In Week 1 of my tour I got a lovely text from one of my favourite women in theatre, Charlotte Josephine. The text was a totally unprompted act of support, a tiny moment of ‘I see you and I got you’ which I needed more than I had realized. In the text, Charlie said she’d been thinking about how we don’t talk enough about our mental health. Even though I needed that text (I’d just had a difficult show at the beginning of what was to become the most difficult run of my life to date), that particular thought didn’t resonate with me, until now.
I have wanted to write this blog and – trust me – come hell of high water I am going to finish it! (Obviously that will happen once the tour is over now but, hey, I never committed to a deadline…) Last week I had one week in one place, the only point at which that has happened during this run, and the perfect catch-up opportunity for the blog. Instead I found myself in some very dark headspaces, convinced at points that I should not just walk away from the show, but also from my career full-stop. I had emotional outpouring after emotional outpouring, clinging to my wife and saying I didn’t want to go out there again, sobbing down the phone to family members desperate to make these bleak feelings stop. I never talk about this stuff publicly, even though I’m sure other artists feel the same sometimes, experiencing crippling levels of self-doubt, fear, anxiety and emotional instability. I never talk about it, because I don’t want to seen as courting pity, over-sharing, not checking my privilege, not appreciating the wealth of gifts I have in my life that allow me to do this as a career. That old chestnut, fear of judgment, strikes again. Last week, I couldn’t write a blog, or anything for that matter, I struggled talking to anyone I didn’t know well, I struggled to do my job – every cell screaming at me to turn around and run.
My relationship to this show is unique. I am choosing (as my sister frankly pointed out during one of my many meltdowns) to stand on stage and relive the most horrific experience of my life to date. And I am choosing to do this over and over and over again. Last week, I had reached a point where I was too raw, too emotionally unbalanced to keep doing it and my body began to protest, I think. I wasn’t allowing myself to connect emotionally because it was too much, and so my shows were becoming a bit ‘meh’ and that is what created the self-doubt.
I don’t doubt myself for no reason. I doubt myself when I know I am not fully in my work. The solution is to be fully into my work, but when that’s the scariest place to be, it’s fucking hard.
However much I try to think about this piece of work as an acting piece, of this Katie Bonna as a character, I can’t escape that this is my dad, my mum, my wife that I am talking about. Everything in the show is true, pretty much. But last week got me thinking that actually it doesn’t matter how real the situations you are creating on stage are, if you are connecting to them emotionally, leaning into them and making them truthful, your body is going through a version of them and it is doing that night after night after night. When I was at Soho, this was easy enough to deal with. I got to go home to my wife every day, I got to see friends and go to my yoga studio – all the stuff that keeps me balanced. But on the road, all those constant dissolve into a myriad of variables. This week I am sleeping in a converted attic room in a house in the suburbs that couldn’t feel further from home. The people who live there are lovely, but it isn’t a place I can really relax and escape from anything in. That’s just the reality of this work.
All of that brought me right back to Charlie’s Week 1 text – a weirdly omniscient harbinger of what was to come over the next few weeks. Why don’t we talk about this more? I can’t remember one conversation, during my training, which touched on mental health and emotional well-being. Can anyone else? It was never even hinted at that we would have to work to maintain ourselves in this way and that the work could actively attack our ability to do that. But isn’t that the story across society? We, as a nation, shy away from the mental health conversation because we still don’t really know how to talk about it. We still feel weak admitting it’s a struggle. We still don’t have the answers for a friend who reaches out with a despairing question. I do not buy into the stereotype of the tortured artist and I deeply resent people who try to tar me with that brush. And people do try to, often. I do not need to be in a state of despair to create, but sometimes creation brings about a state of despair. And that’s part of our job and we need to be equipped to deal with it. And we would be better equipped if we talked about it more, sharing our methods and experiences to create more support for each other.
For what it’s worth, these are some of the main ways in which I have been managing my mental health over the last few weeks. A lot of them are obvious and I am really not interested in posturing as a mental health guru – this is just an offering, a sharing from one artist to others, with love.
· Remember why you are doing this. I made a list last week (thanks to my sister for telling me to do it) of why I started this project in the first place and it really helped me. Mostly because I remembered who I’m doing it for and that helped me shift my focus back to the most important place (for my show), the audience.
· Don’t feel guilty. I feel guilty about pretty much everything, so I have to make myself shelve the guilt and take the time I need for myself. You don’t ‘need’ to talk to your digs hosts about their cat’s second prize in the best pedigree puss category, you need to be grateful and polite and then take space for yourself. Also, I have to make myself not feel guilty for doing very little in the day-time. The show is the most important thing I’m doing that day, if all I do is prepare for that, it’s ok.
· Exercise. I practice yoga in the morning and then again before the show. I need to be in my body, not my head, and this is the best way for me to do it. I’m currently spending between 1.5 – 3 hours doing yoga a day (including meditation), that is potentially more than I need, but it’s working. I have found two really good free online yoga teachers: Yoga With Adrienne (her practice is quite gentle, but she has such a fun spirit and energy) and Five Parks Yoga (good workout – and great range of classes). I also try and find a studio wherever I am because it is invariable a better, more holistic experience.
· Don’t give a fuck. I once heard that ‘Fuck it’ is the best mantra an actor can have. It’s a quick and often affective fix.
· Lean into the white. In Exeter, a woman I met outside a yoga class told me about the fried egg theory. This thing called ‘Devon time’ meant that we waited half an hour for a teacher who never appeared... The idea is that in the yolk of a fried egg you are in your comfort zone, in the white you are in your growth zone and – necessarily – you are also uncomfortable, because it is hotter in the white. The closer you get to the edge of the white, the hotter you get as you inch closer to the frying-pan AKA the panic zone. I have started saying to myself before I go on stage ‘Be in the white.’ Leaning into the discomfort and knowing that it’s growth has really helped me curb the panic.
· Eat well. Like, really well. Avoid sugar if possible.
· Don’t drink. Seriously. It makes you feel sad the next day.
· Sleep, as much as you need and don’t feel bad for taking naps. I never took naps before this tour, I have discovered that I sometimes need them.
· Do one thing a day to shift your perspective. I don’t mean, like, standing on your head or going sky-diving, I mean walking down a new street or going into a bookshop or chatting to someone you wouldn’t have otherwise had the opportunity to meet. Those small, but rich moments of discovery.
· Give thanks, for anything and everything you are thankful for. I have been told to do this a lot by yoga teachers. Making a list doesn’t work for me, but stopping to appreciate a good feeling, a beautiful tree, a message from my wife – really soaking the good shit up - does.
· Stay hydrated. I have hydration sachets with me now and I need them. I know I should just drink more water – I try…
· Have an eye mask. Not everyone believes in blackout blinds.
· Treat yourself.
· Turn your phone off and limit social media. My rule has been I can only go on social media when I am travelling on travel days and when I am out (away from the theatre or digs) otherwise. I break it constantly, but when I’m feeling bad it really helps to enforce it. I turn my phone off 2/3 hours before the show.
· Pack slippers. A mobile home for your feet.
· Talk about it. If you can’t talk, try and write.