine of daily journaling (ideally at breakfast but sometimes I do it on the tube or take 15 minutes with a coffee in between work or auditions) which helps give me perspective on events and my emotions towards them, and allows me to give myself a bit of time off. The problem with being freelance is that we don’t have set hours, it is very easy to keep trying to achieve, but sometimes you just need to have a bath or go to the pub or watch a totally mindless rom-com!
Obviously a year of fairly stable mental health doesn’t mean I am cured for life. But it is good to know the warning signs and stay vigilant knowing I have a pretty extensive proven tool kit for dealing with it now at my disposal.
There is no doubt that my experiences of wrestling with my mental health have always been reflected in and part of my acting process. I also know that the recent surge in developing and making my own work has been part and parcel of emerging from the depression I experienced last year. Indeed, two of the three shorts I have written and produced are on themes of mental health.
‘Not Waving’, a short silent film that I have written, directed and perform in, is inspired by my experiences with my mental health. It’s about feeling alone even when you are surrounded by people, how perspective plays so much of a part in our dealing with our feelings and how being part of something (in the film’s case a group of strangers come together to celebrate a drowning man being saved at the beach, a metaphor for a company of actors in a production, using actors I was in a production with at the time to really highlight that!) can ease that loneliness, sadness for a while but how really that is only temporary.
I’ve borrowed the title of the film from Stevie Smith’s beautiful poem about depression because it has always resonated with me, particularly the line “I was much too far out all my life, and not waving but drowning.” I think it’s difficult sometimes to see that extroverts are struggling with mental illness and possibly that’s why hidden mental health issues are so rife for those in the creative industries. I hope it might be helpful as well as entertaining to those who see it and create a dialogue on perspective in mental health.
‘Lawnmower’, a comedy short that is also in post-production deals with mental health issues, and the effects of paranoia and self-sabotage. From personal experience these are warning signs and symptoms of a deterioration in mental health. If start to get too involved in my projections of what others think of me, or more crucially, *might* think of me if I do something, then I know I’m on a slippery slope and I need to give myself a bit of a break and do something nice for myself.
Both the shorts have been made on a shoestring budget with a lot of care and love from all involved and are in post-production and will be out for festival selection in October with hopes for a 2018-19 festival run.
I think the most important thing is that you feel comfortable to name how you feel and feel no shame about it. Talk about it. If you feel sad, name it. Name it in public and in your creative circles.
The most amazing thing that I’ve discovered since being more open about what I have experienced myself is that often someone else in the conversation will say: “Me too!” and so the conversation opens up and it stops being a subject surrounded in shame. All attempts I have every made to hide how I am feeling only ever seem to end in confusion and distrust, when I am honest people seem to understand, feel sympathetic or relieved that they can share their own issues safely. It takes a bit of bravery to speak openly but it is always worth doing.
Money is always an issue if you work in the creative industries so if you are seeking therapy of some sort, it’s worth explaining your financial situation to a potential therapist. Most are self-employed themselves and so will often offer a discount or a package reduction, so shop around and don’t assume the ‘labelled’ price means it is not available to someone in your financial situation
For me basic self-care things help even if it can be difficult to be motivated to do them; getting outside to walk or cycle or run, a bit of yoga and meditation, eating fresh food with lots of nutrients and plenty of protein, taking an Omega 3 supplement, enjoying warm baths with delicious scented oil, the odd indulgence of a massage (if I can afford it) and the cheapest but most effective tool: writing a journal.
I’ve been writing my journal pretty much daily since I was 16. It’d be awfully boring for anyone to read as it is mainly my airing my daily worries and hurts. But getting them out on the page diminishes them and stops me obsessing over them. These little practices free me up to create and so hopefully help others and myself both the process and the product of those creations.