A major project I was heavily involved in for a large part of 2016 was inspiring and huge in terms of scale for me as an artist as well as personally. Its focus was mental health and building an imagined positive future for its treatment and care. I got to meet incredible people and work with them. I learned such a lot, it was amazing.
However, it was during the course of the ten months of the project that I began to (ironically) notice my own mental health degrading. I’m not blaming the project entirely (it was many factors, being 31, being lonely at work, my perennially predictable creative existential crisis,
“what is the point of me?”
and a general feeling of events being out of my control) but certainly the workload was staggering and I really struggled through a lot of late nights and early mornings, sometime drawing upwards of ten hours a day with very few breaks. My wrist felt like it belonged to someone else and I had a genuinely revolting blister peeking out from under the skin of my calloused finger. At one point my (utterly wonderful and understanding) husband, Joe was doing all the cooking and cleaning and evening tea-making as I only stopped to visit the toilet, to feed myself and then have fitful sleep. It sounds ridiculous, but the intensive drawing and emotional state I found myself in made me completely overwhelmed.
Freelancing can be lonely. Many self-employed folk are lucky to have varied jobs, stints in offices, travel, meetings and so on, but often I find myself on my own, in a chair, at a desk with only podcasts for company. (I can recommend some superb ones.) Now couple that feeling of being alone with having heaps of work to do and having no one to ask for help. Tight deadlines, important clients and this isn’t your only work. No one could take the work and help me do it, I couldn’t see a way out. I muddled through but near enough burnt myself out.
Things are better now.
I have my studio manager, Amy coming in to assist me one day a week – this makes such a difference. We chat, have a dance, listen to music, we talk about decisions I have trouble with, she makes suggestions and just takes some of the workload off me. I went for a round of CBT. I have brilliant people around me that understand these things. Now I take time. Even if I’m really busy (which is pretty often) if I feel myself spiraling into an anxiety whirlpool, I treat it like a cough. Stop. Have a cup of tea, take a couple of hours off. Go for a walk or rest. Sometimes I even dabble in deep breathing or meditation. If symptoms worsen, take some more time off. It’s all health, right? Hopefully with this approach I can stave off the worst of it, when I can’t remember how to sleep, have crippling IBS*, panic attacks and when I think no one likes me.
I’m not writing this for sympathy, or to show off how millennial I am, but to prove it’s OK to ask for help from people around you,
it’s OK to feel overwhelmed and it’s OK to talk about it.
To ‘admit’ it**. It should be something we can ‘own’, that we’re aware of and look out for, especially as so many people I know (whether they know it or would admit it) have suffered from some kind of mental health fade at some point.
*I was gluten free for nearly two years and it turns out I don’t have to be. I’m sensitive to wheat, but basically I was stressing my body into not working properly. Yup. Intense.
**I don’t like that word in this context. It implies guilt – should a person be ‘blamed’ for their mental health?