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. 

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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 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.

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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 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)