Illumination 15 – Josh Coates

“If the work you make provokes people into discussing mental health then you’re doing something great.”

‘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.

GET YOURSELF TOGETHER-27

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.

Twitter // Website // Morale Is High Since We Gave Up Hope

Illumination 14 – DeAnna A.

“Throughout everything – my emotional upheavals and crises from adolescence through to adulthood – creativity has been a stable bedrock.”

‘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

Illumination 13 – Jasmine York

“I overheard a conversation about domestic abuse which was quite triggering for me. I left the room and wrote a poem in 3 minutes. It’s my favourite poem I’ve ever written.”

‘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 Jasmine York, as told to Harriet Williamson.

My name is Jasmine, I’m a graduate and I’m currently spending time adjusting to post-student life. I’m blogging quite frequently now, mainly about what it’s like to live with a physical chronic illness, but also touching on other things like mental health and relationships.

I’m driven by empathy. I openly write about my mental and physical health and the responses are so enlightening and empowering. The awareness I’m spreading allows others in my situation to feel less alone, but it’s so therapeutic for me to be able to vent and for someone to engage in that.

I’ve recently explored illustration and painting, mainly because I’ve realised I need more outlets for my emotions. I’m struggling, but trying nonetheless, to find multiple creative outlets that can be calming, diffusing but also engaging. Sometimes I want these outlets to be private and others public. I’m experimenting at the moment and I’m viewing this experimentation as an act of self-care

I’m struggling with depression and anxiety, and a psychiatrist I met with has flirted with the idea of saying I have a mild personality disorder. I suffer from intrusive thoughts very regularly, and often have battles with myself about self-harm. This is where my creative outlets come in. I need them to be as fulfilling, relentless and distracting as self-harm.

I feel emotions intensely and this is the main thing I struggle with. There is no grey area. Either I’m unequivocally happy or inconsolably sad, so when I switch from one mood to the other, which can happen quite rapidly, I end up undermining and invalidating both sensations.

This happens mainly when I’m happy. If I experience a rush of happiness – because that’s how it is, it’s never just contentment, it’s always a rush – then I talk myself down. I try to calm it to a manageable level of happiness in order to control the inevitable crash. It never works.

I need to do something productive every day. It’s easy for me to get into a cycle of depression, spend days in bed and function on auto-pilot. But this is dysfunctional and usually allows tasks and errands to pile up, and this only adds fuel to the fire. Making lists to keep a track of things that needs to be done helps a lot. Talking to myself and ensuring that I’m allowed to make mistakes is also very encouraging.

Things like blogging help me a lot, mainly because the support I receive from it can be encouraging. I also reflect on my behaviour a lot. It’s easy to stay in bed all day and tell myself, “it’s ok, this is self-care.” But sometimes it isn’t. This awareness of the subtlety of depression is very important to me, and challenging it helps my recovery.

Summoning this awareness can be very powerful, even if I don’t act on it. Just the realisation that I’m going through a tough time, or a relapse, empowers my mind, and shows me that I have some level of control.

Another thing that’s helpful for me is trying to understand the problem. What is making me upset today? Is it because I am fed up of being chronically ill? Is it because I have to live at home, depending on my family? These questions are loaded, but they are helpful on two levels.

Firstly, identifying the problem can be reassuring. This helps my anxiety – “it’s ok, brain, I’ve found the problem” sort of thing. The second level follows this. Once I’ve figured out what the matter is, I can then try to think of solutions. Maybe I won’t act on it immediately. Maybe I’ll understand what’s making me sad but I don’t have the strength to confront it that day. But one day I will.

 

My mental health definitely has an impact on my creative process. Sometimes when I’m overcome with emotion I can get on my laptop and furiously bash out a blog post about how I’m feeling. I overheard a conversation about domestic abuse which was quite triggering for me. I left the room and wrote a poem in 3 minutes. It’s my favourite poem I’ve ever written.

I think depression, depending on how you look at it, it either slips up or grants you access to some of your most suppressed emotions. I’ve said it before, depression can be an unstoppable force for creativity. It can be such a drive.

A lot of my anxiety is unexplained. I genuinely have days where I’m so on edge I can’t leave the house. I’ve missed shifts at work. I would get so close too, sometimes right to the front door, and then collapse. Sometimes it’s like a hidden trapdoor beneath me opens up and if I’m lucky, the magic door leads me into a long and lovely creative process. My friend often says “it’s a story” when something crazy/upsetting/challenging thing happens to me. It’s true. “Take your broken heart, make it into art.”

Don’t stop creating. Don’t listen to that voice in your head that tells you your creativity is invalid, or that you aren’t good enough. Harness what you’re battling, utilise that intense emotion and try to express that somehow.

It doesn’t have to be something you’re proud of, but whatever you create when your mental health is suffering, is an example of strength. Be proud of your creativity and what you can achieve. And most importantly, be creative for you. You deserve it.

gardenofjasmine.co.uk // @junoyork

Illumination 10 – Sophie Walker

“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.”

‘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 09 – Naomi Joseph

“My mental health doesn’t just impact my creative process, it affects my attitude to the industry as a whole – particularly with performing. There’s so much pressure to look perfect. “

‘Illumination’ is a brand new series that explores the relationship between mental illness and creativity. I’m interviewing people engaged in art, music, theatre and many more creative avenues and inviting them to open up about their mental wellbeing and the way their mental health struggles may inform their work. 

If any of the issues discussed in this interview affect you, there are lots of online resources that can help. Visit Mind or the Mental Health Foundation for more information. Alternatively, you can call the Samaritans on 116 123 at any time of the day or night.

Words by Naomi Joseph, as told to Harriet Williamson.

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

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

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

—-

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

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

Everyday Measures:

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

Measures for when I’m Working from Home:

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

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

Measures when I’m location-based:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interrupted (A Work in Progress) // @i_am_naomij

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)