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.
Here’s an interesting thing I’ve noticed about myself – when it comes to getting shit done, I am binary. I will either plough through the to-do list, gleefully ticking things off and high fiving myself for my efficiency and dedication to the project at hand, or I will resist, resist, resist and do anything and everything but the project at hand, stress levels rising by the hour and procrastination manifesting as actual physical discomfort. The voice of reason says ‘just go and bloody do it,’ while the monkey on my shoulder says ‘look, over there, more stuff that will be infinitely more gratifying right now than the stuff you actually have to do.’ The monkey is particularly vocal when said ‘stuff’ involves more than one task, or something that will need to be done over a matter of days or weeks.
The rational part of our brain knows that it would be much better to sit down now and get the task out of the way. At school, it was this part of my brain that exhorted me to get the damn English essay out of the way as soon as I got home. Monkey had other ideas, though. Fuck that, it’s Friday, the essay can wait. Friday would turn into Saturday, Saturday would turn into Sunday and before you know it it’s egg sambos for tea, Murder She Wrote is on the telly, the feckin’ essay is still not written and I have a horrible feeling in the pit of my stomach as I am in no more mood to write a bloody essay than I am to clean the dog poo out of the yard. Why didn’t I just get it done on Friday? Gahhhhhhh!
As a mature and, very occasionally, organised adult, I have learned a thing or two about how to deal with the procrastination monkey, and I share these things with you now, my fellow procrastinators, in the hope that they will bring a little more flow to the process of Getting Shit Done.
Tip 1. Do a little exploration around why it is you might be procrastinating – it may well be that the task is onerous and you just can’t be arsed, or it may be that there’s something a little deeper at play. Is there some fear around getting the task done? And remember, it could be fear of success as much as fear of failure? In the case of either, ask yourself what’s the worst that could happen and how you will handle it. Digging a little deeper around the reasons for your procrastination will help you understand what you need to work through before you get started.
Tip 2. Get all other distractions off the list first of all. Diving into a big project requires clarity of thought and real focus, so if there are loads of other niggly things taking up headspace, get the buggers out of the way before you begin on the bigger project. Sit down and make a list of all the things that can easily be ticked off and just plough through them. This will shift the energy into one of ‘preparedness’ and remove any distractions. I just need to do X, Y, or Z before I can get started is a great way of never getting started. So deal with X, Y and Z promptly and then don’t go looking for A, B or C.
Tip 3. Have a good old brainstorm around the task or project, using mind mapping software or an old-fashioned sketchpad and Crayolas! Put the name or theme of the project in the centre and just start riffing on all the things that might be involved. This helps your brain to start seeing the project as a set of ideas or tasks that you can get to grips with rather than one big overwhelming project that is, frankly scaring the bejaysus out of you.
Tip 4. Break it down into easily manageable chunks. This is the process I find the most useful and the one I always come back to when resistance really kicks in. As an example, creating my 8 week Into the Spotlight programme was something that was seriously scaring the bejaysus out of me, however, after completing step 3 and, in particular step 4, the fear began to dissipate and the physical discomfort associated with that fear abated as well. I broke the tasks down into a series of totally achievable sub tasks and gave myself a high five for things like: ‘Research and choose the best camera to record videos with.’ Task ticked off, go have wine!
Tip 5. Set the timer on your phone for 30 minutes or get yourself the 30/30 App. This breaks things down into 30-minute intervals for you and is a great way of helping you to get into action mode. Doing something for 30 minutes and just giving it your all is a much sweeter pill to swallow than the idea of sitting down at the desk and slogging away ineffectively for hours on end. Once you start, you’ll find the natural momentum of ‘doing’ begins to take over and you may not even want to stop at 30 minutes.
Tip 6. Get yourself an accountability buddy and tell them not to let you off the hook. If you really and truly want to get something done and you know you have a habit of ‘going easy’ on yourself, phone a friend or family member, publicly declare your intentions and ask them to kick your butt if you don’t make shit happen.
Now go forth and be a truly terrible procrastinator!
p.s. I happen to be a darn good accountability buddy, and am very good at kicking butt while gently coaxing you to brilliance. Click here if you’d like to know more about working with me.
Having landed back down to earth with a resounding bump after a magical few days at Bestival last weekend, I’ve been mulling over something that Oli Sim of The XX said during their beautiful set on the Castle Stage last Saturday night. As thousands of fans gathered under the full moon to share in The XX experience (my God, those ethereal vocals), he took the time to thank everyone for being there and reflected that the ritual of coming together to enjoy music, connect with each other and create these special moments was more important now than ever before. ‘We are living in scary times,’ he said, and the gift of music and creativity in helping us to maintain that increasingly elusive connection cannot be underestimated.
Oli, I couldn’t agree more.
Festivals are, of course, about warm beer, sleeping fitfully and uncomfortably (if at all) in hastily erected tents, and, given the British weather, sliding through rivers of welly sucking mud that threaten to send you arse over elbow with every step. But, beyond what the body experiences physically, the festival weekend offers the soul something that, I agree, we are all in need of and searching for right now – genuine connection with our fellow human beings. Those moments when you glance across to the stranger on your left, dancing with abandon in the mud, and smile – the expression on your face saying, ‘Fuck me, could this set get any better?’ The stranger returns the smile, no words are exchanged and none are needed, but you both know that for the two of you, right here, right now there is nowhere else you would rather be. Music, the people who make it, the people who play it and the people who bring these artists together have the power to create these ephemeral moments when it doesn’t matter who that stranger is, what they do or where they come from; all that matters is how grateful you are for the DJ or artist you’ve gathered to listen to and how good their music sounds in these magical surroundings. And in that split second, you have connected with someone who shares your gratitude
My own experience of Bestival 2017 was a special one. Maybe it’s my age, maybe it’s the fact that in my heart I knew this would more than likely be the final hurrah, but I was very conscious of how this incredible gathering of creative souls and seekers, the music, the colour, the laughs, and the surprises all helped to bring me back to myself and remind of what’s important in life. I had become very serious, very focused on work, growing my business, being ‘successful’ and all the things I feel I’m supposed to be as an entrepreneur. I had forgotten that I am someone who smiles a lot and loves a belly laugh, someone who enjoys meeting and interacting with new people, someone who can get into the spirit of the glitter and sequins (while still wearing a sensible parka to keep the wind at bay), and most importantly, someone who is at heart a dancer, and needs music and dance in her life in order to feel sane and balanced and whole. I had also forgotten that my husband and I used to have conversations that weren’t about bills and school fees and house renovations; that we love to hold hands and just enjoy wandering happily through the mud wherever the music might take us, the pressures of our working lives on ice for a precious 48 hours. And I had forgotten that I really fucking love techno!
So, to all the music makers, and the brave and courageous promoters who bring them together, build the stages, plan the schedules, pray that the rain holds off, and do this year in year out, despite the monstrous amount of work and stress involved – thank you from all of us who have experienced ‘The Magic Of The Festival.’ We really do need it now more than ever.
Scrolling through my Facebook feed and following the ugly events that are unfolding in Virginia right now, it’s hard not to feel a sense of despair, anger and helplessness. No, it’s not my country, but this is my world, and as a human being and parent deeply concerned about the direction this world is headed in, I believe we have a collective responsibility to speak up and join what needs to be a global conversation. It’s all too easy to shrug the shoulder and abdicate all responsibility, arguing that this is a US problem, but therein lies the insidious viaduct through which this hatred spreads. By remaining silent we become complicit. By refusing to dig really deep on our own (often privately held) beliefs or assumptions, and questioning where those beliefs came from, what continues to propagate them and how we, by a process of osmosis, pass them on to our children, we allow this powerful and dangerous venom to gather pace, to become a tidal wave that will continue to drag angry people into its devastating current.
Charlottesville is just one more headline. There have been so many over the past few years that we are literally becoming immune, our eyes glazing over and brains refusing to engage with the horror. The world is hurting right now and our bloody history would appear to have taught us nothing. And, perhaps even more worrying, as we look to global leaders to help us find the answers, to steer us back to the path of progress, we are left with very few, if any, guiding lights.
However, I do also believe that change is afoot, and for every person who chooses to remain neutral and not engage in the uncomfortable debates of our time, there is another who is too damn furious to remain silent. This is when we must do our jobs as people who make art. The writers must write, the painters must paint, the photographers must capture the essence of a movement through the probing lenses of their cameras. Do whatever it is you need to do in order to provoke these necessary debates, the debates that matter to you, whether they are about race, about children living in poverty in the wealthiest countries of the world, about how we are slowly but systematically destroying our planet and the creatures that inhabit it, about the lack of adequate mental healthcare for your best friend who is sinking into the darkest abyss as a result. Create from your heart; there is no other place to create from. Communicate from the depths of your soul. Use your gift to be an agent of change. Gather your tribe and shout loudly about the crimes you refuse to be an accomplice to. Your contribution might feel small, you might question its significance, you might feel disempowered and hopeless. Honestly, I feel all of these things, but I also truly believe that every single thing we do that contributes in some way to continuing and progressing the narratives around these hugely important topics is valid and is necessary. Art is valid and is necessary. Making people laugh, dance, think, engage reflect, and question, even if it’s just for a moment in the madness of their day, is valid and is necessary and you, as a creative person can and do have a role to play in our collective healing, in our evolution as a species who give the vaguest fuck about our fellow human beings.
The Revolution is coming and it will be creative, so be brave and lend your talent where it’s needed.