October 11th was World Mental Health Day and, as I scrolled through my Facebook feed and read posts from some of my friends and acquaintances brave enough to reflect on their struggles with mental health, it got me thinking about my own, and the crucial role that creative expression plays in keeping me somewhere even vaguely on the right side of sane. I wanted to write this blog post closer to the time, but at the same time, I didn’t. Though the logical part of my brain fervently believes that mental health is an issue that needs to be acknowledged and talked about in a frank and open manner, there is also a part of me that has been deeply ashamed and embarrassed by my own struggles with a condition that, I believe, has reached crisis level in Western society.
My first major tussle with The Black Dog, The Darkness, The Noises In My Head, The Disappearance of Jude As We Know Her, or, if you will, plain old depression (a word I still struggle with) took place in 2004. I was 27 and living with two friends in a rather smart apartment in Dundrum, a suburb just outside Dublin city centre. In order to pay the rent on this rather smart apartment, I found myself working a lot of double shifts in a big and brassy burgers and steaks joint in the city, and was not what you’d call scaling the ladder of success at this point in my life. I had recently returned from London with a lot of debt from drama school and was trying to get my acting career off the ground while waitressing to cover the bills and make some inroads into paying off said bloody debts.
Here’s the thing about waitressing and bar work; it’s one of the few things a creative person can do that offers the flexibility we need in order to be readily available for auditions/rehearsals/recording sessions, and to boot, it can be relatively lucrative if you work in a busy restaurant where the tips are good. On the flip side, it can be so bloody exhausting and bad for the natural rhythms of your body – particularly if you work in a late night venue – that pretty quickly, you can find yourself getting sucked into the awful routine of getting to bed when other people are getting up then sleeping for most of the day and getting bugger all done before you traipse back into town for your next exhausting shift. To be fair, I think there probably is a way to juggle both lives sensibly, I just never found that way.
About six months into this routine it began to dawn on me that I had become more waitress than actress, working all the hours the restaurant would give me as punishment for my ‘failures’ as a creative person. And it became a vicious cycle. I was so tired and uninspired, not doing anything at all to feed my creative soul beyond going to my favourite independent cinema on my mid week days off, that I began to drift further and further away from my creative life and the people who inhabited it. I lost all motivation and eventually my life became one of work as much as I possibly could, sleep my days away as I couldn’t get out of bed before lunch time, and eat crap food or endless bowls of cereal because I couldn’t be arsed cooking.
And then came the crash.
Trying to describe depression to someone who has never experienced it is much like trying to explain childbirth to a man, because I honestly don’t think there are any words that can adequately convey the sense of utter hopelessness, despair, darkness, confusion, sadness, complete loss of self, and fear that become the omnipresent spectres in your life when you’re in the thick of it. My depression went something like this:
Wake up some time after mid-day having spent most of the night awake. Check in with self and sink further beneath the duvet as the familiar sense of dread comes thundering towards me, permeating every cell of my body. This was also accompanied by what I can only describe as the cacophonous noise of somebody clattering 25 pots right beside your earhole. It was horrendous. I tried explaining it to my Dad once. ‘Are you sure you don’t have tinnitus,’ was his response. (I’m pretty sure I did have that too, as I worked in a restaurant where the music was played so loud it must have bordered on illegal.) But the clattering in my head was so much more than tinnitus, and it continued throughout the day until, eventually, I found fleeting relief in a few hours of fretful sleep.
Sense of dread firmly established, battle with self continues for at least another hour before finally hauling ass out of bed and shuffling on dressing gown. Flat mate number 1 worked in finance so was out of the apartment as I was just about to fall asleep, and flat mate number two worked in an antique’s shop, so I usually had the apartment to myself to ghost about in until it was time to go to work.
Pad mindlessly into the kitchen to make self some breakfast. Toast or cereal, toast or cereal, toast or cereal, toast or cereal, Jesus Christ the decision might just be the end of me. I’ll come back later and decide.
Pad around the apartment for another hour or so, wandering from the living room to the bathroom, to my bedroom. Where is Jude? Is she in here? No, not there. Maybe she’s in here? No, not there either. Where is she? What has happened to her? Collapse onto bed and cry, jagged, awkward, gasping sobs. Feel better? No. Not even tears bring relief. Look at that pile of dirty clothes. Should really pick them up and put them in the wash basket. Really should but really can’t.
Back to the living room. Perhaps some daytime TV will silence the pots for a while then I’ll decide what to have for breakfast – toast or cereal, toast or cereal, toast or cereal, toast or cereal. Flick through channel after channel looking for something that might chase the dread away, if only for a moment. A moment is all I need, enough to convince me that Jude is still there somewhere, not stuck in the bottom of this deep dark hole, desperately looking up towards the light. Calling out to me. Come and find me, come and help me out, I can’t see, it’s dark down here. She tries to scrabble up the side of this hole, hands reaching out towards me, pleading with me to pull her up and out of this misery. The other Jude looks down; paralyzed, disconnected, exhausted. I’m sorry, I don’t know how to help you.
There’s nothing wrong with you, there’s nothing wrong with you, there’s nothing wrong with you, there’s nothing wrong with you, there’s nothing wrong with you…
But clearly there was something very wrong, or, at the very least, many miles away from right.
Things came to a head in Boots on Grafton St, where I had gone to buy some shampoo before my shift in the restaurant that evening. I stood in front of the rows of colourful shiny bottles, all promising to add volume, shine, texture, control (and whatever you’re having yourself) to my crowning glory, and I was completely and utterly crippled and overwhelmed with indecision. The shampoo bottles leered threateningly at me – pick the wrong one and it would be a complete fucking disaster; one I might NEVER recover from.
Choose for fuck’s sake!!!
And then it all just got too much. Big fat, juicy tears streamed down my face and I struggled to catch my breath as the pots clattered hideously in my ear and I stood rooted to the spot, unable to move, unable to choose, unable to string a coherent thought together.
A kind lady asked me if I was OK, was there anything she could do to help. I told her I’d had a tough day and that the shampoo had got the better of me, smiled through the juicy fat tears and walked like a Zombie out of the shop and on to work where I thought I might just die if I had to ask one more person how they wanted their burger cooked. Then I hated myself just a little bit more for being such a self-pitying drama queen.
Sitting in the doctor’s surgery a week later, I was gripped, yet again, by utter panic. What the hell was I going to say to her? How did one explain the pots, the shampoo, the big dark hole, the not being able to pick your dirty knickers off the floor and put them in the washing machine, the almost taking your eye makeup off with nail polish remover? The sheer bloody madness of it all. There were no words for any of it – none that I felt capable of mustering at that time, anyway.
My name was called, I walked through to my GP’s office, took a seat beside her desk, and, within 2 seconds of her asking me what she could do for me today, I burst into tears yet again. And couldn’t stop.
Mercifully, I didn’t need to say too much. She was kind, understanding and matter of fact in a way that I most definitely needed at the time. Don’t worry – you haven’t gone mad, you’re just clinically depressed. Thank God. It has a name, and it’s not ‘pots clattering in the earhole’ syndrome.
13 years later, I have what I would call a healthy respect for my Black Dog. I am mindful of my triggers and the things that can send me spiraling, and over the years I have learned that more than any other contributing factor, I am more likely to tumble into that black hole when my creative soul is being ignored. There is a part of me that longs to create, to make things, to connect with people through performance, to write, to make stories and share some of my own, to dance, to put pretty colours together, to nurture a big idea, and, more recently to help other people do all of these things too. I believe that to ignore our creative souls is to shut down access to the very life force that sustains us, and I also believe, that creative energy that has nowhere to go, no way of being made manifest or expressing itself can be a major contributing factor in myriad mental health issues, not least of them the kinds of depressive episodes I have described above. A creative person needs to have an outlet for that which burns inside them as much as they need air, food, water and sleep.
Today, I have realized that my creative endeavours do not necessarily need to sustain me financially, though I am still most definitely open to the possibility that they some day might! I have realized that I need to be around like-minded people, soaking up and revelling in the magic that bubbles in the ether when a group of people get together and commit to creating something – be that in a rehearsal room, a studio or a workshop. I have also realized that nurturing this creative soul requires discipline and a willingness to carve out time for myself in order to finish the story, or re-write the script for the fourth time, or even just sit in silence and let the story or characters reveal themselves in the space that’s created in that peace.
This is the formula for a well-balanced life, one that allows me to be the wife, mother and friend I want to be, and one that honours the spirit of that little girl who dreamed of one day dancing on a Broadway stage.
Don’t give up on the dreams of your childhood. They are the whisperings of your soul, and when the seas get choppy and the light starts to fade, they will guide you to comfort and strength.