Method in my madness: Mental Illness, Creativity and Jelly Snakes
“Painters, musicians, writers, and dancers are, on average, 25% more likely to carry the gene variants [for depression] than professions the scientists judge to be less creative”
I’ve started to write this blog post several times and then I've hit delete as soon as I got past the first paragraph. Don’t go there. Don’t talk about mental health. It’s weird that this subject is still taboo – an illness that’s been scientifically researched, and a pretty common illness at that. One in four will experience mental illness at some point in their lives, it’s time we prepared ourselves a little better and started talking about it like we do when we get any other illness. It’s somehow more acceptable for someone to say they’re taking antibiotics for the boil on their arse. But antidepressants? Don’t go there.
I’ve connected with lots of other creative professionals over the last couple of years and of those a high number have revealed they battle with some form of mental illness. Some are open, even using it as subject matter for their work, others have spoken quietly or subtly shared posts about mental health on social media repeatedly. Of course I’m not suggesting that all people who work in the creative industry have mental illness, nor that those from other industries don't suffer, just that it seems to be more common. Can we use this for good in our work? Can we become better professionals despite it and even because of it?
I’d just like to point out I’m now on paragraph three. I’m doing good. (Bear with me, people with mental illness have to encourage themselves, because no one else talks about this.).
When I was first diagnosed with mental ilness I felt a little angry that someone had tagged me with these labels, as though I was re-entering the world with a flashing neon sign on my head that said ‘watch out, nutter on the loose.’ I mean, I still laughed at bad jokes and played with my kids and met all my deadlines, what was the problem? Perhaps it was the fact that I had hallucinations, thought I was Medusa and then proceeded to weave jelly snakes in my hair and hiss at the neighbours. You thought I was serious for a moment then, didn’t you? But seriously, when did we start thinking people with mental illness weren’t just going around their day to day lives like nothing was wrong? When did we start thinking they couldn’t do day to day tasks like shopping and DIY and cooking without balling their eyes out? Can we not start talking about this like we do about the having the flu? One in four, remember. That’s a hell of a lot of people with jelly snakes tied to their heads.
Paragraph four (I'm doing okay, I'm now craving jelly snakes, but I'm on paragraph four). The fact is I talk about mental health to very few people. There will be people reading this who will likely be quite surprised, but to me hearing a diagnosis wasn't suprising - deep down I noticed I was different from as early as five years old, but it was this moment where I now had to accept it as opposed to fight against it, as I do with everything else in my life that's not right. Fighting this monster, for me, has been too exhausting, I came to a place where I knew I had to train it instead. But it still did not come easily when someone uttered those labels at me. Those labels and the stigma surrounding them is the reason I’ve deleted so many versions of this post – I don't want people to misinterpret this as being unprofessional or assume I'm incompetent, or worse that people feel they somehow have to walk on egg shells around me. To date I’ve not missed a deadline, or handed in work that’s below par, or had a hissy fit that Tesco ran out of jelly snakes (see what I did there). That’s not to say that mental illness can’t affect those things, or that I don’t find some areas of my life a real challenge, but just that I’m still living a relatively ‘normal’ life. I have good days and bad. I’m getting help. For some it is far more severe, for others less so, but the fact is that we don’t talk about it for fear of being put in a box, or being told we're attention seeking and we just need to pull our socks up.
Paragraph five (I'm getting uncomfortable now, but this might just help a lot of people, so I'm hanging in there). My own battles have been like a double edged sword. Though my brain is on overdrive, I often notice things that others don’t, and often these things are a great source of ideas. Though I sometimes feel great sadness, I also feel great highs and I connect with people on a deeper level and with great empathy. It gives me a humanity I’m grateful for and a deeper understanding of the human condition. My anxiety makes me conscientious and diligent in my work. But I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. While people say how lucky I am to have a creative brain, I often think how lucky they are not to. For me I cannot unlink my creativity with these conditions, they are one and the same. I often wonder if it were more acceptable to think a little differently whether the battles that many creative people face would feel less of a hurdle.
For those of you who are wary of people with mental illnesses, here are some of the things that people with mental illness CAN still do: Produce good work, meet deadlines, form good relationships, be professional, be rational, handle criticism, be fun to be around, be empathetic, be healthy, be leaders, be confident, be good at public speaking, be great listeners, learn new things, apply for jobs, be good at sport, eat jelly snakes without pretending to be Medusa….
I could go on. I’m not being flippant about those who may have struggled severely with any those things, but my point is that we need to stop jumping to conclusions about what someone with mental illness is like. People who struggle with mental illness are from all different walks of life, it's not always a result of something bad happening or an unfortunate life situatuon. You don’t have to talk to people with mental illness like children or assume people with depression aren’t capable of doing their jobs without sobbing over the 3D printer.*
*You have a 3D printer?! You have NO right to be depressed (just kidding).
Some people joke that sufferers are simply jumping on the mental illness bandwagon to avoid all responsibilities and get some sort of sympathy, yet I know very few sufferers who are like this and, if anything, most are too diligent, take on too many responsibilities and try to disguise their illness at all costs for fear of judgement. With one in four who may be affected, it's all the more important that workforces are finding ways of supporting one another in order to have a happier and more productive workforce. This isn't just about helping people with illness but considering how developing better mental wellbeing benefits the workforce on the whole.
Here are some of the things that I’ve found helpful:
- Write small achievable lists of important things for the day and tick them off. (Be content not to do any more.)
- Take a nap. Take a shower. I feel like those things kind of reset your brain and I always think clearer, a bit like starting again. Admittedly those things are hard to do if you don’t work flexible hours or don't have a shower in the office…
- Make sure you don’t work hungry.
- Do stuff despite it: Have a panic attack. Take a deep breath. Go give your presentation anyway. I’m not being flippant, I know how hard that is, and it doesn’t always work out, but for me thinking how I feel after I’ve done something is a big incentive to keep going.
- Be kind to yourself.
- When you’re around people, choose good ones.
- Be an encourager. You will notice that when you genuinely encourage other people, it takes the focus off you and how you feel about yourself or your work. They get encouraged and you feel encouraged as a result. It’s this weird edifying little circle.
- Accept that you think differently and use it to your advantage - work out your best times of day, how you work on projects better, how much space you need etc.
- Call a spade a spade. You know deep down when a thought isn’t healthy, call it out for what it is. You’ve not failed because you thought it again. Don’t give up.
- Take the piss out of your mental illness. When you hear those negative voices, do a little mental dance and stick your fingers up (or a real dance for that matter, but not in Tesco, you wouldn’t want people thinking you’re crazy now would you?!).
- Don’t spend too long on social media. Stop comparing your work/life to others. Read a book or write instead. Writing has been an unbelievable help to me.
- Find someone to talk to and don't be afraid to be honest.
- Find someone/something to listen to: music, birds, someone funny.
- Get outside. Walk. Run. Climb a mountain.
- Make a wig out of jelly snakes.
If you’re reading this then I wrote the full blog post. Then I clicked publish. Shit.
This post was ironically written on Mental Health Awareness week (I didn't realise), hence why I was actually prompted to click publish. If you are battling with mental illness there are lots of ways you can get help. Please check out https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk