My work has always been everything to me, to the extent that it became unhealthy – my work was far more important to me than my own wellbeing. Working in the arts is a deliciously fun, curious, exploratory experience, and invariably comes with high-pressure deadlines, intensive social engagement, and (generally) appalling economic return. In my twenty five years of media arts work I’ve mostly been a freelance Creative Producer – visioning ideas and then bringing them to life, responsible for every aspect but reliant on the whims of cultural policy to survive. The cycles of boom and bust (especially around Festival circuits and the always-on demands of online culture) can be invigorating, exciting, and provide a sense of connection and belonging, but it can all come at a personal cost. People would regularly advise me to slow down and take some rest, but I genuinely didn’t know how. I even ‘discovered’ hammocks in 2013, relished in their relaxation… for about two weeks… and then turned that experience into an arts project, hammocktime, which I delivered at Festivals over the years that followed.
I took my one experience of rest… and turned it into work. Sigh.
For years I had self-critically ‘laughed’ about the fact that I could stand on a stage in front of hundreds of people and talk passionately and confidently about my work, but if invited to a party I would freak out for about a week and invariably not be able to go (followed by a lengthy and familiar process of beating myself up for being an awful friend and human). I had somehow managed to create these huge, multi-year, “pioneering” media arts projects, travelled extensively delivering education programmes and exhibitions at Festivals and speaking at International Conferences, and delivered a “groundbreaking” AUD$2.4million Strategic Initiative for the Australia Council for the Arts… yet I couldn’t take care of my own wellbeing. I couldn’t understand it, and couldn’t understand me. All I ‘knew’ was that no matter how well my work went: personally I was bad, wrong and broken. I didn’t belong, not even to myself.
After struggling my whole life with these perpetual hyper, intense, anxious, and depressive burnout loops, I experienced the worst breakdown I’ve ever had in 2017. After more than 40years ignoring (or more accurately, not being able to hear or interpret signals from) my body, my brain (typically buzzing, full of vision and possibility) literally shut down. My entire system had been screaming ‘You Need To Stop Now’ so loudly, for so long, yet I still hadn’t known how to listen, or what to do about it all. So my system took over, shutting down for me. I couldn’t think, eat, or sleep, fought severe suicidal ideation, and ended up with a kind of agoraphobia which made even going outside for a walk a monumental battle. Due to a difficult family situation which necessitated my return to the UK from AU, I was homeless at the time too. My overwhelming sense of uselessness was amplified by being a burden to those who generously offered me sofas, spare rooms, and the occasional house/pet-sit. I couldn’t explain what was happening to me, I couldn’t escape or control anything, I lost all sense of agency, and I definitely couldn’t function well enough or consistently enough to work. Since that work had previously been my entire sense of identity, of self, I was totally lost. It was terrifying.
The strangely ‘good thing’ about the severity of that particular breakdown was that it forced me to finally acknowledge the impact of developmental trauma on my world, and it lead to receiving a late-diagnosis of Autism in 2018, and of ADHD last year – all in my mid-late 40s. It’s been quite the journey (which one day I’ll write about properly), and I am still far from the strong, healthy, resilient person I want to become. But even just knowing what I’m dealing with has changed everything. I’m not bad, wrong, or broken, I’m just different. I now understand why I’ve struggled so much, have learned more about the conditions, have been experimenting with new routines, and have some actual, knowledgeable, external supports in place. Part of that journey is rooted in working out what my specific neurodivergent traits are, and what they each need. And let me tell you: it’s much easier working with them than it is fighting against them or berating myself for them. And it is far, far less exhausting.
As I reflected on my past and started to rebuild my life, I realised I’d unconsciously created a bunch of practices in my work that I had neglected to even consider might be useful in my personal life. I’m sharing this story of honest vulnerability now because I don’t feel ashamed of myself or my struggles anymore, and because there are some really useful learnings which have come out of it. This post aims to lay the groundwork for some posts I’m going to start making to share some of those learnings.