‘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 Josh Coates, as told to Harriet Williamson.
I’m Josh and I’m a theatre maker based in Manchester. Theatre maker is a go to term for people who tend to write, direct and perform under various guises and for numerous projects. If you flip it around it’s a good way to understand it. I make theatre. Out of context it sounds like I make the sets and props. Part of me wishes I did do that, because I’d have more transferable skills!
I go through periods of working full-time in theatre but sometimes when funding comes through, I struggle for a bit, apply for loads of various jobs and do something part-time for a bit. I’ve been in and out of part-time work for about 5 years now.
The theatre work that I make aims to create a raw, honest human interaction between myself and the audience. I talk about the politics of everyday life in a hope to understand my place in society better. I had a show called Get Yourself Together that was about being depressed and on Jobseekers Allowance.
I was a supported artist at the Royal Exchange and I’ve toured work nationally and internationally. I play about with a theatre company based in Manchester called Powder Keg. We have fun.
I got sent these interview questions in June and didn’t really give myself time to respond to it. There was a rushed version of my answers left open for about a month and I’d limply add to it after rehearsals. I scrapped the interview before I went to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
Today (Friday 13th October), I went to the doctors to ask about talking therapies and eczema. I got some cream to help my skin and a phone number to help my head. Someone from Self Help Services talked me through a referral. I chose to do an online form rather than talking about my anxiety and depression for the second time that day. I’m struggling at the moment.
My depression makes it impossible to see all the positive things in my life and it has a profound effect on my relationships with other people. My anxiety makes my self-esteem plummet and makes me terrified of doing ordinary things like crossing the road. Like, I’m genuinely a little bit terrified every time I cross a road.
When my depression feels more low-key, it really helps to discover something new. I enjoy finding new stuff to get me going. It distracts me from my own thoughts for a bit and occupies my time with something I find interesting. The best things I’ve found recently include an opera that uses archive Fugazi material as its basis a, Nightvale-esque meme page about a small UK village and Mount Eerie’s 2017 album A Crow Looked at Me.
For years I didn’t allow myself to get scared by horrible thoughts or engage in crippling, self-destructive actions. I just kind of took it as a part of me that I have shitty opinions about myself.
My granddad died about 2 years ago now and I have a picture of him up in my room. I’m not going to tell you that when I have suicidal thoughts, I just think about what my granddad would say, as I feel like that isn’t that helpful.
I remember his funeral and I remember seeing my loved ones suffering. I remember seeing them all crying. I saw my granddad cry once. I remember I had a really vivid dream about my granddad crying at my funeral. That haunted me. I needed to escape that.
When my thoughts are big and all-consuming, I escape. I get out and leave. I’ll leave the space it’s happening in. If I can’t leave, I’ll try and introduce something new into the space, a new presence to help. I call the Samaritans a lot and I feel like that does the trick. They bring a different, caring energy into the space I’ve created. The Samaritans have saved my life on more than once occasion. I’ve never written that down before. That feels positive.
I recently got a plant as well and I’m having a bit of a thing with it. I’ve told myself if I can look after the plant well enough for a year that means I can look after myself for a year. It’s been really interesting to notice how my relationship to care has shifted since I’ve anthropomorphised an aloe vera plant. He’s called Alain. He’s French.
From time to time, my mental health will affect my creative drive. Sometimes to combat negativity I throw myself completely at making theatre. I find it hard to express myself at times (hello I am a man how are you today?) and making theatre helps me in understanding myself and how society sees me. Or the opposite happens and I feel like I’m failing at what I’m doing and I stay home that day because I’m failing on many levels and it’s hard to comprehend.
I’d tell other creatives who struggle with mental illness that there’s a very real chance that your work will only ever be read based on your mental health, especially if you’ve talked about it publicly before. This might be your intention. It might not be. At first it really annoyed me because I am more than my mental health. I’d make shows about failure and people would read my depression into the show. Only recently, I’ve realised that that’s an okay thing. If the work you make provokes people into discussing mental health then you’re doing something great.
Also, collaborate. Find people you trust and collaborate with them. Support of people is important and especially when it’s your creative work. Anna Ryder and James Varney helped me make Get Yourself Together. I couldn’t have articulated what was going on in my head as well if it wasn’t for their input.
If you work with an institution like a theatre, there are people you can go to who will listen. They are there for the wellbeing of the artist they support. If there isn’t anyone that fits this description, have a discussion with someone there about possibly setting up a Mental Health First Aid course session. It could save a life.