Tag Archives: PTSD

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…