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 12 – Carl Rosier Jones

“PTSD sufferers are normally strong-willed individuals who would never want to show any weakness. This is why military and front line emergency services professionals try to hide or ignore it for fear of ruining careers.”

‘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 Carl Rosier Jones, as told to Harriet Williamson.

I’m a serving Detective, and my creative side comes from my writing. Back in 2011, I was shot at 6 times whilst at work. I managed to bury it for 3 years, but since 2014 I have been diagnosed as suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

My drive to help others in a similar position has inspired me write about my experiences, and I’ve published a book called “The Caveman Principles” which explores how to understand and deal with stress.

PTSD is a condition that can catch anyone out, regardless of their profession or mental strength. As everyone is been brought up in a different way with different life experiences, the way we react to life events can vary greatly from person to person.

PTSD normally happens when someone has experienced a life-changing experience (normally it is a life-threatening one because it makes us think we are no longer safe). For me I was doing my job and making what I thought was a straightforward arrest but the man pulled out a gun and shot at me 6 times. I was not expecting that!

My PTSD is linked to this incident, and every time I see a gun used in the commission of a criminal offence, my PTSD asserts itself. Guns as a rule do not bother me, seeing them in the hands of military or police officers is fine, but add the criminal element and I go to pieces.

It might be good to explain how PTSD affects me (everyone has slightly different ways symptoms). When my PTSD is triggered (even writing this is causing me some discomfort), it hits me in the chest first. It starts like an ice cold drop then it quickly spreads and spreads, and once I feel this there is nothing I can do.

I lose concentration, stumbling over words and unable to focus. I’m forgetful and unable to hold a complex conversation. My stomach starts churning, getting more and more upset and very loud. The shakes come in like waves, gentle tremors until my hands need to be sat on. These are just some of the obvious physical ones, but no one can see the things going on in the mind. I have traumatic flashbacks to the (or an associated) incident. I get a feeling of not being in my own body and of numbness.

All of this is exhausting and after an attack, I’m wiped out and have nothing left in the tank. Over the last few years, I’ve seen my alcohol consumption increase, I’ve had no interest in looking after myself, with no control of any food intake and no interest in personal fitness.

Most of the time sufferers don’t want to own up to our condition, and we get deluded about what’s happening to our bodies and minds. Ignoring the issue means that we don’t have to deal with the trauma, and that’s a very human response – to hope that something will go away if we ignore it.

I’d been like a zombie, ignoring the issue and believing there was nothing wrong. PTSD sufferers are normally strong-willed individuals who would never want to show any weakness. This is why military and front line emergency services professionals try to hide or ignore it for fear of ruining careers.

After a few emotional breakdowns I had to take action, admit to myself that I was not ‘alright’ and tell people about it. That was the scary part, managers saying: “I don’t get it” helped like a punch in the gut. These first few steps were the hardest and most upsetting.

I needed to understand the condition so I looked, researched and trained in a few therapies; CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) NLP (Neurolinguistic Programming) and a few others, but in my opinion they were a ‘one size fits all’ solution and did not work for me.

With my PTSD, if I try to control everything, it only makes the condition worse. I had to make myself relax about it, accept help and take a less operational role so I could get my mind back. I tried counselling but everyone wanted to use CBT, and I’d already found out that it didn’t work for me. EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing) and re-living techniques all failed as well.

I’m still working through things but I know now that I need to take time for myself and try to avoid my triggers. As a Detective it can be hard, but who said life was easy?

There are good days where I can focus and write and others when all I want to do is ‘other’ things. The ability to lose yourself in doing nothing for an entire day is part of the condition.

Because of the person I am, everything that I’ve learnt and experienced I want to use to help others. I wanted to find a way to explain and guide people when they needed it. I knew from my own experience what I needed and when I couldn’t find it. So I decided to plug the gap, by writing my own book to help others. The Caveman Principles are simple, straightforward and use characters and metaphors to get the message over, without it being preachy or heavy. Reading it shouldn’t be a chore, and I’ve purposely included humour and left out any ‘big words’.

I’m very lucky that I’ve been able to fit in writing my book and running a personal business around my work, by working shifts and only accepting commitments for my business when I’m free. If I’m honest, without writing the book and being booked to speak at seminars and events, I don’t think I’d be as far along the road to recovery as I am.

Speaking is my biggest passion and being able to tell my story, letting people know that PTSD and trauma aren’t so bad and asking them to accept it as part of everyday life is really rewarding. I introduce my Caveman Principles and market myself as the Caveman Speaker, which brings a smile to everyone’s face and ensures that they don’t forget me or my message.

Don’t fight it and never ignore it. If you do managed to accept PTSD, make sure that you can stand in the mirror, looking at yourself and see a smile.

carlrosierjones.com // Facebook author page // Amazon

Illumination 11 – Kate Sawyer

“I think it’s difficult sometimes to see that extroverts are struggling with mental illness, possibly that is why hidden mental health issues are so rife for those in the creative industries.”

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

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

Words by Kate Sawyer, as told to Harriet Williamson.

I’m Kate Sawyer, an actor and producer who has recently revived her writing and directing pursuits too. So I guess you could say I have a portfolio career- yuk! I just do lots of creative things putting one foot in front of the other and if that doesn’t make me enough money to live in London I also waitress!

I was about five years out of my acting training at Webber Douglas (yes, I went to Webber Douglas before it closed, I am fully aware that means you can calculate my age..!) before I realised my deep dissatisfaction with the progress I was making in my career could be relieved with making my own work. I set up The Curious Room, my production company, exactly a decade ago and adapted, directed and produced my first show. This was adaptation of Anglea Carter’s radio play ‘Vampirella’ for the stage. I say stage – I found a back room of a pub in Brixton that I had read used to be one of Brixton’s many music halls, sweet talked the bar manager, got myself some builder’s uplighters, fold out chairs then hired some talented actors and went for it. It was a success and I caught the bug of making my own work.

Over the last ten years I have produced in Edinburgh and re-established Open Air Shakespeare in Brockwell Park with The Curious Room, before finding creative companions in another theatre company The Faction, of which I have been an ensemble member since their first production and produced for until 2012.

My work as The Curious Room developed (as I had always had an inkling it would) to encompass film as well as theatre last year. In the past year I have written, produced, directed and performed in three short films. I think it’s safe to say that after a period of concentrating on my craft as solely an actress, the fire in my belly for creating my own work has been well and truly stoked once again!

I have struggled with my mental health since I was a teenager. From talking therapy I think I’ve identified a couple of formative incidents that could have been the origin of self-esteem issues that developed into cyclical bouts of depression but I am sure there are chemicals in action there too.

I have always found that circumstances are what instigates a period of low mood or depression but I find it so difficult to navigate my way out. Once circumstances (nearly always beyond my control) have initiated a downward spiral mastering my thoughts and feelings become almost impossible. I feel out of control and at the mercy of impossible sadness that I can’t see my way out of.

Late last spring, I found myself as depressed as I have ever been. On the surface, everything was pretty good. I was working in my chosen career, I was living with my best friend in a lovely house, my friends and family were all healthy but my mind was dark. I was so sad. So lonely. That’s how it feels. It feels so deeply lonely. Because no one can understand how sad I feel. And I feel selfish. Really selfish for feeling that way because I am one of the lucky ones in this world.

Thinking about that makes me feel even worse. A few weeks into this sadness (having ruined what should have been a lovely weekend with my family, struggled with the social aspect of rehearsal and a nuclear falling out with my best friend, who moved out) one night for the first time ever, I thought: “Fuck this. I don’t want to live in this place anymore”. And it scared me, because those moments of wanting to annihilate myself completely started slipping into my thoughts more and more often. Thankfully there was still a small sentient part of me that remembered the repercussions of a dear friend’s suicide when I was barely 20 years old and I decided that I needed to seek some help.

In the past I have tried all manner of things. Talking therapies, nutrition and supplementation, yoga  meditation, journaling and general self-care. All have provided some temporary and sometimes prolonged relief. But I had never had suicidal thoughts before and I knew I needed to take some decisive action. I booked a doctor’s appointment (for which I had to wait two weeks) and also found a local hypnotherapist that I managed to negotiate an ‘artists’ rate with.

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I saw the hypnotherapist at the end of  week and by the time I saw the doctor three weeks later my suicidal thoughts had almost entirely dissipated so I decided, on the doctor’s advice, to continue with the therapy before being prescribed any medication.

The hypnotherapy was bizarre. It was not easy, each session though conducted in hypnosis was profoundly emotional and physically quite draining yet a few hours after each session I found myself more hopeful, less sad and slowly more driven.

After 12 weeks of sessions, my therapist advised me to try a week without her support and I found that I was actually feeling pretty buoyant. Little in my circumstances had changed but my perspective on it had shifted unrecognisably.

I returned to my self-care routine of daily journaling (ideally at breakfast but sometimes I do it on the tube or take 15 minutes with a coffee in between work or auditions) which helps give me perspective on events and my emotions towards them, and allows me to give myself a bit of time off. The problem with being freelance is that we don’t have set hours, it is very easy to keep trying to achieve, but sometimes you just need to have a bath or go to the pub or watch a totally mindless rom-com!

Obviously a year of fairly stable mental health doesn’t mean I am cured for life. But it is good to know the warning signs and stay vigilant knowing I have a pretty extensive proven tool kit for dealing with it now at my disposal.

There is no doubt that my experiences of wrestling with my mental health have always been reflected in and part of my acting process. I also know that the recent surge in developing and making my own work has been part and parcel of emerging from the depression I experienced last year. Indeed, two of the three shorts I have written and produced are on themes of mental health.

‘Not Waving’, a short silent film that I have written, directed and perform in, is inspired by my experiences with my mental health. It’s about feeling alone even when you are surrounded by people, how perspective plays so much of a part in our dealing with our feelings and how being part of something (in the film’s case a group of strangers come together to celebrate a drowning man being saved at the beach, a metaphor for a company of actors in a production, using actors I was in a production with at the time to really highlight that!) can ease that loneliness, sadness for a while but how really that is only temporary.

I’ve borrowed the title of the film from Stevie Smith’s beautiful poem about depression because it has always resonated with me, particularly the line “I was much too far out all my life, and not waving but drowning.” I think it’s difficult sometimes to see that extroverts are struggling with mental illness and possibly that’s why hidden mental health issues are so rife for those in the creative industries. I hope it might be helpful as well as entertaining to those who see it and create a dialogue on perspective in mental health.

‘Lawnmower’, a comedy short that is also in post-production deals with mental health issues, and the effects of paranoia and self-sabotage. From personal experience these are warning signs and symptoms of a deterioration in mental health. If start to get too involved in my projections of what others think of me, or more crucially, *might* think of me if I do something, then I know I’m on a slippery slope and I need to give myself a bit of a break and do something nice for myself.

Both the shorts have been made on a shoestring budget with a lot of care and love from all involved and are in post-production and will be out for festival selection in October with hopes for a 2018-19 festival run.

I think the most important thing is that you feel comfortable to name how you feel and feel no shame about it. Talk about it. If you feel sad, name it. Name it in public and  in your creative circles.

The most amazing thing that I’ve discovered since being more open about what I have experienced myself is that often someone else in the conversation will say: “Me too!” and so the conversation opens up and it stops being a subject surrounded in shame. All attempts I have every made to hide how I am feeling only ever seem to end in confusion and distrust, when I am honest people seem to understand, feel sympathetic or relieved that they can share their own issues safely. It takes a bit of bravery to speak openly but it is always worth doing.

Money is always an issue if you work in the creative industries so if you are seeking therapy of some sort, it’s worth explaining your financial situation to a potential therapist. Most are self-employed themselves and so will often offer a discount or a package reduction, so shop around and don’t assume the ‘labelled’ price means it is not available to someone in your financial situation

For me basic self-care things help even if it can be difficult to be motivated to do them; getting outside to walk or cycle or run, a bit of yoga and meditation, eating fresh food with lots of nutrients and plenty of protein, taking an Omega 3 supplement, enjoying warm baths with delicious scented oil, the odd indulgence of a massage (if I can afford it) and the cheapest but most effective tool: writing a journal.

I’ve been writing my journal pretty much daily since I was 16. It’d be awfully boring for anyone to read as it is mainly my airing my daily worries and hurts. But getting them out on the page diminishes them and stops me obsessing over them. These little practices free me up to create and so hopefully help others and myself both the process and the product of those creations.

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

 

Illumination 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 08 – Dane Cobain

Writer Dane Cobain talks to me about anxiety and depression, and how self-employment helps him stay well.

‘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 Dane Cobain, as told to Harriet Williamson.

My name’s Dane Cobain and I’m a published author and freelance writer. I spend every waking moment either writing or thinking about writing, and it’s awesome to be able to make a living from it as my own boss.

I write a little bit of everything, and I have fiction, non-fiction and poetry out – as well as a horror screenplay. I don’t think I work in a particular genre, although I’ve been labelled as a horror writer before, and I quite often write about technology and the effect it has on us as a society. I’ve been writing since I was about sixteen – so at least ten years and maybe a little longer.

I suffer from anxiety and depression. The depression kicked in during my teens and the anxiety started in my early twenties. I tend to be quite open about it and try to provide comments like this where possible in the hope that they might help other people.

I take Citalopram at the moment and took it for quite a while in the past. I tried Amitriptyline once but it didn’t work so well for me.

Anxiety/depression have less of an effect now than they used to, but part of the reason for that is that I’m now self-employed. I found that full-time employment tended to exacerbate them both, and it was often difficult to talk to bosses etc. about what I was feeling. For some reason, it’s not as accepted to take days off for mental health issues as it is to for physical health.

I think that anxiety and depression still have an impact on my life, particularly in how I go about my day to day business. I don’t like leaving the house much, for example. And I tend to feel safer/better when I’m able to follow my productivity routine and to get some writing done.

To stay well, I tend to use a whole range of little tricks. For example, if I start to feel stressed then I play guitar and sing to vent some steam. If I feel a panic attack coming on, I do some colouring in as it takes my mind off things. I usually tend to feel better if I keep myself as busy as possible.

I think my mental health does inspire creativity, in a way. The two are definitely closely linked. If I’m feeling down about my writing skills then it can lead me to feel depressed, and a big deadline can make me anxious. But it also gives me fuel that I can write about – for example, I’ve written poems about anxiety and given characters a little bit of anxiety here and there.

I think you have to remember that your mental health doesn’t define you. You should never be ashamed of it. Ultimately, you have to put your mental wellbeing first, and it’s more important than your career. But that’s not always easy to remember.

I actually find that my mental health conditions often either inspire my writing or at the very least writing can take my mind off things. I usually find that if I keep as busy as I can, the anxiety doesn’t settle in as much because my mind is too busy.

When that doesn’t work, I’ve found that colouring in works pretty well – and so does sticking a comedy on, especially when it’s something that you’ve seen plenty of times before. The depression is a little harder to deal with – you just have to sort of do your best to overcome it, and I often go to sleep if it’s particularly bad.

The good thing about writing and being creative is that it’s often not something that you turn on and off – you can usually force yourself to keep writing. It just might not be particularly good.

@danecobain // amazon // goodreads // danecobain.com

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