Tag Archives: Anxiety

Picking up from roughly where we left off…

Hello blog, it’s been a while. May is always a bit of a crazy month. I’m not sure whether this is to do with seasonal shift or whether it’s a pattern I learned at school when it was always exam season, but the anxiety and depression always seem to squeeze a little bit tighter in May. It was also the Month of Many Deadlines, so between one thing and another I didn’t get anywhere near WordPress. But here I am now. Hello again.

There are plenty of things I’ve been meaning to write about, but I’ve been in the grip of depressive thinking recently. I get to the stage where I can’t face writing about anything because I’ve got the Demon in my head telling me that no-one is remotely interested and there’s no point in writing. My energy diminishes, so the act of writing out my thoughts becomes considerably harder (I am eternally grateful that I had solid plans to work from for my freelance gigs). It’s a significant danger sign for me, because I am always in the mood to pick apart my own psyche unless I’m getting depressed, and I have to be quite far gone before I lose the will to write.

Which brings me, by means of a completely seamless and not at all clunky segue, to the subject of a quote I see doing the rounds on Facebook. It’s attributed to Dorothy Parker, but I have no idea whether this is accurate and I am being too lazy to check. It goes like this “I hate writing. I love having written.”

Apparently many of my writer/aspiring writer friends agree with this, at least to the point where they’ll re-post it. I see an extreme version of this sentiment in some of my ghostwriting clients, who want their name on a book without the hassle of actually writing it. For me, it’s the other way round. I love writing. I really enjoy the actual process of stringing words together and typing them into my laptop, watching the word count rack up. Writing longhand is even better. There is something so incredibly beautiful about putting ink on a page. I like the sensation of forming letters, I like watching the ink turn from wet to dry. I never write with cheap ballpoints if I can avoid it,  because it’s a waste of an experience. Gel pens, fountain pens, rollerballs – those are delicious to write with. When I learned that my husband had a favourite type of pen, my heart skipped a beat.

When I write, my brain calms down a bit. My head no longer feels like a browser window with dozens of tabs open. My focus narrows. I never get as far as a single tab, whether literally or metaphorically, unless I’m in hyperfocus, but I get closer than when I’m not writing. I create a playlist for each project or I put on a film or a series with the right voices to help me get absorbed in the task. I don’t answer the phone (any excuse). I feel more settled.

Then I finish whatever I’m writing. That’s when we ditch the calm and move onto the storm. Goodbye enjoyable act of crafting words, hello maelstrom of self-doubt and anxiety. That’s when I have to actually read whatever I’ve written and see all the flaws and clunky bits staring back at me. It’s horrible. It’s so much easier when you just don’t finish things, which is why I have a “Bits and Pieces” folder. All my favourite stuff is in there. The half-formed ideas that live in that folder are the best ideas, because I haven’t got round to destroying them yet.

I get over it, of course. When I’m writing for other people I don’t have the luxury of all this anxiety. When it comes to my own work, I freak out a bit more. Especially when I write plays, because then I have to hear what I’ve written at some point. Then I sit in the audience and second-guess the reactions of everyone around me. I do all the things I tell everyone else not to do, like measuring the reactions my piece gets against anything else I’ve seen recently and trying to work out whether I think audiences are the best people to assess my work or whether I think they’ll enjoy anything that’s dressed up the right way. It’s fun. My demons get some healthy (for them) exercise. I get to question the extent to which the demons really live in my head and to what extent they’re part of the tortured artist persona that I love and loathe in shifting measure. (Some days it feels like actual mental health torment, some days it just feels like I’m a bit of a wanker. Both statements are true. Sometimes concurrently. Like I said, fun.)

If I were able to skip straight to “having written” without the actual writing bit, I couldn’t do it. All the anguish and none of the good stuff where I spend days in front of the keyboard, wandering the internet to find the music and snippets that keep my brain ticking over, doing stuff with words? Hell no. The angst! I can only imagine.

The next post will be more upbeat. I wrote a play for the Fringe – my first commissioned play, I get paid for it and everything – and now that it’s had a couple of drafts and there are actors involved I’m starting to like it again.  There are things I’d like to say about it, and I should get in practise before August rolls around and I have to start telling people to go and see it.


Unnamed Road

Well, happy New Year and all that kind of thing – was it a good one? I’m starting 2013 knackered. I can happily stay up until 2 or 3am on a regular basis, but apparently 5am still causes me to suffer through the following day. I might not drink, but you wouldn’t know if you saw me in the grip of a sleep hangover.

Anyway, now that January has started and the festive season is winding up, it’s time to start dragging myself back into some kind of routine. So here I am at 1.43am, avoiding editing by writing blog posts with Back to the Future on in the background.

Last October I had a play on at the Granary as part of Black Dingo’s launch season. Back then I mentioned that I would get round to telling the story behind Lost Love at some point, and since it’s going to be on again in a few weeks this seems like as  good a time as any. (Obligatory plug details: Lost Love is part of the line-up for this month’s Speakeasy, a spoken word event hosted by Jo Caulfield at the Scottish Storytelling Centre on 22 January. Info about Speakeasy here. Booking for this particular event here. Booking is essential, people were getting turned away from the last event.)

Lost Love was the product of one of my mini-frenzies. I was supposed to be writing something else, of course – a deadline was looming large enough to make it necessary that I write, but not yet large enough to ensure that I wrote the thing I was actually supposed to be writing. The voice of the obsessed SatNav started chattering in my head and all of a sudden I had a ten minute play on my desktop.

When you write a play about a sentient electronic device and tell people it’s partly autobiographical they give you funny looks (and rightly so, I suspect) .But it’s true. As far as I know I  have not yet had a SatNav fall in love with me, nor have I been a SatNav. The SatNav-related bit comes from an epic drive through Central London. I was working on a show at the Rosemary Branch in Islington and one of the props required was a barrel. I tracked one down at the National Theatre prop store, which is near the Oval, and set off to collect it.

Driving in Central London for the first time is an experience. I had no idea how the congestion charge worked and didn’t really want to pay it, so I decided to avoid the charge zone. Unfortunately my SatNav was determined that we were going in a straight line, right through the charge zone, and I couldn’t find a way of programming it to go round the outskirts. Instead, whenever I reached a Congestion Charge sign I would just go in whichever direction felt right, causing my SatNav to tell me off in what I felt was an increasingly judgemental tone of voice. I spent about an hour of the journey yelling “you can’t make me” interspersed with various obscenities at the SatNav. I have since learned how to switch off the voice, meaning I can cheerfully ignore it without getting any backchat.

However, the autobiographical bit is actually to do with driving in winter. The SatNav in the play leads its owner into the middle of nowhere on a freezing cold day. When I say that it’s a black comedy, that’s not just a description of the humour but also of the ice. I don’t drive in winter if I can help it because I’m truly terrified of black ice. I’m nervous enough when I’m walking if it’s slippery out, having broken some bones in a fall a few years ago, but driving… No.

My first assistant directing job was in Forres, rehearsing in December. I was staying in a cottage just outside the town. On the second morning of rehearsals I woke up to find that it was snowing. I got in the car and set off for rehearsal. Less than ten minutes later my car was upside down in a ditch and I was lucky to be alive. I managed to get one of the windows open and climbed out, uninjured apart from whiplash. I counted my blessings and got back to driving as soon as the insurance cheque came through.

It wasn’t until the following year that the shock caught up with me. I had moved to London but was back in Edinburgh for Christmas when I got called in for an interview for a job I really wanted. I needed to be back in London by the next day. This happened at about 9pm, right around the time it began to snow… I slithered along the M8 and M77. The gritspitters weren’t out yet (because for some reason the authorities are always taken by surprise when it snows in winter) and the traffic was packing the fallen snow down.

That’s when I realised what a near miss I’d had up in Forres. Claustrophobia set in as I remembered being trapped in my wrecked car, my windscreen pulverised by rock that had narrowly missed my head. My phone had fallen out of my handbag and I couldn’t see it anywhere. As much as I wanted to find it and call for help, my priority was to find a way out. I didn’t let myself consider the possibility that I might not be able to get out. I didn’t consider that at all until that nightmare drive back to London. Then it all came rushing in, all those thoughts about how I could have been trapped on that quiet road, how wrecked cars can catch fire, how cold it was and how long I could have lasted in that cold, how no-one would have known exactly where to look for me when I didn’t show up, how easy it would have been to have got myself killed. Being cold, alone and having no control… I can’t even complete that sentence. When I try all I get is that squirming surge of anxiety, panic takes over and fills my brain with NO and I can’t say anything more coherent. And that’s after therapy.

Put the two together, my experience of using a SatNav and my unfortunately extensive knowledge of car crashes and icy roads, and you get Lost Love. Black humour and lots of Jen anxiety distilled into ten minutes.  At some point I’ll probably write something more serious about the car crashes, but collectively they’re amongst my greatest traumas. Lost Love let me scratch the surface. First I learn to laugh at it, then later I learn to be serious.

And that leads neatly on to the next future post promise. Sooner or later I’ll look at humour as a defence mechanism. But not tonight, because there has to be sleep at some point.


Noting a Broken Pattern

Today (or yesterday, I suppose) I had a really useful meeting with Sandy Thomson, Artistic Director of Bell Rock (formerly Poorboy), in her role as a Cultural Enterprise advisor.

I had gone seeking advice regarding Tightlaced’s structure and legal status, as well as hoping to pick up some tips from an artist who successfully runs a theatre ensemble herself. She gave me lots of information and food for thought regarding company structure and how a co-operative model might work, and she referred me on to other Cultural Enterprise resources for anything she couldn’t help me with herself. (If you’re an artist who doesn’t already know about the Cultural Enterprise Office, READ THIS NOW. Then come back here and finish reading this.)

But just as important as her advice was her support. I don’t get many chances to talk to other artistic directors of methodology-led ensembles. Sandy and I spoke about the possibilities and pitfalls presented by ensemble work and she reminded me that considering my own needs and wants is not only allowed but actually essential.

We talked about the boom and bust patterns that seem so difficult to avoid in the leaders of groups who work this way, which led me to acknowledge a very important milestone that I had allowed to pass unnoticed – even by me.

I have not experienced physical burnout since April.

I know that probably sounds like nothing, but for me it’s major. For years I’ve run on 12-weekly cycles, working flat out for three months at a time and then collapsing with a monster cold/flu-type thing which seems to be the physical manifestation of my exhaustion. I’d take a day or two off if I could (by which I mean I’d keep working but I’d do it from home) then I’d drag myself back up to full speed as quickly as possible.

It was a ridiculously unhealthy attitude, don’t think I don’t know that. I once fractured my coccyx and destabilised a couple of joints and went straight from the ambulance to rehearsal with no time at all to rest. That’s one of the more extreme examples, but at the time I saw it as the obvious thing to do. I started behaving this way because I felt I had to, because there was never enough time to do everything I felt I should be doing, then I kept doing it because I was trapped in the pattern.

This time last year I figured out exactly how destructive my pattern was and made a promise that I would get better. I had just finished Romeo and Juliet and I was ill, yet again. I had been deteriorating for over a month, starting with the usual cold and culminating in a kidney infection. I’d like to say that was my last physical burnout, but despite my promises to myself there was one more to come. I completely overworked myself in March and had one last cold from hell to see me through April.

Since then, though, I’ve been doing well. Even though this has not been an easy year in terms of mental health, where physical health is concerned I’ve been a lot better at maintaining my equilibrium. Even if I’m knocked flat on my back by a cold tomorrow, the fact remains that I have come this far. I paced myself so that I didn’t succumb to Fringe Lurgy. I struggled mentally around the anniversary of my Mum’s death but stayed physically well. I was anticipating burnout after the double bill, but in spite of all the long days, late nights and endless energy being poured into the work, I was still standing afterwards.

As I said, this probably sounds like nothing, but do you know how long it’s been since I went more than twelve weeks without exhausting myself to the point of illness? The last time I can remember was 1995. Seventeen years ago. Something I hadn’t actually stopped and worked out until today. So it’s important to me – the footprint of the first tiny steps in the direction of a healthier approach to work and life.

Sandy talked to me about the importance of reward and recognition, and the fact that recognition is often of equal or greater importance than reward. It felt that was. Something in my mind feels lighter for realising this. Perhaps it’s just the feeling of letting up on myself after many years of berating myself for (ironically enough) being too hard on myself. (I’m sure that sentence could be better constructed and not contain the same word three times, but… welcome to nearly 2am.)

There’s more that came out of the session and I’ll write about that as I work through it. Some will be here, some on the Tightlaced blog. But for tonight, that was the big thing. Thank you Sandy. If nothing else had come out of the session, it would have been worth it for that alone.


A long and frustrated mental health post

Creative Scotland has taken over my blog for far too long. I’m still talking about the latest twists and turns in the saga over on Twitter, but the most recent piece of [headdesk]-worthy action took place while I was caught up with the double bill. Besides, Hannah McGill has been well and truly on the case and I don’t really have anything to say that she hasn’t already covered. I doubt I’ve written my last Creative Scotland post, but there are other things I need to write about just now.

So back to one of my other major topics: The Crazy and how to live with it. It’s that time of year. The dawn simulator has been back on my bedside table for a while. Mornings are just that wee bit harder than in summer (yes, even Scottish summer). And after my last self-sabotaging battle with myself, there’s an alarm set on my phone to remind me to take my antidepressants.

I wish it were as simple as just taking the bloody things, but instead it’s a minor skirmish every time that alarm goes off.

You  see, I hate taking antidepressants. I understand why I have to. My body is physically incapable of producing, transporting and absorbing sufficient serotonin by itself. So I get it. If my body won’t do this by itself and it’s a chemical I can’t do without, medication is necessary. But I hate it.  Logically, I understand that this mental illness is a manifestation of a physical problem and that I can’t overcome it through willpower alone. But to hell with logic – the point is that I hate that this is something I can’t control without relying on drugs.

Having established that, let me make it clear that any comments suggesting that I don’t really need antidepressants and could probably just take St John’s Wort or do more exercise or find god instead will not be met with grace and gratitude. I’ve spent the past 12 years learning the hard way that I have to take these drugs. Believe me, there’s only one possible outcome to my not taking them – my mental state deteriorates to the point where I stop eating or talking and start causing myself physical harm.

Earlier this year I had to increase my dosage. The dose I was on was no longer working for me. I could feel the symptoms of depression kicking in again, so I did the sensible thing and asked my GP for a higher dose. She put me on the next dose up. I’ve been round the block often enough to know that side-effects are to be expected and that the best thing to do is just hold tight for a while and see whether they subside. When the side-effects emerged, that’s what I did.

Within a few days of starting the new dose I noticed nausea, increased anxiety and problems with my short-term memory. I persevered for six weeks to see whether these side-effects were just teething problems, but nothing changed. I can deal with the nausea – it’s not pleasant, but as long as I eat little and often and/or suck sweets or sip water, I can manage it. The memory problems were much more of an issue. I’m used to having a rather good memory, but now I find that I reach for information and what I get is fog, or that tasks and appointments are completely forgotten unless I write them down (and I don’t always have time to write them down before they’re forgotten.) That scares me. It’s really unhelpful, especially as I’m self-employed, and it’s really worrying considering that I will probably have to increase my dosage again in future and don’t know whether that will make things worse.

Knowing that short-term memory is affected by concentration and that my concentration has always been affected by increased anxiety, I went to the GP to ask if there was anything I could do to control the physical manifestations of the anxiety. I was given beta blockers, which made me so dizzy I couldn’t stand and then made me fall asleep.

As you can probably imagine, that wasn’t ideal for getting through daily life. I stopped taking the beta blockers and asked to be referred to a psychiatrist to help me find antidepressants that will keep me from being depressed and suicidal but will still leave me in a fit state to live  and work. In the meantime, I was already struggling with self-destructive behaviour patterns. I got married at the beginning of the summer and found myself caught up in a massive internal battle between my newfound happiness with my husband and the depressive part of my brain that tells me I’m not allowed to be happy and that everyone I love dies. (Yes, that is what my brain is like even when I am taking antidepressants.) In my infinite depressed wisdom I decided the drugs weren’t working so I wouldn’t bother taking them.

Well, that worked out predictably badly. My mental state deteriorated, I found myself relying more and more on the façade and increasingly scared of being around lots of people. I did a bit of self-sabotage. Then finally the sensible bit of my brain remembered that I’ve done all this before and that it might be wise to take my tablets. Just for a few days. So I went back on them and voila, the greyness started to retreat… taking my short-term memory with it and leaving anxiety and nausea in its place.

After that I began trying to work out a viable pattern. Halving the dose doesn’t give me enough to keep the depression fully at bay, but more than half lets the side-effects run riot. Taking one tablet every two days is the same as halving the dose. My next move is to re-time the alarms on my phone and try one tablet every 36 hours rather than every 24.

I also went back to the GP for something unrelated, but while I was there I asked how my referral to the psychiatric department was coming along. The GP looked in my notes. Nope, nothing there about a referral to see a psychiatrist – just some stuff about my time with the community psych nurses. Why, did I want to go back for more CBT with them?

No, I damn well didn’t. If I want to do CBT worksheets (which I don’t, because the way I learned to do CBT was much more free-flowing and didn’t rely on worksheets as if I were still in primary school) I can do that by myself. I can certainly do it with a hell of a lot less judgment than I encountered from the two community psych nurses I saw before deciding that this really wasn’t for me – all they seemed to want to do was contradict my existing diagnoses and do those bloody worksheets. (Forgive me if I don’t give much credence to their contradictions, but I’m more likely to trust an actual psychiatrist who gives a diagnosis based on considerable observation and proper assessment techniques than a psych nurse who bases it on a five minute conversation and the infallible logic and clinical analysis that says “you couldn’t possibly have had a personality disorder at 18, that’s far too young”.)

So no, there will be no more psych nurse visits for me. Perhaps there are excellent psych nurses out there, but I got burned twice in quick succession. Also, CBT is not the answer here. CBT helps me with day to day management of my mental health, but it does precisely nothing to cause my body to produce, transport and correctly absorb serotonin. It’s the drugs that do that, and it’s the drugs that are causing me problems so I need to talk to someone who, you know, knows about drugs. GPs are barely trained in psychiatric medicine, hence my request for the referral in the first place.

I explained all this to the GP who told me that she was new to the area and didn’t know what was available, but she’d find out and let me know. To her credit, she did – but her letter was deeply disheartening. Apparently my options are 1) go back to the psych nurses for more CBT worksheets, because somehow that’s going to achieve something and not just waste resources that might actually benefit someone else or 2) go to a private clinic for which details were enclosed.

I checked out the private clinic. All it offers is psychotherapy. I have found psychotherapy useful on many occasions, but this time I do not need a therapist to talk to. I need someone who can advise me about medication. A psychotherapist cannot do that. A psychologist cannot do that. Who can do that? A psychiatrist. I’m not asking to see a psychiatrist because I think they’re higher status than psych nurses or psychotherapists or because I want preferential treatment, I’m asking because they are the people qualified to do the thing I need them to do.

So realistically, my options are 1) continue with the medication and see how long it takes for me to get myself into trouble for forgetting something important or simply being paralysed with anxiety and unable to do things, 2) find a private psychiatrist and hope against hope that I find a good one first time because at their hourly rates there’s not much room for trial and error, or 3) come off the meds and see how long it takes for me to deteriorate to the point where I am hospitalized, because at least there’ll be psychiatrists in the Royal Edinburgh. That last one really scares me. So far I’ve always managed to avoid being put in hospital. Even first time round, when I absolutely couldn’t take care of myself, my parents looked after me at home. Even last time round, when I was breaking my own bones, I only ended up in general medical. It’s unknown and I’m scared of it, and it would be the ultimate confirmation that my mental health is not under my control. And the path to get there is really horrible and involves the risk that I’ll succeed in doing myself permanent or terminal damage before I succeed in finding help.

I’m not particularly keen on any of these options, but most of all I’m frustrated – not just by the lack of care available, but more than anything else by the fact that the GP doesn’t appear to know the difference between psychotherapy and psychiatry. This is one of the biggest and most exhausting obstacles that you face in dealing with the Crazy. The GP is your first port of call, and even if you can get them to believe you (easier with depression than with just about anything else, but still tricky) it’s a real struggle to get access to any help. You might be lucky and win the antidepressant Russian Roulette where the GP prescribes you whatever’s cheapest and it either works for you or it doesn’t, but if you lose, my current situation is about the best you can hope for. I don’t know where this will end and all I can do is hope I don’t lose too much along the way.

The option I choose, unsurprisingly, is to start looking for a private psychiatrist and hope I can find one who isn’t charging £300/session. I have to keep reminding myself that while the illness is forever, psych sessions are not (because, guess what, I don’t like them either – not a fan of anything that suggests I can’t deal with this entirely on my own). All I need is long enough to get advice and a new prescription. I’m very good at monitoring on my own and following up with GPs. All of this is about making that very first step. I wish it didn’t have to be the most difficult and disheartening step of all.


Some thoughts on Artists Open Space

It’s taken me a while to get round to writing up my thoughts on the Open Space at Waverley Gate. What with directing and producing two shows concurrently, this is the first spare moment I’ve had to write things down! With any luck, I’ll get round to answering some of the emails I’ve received in the wake of it too…

It was a very intense day. On the one hand it was very exciting and inspiring to be around so many artists who all felt strongly about the need for change. On the other, there were a few frustrations – the focus was mostly on how we make it easier for artists to access the money available through Creative Scotland. I’m not denying that that’s important, but I don’t think that rethinking the application forms is sufficient. These problems with Creative Scotland are the result of ideological problems. For Creative Scotland to function well and be useful to artists rather than an obstacle to them, it must sort its collective head out.

When I look at the information currently available on the CS website and at their funding forms, I see language which reflects some troubling ideology. It’s very ‘businessy’. The Creative Scotland staff who attended the Open Space were at pains to point out that part of CS’ function is to act as an interlocutor between artists and government, making the case for our continued funding and role in society. Fair enough, but the issue is that if you don’t speak both languages you’re not much use as an interpreter. If artists are expected to learn the ‘businessy’ language (assuming it can be learned, because some of it looks like it really doesn’t mean anything), what’s the point of an intermediary? If that’s the role CS wants to fulfil, they need to speak OUR language. If they only speak the language of government, they can hardly be surprised if we regard them as an agent of government.

The thing is, solving this problem involves a lot of talk. I got a strong sense that several people at the meeting regard ‘talk’ and ‘action’ as mutually exclusive terms. They’re not. Sometimes talk is exactly the action that’s needed. And how do you carry out any kind of collective movement if you don’t plan it first? There’s no point in ‘taking action’ if all you’re doing is charging around blindly. First you have to figure out what to do, and that’s a lot easier if you have some idea why you’re doing it. Creative Scotland needs to figure that out. WE need to figure that out. I can see why it’s an unpopular view – it’s hard work, long-term work and it’s much less dramatic/fun than charging around blindly or yelling about how “someone should do something” and demanding resignations. Yet until we actually knuckle down and do that work, we will run into the same problems again and again and again.

Having said all of that, one of the principles of Open Space is that whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened. This meeting was the start of the process, and it was a bloody good start. I remember the organisers of Devoted & Disgruntled saying that they usually find that on the first day of their events everyone is more disgruntled, rediscovering their devotion on the second day. Considering how angry and frustrated the artistic community has been, it’s hardly surprising that there was a lot of attention going to surface issues. (I had originally hoped to make it a two day event for this very reason, but I could only get the Waverley Gate space for one day. I took what I could get.)

The other major frustration was numbers. 90 people signed up via Eventbrite. 35 of them turned up, plus another 10 – 12 who hadn’t registered. There are always no-shows, especially when you’re dealing with a lot of freelancers with busy schedules, but that was a ridiculous number. When the event showed up as sold out I had to turn people away.

On a personal level, it’s also a wee bit infuriating to see how much better attended the Glasgow meeting was today. I love Edinburgh, I really, really do, but when it comes to actually speaking up for ourselves and not being apathetic, Glasgow beats us hands-down every time. I hear so many people complaining that it’s hard to make a living as an artist in Edinburgh, it’s easier if you go to Glasgow – but do something to change things in Edinburgh and where are the people who complain? You want things to change, TURN UP and make it happen – or don’t be surprised when it doesn’t.

On the positive side, I think that between Artists’ Open Space and the Tramway World Cafe we have succeeded in making it clear to Creative Scotland and their board that this is not a problem that’s going to go away in a few months’ time. (Perhaps some of their board members will actually come along to future meetings. They really need to, just as members of the senior management team need to make sure they continue to be present. We need them to be a regularly-appearing feature of the arts world, otherwise we’re naturally going to perceive them as shut away in their ivory tower upstairs from Amazon.)

It was also really useful to bring artists together. There were plenty of cards being exchanged and I’ve had some lovely emails saying how much people got out of the day. There are now a few more artists who want to make change and know where to find each other. It’s small, but it’s important. We need to keep networking, keep talking, keep making little changes in attitude and action.

In terms of Creative Scotland making changes, probably the biggest point to come out of the day was a promise to rewrite the website with the help of various organisations such as the Literature Trust and Federation of Scottish Theatres. They’re planning to rewrite by next April and I doubt this gives them time to learn our language, but perhaps we can harness our collective power to work through our representative organisations and make our voices heard. If there is an organisation that represents your art form, contact them and check that they’re being consulted and that they’re looking after your discipline’s interests. We have a chance to make change here if we keep applying the pressure.

There was also talk about the need for artists in the decision-making process, on the Creative Scotland board and in consultation roles where they can share their expertise from an external perspective. It seemed that the need was acknowledged, so now we need to hear how that’s going to be achieved. I’m still gathering reports/notes from the meeting and posting them on the Artists’ Open Space site, but once they’re all in I’ll send the link and action points to Andrew Dixon and his team. There will definitely be a request for hi to outline their plans for increasing artist involvement.

So at the end of all this I’m still feeling optimistic, and I can’t wait to hear what has come out of the Glasgow meeting. I’m also feeling somewhat drained by the whole thing, but that could have something to do with the impending dress and tech rehearsals for the double bill… Plans are afoot for more Open Spaces to continue the work, but I won’t be doing anything about organising them until my shows are up and running next week.


On Emerging

I haven’t yet seen Sylvia Dow’s A Beginning, A Middle and an End. My tickets are booked and I’m looking forward to seeing it when it reaches the Traverse.

My reasons are twofold. First, I have fond memories of Sylvia. I’ve no idea whether she would remember me, but back when I was 16 and still suffering from delusions of wanting to be a singer, she gave me my first major role in an amateur production of Viva Mexico. (Seriously. This is my version of a misspent youth.) So when I saw that she’d written a play I was keen to see it and to hope it’s going well for her. 

Second, even if I’d never met Sylvia I would be intrigued by the publicity surrounding her as a playwright having her first play produced at 73. This fact attracts a great deal of comment in the reviews I’ve seen, and it got me thinking about the culture of “emerging artists” and the expectation that “emerging” should be synonymous with “young”. Take this review from Mark Fisher, for example: Click! The final sentence really interests me, describing this play as “an auspicious, if tardy, debut”.

‘Tardy’ is a really interesting choice of word. Dictionary.com offers the definitions late; behind time; not on time; moving or acting slowly; slow; sluggish; delaying through reluctance. All of these have rather negative connotations – possibly not Mr Fisher’s intention, and I chose his review rather than any other because it happened to be the last one I read. What intrigues me is not the attitude of an individual reviewr but  how the word choice might indicate that we’ve internalised the idea that making one’s debut should happen during youth.

I don’t know Sylvia’s circumstances. I’ve no idea why her playwriting career is just beginning now. Maybe she was happily prioritising other things. Maybe she was languishing in a job she hated and working up the nerve to send out her script. Maybe she didn’t feel the need to express herself in this particular medium until recently. I don’t know.

I would only consider this to be a truly tardy debut if for some reason it should have happened earlier. If, for some reason, some administrative error or some failure to recognise her ability or some dastardly plot to keep her work from being programmed were at fault – if the work was there and ready to go but being held back by some outside agency when it should have been out there – then I might use the same phrase. But if someone makes a series of choices which lead to their beginning a playwriting career at 73, I’d rather use language that applauds them.

The question of what constitutes an emerging artist comes up again and again. Many schemes for emerging playwrights have upper age limits. The Traverse Young Writers group is for 18 – 25s, likewise the Royal Court. Old Vic New Voices only recently opened widened its age range so that you can now make it to the grand old age of 30 before you cease to be eligible.

When I look at publicity concerning new playwrights there’s frequently a mention of their age. Look at Ella Hickson, Lucy Prebble, Katori Hall, Mike Bartlett – just a few off the top of my head, all of whom were in their early to mid twenties when they experienced their first major successes. I remember when Enron came out, for example, much was made in the media of Lucy Prebble’s youth and precocity. It’s understandable that people look for human interest and I suppose age is a part of that, but I think there’s a real danger in the idea that producing work young is automatically a good thing. Some of the work produced by young playwrights is amazing. Some is not. There’s a lot more to it than age.

18 – 25 were turbulent years for me. I had my first major depressive episode at 18 and could barely put my socks on, let alone write. Just after I got back on my feet, my mother died. The following year, my father died and I was being watched for signs of pancreatic cancer. Eight months after that I was badly injured in a car accident. I had to spend two years living in my dead parents’ house because I had nowhere else to go while the estate was being wound up. By the time I was in a position to start rebuilding my life and training as a director, I was 24.

I’m now a few months away from my 30th birthday. Going by many people’s definition of ’emerging’, I’m either already past it or I’m about to be. Yet it took me until a couple of years ago to be able to write anything I felt I could submit, so in many ways I still feel like an emerging writer.

On the one hand, I’ve got a ton of valuable life experience. On the other hand, I’ve got all the angst that goes with it. That kind of life experience isn’t necessarily something that you can put to use straight away. For a long time I found that it was just to painful to write anything truthful. Even if the subject matter wasn’t directly related to my own experiences, I couldn’t put my characters through anything really difficult because I couldn’t bear to subject anyone to the same levels of pain that I had been through, even if they were fictional. Writing plays where nothing too bad happens to anyone doesn’t really get you that far, since conflict drives drama.

Or I would go to the other extreme and write deeply tortured work, trying to understand why I had to go through so much, trying to make sense of my grief. I still have the things I wrote then. At this moment I think it’s unlikely that I’ll ever share them, because some things are just too raw and too personal. There’s no way I could handle criticism on that stuff, especially not from anyone who hasn’t had similar experiences.  Perhaps I’ll change my mind someday, but I’m not convinced that that will ever be for public consumption.

The bits and pieces that I wrote during that time added up to nothing complete. My focus was too narrow – I would write scene after scene going over the same ideas, because my focus was on making sense of my experience rather than creating a narrative that could be understood from the outside. Working my way past that stage took time, so I didn’t have a completed play to my name until I was 28.

Sometimes that makes me feel ancient, slow, somehow less worthy than all these people who were produced playwrights before they turned 23. It makes me feel that if I had only worked harder, applied myself more, I could have done that too.

Realistically, I know I couldn’t. Being an only child dealing with the emotional and administrative nightmare of dying parents is… well, time-consuming, amongst other things. My dedication and application weren’t really the issue. At 21, my priority was making sure my dad’s final months were as painless as possible. My head was full of Power of Attorney and Do Not Resuscitate and morphine:sedative ratios. Shaping anything I wrote into something worth reading would have required energy I simply didn’t have. And as for being trapped in their house, surrounded by memories and devoid of other options… it’s creatively stifling, to say the least. If you can’t imagine why, think yourself lucky.

Anyway, all this is to say that for me, getting anywhere with my writing when I was under 25 was simply not on the cards. Even without my slightly melodramatic circumstances, it’s quite possible that for some people it simply takes a while to find their way onto that path. Priorities change. People change. Perhaps it would be healthy to respect and even celebrate that, rather than clinging to this slightly X-Factor-ish idea that people are “born” to do something and work towards it all their lives, never letting anything get in their way. Really, how many of us can honestly lay claim to that? Passion is no less true because you discover or acknowledge it later in life, and only a privileged few don’t encounter any major setbacks along the way.

I realise that in order for support for artists to exist there are always going to be categories and that most of the time these will be pretty arbitrary. It’s imperfect, but it’s part of life and all we can do is look for ways to keep improving things. That said, I think it’s worth keeping an eye on the tiny, subtle judgements and values that sneak their way into our thoughts, revealing themselves every so often in the words we use and the way we respond to things.

That’s a lot of words to say “Why can’t we just judge writers by their writing rather than their life stories?”, but I don’t write these posts just to throw questions out into the void. Nor do I write them thinking that I’ll reach an answer on the first attempt. I write this and leave it here, perhaps to be unpicked further after these current thoughts have percolated for a while. In the meantime, I’ll continue to look forward to seeing Sylvia’s show later this month.


Openness

A friend who reads this blog recently asked me whether I’m concerned about the possible repercussions of writing as candidly as I do. (That might make my friend sound a bit judgemental – that’s not the case, I believe she was asking out of curiosity, not judgement, and she knows me well enough to know I’d take it that way.) The answer is ‘not really’.

Perhaps I should be, since this is a public blog on my personal site and I don’t make the slightest effort to conceal my identity. But to be honest, you won’t read anything here that I wouldn’t tell you in person, and if you asked about it I’d tell you on pretty short acquaintance. If I’m open about it in person, why not online?

There was a time when I worried about what people would think of me if they knew I had mental health problems. I would never actively conceal it, but I wasn’t as relaxed about it as I am now. For a while I stumbled through conversations making vague references to ‘illness’ and ‘being unwell’, trusting that people wouldn’t enquire further. They didn’t, but I found I wasn’t comfortable with keeping the waters muddy on purpose.

It’s difficult not to talk about it when you have these problems. I don’t mean that I spill the whole story to every passing stranger, but I’ve been dealing with it for over a decade and I’ve lost large chunks of time to the Crazy. There are gaps in my CV, my educational history and my life story due to non-functioning headspace, and if I’m getting to know someone it means that sooner or later they’ll start to notice that the chronology of my life doesn’t make much sense without context. My options are 1) redirect the conversation if it goes anywhere near the subject, 2) gloss over it by making the aforementioned vague references, or 3) tell the truth, with or without all the gory details.

I prefer the truth. I spent long enough being uncomfortable with all of this and fearing other people’s judgement. Keeping things vague only keeps people at arm’s length, and feeling that no-one knows or understands me feeds into the low moods during depressive episodes. Yes, it’s a leap of faith every time. No, I’m not always happy with the results. But on balance, it’s worth it. I can deal with the occasional bit of judgement in exchange for having other people open up in response to me.

As for whether this blog will ever hinder me professionally, I don’t know. Once again I find that I don’t really worry about it. I’m a self-employed artist and I choose to work with people who are likely to have experienced these things themselves or seen them at close quarters. The levels of judgement are reasonably low. Perhaps that wouldn’t be the case elsewhere in the industry, on the commercial side where the focus is more on business than art, but the choices I’ve made mean that I’m unlikely to find out first-hand.

More importantly, some of us have to take the chance. Talking openly about something that’s stigmatised will always put you at risk of being subject to that stigma. It’s not for everyone, but these days I’m feeling secure and supported enough to do it. I know how lucky I am to have that – there have been times in my life when I haven’t had that support and I know how much harder it makes things to be dealing with it alone. Every judgement, every bad day seems a hundred times worse. I haven’t forgotten that, and that’s why I feel the need to reach out from where I am now in the hope that it does some good. It helps me more to focus on that than to let myself go down the route of giving too much thought to what people I’ve never met or barely know think of me. If writing this costs me a job, I doubt it’s a job that would have lasted.


Exploring the Headspace

In my last entry I began to talk about how I ended up on the scenic route. I focused mostly on my upbringing and dead parents, but there’s another major factor that helped to put me on the long and winding path. Time for another confessional post…

My name is Jen, I am an artist and I am crazy.

I don’t mean crazy in the sense of ‘I get a bit loud at parties’, although this also happens to be true if I’m in the right mood. I mean crazy as in ‘I have lifelong mental health problems that frequently impact on both my domestic and artistic lives’.

I know some people don’t think crazy is a suitable term to use for this stuff. I happen to like it. I love the sound of the word, I love its connotations of crackled glaze, and I love that it suggests the series of hyperfocused crazes that have possessed me throughout my life. So I’ll be sticking with crazy as my preferred term when discussing my own mental illness, and if you don’t like it, well… sorry.

My current collection of labels includes Major Depressive Disorder, Seasonal Affective Disorder, Adult ADD, Schizotypal Personality Disorder and mild OCD. Apparently there’s also a bit of PTSD in there following the double whammy bereavement and a couple of car accidents. I’m not entirely sure what I think of the labels, but they help to organise the mess a bit and in a way, they’re comforting. If a label exists for the set of feeling and behaviours I describe, that means it’s Not Just Me.

I like knowing I’m not the only one, and that’s why the arts play such an important role in my life. Contrary to popular belief, I have no desire to be a special snowflake. When I find another artist’s work that resonates with me, it reassures me that there are/have been plenty of other people who think and feel like me. It makes the strange things that go on in my head feel a bit more normal. However, because I still have to live with those strange things going on in my head, I’m still compelled to express the thoughts and feelings – so I create work of my own, and the cycle goes on.

While I feel that my craziness powers my attachment to the arts and provides fuel to sustain it, that’s only true at certain points in the cycle. When the craziness is under control I can work consistently and productively. When I’m on my way into or out of depression, I ricochet between obsessive, hyperfocused work and complete inability to do anything. Once the depression has taken hold I am too busy hiding under the table (sometimes figuratively, sometimes not), sleeping all day and trying to hold my life together and pretend everything’s fine to do much actual work. I might be teeming with ideas, but I lack the capacity/self-belief to do anything with them. I  have better things to do, like staring at blank documents and hyperventilating whenever the phone rings.

Over the decade since I was first diagnosed I’ve had to learn what triggers the crazy. Missing medication, homesickness, over-committing myself, parent-related anniversaries, being too sedentary, lack of light… I’m constantly keeping an eye on these things and finding ways to keep things under control. It can be a losing battle, and it definitely has been over the past year. On the one hand I’ve been happier and more in control of my life than ever before, but things have been stormy inside my head as I try to adjust to the idea of actually being happy and deal with the memories and survivor guilt. It seems strange to say that I’ve been least functional when I’ve been at my happiest, but it’s true – being happy and being stable, it turns out, are not the same thing. Having supportive people around me helps me to deal with the unstable times, but it doesn’t make them disappear.

Knowing that carving out a conventional directing career involves relentless work, massive over-commitment and long periods away from home, I’ve gradually come to terms with being on the scenic route. It’s the only place to be for someone like me, because the conventional path doesn’t really allow for fluctuating mental states. I need to multitask, because there are times when I need to write and write and write and there are times when I thrive on the focus of directing. These tend to be seasonal, and I know which times to avoid – feasible when you’re making your own work, but not so much when you’re doing something like the Regional Theatre Young Directors’ Scheme. If you know that the straight path is a fast road to self-destruction and it’s a journey you feel you have to make, the one remaining option is the scenic route.

So what changes have I made to accommodate the craziness? Well, I ended my stint in London and moved back to Edinburgh, for a start. I grew up here and although I sometimes feel the need to escape, I get ridiculously homesick when I’m not here. I chose to run the Affectable Acting sessions and create my own work rather than seeking out jobs with other companies and promising myself that I’d do things my own way once I was established enough. In committing myself to Affectable and Tightlaced, I created a structure for myself that’s loose enough to avoid making me feel penned in (which I always rebel against) but that provides a buffer against the highs and lows of a rejection-heavy industry. In building the network I found artists who understand and can share experiences. I make sure I have plenty of time for writing and plenty of time to spend with my husband and my cat, both of whom help me to stay balanced.

It’s a start. There’s still a lot for me to work on. 2012 has been really turbulent and I’ve spent much of this year in terror of my phone and email. Yes, I know that probably sounds weird, but seriously, this is the biggest disruption the mental health stuff causes in my life. I often write emails or enter phone numbers and then stare at the screen or the phone for ages, unable to hit send or call, paralysed by the utter conviction that something disastrous will happen if I do. If I miss a call, I do the same thing with voicemail. Once I’ve missed a call or failed to call/email someone when I think I should have done, it starts a cycle of avoidance that is really difficult to break. Every day that goes by makes it harder, because the damage feels worse and the repair feels less likely, so it seems that the sensible thing is just to let the communication go. Of course this is not the sensible thing. I know that. And I know that it should be very easy just to pick up the phone or hit send. But that’s why it’s called ‘mental illness’. It’s about doing things that don’t make sense from the outside. Believe me, it makes perfect sense when I’m in those moments. I’ve CBT’d this behaviour to death and haven’t cracked it yet, but the work goes on. Someday I’ll figure out how to get this one under control, and it’ll make my personal and professional lives much easier when I do. While I search for that solution, I’ll continue finding and implementing measures to lessen the impact of this behaviour on my life and my work.

I’ve thought long and hard about whether to write this post. I’ve never kept the craziness a secret, but nor am I usually quite this open about it. People often make judgements and some of them are quite unfair and inaccurate. But you know what? That’s fine. Make whatever judgements you like. If it stops you working with me, fine – but if mentally healthy colleagues are a priority and you’re working in theatre, good luck. I think sharing this kind of thing and remembering that it’s not the end of the world, just something that might require an adjustment of expectations and priorities, is a beneficial thing. I certainly hope it is. And if nothing else, it’s a little more background in the story of how I ended up on this particular path…