Adapt to Survive - Illness & Creativity
(There's a 2nd part over here)
This morning I received another email regarding auditions for puppeteers. Inside I do a little sigh and mentally put it in the list of other auditions, festival applications and Phd scholarships that I’ve been made aware of and of which I know I cannot do.
Sounds a wee bit defeatist and/or dramatic doesn’t it? And it kind of is. I apologise for that. Maybe I need to provide a bit of context.
Since April 2015, I have had chronic nausea almost every single day. It doesn’t help in the slightest that I also have a pretty bad phobia of vomiting or Emetophobia as Google reliably tells me. Together they’ve proved a pretty fearsome foe for both my body and my long diagnosed Generalised Anxiety Disorder (Have I mentioned I have anxiety?). I’ve done what I can to get to the bottom of why I feel nauseous. I’ve seen a Gastroenterologist, a private GP, my psychiatrist, have had a number of blood tests, an ultrasound and an MRI and so far a certain cause hasn’t been found. Some doctors say it’s my anxiety, others (including my psychiatrist) say that it must has a physical cause… Although now we’re back to my anxiety, but not my anxiety exactly, but the legacy of having lived with it for15 years…
...It’s been confusing...
I don’t know what this is and I have a feeling I won’t be finding out for a little while. All I know is that I feel sick most of the time, sometimes can’t sleep, haven’t been able to eat properly, have lost about 1 1/2 stone in weight and I am exhausted.
It’s also had a big impact on my career as a working creative, and my life outside of that.
I am performer who specialises in puppetry, I make puppets, I make theatre, I write, I sometimes advise, I help keep two companies chugging along, I create bespoke workshops for children. However, it’s come to the point where I don’t feel capable of doing any of that. I’ve had to put aside my work with children, the only thing getting me through a performance is a Buccastem 1, I can’t remember the last time I went to see a show (by friends or by strangers) and I’m finding it increasingly difficult to attend meetings with collaborators and colleagues. On one hand, I’m burnt out (This is technically a rest day my partner has insisted on) and on the other, I just can’t bear letting anyone down or letting commitments slide. That is very important to me.
Something has got to give; It it is getting to the point where the situation feels hopeless and I question making the effort to even go to the shops in case a stomach churning bout of nausea kicks in, let alone standing in front of an audience in an already naturally nerve-wracking dimension in time and space that we call performance. The lows I have been feeling have been crushing and the highlights of my weeks usually come from the few hours I don’t feel like I may just throw up.
I am often uncertain about a lot of things, (that’s what having an anxiously wired brain will do to you.)2 however, one thing I know for certain is that I am an insufferable creative. Whether it be making theatre, designing puppets or thinking of a clever flavour combination for a cake. This is what I have to do because I can’t help but create. It’s kind of all I can do. I can’t even do maths in my head.
I have been quite hesitant about writing this and I have put it off for a few months (partly because sometimes I’m far too beat to). Admitting I’m not well enough to make or perform work on a regular basis (especially when I have a handful of performing dates getting steadily closer), that I’m not reliable, that I would struggle to handle a whole week of rehearsal is not the best impression to make. I can’t help but wonder if I would be asked ‘If you can’t handle it, why should you be doing it? 3 Will I damage what career I have by writing and publishing an honest blog post about my illness when I’m unsure if/when it will get better?
I think that the art I make - specifically theatre - is about honesty. Even if that’s being honestly deceptive. Anything not honest doesn’t really do it for me. My shows are honest, my process is honest, even my puppets are honest in a very meta way (which I’ll get to another time). So I’m going to risk being very bloody honest and hope there is some sort of integrity in it.
But now for the not so defeatist part. I’m not about to give up on being creative. Even though there have been some pretty low moments where I have considered that maybe a career in the arts is something out of reach, I don’t think I ever could give up my creativity. Now is the time that I have to have a rethink: what, why, where, who and how I make work if I’m to survive as a creative.
Besides, creativity is inherently about problem solving. So I should be able to figure this out, right?
(Also I just bought a subscription to Squarespace and I’m not letting this website be a relic of stuff I used to do)
So the question I want to ask is this: How do I continue to be creative when I feel debilitated by illness?
First I want to look at the situation as a whole but I’ll be focusing, personally, from a mental health perspective, mostly because that is how I understand it. Even though what I’m feeling is physically debilitating it’s not physically disabling. I can’t really say anything on that side of things (although I’d love to hear from anyone that has something to say). Also my mental health has been something I have been constantly had to either struggle or negotiate with. Even if this sickness fades, in 10/15 or even 20 years I will still have Generalised Anxiety Disorder.
Unless someone comes up with a cure. Because that would be great.
From my experience, particularly of the theatre and fringe industry, It’s become blanket stereotype that us artists struggle. It’s almost as if we have to. The tortured writer/painter/performer is balancing between trope and cliche. A quick Google search will reveal reams of research particularly about the link between mental illness and creativity.
And if I’ve learnt anything in life is that I’m definitely not the only one feeling or going through something like this.
In the space of sitting down an hour or so ago and bashing out this first draft, a distracted little trip onto Facebook has revealed this blog from the Royal Shakespeare Company about anxiety and performance from one of their actors Byron Mondahl. Reading it, I almost had to brush away a tiny storm of anxiety in my chest because it resonated. It resonated HARD.
“There is always this awful shame that arises,” goes Mondahl, “Like somehow you are weak. That you need to hide everything you are going through. When everyone sees or experiences just how weak you are, then they will not want to cast you again and there is this feeling that your career is over. Each panic attack feels like dying anyway. The shame is the awful added bonus.”
Okay, so yeah, we really need to be talking about this. (And you should really have a look at Mondahl’s blog post, it’s bloody brilliant)
This kind of shame and self-stigma is, however, still pretty endemic for anyone with some sort of mental health disorder or issue. It can come from no outside influence, it’s just assumptions we ourselves make. This self-stigma is so common to anxiety disorders that I’d almost see it as a symptom in-and-of itself. I’ve seen some awesome and incredible taboo smashing happening around me as I’ve grown from a teenager to an adult, but there’s still a long way to go.
We shouldn’t be ashamed the conditions we have or being honest about them. I understand how a severe episode of illness can halt a production… but I didn’t specify here what kind of illness. Both Mental and Physical illness need to be seen in the same light. And an episode of either should not be seen as the end of a career. No one worries about their long term employment prospects because of two week stomach virus. Everyone understands that’s beyond your control.
I’m being a bit glib here. Illness’ are more complicated than that and, yes, physical illness and injury can derail a career; a broken ankle could resonate disaster for a dancer.
However, there’s plenty of times I feel I would have got more understanding (and it’s understanding not sympathy I’m looking for here) if I had sprained my ankle then when I had a blistering panic attack the night before a performance.
So illness and injury can disrupt a career. But chronic illness should not be a barrier for creativity. Theatre needs to be accessible to all, including us mentals… I mean people who have a long-term chronic condition.
If there’s one thing that drama folk understand its high emotions and personal struggle. We get taught to mine our own personal experience to find it. We’re mad for it! But the industry we work in is also bloody cut-throat and doesn’t take any prisoners. Which is a weird place to be when your emotional thermostat is sometimes set too high or too low. We feel obliged to be honest about ourselves but can be left feeling that if we say anything too honest we might hinder the work, we run the risk of being looked at as slowing things down or vying for personal attention. At worst it could be perceived as admitting we’re not good enough to be here and maybe someone else should be.
In my short time as a performer I’ve been told that if I wasn’t burnt out I wasn’t trying hard enough, that I needed to get used to the stress etc. But I also got the advice to talk to people about how I felt, that my health was more important and that taking time off was fine. That I would learn not to care so much about what people thought. Those different pieces of wisdom don’t really feel like they fit together but I know which one I’d rather listen to and follow.
We all need to support each other, especially those of us who fall on the bad to hellish side of the mental health spectrum because we’re very bad at supporting ourselves when times get hard. Which doesn’t mean telling me to “calm down” or “just chill out”. It doesn’t mean suggesting “this great new book on mindfulness”. And it doesn’t mean telling me to try to eat more or less of this particular food. That’s not the kind of support I’m looking for because it doesn’t take long to find these kind of suggestions on the internet. I’ve already looked for them!
To anyone who is finding it difficult, even if it’s one spot of panic before going on stage or a bout of depression during a 3 month research and development job, there is one phrase that, in my experience, has the power to make us reflect on what we need. Whether it’s coming from yourself or members of your support network or your current ensemble.
“What can I do to make this easier?”
Because that’s what we want to be asked. For our issue to be acknowledged and for a solution to be found that makes everyone comfortable. We want to use our creativity to help ourselves and the ones around us. For some reason we need to be asked, we need to be reminded that we have creativity and a drive to use.
We need the chance to use our creativity to come up with a solution.
That question isn’t going to solve the whole problem or stop people being ground down by whatever mental distress they’re going through. But it’s a start and it’s what I can offer in this whole discussion.
I think all of us in the industry know that feeling of a performance about to start and the way your stomach jumps and churns, your heart beating like a hummingbird, the tidal wave of what-ifs. I’m not even focusing on performers here. I’m sure all members of the industry from directors, writers, techies have had, at one point thought, “What if this doesn’t work?” Hell, I’ve thought of that as an audience member watching my friends and loved ones perform.
That feeling is what anxiety is but all the time. 1 in 10 people in the general population of the UK having at some point in their lives. I’m 1 of those 1 in 10 and if I’m doing this performance malarky then there’s more of us out there.
I may have to try to see my current condition and situation as an opportunity, even if it’s one roughly thrust upon me. An opportunity to examine and adapt how I work and how I approach collaboration. An opportunity to embrace my work ethic and drive. It’s a chance for creativity to really do its work and ask “If this doesn’t work, then what does?”
I would love to hear from anyone in the arts with an anxiety disorder, any mental health condition or, you know, ANY condition that you find gets in the way of your creativity or career. Lets talk about how you manage to keep on going.
You can Tweet me @TinyPuppetApe or message me through my Facebook page
I’d love to have that discussion, especially if I can’t get up and have finished reading all the books in my flat.
I’ve realised I haven’t really answered my question here in this blog and it’s still one I want to answer. There’s a handful of solutions I can see as a way forward, not for the industry but certainly at least things I want to identify and try for myself.
But I’m tired now, my eyes are drooping slightly and the nausea is gnawing. I can’t quite get comfortable on my sofa. So I’m going to have a little break and hopefully come back to this.
Sorry to flake out on you like this…
I would also like to take this little bit of the internet to thank my theatre partner, best friend and fiancé Calum Anderson, who has ridden most of this journey with me and has offered me nothing but kindness, patience, acceptance and love.
1. A medication usually given to people who have nausea and vomiting associated with migraine and not something I can take on a daily basis.
2. In fact, I recently listened to a episode of the fantastic Harmontown, featuring writer and fellow anxious person Dan Harmon who explains how his therapist has warned him that when, in particular, he’s ‘certain’ about something it should be a red flag for him. (Take a listen to the podcast if you’re not adverse to swearing, Dungeon’s and Dragons or raps about matriphilia It’s his anxiety convincing him with something incorrect. This resonated with me and will probably ferment away n my brain and allow me to catch some cognitive errors. So, an anxious person can be uncertain about certainty. Figures. However, in the case of creativity the collection of devised performances, puppets and drama degrees kind of back me up.
3. I’m sure I’d suffer the same in one of those ‘proper jobs’ I’m reminded I should have and I will feel just as unwell seeing a friend or going for a coffee. It’s not a question of just being in a energy-consuming profession like the arts