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Writer and bassist Tommy Stewart gives a searingly honest interview about his mental health struggles and creative processes.
‘Illumination’ is a new series that explores the relationship between mental illness and creativity. I’m interviewing people engaged in art, music, theatre and many more creative avenues and inviting them to open up about their mental wellbeing and the way their struggles with mental health may inform their work.
If any of the issues discussed in this interview affect you, there are lots of online resources that can help. Visit Mind or the Mental Health Foundation for more information. Alternatively, you can call the Samaritans on 116 123 at any time of the day or night.
Words by Tommy Stewart, as told to Harriet Williamson.
Photo credit: Jake Lewis
Professionally, I’m a ‘journalist’ who works for the BBC. I use the term journalist vaguely because it’s difficult to define what being a journalist actually is in 2017, particularly if you’re working for a huge global news corporation, as I do. I’m fortunate enough to do a job I’ve grafted for and desired since I was about 15, and I’m also lucky in the fact that that role requires enough stimulation to keep me creatively ticking over on a daily basis.
However, on a personal level, I write. I think that’s the only thing I’ve ever been 100% confident in myself that I’m good at, and sometimes it’s my crutch, my most useful coping mechanism when it comes to not completely losing the fucking plot, and surviving. I’ve had things published in zines and online publications, but to be honest, at the moment, I write for myself and my own mental well-being.
However cliché this sounds, it’s not a hobby or a casual interest, it’s just instinctive and imperative to how I function, and it’s been the case since I was in primary school. I sound like fucking Hannah from Girls, but I guess writing is the root of my creative intuition.
I do suffer from fairly severe mental health problems. I was a regular sufferer of sleep paralysis as a child, which at the time I was convinced was a demon who’d took an inconveniently permanent residence within my room. When I was 19, I had my first panic attack on a flight, which triggered anxiety and panic attacks which I’ve suffered from regularly ever-since. After countless therapists, I was told this was due to PTSD, as in I suffer flashbacks and associative hallucinations.
At 27, it’s a fucking pain the arse to be having Fear and Loathing-esc imagery inhabiting your perceptive view when you’re sat at your desk at work. I also suffer from manic depression, and have self-harmed as a result of this. I live with that dog every day, but it’s only the past couple of years I’ve been completely open and unashamed about it, amongst friends, family and colleagues. It’s a relief that I can be self-deprecating and take the piss out of myself about it from time to time.
I’ve been through more therapists than I would dare to bore you with, and have also been on 20mg per day of the anti-depressant Citalopram for the past three years. In terms of staying well mentally via less scientifically conventional methods, probably the most basic and patronising piece of advice that the doctors always give you before throwing random prescriptions at you as you keep knocking on their door, is physical exercise.
I ignored it and had self-destructive disdain for my body for years, but since I’ve started playing football again regularly and walking back from work, I’ve felt a lot better in myself generally. As well as the initial drug-dose adrenaline it gives you for a day or two after which for an addictive class A thrill-seeker, is a great bonus both financially and mentally (yay I don’t need to buy drugs tonight).
It all sounds dead fucking obvious, but it isn’t, because people don’t talk about shit. Since I ‘came out’ about my illness via a Facebook status, I’ve found it a lot easier to talk about it and relate to people with similar conditions. And on a daily basis, I just write about it. I write sloppy poetry, standup routines, spoken word, lyrics, short stories, anything to cope, process and attempt to understand the torturous complexity of it.
I play bass in a band, and have been in bands since I was a teenager, and that’s a double-edged sword in terms of the ‘lifestyle’ that surrounds touring aka excessively using narcotics to distract from reality. On the other hand, it’s productive to make music with pals, be creative and socialise with like-minded people. I sound like a fucking advisory sixth form pamphlet, but there’s some pertinence there.
The impact of my mental health on my creative process is so all encompassing, that I’d say it probably defines it. That’s not to say everything I write is about my mental health, it’s not – I just think it’s the reason I’m able to write, and with the day-to-day suffering, writing is an existential release, a distraction. For instance, if I’ve been romantically fucked-up, rather than seeking some sort of juvenile vengeance*, it’s a lot more productive to write something about it amidst the mist of initial anger. Those sort of etchings usually turn out shit, but it’s immeasurably better than a black eye.
*that’s not to say I’ve never sought out juvenile vengeance in this sort of instance, everyone’s been a dick at some point with exes, me more than most.
Own and utilise your mental health. Strain every ounce of productive and creative material from the darkness it inhabits, from the internal prison it scuttles around in so ruthlessly. Because it’s fucking shit, but if you can survive and cope with it, in a totally contradictory way, it can be a fruitful tool for creativity, which in turn can assist recovery or at least offer some sort of consolation or equilibrium.
Do not feel ashamed if it’s killing your productivity; I’ve gone months without writing because I’m too mentally battered to do fucking anything, never mind try to function artistically. It can come and go in waves and abstract patterns, but when you feel like jumping on the horse, fucking ride it baby.
Also, here is something I wrote about falling in love with someone through the commonality of mutually grieving someone, before realising it was fabricated and disguised by that fraudulent fate, and we were in actuality each other’s temporary crutches:
“…The cut thrust nature of rushed assimilation, is exponentially more fulfilling and overwhelmingly, pejoratively, 51% majority, more devastating and blunderbuss heart-breaking than any exit poll or neo-Nostradamus may attempt to foresee or predict…
…In the vacuous void dagger penetration, reactive self-interrogations, suicidal insinuations that transpire from grief’s bloody mire, irrationality is king…
…With the shadow of nostalgia, and the 4am terrorist insomnia, a date at the dulcimer seems a perennially beautiful idea, a way to inhabit then crucify those insipid fears, that lays separately, but between you and me we’ll have another beer…
…Warning signs are fine because signs are merely a reason to do something consequentially not right. But it felt right. It still feels right. But mutuality in feelings cannot be exclusively healing, if I want you, and you do not want me, if the sky is no higher than the ceiling, if this to me is true, if this to you is bleak…
…Love is a bastard who left me plastered on infinite occasions across the bedroom floor. Where the light behind the curtain, feels so daunting and uncertain, but the knife on my wrist makes me feel more…
…Judas and Brutas and Oswald the shooter, traits of betrayal disguised in dead eyes, honesty and jealousy are close to being enemies, but comedic tragedy ensues when they co-align…
…It’s better to admit, to be clear, to not let tears dictate that we’re stuck amidst the mist, the uncertain convicts locked in a Horwitz, an insufferable conclusion, a limbo that won’t go beyond a false collusion, an illusion, idealism of potential persecution…”