Illumination 07 – Billy Lunn

“I would encourage other creatives to fight against the cliche that we’re meant to be destructive and chaotic.”

‘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 06 – Milly Thomas

“The myth that mental illness makes for more creativity and the notion of ‘the tortured artist’ utterly boils my piss. It’s grossly unhelpful and dangerous.”

‘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 Milly Thomas, as told to Harriet Williamson.

I’m a full-time actor and writer. I originally became a writer because I couldn’t stomach the thought of waiting for my face to be the right fit for a role. I wanted to take matters into my own hands. In the beginning it never occurred to me whether or not I was any good at writing, I just wanted to work and to play roles that I hadn’t seen.

It came out of a love of telling stories. In the pub, to my family, on stage, on television. It was only once I started that it no longer became about acting – it morphed into something bigger than me. It became my way of engaging with the world and having conversations I was too scared to have face-to-face.

I write about what I don’t know. Anything I know too well instantly becomes preachy. I drop myself in the deep end so I’ve got to frantically doggy paddle my way out. When I don’t do this I sometimes find my writing stagnates. I’m still figuring out how to make work in a calm way, or if that’s necessary.

My mental health and I are only just starting to become friends and it’s very much a work in progress. In the past my anxiety and depression battled each other for precedence while I felt like an immobilised third party. I don’t remember a turning point at all – it just felt like something that got progressively worse as I grew up. Suddenly I found myself at fifteen and utterly unable to cope. Afraid of the stigma, I said nothing.

Fast forward six years, and every day felt like an acting job that I sucked at. I’d thrown myself headlong into work as a means of distraction which was working – a bit. There are symptoms that sneak up on you. Back pain. Stomach upsets. Headaches. Irritability. Insomnia.

Dust (courtesy Chloe Wicks)

I’m a high-functioning depressive so it’s never affected my ability to work. A blessing and a curse. It’s only in the past few years I realised that enough was enough. Suicide Ideation was plaguing my every day and it was hard to think of anything else until I shared how I was feeling with friends. Now I approach my life in a very different way. I’m keen to talk about mental health because I feel like you have to be ‘well’ in order to discuss it.

Right now, it feels like society says it’s okay, and even encouraged, to be open about having needed or sought – note the past tense – but it doesn’t yet feel okay to say you need help. It’s okay to say you needed help. Then. But you’re fine now. I’ve had the idea for this show in my head for a few years now and in late 2016 I suddenly thought ‘if you wait ‘til you feel ‘okay’ you’ll never make it.’ I felt I had to do it now and question later.

Moving in any way, shape or form helps me manage my mental health. I find the only way to quiet my mind is to move. I’m at my most content when I’m between places, knowing I’m on my way somewhere else. I listen to a lot of mindless pop music. I’m often to be found walking long distances with my headphones in.

It won’t be the first time anyone’s heard this but exercise, exercise, exercise. If you figure out where the motivation to exercise on a bad day comes from then please let me know.

Make sure to see friends. I have found my mood changes dramatically when in the presence of my nearest and dearest. Or if you can’t face going out, have them come over. But a brisk walk in fresh air every single day is something that has kept me from self-destruct.

My struggles with mental illness have made me value truth in my work. I still want to entertain first and foremost, but I’m very aware of the power of truth and place of truth within that work. By truth I don’t necessarily mean ‘autobiographical’, but I mean the truth that makes an audience lean in. It’s made me want to experiment more with form.

Sometimes the form of your work ends up shifting to accommodate what your mental health will allow you to do that day. With Dust it’s definitely made me strip the text further and further back so that it’s as stark as the subject matter. But the myth that mental illness makes for more creativity and the notion of ‘the tortured artist’ utterly boils my piss. It’s grossly unhelpful and dangerous. But truth. Truth is important.

When looking at Dust, I know what happens when someone survives an attempt and the road to recovery but I’ve also seen other families who’ve lost people suddenly U-turn and paint their loved one as someone they simply weren’t. Telling that story is hugely important to me. If people leave the show having seen something they haven’t seen before, and understanding something new that little bit better, that really excites me.

I’d want to remind everyone that poor mental health is not binary. We’re all on a spectrum. The empathy and support that can come from your colleagues can and will make an enormous difference. Finding empathy in different groups of friends is hugely important. Your colleagues and peers will be able to empathise with the struggle of making the work, friends and family (outside the industry) give your life meaning and context.

You are not your work, but if you’re a workaholic or high-functioning it can sometimes feel that way. I’ve found it dangerous to siphon yourself off into work that’s only transitory. What we’re doing is hard and has the capacity to feel quite meaningless sometimes. It isn’t, but it can feel that way. Perseverance and being kind – to yourself and others – is what’s going to make this a joy, not a career slog.

@missmillythomas // @BrutalCessation // @dust_theplay

Dust, Underbelly Cowgate (Big Belly)

Brutal Cessation, Assembly George Square (The Box)

 

Illumination 05 – Sarah Milton

Actor and playwright Sarah Milton speaks about being diagnosed with panic disorder and her new play, Tumble Tuck.

‘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 Milton, as told to Harriet Williamson.

I’m a professional actor and playwright. I write spoken word, poetry, plays and perform mine and other’s work.

I’m performing Tumble Tuck, my one woman play about the definition of success, at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival at The Underbelly (Iron Belly) 3-27th August at 1.30pm, every day. Another play of mine, called Lucy Light, is opening at the Theatre N16, London on September 19th for three weeks.

I’ve always found theatre to be the most fascinating way of expressing ideas and truly connecting with a group of people. There is something so beautiful and raw about a room of people listening and engaging with the live drama unfolding in front of them and experiencing active empathy and various emotional reactions. I believe theatre has the potential to better human beings and this idea is the driving force behind the majority of my work.

I have a panic disorder. This was diagnosed in 2009, and I’ve been on and off medication for it since. I’m currently using medication and I haven’t had a panic attack for over a month which is fantastic!

I practise yoga, which has contributed massively to improving both my mental and physical health. Yoga is phenomenal, and I’m going to do my teacher training in September. However, whenever I do feel anxious, I list colours and describe things I’m walking past or can see. Sometimes I’ll ring someone close to me, usually my mum, and let her know I’m having a panic attack and she’ll ask me questions to distract and bring my head back to earth. Also, sleeping properly, napping and drinking water helps.

Sometimes it stops me writing, and sometimes it informs my writing on a deeper level. I’m a binge writer, so I write many things in a compact space of time and then spend weeks thinking about the next piece I could write. I have to be in a healthy frame of mind to find the confidence to write.

Since opening up about my panic disorder, I’ve found that I’m no longer ashamed of the way I am. I’ve learned more about how many people do suffer with varying degrees of poor mental health, which has inspired my writing. Tumble Tuck focusses on self-worth and Daisy, the lead character, is very honest about needing counselling and support. This touches on my personal experience of counselling and discussing my issues in a professional, non-judgemental environment.

I think without my experience of anxiety, feeling low, and my journey to opening up about it, a lot of my work wouldn’t exist. So that has to be a positive way of looking at it.

Don’t get stuck at your screen all day, every day, writing ‘the masterpiece’. Walk. Do an exercise class. Choose water, not coffee. Have a day where you do anything but creative stuff; don’t write, don’t watch, don’t read up on or anything about work. Don’t forget to take time to breathe. Restrict social media usage.

Call your family and friends often and get confident in maintaining that dialogue with your GP. You are not wasting anyone’s time. Your wellbeing and mental health are valid and it’s important to communicate anything associated to it, to a health professional.  Remind yourself every day that you’re worthy, because you are.

 

Sarah Milton’s play Tumble Tuck tells the story of a young woman struggling to accept herself and realise her strength and seeks to examine the pressure we put on young people.

@backheretheatre // @FollowTheCow // @TumbleTuckPlay // #TumbleTuck

Illumination 04 – Tommy Stewart

Writer and bassist Tommy Stewart gives a searingly honest interview about his mental health struggles and creative processes.

‘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 Tommy Stewart, as told to Harriet Williamson.

Photo credit: Jake Lewis

Professionally, I’m a ‘journalist’ who works for the BBC. I use the term journalist vaguely because it’s difficult to define what being a journalist actually is in 2017, particularly if you’re working for a huge global news corporation, as I do. I’m fortunate enough to do a job I’ve grafted for and desired since I was about 15, and I’m also lucky in the fact that that role requires enough stimulation to keep me creatively ticking over on a daily basis.

However, on a personal level, I write. I think that’s the only thing I’ve ever been 100% confident in myself that I’m good at, and sometimes it’s my crutch, my most useful coping mechanism when it comes to not completely losing the fucking plot, and surviving. I’ve had things published in zines and online publications, but to be honest, at the moment, I write for myself and my own mental well-being.

However cliché this sounds, it’s not a hobby or a casual interest, it’s just instinctive and imperative to how I function, and it’s been the case since I was in primary school. I sound like fucking Hannah from Girls, but I guess writing is the root of my creative intuition.

I do suffer from fairly severe mental health problems. I was a regular sufferer of sleep paralysis as a child, which at the time I was convinced was a demon who’d took an inconveniently permanent residence within my room. When I was 19, I had my first panic attack on a flight, which triggered anxiety and panic attacks which I’ve suffered from regularly ever-since. After countless therapists, I was told this was due to PTSD, as in I suffer flashbacks and associative hallucinations.

At 27, it’s a fucking pain the arse to be having Fear and Loathing-esc imagery inhabiting your perceptive view when you’re sat at your desk at work. I also suffer from manic depression, and have self-harmed as a result of this. I live with that dog every day, but it’s only the past couple of years I’ve been completely open and unashamed about it, amongst friends, family and colleagues. It’s a relief that I can be self-deprecating and take the piss out of myself about it from time to time.

I’ve been through more therapists than I would dare to bore you with, and have also been on 20mg per day of the anti-depressant Citalopram for the past three years. In terms of staying well mentally via less scientifically conventional methods, probably the most basic and patronising piece of advice that the doctors always give you before throwing random prescriptions at you as you keep knocking on their door, is physical exercise.

I ignored it and had self-destructive disdain for my body for years, but since I’ve started playing football again regularly and walking back from work, I’ve felt a lot better in myself generally. As well as the initial drug-dose adrenaline it gives you for a day or two after which for an addictive class A thrill-seeker, is a great bonus both financially and mentally (yay I don’t need to buy drugs tonight).

It all sounds dead fucking obvious, but it isn’t, because people don’t talk about shit. Since I ‘came out’ about my illness via a Facebook status, I’ve found it a lot easier to talk about it and relate to people with similar conditions. And on a daily basis, I just write about it. I write sloppy poetry, standup routines, spoken word, lyrics, short stories, anything to cope, process and attempt to understand the torturous complexity of it.

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I play bass in a band, and have been in bands since I was a teenager, and that’s a double-edged sword in terms of the ‘lifestyle’ that surrounds touring aka excessively using narcotics to distract from reality. On the other hand, it’s productive to make music with pals, be creative and socialise with like-minded people. I sound like a fucking advisory sixth form pamphlet, but there’s some pertinence there.

The impact of my mental health on my creative process is so all encompassing, that I’d say it probably defines it. That’s not to say everything I write is about my mental health, it’s not – I just think it’s the reason I’m able to write, and with the day-to-day suffering, writing is an existential release, a distraction. For instance, if I’ve been romantically fucked-up, rather than seeking some sort of juvenile vengeance*, it’s a lot more productive to write something about it amidst the mist of initial anger. Those sort of etchings usually turn out shit, but it’s immeasurably better than a black eye.

*that’s not to say I’ve never sought out juvenile vengeance in this sort of instance, everyone’s been a dick at some point with exes, me more than most.

Own and utilise your mental health. Strain every ounce of productive and creative material from the darkness it inhabits, from the internal prison it scuttles around in so ruthlessly. Because it’s fucking shit, but if you can survive and cope with it, in a totally contradictory way, it can be a fruitful tool for creativity, which in turn can assist recovery or at least offer some sort of consolation or equilibrium.

Do not feel ashamed if it’s killing your productivity; I’ve gone months without writing because I’m too mentally battered to do fucking anything, never mind try to function artistically. It can come and go in waves and abstract patterns, but when you feel like jumping on the horse, fucking ride it baby.

Also, here is something I wrote about falling in love with someone through the commonality of mutually grieving someone, before realising it was fabricated and disguised by that fraudulent fate, and we were in actuality each other’s temporary crutches:

“…The cut thrust nature of rushed assimilation, is exponentially more fulfilling and overwhelmingly, pejoratively, 51% majority, more devastating and blunderbuss heart-breaking than any exit poll or neo-Nostradamus may attempt to foresee or predict…

…In the vacuous void dagger penetration, reactive self-interrogations, suicidal insinuations that transpire from grief’s bloody mire, irrationality is king…

…With the shadow of nostalgia, and the 4am terrorist insomnia, a date at the dulcimer seems a perennially beautiful idea, a way to inhabit then crucify those insipid fears, that lays separately, but between you and me we’ll have another beer…

…Warning signs are fine because signs are merely a reason to do something consequentially not right. But it felt right. It still feels right. But mutuality in feelings cannot be exclusively healing, if I want you, and you do not want me, if the sky is no higher than the ceiling, if this to me is true, if this to you is bleak…

…Love is a bastard who left me plastered on infinite occasions across the bedroom floor. Where the light behind the curtain, feels so daunting and uncertain, but the knife on my wrist makes me feel more…

…Judas and Brutas and Oswald the shooter, traits of betrayal disguised in dead eyes, honesty and jealousy are close to being enemies, but comedic tragedy ensues when they co-align…

…It’s better to admit, to be clear, to not let tears dictate that we’re stuck amidst the mist, the uncertain convicts locked in a Horwitz, an insufferable conclusion, a limbo that won’t go beyond a false collusion, an illusion, idealism of potential persecution…”

@tomandrewstew

Illumination 02 – Sarah Graham

Journalist, content writer & editor Sarah Graham gives tips for compassionate self-care and greater productivity.

‘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