BY JANE POSTLETHWAITE
All images by Andy Hollingworth
Trigger warning – this article contains themes of depression, mental health
issues and suicide.
A film begins with a woman in her 30s returning to her childhood home. A familiar scene with a bird’s-eye view of the removal van on a winding road complimented by a moody soundtrack. We’re groomed to expect one of a few things to happen to her. Horrific memories return in dreams, there’s a haunting, or there’s a murder. If the film is particularly bad, all three things will happen.
So, you will understand why I was slightly nervous last September on my birthday when I loaded up a van with my belongings and said goodbye to living in Brighton after 13 years. I was moving back to my childhood home in Cumbria where I could focus on being an artist, performer and writer. Cue music and bird’s-eye view of the road ahead…
It sounds romantic to move back to where you grew up to focus on your art – but realistically the decisions that lead to this point started with hitting a level of rock bottom.
Like most artists, I had a day job to support myself. In January 2017 I got tonsillitis. Twice. The second time, the doctor asked how I was ‘really’ feeling. I surprised myself revealing how I was thinking about death every day, worried my parents were going to die or I was going to die, having crippling anxiety from thinking about sitting in the office at my day job, I was crying every day, I wasn’t sleeping, had nightmares, felt empty and like there was a huge, heavy, weight in the pit of my stomach. I was immediately signed off work.
I’m no stranger to mental health. I’ve had it my whole life and I manage it well. I was diagnosed with Bipolar 2 disorder five years ago and put on mood stabilisers which saved me. This was after 15 years of numerous doctors saying I was ‘just a bit sad’ and getting antidepressants (which never worked) thrown at me like pick ’n’ mix.
I’ve come to terms with the fact that my brain is trying to kill me. Bipolar is a brain disorder and it means I’m at high risk of killing myself. Bipolar causes extreme shifts in mood, energy and has an impact on day-to-day tasks.
The right meds stop me having intrusive suicidal thoughts and acting on them. I take really good care of myself to stay well. No alcohol, drugs or smoking. Only healthy eating, exercise, massive amounts of self-help, creativity and meditation.
Now here’s something: if I’d been signed off for a broken leg my work would have sent me a hamper of delicious food, a card and bunch of flowers. Instead, when I was signed off with work-related stress, anxiety and depression I got a manager sending stressful emails and coworkers I’d worked with for nearly eight years ignoring me. I felt lonely and I felt guilty.
Here’s a tip for anyone working with staff with mental health issues – don’t make getting them back to work the number one priority. They need to get to the point where they can do simple things like get out of bed, shower or eat first.
Months of stressful occupational health and doctors meetings made it obvious that my day job was making me mentally and physically ill for various reasons. I was told to do the things that made me happy, like seeing friends and perform when I could.
To someone who isn’t a performer, it may seem scary enough getting on stage when you are ‘well’, so they are often confused as to why someone who is suffering with mental health issues would perform.
This is where we try to find a comedian or performer who has NO mental health issues. I’ve yet to find one. It’s almost perverse that someone feeling suicidal is on stage wanting to make a room full of people laugh, but it happens more than you know. Performing often saves us.
After time off and countless sleepless nights I knew I couldn’t go back to the toxic day job. When you are mentally ill it’s hard to trust yourself and your decisions. Luckily, I have supportive friends and parents. I quit in August. I know I’m lucky to have somewhere to move home to, but it wasn’t without sacrifice. It was the best yet hardest decision I ever made.
Moving away provided a big shift on how I see myself and what I want from life. I also want to start conversations about mental health in my art.
My new Brighton Fringe show, Last Night at the Circus, is about dealing with rock-bottom moments, suicide and mental health issues – and funnily enough, it’s a comedy.
It’s been months now since moving back home. The only horrific memories or hauntings are about my old day job. Turns out there was a murder. I killed the day job before it killed me.
Last Night at the Circus is at The Warren, Mon 7, Sat 19 & Sun 20 May.