Illumination 14 – DeAnna A.

‘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 DeAnna A, as told to Harriet Williamson.

I’m DeAnna A (you can call me Dee), a musician and activist based in the UK.

My diagnosis is Borderline Personality Disorder, which can sound scary! It definitely doesn’t have the best reputation. People with BPD are thought of as bunny boilers, femme fatales, or loose cannons… think of all the negative representations in films like the unenviable Single White Female, Fatal Attraction or just plain vague and misleading representations such as Winona Ryder in Girl, Interrupted.

Borderline Personality Disorder has a number of characteristics and they can manifest themselves in a wide and wonderful range of flavours. I can speak broadly about the diagnostic criteria and only, of course, my own personal experience of them.

First and foremost is emotional instability (in fact, an alternate name for BPD is ’emotionally unstable personality disorder’, according to the ICD-10). In me, this manifests itself as PASSION. When I’m happy, I’m passionate about whatever is in front of me and this includes politics, music, art, writing, work. It can be a tremendous source of energy and inspiration.

The flip side of this is that my emotional intensity also extends to severely feeling negative emotions – depression, anxiety, fear, shame, dread, you name it. It’s no surprise that I was a goth as a teenager and never fully grew out of it. I’m the type of person that, if I’m feeling bad, I’ll metaphorically bake a goddamn black cake and embrace that feeling.

I’ll throw myself a pity party with black ballons. This definitely comes out in our songs too – I mean, our band name is ‘Muertos’ which means ‘the dead’ in Spanish, named both after my Mexican heritage and my love for their famous spiritual (and gothy!) celebration, Día de los Muertos.

This PASSION, emotional instability and energy can also lead to the unstable sense of self that is common in BPD. With varying moods experienced with such intensity, it’s very easy to completely lose perspective – one moment, I am an activist and live 100% for that. The next I’m a career woman, confident and aspirational and climbing the ladder. The next I’m a bohemian musician and want to run off and leave everything behind and just play the violin. If I do anything I do it 100%. I recently started studying Psychology at university and got a distinction in my first two modules, this is whilst juggling a full-time job and another nearly full-time job as a freelance musician in not one, not two but THREE bands, not to mention being a good partner and mum to my two cats.

I personally have to be careful to not try to be all things to all people. This manifestation of BPD may as well be called FOMO – fear of missing out – fear of not being the right person so you try to be EVERYONE. My obsessions may seem funny and they can be channelled for good, but sometimes it can feel very confusing wearing so many hats and switching between them – the world spins. My approach has always been to grab the opportunities by the cojones, but in my recovery, I’ve started to become more discerning about what and who I allow to take up my time. No is a very powerful word.

There are lots of other aspects to BPD – including the intense fear of abandonment. Many people with the disorder have experienced some form of abandonment in their life that continues to haunt them. That’s the only way to describe it. It’s like a ghost – you may know it’s not real, and that a present-day situation that has triggered off these feelings again is just an echo of the past – but when you get that deep sensation it’s every bit as terrifying and chilling to the bones as encountering a phantom staring at you through the window in the middle of the night.

Sometimes I don’t know how to cope with this phantom and react in bad ways. This feeling of abandonment, the belief that ‘no one likes me, no one cares about me, I have no purpose or worth’ is so deeply experienced that I can begin to question my own existence. The ultimate existential crisis.

Emptiness is another common feeling – when facing severe emotions such as abandonment, it can put everything into question and you may lose sense of perspective, which way is up, which way time-space-or gravity is pulling, or feel that all meaning has been wiped out.

Other times, instead of being an intense emotion, it may also be a low-grade chronic kind of emptiness. People who are addicted to drama, to doing impulsive things and using these damaging coping mechanisms in order to feel something, to feel alive, may often feel empty in the absence of drama. For me, I was so used to instability, so used to things being fucked up, that it took me a long time to feel comfortable and trust in my happy life – that my partner is real and not going anywhere, that I really do have a stable roof over my head, that I do have friends that care, that I am good at my job and not complete rubbish, etc. I was always waiting for the rug to be pulled out from under my feet, as it had been so many times before. I have to remember that the rug is still here.

Like many people with BPD, I used to self-harm. For me, this took the form of cutting myself and I am left with a lovely little geometric pattern on both arms as a reminder of those times. Other times it was taking reckless overdoses, not out a desire to end my life, but out of complete disdain and disregard for my body. I also suffered from a severe eating disorder. Anorexia, for which I was hospitalised on four lengthy occasions, was my preferred method of harming myself. Because of my lack of stable self-image and self-worth, I felt that I didn’t deserve to take up space. I felt that I was never good enough. I began essentially turning myself inside-out, hoping my hard skeletal bones would protect me like some sort of exoskeleton. I coped by becoming as small and contained as possible, and by being crueller to myself than anyone else could ever be. It is a slow suicide to which I hope to never return.

I could go on and talk about the other criteria – the intense relationships, having so little confidence in yourself that you idealise others and then completely lose heart and crash when they show themselves to be mere humans rather than the idols you had made them out to be, the sometimes dissociating from oneself and in times of great difficulty, losing touch with reality like it is behind a pane of impenetrable aquarium glass, the anger that comes in waves, like all the other intense emotions.

I’m giving this interview in the hope that others can relate – because at the end of the day, no one is their diagnosis – we are all human beings. Many aspects of BPD will be part of the microcosm of daily human experience, it’s just that some of us experience it on a greater and deeper level.

I am “recovered”. Well, at least 90% so, according to my former therapist and the lady who saved by life, Amanda Watson. For a long time, more than 15 years, I struggled to get the help I needed. People with BPD have very specific requirements for their treatment however due to lack of funding and resources, the therapy we need (Dialectical Behavioural Therapy or DBT) is unfortunately not widely available on the NHS.

For this and many other reasons, I am a big advocate and campaigner for properly funding our NHS and making sure it is fully publically owned. It is completely unethical that private outsourced companies profit off illness and misery. I have been in the mental health system for more than a decade, and at times was turned away because my condition is TOO HARD TO TREAT (e.g. they knew I needed urgent help, but they could not provide it, so they gave me nothing).

Dialectical Behaviour Therapy is the gold standard and one of the only therapies that is strongly evidenced to help with BPD. I actually feel like DBT should be given to the whole human population because you learn so many valuable skills – in DBT, people aren’t crazy or bad, they just lack ‘skilful means’. As a result, I have started to notice that many so called normal people also lack skilful means and could do with learning about the four modules of DBT – mindfulness, emotional regulation, interpersonal effectiveness (e.g. skilful communication and assertiveness) and distress tolerance, e.g. treating yourself kindly.

In addition to continually practicing the DBT skills, there are other habits I have that help keep me on the course of recovery. My favourite tool in my recovery toolkit is meditation. I meditate EVERY DAY, this means even if I have to get up early before work, or stay up late after a gig, even if, ESPECIALLY IF, I don’t feel like doing it.

Meditation is powerful when you get into a routine with it, when you don’t do it just because you’re in the mood or because it feels nice. Sometimes the difficulties, fears and anxieties that come into my mind are very real, and meditation helps me to deal effectively and face those things rather than reacting in a destructive manner. It’s about facing reality head-on, sitting face to face and eye to eye and making friends with the glorious messiness and constant imperfection that is life. And other times, meditation can help us see through the stories that our mind spins, for that is what our minds do, constantly spin tales. It’s about watching the hurricane rather than getting caught up and swept away by it.

It also helps me in my life off the meditation cushion. Meditation helps me practice taking each moment as it comes, approaching people and situations dialectically (from all sides, not from a self at the centre of the universe perspective), engaging in the world and not buying into stories that make people or things to be all good or all bad. Once I’m clear on my aim in any given situation, instead of reacting in an emotional manner, I can ask myself what would be the most skilful, compassionate and effective way of approaching the situation.

One of my favourite practices that I recommend to anyone struggling with difficult feelings is the Metta Bhavana meditation – “May all beings be well, may all beings be happy, may all beings be at peace, may I be of service”. Practicing metta (universal loving-kindness) takes us outside of ourselves and helps us have compassion for all beings, even those who we disagree with or who may have treated us badly. This focus on others is a large part of my recovery – I do not want to psychoanalyse myself forever, I want to get on and help the world be a better place.

However, sitting in meditation isn’t the be-all-and-end-all. When dealing with some deep, all consuming shit, there may be times when we need to fully feel, embody and appropriately act on our emotions to process them. This is the dialectic between acceptance and change. For situations where change is what is needed, I recommend, no word of a lie, witchcraft. For everyone regardless of creed or lack thereof, what I mean is tap into your subconscious for deeper wisdom that your rational mind is not able to reach, read those tarot cards for a new perspective, write down all your hurts and worries and sorrows and burn them, let them go with the smoke.

Ritual can touch us and help us move on. Humans are not rational beings, much as we like to think ourselves so, and being in touch with the other dimensions of ourselves can be deeply empowering for healing ourselves and fighting for social justice. For more on healing trauma and our connection the universe I heartily recommend the following books by feminist witches and heroes: Witchbody by Sabrina Scott and Witch by Lisa Lister.

Another thing – sobriety. (UGH). I know. I went a whole year without drinking not long ago, for mental health reasons, and I felt great. I fell off the wagon, due to thinking that it was going so well that it’s no big deal, I can handle it and I must be normal now… and lo and behold, soon fell into the chronic binge-drinking that marked my earlier decades. Alcohol is atrocious for mental health, I’m sorry to say, so I have recently bid it adieu again. If I was someone who could do stuff in moderation, then perhaps it would be ok for me, but I’m not, and it just makes me feel everything more intensely, which let’s face it is the last thing I bloomin’ need!

Lastly, creativity – where we started and where we end this interview. Creativity is a wonderful channel for all of our intense emotions, for all that pent-up energy that is suddenly available when you stop misusing substances and alcohol, for when you stop seeking escapism in self-destruction. However, creativity is much more than a way of coping – it is a way of being. We are not here to be consumers. We are here to make our own personal contribution, not just through buying things or by some arbitrary external measure of success but through finding our own authentic form of meaning. It is very empowering to use creativity to decide and express ourselves on our own terms – not capitalism’s terms, not academia’s terms, not your mum or dad’s or peers’ terms – yours.

Throughout everything – my emotional upheavals and crises from adolescence through to adulthood – creativity has been a stable bedrock. Sometimes I think I have no idea who I am, but then I look back, and it all makes sense. I grew up as a musician, a violinist since the age of three, discovered punk rock and riot grrrl when I was 16, and music and art are the things I always come back to replenish myself.

I channel everything through my songwriting, through drawings – even activism can be creative. Riot grrrl saved my life, learning violin saved my life, my goddamn Open Uni social science module saved my life, as did the many feminists and socialists whose words I’ve devoured for decades. It’s through social consciousness and wanting to empower and help other people that I’ve found out how to save myself, and continued to grow and humbly do my best to be of service and thrive in this world.

Muertos – Facebook Twitter Bandcamp // deannaavis.com

Photo credit: Stuart De Voil

How to help a friend who’s going through a shit time with their mental health

Approximately 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year. Unfortunately, mental health is still surrounded by a great deal of stigma and misinformation. Poor understanding of mental health problems leaves sufferers feeling isolated and too embarrassed or apprehensive to seek help.

Statistically, every single one of us will know someone who suffers from a mental illness. If you’ve got a friend who’s having a hard time with their mental health, it’s often difficult to know what the best thing to do is.

I’ve created this list in the hope that it could be helpful because I’ve been let down and abandoned by friends, bullied by a group of people I thought were my friends and I’ve felt completely alone with my mental illness. There are ways you can help a friend who’s struggling without putting your life on hold or inadvertently making things worse for them.

Listen to them

This really is the biggest thing you can do to help. Sit down with your friend, open your ears and listen. If they want to talk about how they feel, listen without judgement or blame. Mental health is not the fault of anyone. It doesn’t matter if they make what you consider to be ‘bad choices’ or they use alcohol or drugs to self-medicate. No one brings a mental illness upon themselves.

Ask them what you can do for them. This is important because they might have specific things they need help with that you may not have considered. It’s often better to ask them if they want you to offer them advice, rather than coming out with unsolicited suggestions that they might already considered.

Preaching, rehashing mistakes you think they’ve made or saying ‘I told you so’ are all very unhelpful.

Don’t leave them alone unless that’s what they’ve specifically asked you to do 

This can be a tricky one, but as a general rule of thumb, if your friend feels abandoned or like you’re punishing them for struggling with their mental health, it’s going to make the situation indescribably worse. If you don’t know what to say, just listen. If you don’t know what to do, ask them. Feeling awkward or confused or scared is totally normal, but if you end up giving someone who’s suffering the cold shoulder because you feel a bit weird about the situation, it’s not going to help anyone.

Obviously, a lot depends on how much you can personally cope with and whether you feel that being there for your friend is negatively impacting on your own mental health. This is particularly pertinent if you also suffer from mental health issues.

Boundaries are important in any healthy relationship but you should be clear about these. For example, if you can’t take a day off work to look after a friend, tell them so, tell them why and arrange to see them in the evening once work has finished. You’re still being there for them, but you can’t be available 24/7.

Suggest low-risk activities.

Whether it’s watching a happy film (a comedy or a kids film is often a good choice), getting a takeaway delivered and eating together or sitting down with a cup of tea, ask them whether any of those options take their fancy.

It’s probably a good idea to avoid crowded places and alcohol. However, some people find it easier to open up about what’s been bothering them over a drink. It really depends on the situation, your friend’s mental health history and the severity of the crisis they’re having.

Make yourself available for errands and boring household tasks

One of the most helpful things when people are struggling is to offer to do a couple of chores for them. This can be washing up and wiping their kitchen surfaces, walking their dog or going to Tesco and picking up comfort food if they’re not feeling up to leaving the house. If you’re suffering from depression or anxiety, the prospect of blitzing your home or doing a shop can seem like an insurmountable obstacle.

I ended up hand-washing a bath full of my friend’s clothes because her washing machine was broken and she was having a really tough couple of days. Chores and responsibilities were piling up and seemed completely overwhelming, but because I was able to get the washing out of the way for her, the other tasks she had to complete seemed more manageable.

It always helps to have a living space that’s not completely cluttered or full of takeaway boxes – for many people, a messy environment just reminds them of how they’re not coping at full capacity and reflects their headspace.

Don’t gossip about their mental health or the situation they’re in to other friends 

It’s tempting to do this if you want advice or need support. Try asking your friend first. If they’re comfortable with you seeking advice from one other person, that’s great. But if they’re not, don’t tell your mates about what they’re going through.

No one wants to feel like they’re being talked about, and if you’re really struggling, your mind can go to dark places imagining what people are saying about you.

There are lots of great online and phone resources you can access if you’re caring for someone else, including Mind, YoungMinds, the 111 number, Rethink and the Samaritans.

If the situation becomes more serious and your friend is threatening to harm themselves, has self-harmed or is planning to commit suicide, ringing an ambulance, the NHS crisis team or the 111 number is often the only thing you can do.

Encourage them to seek professional help

Most of us (myself included) are absolutely not trained in mental health support. We’re just trying to do our best in the situation that presents itself. You should always encourage a friend to access mental health services, whether that’s making an appointment with their GP, making an emergency GP appointment, going to an out-of-hours GP service, attending a therapist, ringing the Samaritans or the crisis team or, in extreme situations, going to A&E.

Don’t tell them to ‘just get over it’

If it was that easy, they already would be over it! Mental health problems don’t have quick fix solutions. You don’t decide to me mentally ill and you don’t decide to not be mentally ill anymore. Directives like ‘pull yourself together’ and ‘snap out of it’ are useless and damaging. They really won’t help, as much as you might want someone to change their mindset and stop feeling so bad.

Remember that they’re still the same person

There’s nothing weak or weird about someone who’s struggling with a mental health problem. Your friend hasn’t become a different person. You still share your good times, your memories, your in-jokes and your experiences. Treat them as your friend. Don’t ‘other’ them.

By bringing normality into this situation, you show the person that you still value them as the friend they are and that their mental health problems don’t make them an outcast or a stranger to you.

Compassion and understanding are key. Go forth, help your friends and don’t be a dick.

Illumination 11 – Kate Sawyer

‘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.

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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.

@katesawyer // @the_curiousroom // mskatesawyer.com // thecuriousroom.co.uk

 

Illumination 10 – Sophie Walker

‘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 Sophie Walker, as told to Harriet Williamson.

I’m Sophie Walker and work as an artist and mindful creativity practitioner. I started my business Attentive Art after I experienced post natal depression having relocated from one side of the country to the other five weeks before my second child was born.

In order to understand what was going on, I studied a course in psychology and mental health, followed by a course in mindfulness. I started making art again (I’ve been doing this for nearly 20 years) and applied some mindfulness techniques which had great results on and off the canvas. I’m now training to be a certified coach in creative mindfulness.

I have to say I’m okay these days. I have off days and a spot of anxiety now and then but nothing like what I used to. I don’t know where the boundaries between mental health and mental illness lie sometimes. Especially in children. I experienced eating disorders and anxiety before I was old enough to go to school.

Do certain behaviours indicate mental illness if they’re simply coping mechanisms to facilitate feeling mentally better? I had ongoing issues with depression and the behavioural patterns that tend to come with it, but I realised I was asking the wrong question.

Instead of asking ‘what is wrong with me?’ a more appropriate question is ‘what’s happened to me?’ When you understand this difference then healing becomes a possibility because we can stop blaming ourselves for things that probably were never our fault in the first place.

I write when I feel like it. I try to operate from a place of ‘how do I feel?’ rather than ‘what should I be doing?’ or ‘I have too much to do’ when really I can choose how much I have to do. So I apply a mindful ‘noticing’ of how I feel and what I’m doing. I make time each week for painting, drawing etc.

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I also go out for walks and do yoga and swim when I can. I find it hard to slow down and try to notice when I need a break and at least stop and do something different.

Does mental health inform my creative process? I think in my case the two are combined. I am of the belief that any creativity is a form of therapy and it is highly necessary for everyone to have a creative outlet. It grounds me and calms me down.

I also have a tendency to think that everything I make or paint or whatever has to somehow be something I can sell. I only realised this quite recently (noticing) and now aim to enjoy the process for what it is.

Listen to yourself and trust yourself. Don’t listen to any thoughts about not being good or experienced enough. Experiment, find what you enjoy and do more of it while keeping on experimenting. Never compare yourself to others. It won’t help you to enjoy your creativity. Stop, look at what you’ve made. Smile.

theattentiveartist.com // facebook.com/groups/AttentiveArt

Illumination 07 – Billy Lunn

‘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.

@billysubway // thesubways.net // facebook.com/thesubways

Illumination 03 – Michael Finn

‘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 Michael Finn, as told to Harriet Williamson.

I’m 26 and I work full time for HMCTS as your regular office drone. Although my career lacks creative opportunities, it’s dull and boring enough to afford hours of time thinking about concepts and new ideas that manifest in my spare time. I have a poetry blog read by 100,000 people, and I intend to publish several novels I’m currently working on too (once I hone my writing skills and develop my techniques further).

I currently suffer mentally, and I have from around the age of 16. I am severely depressed, but high-functioning enough to go about my days unstricken for the most part. Periodically, however, that highly functional part of my condition disappears completely, and down the spiral I go. I become reckless and carefree. I simply don’t give heed to anything anymore.

This results in the everyday suicidal thoughts pushing all else aside, taking centre stage in my mind, and have led to multiple attempts of taking my own life, the worst of which was August 2016, when two attempts failed in a 48 hour period thanks to drunken dumb-luck and embarrassing eye-contact with a colleague.

Having tried multiple techniques of managing my illness, I find a few things help me the most: being completely open about it with people I meet online, anonymous or otherwise; embracing it wholly, running with it, and laughing at myself and the depression to make it seem less overbearing and omnipotent. I call depression ‘my lover’ to make it human, for instance, because that’s exactly what it is.

ugh

Finally I often sit and think about it—why I feel low, what has possibly brought this about, how did it start—in an attempt to navigate through this maze-like state of mind to the core of the bad thoughts and break the particularly bleak spells. Though this can be bruising, the hard-faced confrontation ultimately works. Listening to gloomy music paradoxically helps me too, as the music and I seem to understand and communicate better when it matches my mood; happy, upbeat music tends to deepen the slumps and makes the m harder to escape.

Depression definitely impacts my creative process. I lose all interest as my mood worsens and I physically can’t write anything when I’m at my lowest, due to blockages and non-existent energy. It’s only when I’m over the worst of it that I can write, and the writings thereafter are about that episode’s sensations, which is cathartic no-end.

The main piece of advice I would give to people is to not run away from your illnesses, tackle them head on. Running only encourages them to chase you, and when you beat your ills face to face, you’ll feel a butt-load lighter and like you’re carved out of wood. Secondly, I fully encourage people to talk about how they feel; talk about your state of mind in all its raw, warts and all detail to whomever you feel can help you most.

Healthful Chat worked wonders for me as my anonymity remained intact and I spoke with people going through the same shit I dealt with. There’s a whole range of chatrooms to go on, and you never get people making a pass on you or dick pics or creeps sidling up to you. If these suggestions don’t work, just experiment until you find something that does. There are cures out there, it’s just a matter of having the resolve to go out and find them.

hellopoetry.com/mouthpiece // @_MickeyFinn

Illumination 02 – Sarah Graham

‘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 Sarah Graham, as told to Harriet Williamson.

I’m a freelance journalist, content writer and editor, specialising in feminism, women’s health, and mental health. I’m particularly interested in the health implications of sexism and gender inequality, and the areas where feminism and wellbeing collide – so anything from reproductive rights to male suicide rates.

Creatively my focus is on feature writing and blog content, telling human stories with empathy, honesty and compassion. For me, that’s the most powerful way of raising awareness of the issues that matter, but which don’t always get the coverage they deserve.

I’ve suffered from (relatively high-functioning) depression and anxiety most of my adult life, and was recently also diagnosed with PTSD following a serious car crash at the beginning of the year. My mental health right now is definitely the shakiest it’s ever been.

A combination of medication, talking therapy, and self-care. Being able to be flexible with my time helps enormously. I’m a big advocate of naps as required, long lunch break swimming sessions, and going for a run before/after work to clear my head. I try and make time for all the classic self-care type stuff too, like bubble baths, going for a massage, taking time out of each day away from a screen to just sit and read, that kind of thing. And just listening to myself really – I’m (very slowly!) getting better at knowing when I need to stop or ease off, and when I’m feeling well enough to push myself.

Writing has definitely always been a part of my self-care, so it’s what I instinctively do when I’m struggling anyway, and I often write some of my most raw and authentic work when I’m in a really bad headspace.

That said, it can also have the exact opposite effect. I’ll have days on end where my mind just feels full of thick, dark fog and I can’t get my brain to cooperate on even the most basic tasks – let alone find the words necessary to move and engage my readers. That can be incredibly frustrating. It’s usually writing something personal or creative (unrelated to my paid work) that gets me out of that slump though – and there’s always something therapeutic about handwriting in a proper notebook, with a beautiful pen! So I find it works both ways: sometimes inspiring, sometimes paralysing.

I’ve also read a lot recently about the impact of freelancing and self-employment on mental health, but for me personally it’s always helped far more than it hinders. Of course, it’s really easy to fall into the trap of isolating yourself and not leaving the house or getting out of your pyjamas for a week, but working to my own agenda definitely helps me manage both my mental health and my creative process.

I’ve never been someone who has my best, most creative ideas between 9am and 5pm anyway, mental illness or no mental illness! I think it’s just about understanding how you work best, and not being too hard on yourself when you have a bad day.

Get up, get washed, get dressed, work at a proper desk, and eat proper meals whenever you feel able to. Don’t beat yourself up when you can’t. Make time for whatever makes you feel better, even if some days that’s sitting in bed devouring a packet of chocolate biscuits and binge-watching Netflix.

In fact, just generally be kinder to yourself. That’s advice that’s easier to give than to take – I’m very much still working on it! I think creative people generally have a tendency to be perfectionists, and to pile the pressure on themselves. I know I’m definitely at my least creative when I’m sat staring at a blank screen (or Tweetdeck, which is worse!) yelling at myself for being useless and pathetic, and to get the fuck on with it. There’s literally no time when that has ever helped.

I once almost cancelled a massage because I had a deadline looming and was feeling completely blocked about the article I was trying to work on. In the end, I realised I wasn’t getting anything done anyway and went for the massage – I drafted the entire article in my head while laying in the salon being pampered for an hour, came home and wrote it up without a problem. Self-care works!

www.sarah-graham.co.uk // @SarahGraham7

Illumination 01 – Natalie Wardle

‘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 Natalie Wardle, as told to Harriet Williamson.

I’m a visual artist/photographer from Manchester. My work looks at how women constrict their bodies to fit in with society’s ideal physical standards, exploring shapewear and tape that is placed over nipples to both cover and repress their form.

I graduated with a BA in Photography from Manchester School of Art. I’ve exhibited my work around the UK and internationally. My project ‘Control Pant Symphony’ has been shown as part of ‘Modern History’ curated by Lynda Morris at The Atkinson in Southport, and the Parkside Gallery in Birmingham.

I’ve also attended a Canadian artist residency ‘Naked State’ at a naturist park where I explored the nuances between a ‘real’ and naked body, in contrast to a ‘fake’ and controlled body. Recently Lynda Morris curated my work again at the Cooper Gallery, where I did a live performance of Control Pant Symphony.

My creative ambition is to make art that’s relevant in today’s society, highlighting issues within the beauty industry and raising awareness of the pressures women face. I often use my own experiences and turn them into art work. I feel as though my main reason for creating the art I do is from feeling theses pressures myself, and turning bad experiences and bad moments in my life into positive work.

Since I was in high school, I’ve been told by doctors that I needed antidepressants, something I always refused and kept a secret from people around me that doctors where trying to prescribe me with things to help my mental health. I always just ignored this and thought I was just ‘growing up’ and it was normal to feel the way I did.

tittape screenshot

Only last year I really came to the realisation that I had a serious mental health problem that was now affecting my everyday life. It took until I collapsed at work from a panic attack for me to go back to the doctors to be treated. I again refused medication due to my own personal view that I’d be too dependent on medication if I did take it, and I was offered talking therapy instead.

I have social anxiety, something I never thought I would have – and something people around me never thought I would have due to me being so over the top and seeming confident. What people don’t see is the build up to me entering a large social situation and the panic in my head that something bad is going to happen. I’ll convince myself that everyone hates me and that if I leave the house something really bad is going to happen. If I’m in a social situation where something triggers it off I’ll have a full-on panic attack where it actually feels like my heart will explode.

This is the first time I’ve talked publicly about this, and only close people know about my mental health because I’ve been embarrassed to open up to people. I didn’t want people to look at me and think ‘oh she’s overreacting’ and ‘she just wants attention, nothing’s wrong with her’ but people need to stop with that view on mental health, lucky we’re all becoming more aware about different mental health problems and how it is something to be taken seriously.

I felt like talking therapy was the best thing that has ever happened to me and I’d recommend it to anyone! I feel as though I’ve been taught so many amazing skills, I swear everyone should give it a try. I also feel as though opening up to a few people about what I’m going through has helped, I don’t feel ashamed and like I’m a complete nutter. Having a few people I can go to when I’m having a rough day and feel anxious has really helped.

I feel as though I wouldn’t be the artist I am today without my mental health problems. I feel as though when I was going through a bad time, I took the panic and bad energy I had and turned it in to art.

I feel as though anxiety has made me more aware of my surroundings and how I take something I’m passionate and having a bad time with and turn it in to art almost takes the piss out of myself feeling that way.

One of my art pieces I did at the peak of going through a bad time is ‘Sexual Symphony’, I was getting verbally harassed in a sexual way at 2 different jobs I had and I felt trapped and as though I couldn’t just walk out of my jobs due to needing money. I wasn’t being taken seriously when I was telling people how the comments where affecting me. I was sick of horrible sexual comments towards me when I was just trying to get on with doing my job and it made me full-on panic and get in a total state before going to my day job and a DJing job I had.

I took the fear I was living in and thought ‘fuck this why the fuck should I put up with this shit’ and then made it into an awareness art piece saying that this kind of thing should be taken more seriously. If it wasn’t for the bad anxiety I had from going to work and how I overthought the situation, I wouldn’t have made an art piece to let out my emotions.

Suffering with a mental illness isn’t always a bad thing, just turn it in to a positive. Use your mental illness as a creative lens on something, and use the bad energy you have inside you and turn it in to creative positive energy. Don’t think you’re alone and suffering as you’re not! There are a lot of people who can help you.

www.nataliewardle.com // Facebook // Vimeo

 

The Insider’s Guide to a Humanities MA

First published in The Independent 22nd May 2013

Days of wild clubbing abandon and blagging your way through reading are no more when it comes to a Masters degree, but that doesn’t mean your old life is gone for good. There’s a lot to look out for, so here is my insider’s guide to an MA in the humanities.

Prepare to have no money, ever
That euphoric feeling when a loan instalment flows into your bank account is merely a fond memory. The Student Loans Company does not offer loans, grants or bursaries for postgraduate degrees, with the exception of PGCEs. Daunting though this may seem, I’ve definitely learned some valuable life skills in making a poncho out of duvets in winter and forgoing the gym membership I’d only spend the term berating myself for not using anyway.Go to the lectures
Go to as many extra-curricular lectures by guest speakers and panel debates as you can. Even if they don’t directly relate to your specific research interests, they provide a good way of keeping up with the kind of topics current PhD students are interested in and the ideas can provide breadth to an essay later on. An added bonus is that sometimes free wine is on offer.Nights out are no longer such a regular occurrence
Wading through crowds of freshers wearing neon face-paint to procure an overpriced beverage in a darkened space that smells ever so slightly of sweat and vomit becomes MUCH less appealing when there’s a stack of articles at home that you haven’t really understood and a meeting with the dissertation supervisor looming.

You become an old hand at living in a student property
Until early March, our bath became the evening home of choice for a battalion of black slugs. A year or two ago I might’ve found it horrifying, but I just shrugged and ruled out evening showers. I’ve begun to allow the unsavoury details of student housing to simply wash over me, not expecting the landlord to fix anything and responding with acceptance when faced with a dormouse or a blanket of black mould in the bathroom.

It’s all about personal study
Having only seminars rather than a combination of seminars and lectures means that ‘doing the reading’ becomes crucial, rather than an inconvenience when faced with an invite to the pub. Self-motivation is key but it’s helpful to break up the hours staring at a laptop screen with regular rest periods and contact with live humans. Feeding campus wildlife does not count.

Trust the PhDs
Chat to the PhD students auditing your seminars, living in your house or milling around the postgraduate study area. They can be a mine of information regarding your dissertation and applications for doctoral study, although asking regularly how their thesis is coming along might not always be welcome!

Go at least a little wild
Unless you plan to follow an academic career and therefore have three/four years of a PhD to look forward to, this might be the last year you spend in formal education. I like to show my appreciation for my still-student status by dip-dying my hair blue and pink with regularity.

Don’t get intimidated!
It might feel like everyone is cleverer and more clued up than you, particularly when you’re in contact with PhD students. They’ve read more, written more and hobnobbed with some academic celebrities – my PhD housemate’s MA supervisor was J. M. Coetzee – but remember that they’ve been playing the game for much longer! A taught Masters is about growth and rigor, allowing you to bridge the gap between undergraduate and a higher level of academic study and find your niche.

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