This week I thought I’d talk about depressing stuff, if that’s alright? No? Well tough! It’s my blog and I’ll cry if I want to…
World mental health awareness day occurred this week. I marked the event across my social media with throwbacks to a few of my cathartic comics. It’s been a recurrent theme in my work as an illustrator. Depression has been a big feature in my adult life, even before I started taking my art more seriously and using it as a topic of reference. It might come as news to some, but no, it wasn’t the art that made me this way. In this case, art does imitate life. So, how did I get the blues?
Let me rewind time back to 2008. I was in my final year of university in Sunderland, not doing very well with the course as I have talked about previously on my blog. In the space of about 6 months, I limped out of full time study without a clue in the world about what to do next. I was required to retake a module the following year to complete my degree to an acceptable standard. I was increasingly listless and directionless, as a result of which, I had a relationship come to a crushing end and faced threats of eviction from an aggressive landlord while I struggled to keep up with the financial stuff. I bounced around for a bit from job to job. In turn I experienced being let go after a trial period, made redundant and unpaid after a month’s work after a company went bust and gained valuable insight into what the ongoing struggle of life on a part time wage felt like, before I settled on a kitchen job in a Wetherspoons pub and tried to salvage what remained from the blasted remains of my art degree. My recent huge personal disappointments hung over me as I battled to keep up with life’s ongoing challenges. To top it all, while training up in the new job, I was on the business end of a bit of workplace bullying at the hands of the kitchen manager, who started cutting my work hours leading to more angsty times for me. I was urged by many employees to stand up for myself, but I was sadly lacking in confidence and even blamed myself for the way I was being treated. If I was good at this job, I reasoned, none of this would have been happening.
What does it feel like, when it hits? For me, it was almost like being full of flu, cold to the aching bone, tired beyond reason and so weak that gravity, the weakest of the forces, would usually win the day. Any and all interests in life fades away to insignificance. Forget socializing. Forget planning. The only timeframe fathomable is the moment that exists now, the past and the future don’t exist. Feeling good about anything is an impossibility. Feeling is possible, but only the negative kind. Upon Waking up in the morning and feeling nothing at all, that’s the best state of being to expect all day. I remember for a while not even really being able to taste food, I couldn’t even enjoy that.
Several months blurred past in which I did nothing except eat, shit, work & sleep. With my work hours been cut down like they were, it’s quite extraordinary that my life would only consist of these things. Hopefully that gives some measure of how perpetually exhausted I was. Even so, I found sleep harder and harder to come by. The dread of what I might face the next day kept me from resting properly, meaning I wasn’t ready for whatever faced me the next day… and so the feedback loop continued. The bullying got worse in correlation with my deteriorating mental state. Eventually I changed my job role to the customer facing side of the pub business, just to get out of the kitchen manager’s way, though my confidence never recovered, not that I had any to begin with… but slowly, surely, my state of mind improved. There were still tough days and weeks ahead, but I felt I was on the right path. After I came around from this weird time, I found I’d thrown all my personal electronic equipment out of my third-floor bedroom window. My printer, scanner and some other tools I bought myself in anticipation of a career in illustration was strewn and shattered in the front garden. I barely remembered doing it. I’d drawn a clear line under my art career. Whatever I was going to be in the future, an artist wouldn’t be it.
Suddenly, I felt like I was bursting with energy and enthusiasm for life again. I could get through work shifts and pay my bills. I was in a position I couldn’t have dreamt of merely months, even weeks before. I spent a hell of a lot of time in the library writing shitty stories because I still felt like doing something, ANYTHING creative. If the illustration door was closed to me, then maybe I could learn to write? I didn’t think too deeply about what I wrote or why, I just spewed for hours, often working right through the night. Getting my head into something else was an absolute joy. I was high on feeling good again and I felt like I had a lot of ground to make up. But, even though I had all this new energy to burn, I had no real direction for it to go. I’m not a writer. At the time, I didn’t even fucking read. Who was I kidding? Plus, my obsessive pursuit of this new creative fad didn’t go unnoticed by my friends who knew I’d long withdrawn from almost all social contact but now for the sake of what? One day it was suggested that I should go home to Bradford and recover. It was the correct idea. I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere if I continued with what I was doing. Clearing my head was for the best. So sometime between spring and summer of 2009 I went home.
After a couple of months of recovery, I went back to work at Bradford’s Wetherspoons branch. The next few years were marked by long and regular dips back into functional depressive episodes. It settled into a regular seasonal pattern. The low moods would come and go like the weather, with no real rhyme or reason except the certainty of them being longer and darker in the winter. During the lows, I hadn’t much interest in things as I probably should have been. My old hobbies, my art, even my sweet and dear writing fad, all never grabbed me the way they should have. Sexually, I was apathetic. I mistook that as an inevitable side effect of growing up. I still chased girls, like a small puppy might chase a cat and not have the slightest clue of what to do if he actually caught one. I thought this lack of desire was the new normal. I developed a distinctly self-depreciating style of personality. I felt like I had nothing clever or funny I could ever say to anyone about anything, and as a defensive measure I would poke fun at myself for the amusement of others hoping it would be enough to get them on my side.
Creatively I might have dabbled, but never in a serious or sustainable way. I didn’t manage to find an artistic method with which I could stick to. Professionally, I was hot & cold for the work. Sometimes I’d summon some actual self-motivation and get proper into it having decided that it had to be done and that would allow life to happen around it. At other times I’d feel totally adrift. It was as if I’d taken a wrong turn a long time ago and now I was stranded in a place I shouldn’t have been in and where the currents were too strong and persistent to resist. There were times I was hardly there, my head seemed to be somewhere else. During the lows, I would struggle to perform even basic tasks. Reports were written, investigations into my underperformance undertaken and warnings were issued. At other times I was a realistic candidate for promotion. There wasn’t really a middle ground with me. It was an exhausting way to be. When I felt depressed, I had no energy. When I wasn’t depressed, I worked really hard to make up for being terrible, IE: also tiring.
Kitchen work continued to be a particular and peculiar source of anxiety for me. I would mentally implode almost as a matter of routine, experiencing episodes of sheer panic, an overwhelming sense of claustrophobia and a genuine yet absurd feeling that the situation would kill me. Since the bullying episode, I’ve never been able to do kitchen work without it being a problem. Unable to deal with the feelings in a stressful environment, anger was the prominent go-to response, effecting colleagues and costing the company money in broken equipment. Still, I put myself in for those shifts thinking that those feelings were simply the price that people have to pay to get through a day’s graft. I didn’t think there was an alternative.
But it was during one of my more enthusiastic periods that I had a breakdown. I was deep into a prolonged period of saying ‘yes’ to every work request that came to me, covering any shift going, and doing everything anyone every asked of me hoping that the work would fill the gaping hole in my sense of personal validity. After a few months of this I’d begun to pay off bits of student debt off my minimum wage, to give you an idea of how much I was working. My sleeping pattern was completely all over the place. It was quite common to do a shift having not slept a wink, and at other times sleeping for 14 or 15 hours at a time. One evening, I had a phone call from work and agreed to go in at 6am the next morning to cover another shift. As the night went on, I felt that awful sense that I wasn’t going to get to sleep again, so out of desperation I started to drink whiskey. As the dawn arrived, I’d drank the entire bottle and still not been to sleep. I spent the 1st two hours cleaning the place before opening I was in floods of tears. It was at this point I realised that this line of work really wasn’t for me. I needed a change, and that it would have to revolve around a real attempt to get back into the illustration game.
My big change came in 2012. I went to work in a live music venue near Bradford university, knowing full well I’d be called upon to produce artwork for posters and all the other advertising needs of the business. I’ve already talked about that time, but suffice to say, it was the best move I ever made in my life. Over the next few years while working there I developed a style, methodology and a unique artistic voice of my own. I still regularly experienced dips in mood, but they never turned into unending downward spirals… Not until very recently when it was time to push the boat out with my art career. The past year has seen the overwhelming depression come back with a vengeance as I have faced up to some of the biggest challenges in my life in my efforts to turn a fledgling art business into a thriving one. All the while, trying to sustain my relationship with my girlfriend who has shown heroic levels of patience and understanding about how my depression has effected my behavior over the past year.
At the start of this year, I was running my own art shop in the centre of Bradford. I was only there for 3 months, but for 8 months in total this year have been self-sufficient on my artistic endeavors alone without the need for a part-time job. For how splendid that all sounds, it masks the challenges and pressure I’ve faced. While in the shop, I was robbed on two separate occasions, which I’m told is fairly normal, and had the shop attacked by a gang of mindless teenagers, which might well also be normal in Bradford, I don’t know. The security guards were having a cigarette break I presume. Before they wrecked my shop and left me to tidy up, their ringleader promised that the gang would visit me again, next time armed with knives to rob me. While I dealt with the emotional and practical fallout of all that, there was an infinitely more pressing concern that I had to face up to.
It was dawning on me that, despite a great start, the whole endeavor was simply not financially viable. These were the biggest numbers in my bank account I’ve had to deal with in my life and I was looking at my money dwindle to a terrifyingly rapid degree, I fell yet again into a depressed state at the prospect of losing the shop I’d worked so hard for so long to make a reality. I was disappointed at things that seemed out of my control. That there still wasn’t a functioning website in place to tell people what was to see and do in the complex was baffling to me, and I was frustrated by the lack of uptake on the shop units. Only 4 or 5 shops were in business leaving about 10 empty units, which didn’t exactly enthuse the public to make return visits anytime soon. I didn’t feel like I was getting my money’s worth there considering the going rate for shop space in the corn exchange in Leeds would have been about the same. Something had to change. I came to a heated disagreement of opinion with the lead developer of Sunbridge Wells. My idea of a new rent structure, having a baseline of half the current rate and increasing the amount of rent paid by the shop keepers in line with the number of shops actually occupied, went down like a lead balloon with him and the other investors. They were particularly miffed about my inclusion of all the other retailers in the airing of my idea, telling me that it was unprofessional of me to talk to everyone about their rent, though they were all already talking amongst themselves about how unaffordable it was to make it work and how long they were thinking of giving it before getting out. I couldn’t help but think that a loss of more retailers would only hurt the rest who remained even more than they were already. If a viable alternative arrangement could be agreed, a shopping scene would be given a chance to build and in the end, well worth the inclusion to the conversation of everyone with a stake in it. Not knowing what to do was the worst. The stress of whether to stay or go was crushing. Would I regret leaving this? If I stay will I be carrying debt for years to come? I just didn’t know, and the depressive fog hung over me once again. While I was on the receiving end of a drunken and foul-mouthed rant from the lead developer in front of my own shop while passing members of the public watched on, I decided I’d be leaving. It made the decision really quite easy in the end. It was the best bollocking I’ve ever had.
Since moving on from the shop venture, I’ve had a similarly steep learning curve in regards to living the life of a freelance artist. The delays in payments from many clients being a constant source of worry to me at the end of every month. (If you’re a client who paid on time, I salute you!) Despite finding enough work on paper, I just haven’t been able to get ahead on it at all in reality. Money worries have led to stressful and negative thoughts about myself which have affected my relationship, which in turn hurt my productivity, which in turn hurt my finances… and so another feedback loop goes. I’ve often wondered to myself if someone who didn’t have the history of depressive patterns of behaviour would have handled my troubles any better than I’ve been able to. Many times I’ve asked myself if I’m really up to doing this. I’ve thought about quitting. Out of frustration at a situation that never improves, I have self-harmed. I don’t say that lightly. I don’t want to wear it as some sort of badge of honour. I’m just telling you that in times of high stress, a painful rush would calm me down. But what a terrible way of dealing with feelings it is, feelings about problems that will still be there, unchanged, once the blood has dried. There has to be another way. All year long, I have played 5 a side football with an excellent group of lads in Bradford. I set up the group because I was sick of feeling depressed and I was sick of the loneliness that is part and parcel of gym visits. I thought the regular physical exertion and social contact would keep depression at bay. Though it most definitely helps, it isn’t enough on it’s own when practical problems in life present themselves. A practical problem is worse than a perceived one, to solve it you need to have way of dealing with negative feelings. As with most things in life, it helps to practice.
I’ve found that it has helped to organise my thoughts and feelings in a mood diary. Basically, I note down very briefly what I do and how I feel regularly every day. When I first started keeping one, I didn’t expect for it to have any effect at all. I discovered that not only did writing down what I did alleviate my own personal guilt about what I thought I’d achieved every day, but I felt more equipped to tell people close to me about how my day actually went and if I had things on my mind, what they were. Remember I said earlier that when it hits the only fathomable timeframe is the moment that exists now. The mood diary is a point of reference for myself so I can better understand the events and feelings of the day, without which I would struggle in hindsight to summarize and understand myself. A good exercise I’ve tried is to take 3 bad things I might have written down that week and try to think of 3 good things, looking back on those events in hindsight. I often find that I can think of 3 things that are different ways of looking at the negative things I had written at the time. For example, one week I wrote that I had to stop exercising about 10 minutes into a gym session because I just felt too worn out and lethargic. The good thing in hindsight was that at least I did some exercise that day, much better than if I didn’t bother at all. A mood diary might not work for everyone. We’re all wired differently. Some will find that writing down their worries on a page is actually worse because all it will seem to do is clarify and reinforce negative feelings. Some people will find different techniques will work better. The only solid advice I can give is to seek out help if anything I’ve said in my ramblings here chime with what you go through yourself. You don’t need to do it alone. Struggling is not simply the price we pay to exist.
It’s not my intention to impress anyone with my story. I’m not claiming for a second that I’ve had it tough or anything. In fact, at many stages in my life it’s been quite the opposite. I had the help and support of many great people through the years. I realise there are many people in the world who have had it much worse than me and how lucky I’ve been. No matter who you are or what you’ve gone through, there’ll probably be someone who’s had it worse. That’s not the point though. The point is that there is a significant number of us who go through mental health issues, and to remember that if you are reading this and feel effected, you are not powerless. Though others around you can help in many ways, ultimately it is your mental health at stake, so do seek medical help. Take the steps as soon as you can to learn ways to manage your emotional wellbeing.
Anyway, I’ll stop typing now and let you get on with it.