'I had to pull back from the brink' - creatives talk challenges of working in the arts when you have mental health issues
As the mental health arts festival First Fortnight marks its tenth year, Hilary A White talks to some of the creatives involved about the perils of mining material from their own turmoil
Tony Wright has just bought cheesecake. He's being good to himself, something he's getting better at.
Much has changed for the musician and author in the seven years since he quit his role as swash-buckling guitar hero with Belfast post-rockers ASIWYFA. A year ago, he quit alcohol and cigarettes. Coffee was also eliminated, along with what he calls "bad company" and any other "toxic element" that tampered with his inner tempo.
"I reached a few nadirs at different points," he tells me. "Just terrifying lows. I was lucky to come out the other side. To see what it was doing to other people as well, losing friends to suicide and breakdowns, and realising I wasn't that far away and had to pull back from the brink. Giving up those things was a turning point in me starting to feel like I was fixing myself."
On Tuesday, Wright will take part in a discussion at Culture Vultures, the live music-and-ideas salon. This edition, however, will take place as part of First Fortnight, the multidisciplinary arts festival that creates a space to dismantle mental-health stigma every January (when, as we can all agree, it is most needed).
For many artists involved this year, mental health is that finest of balancing acts. Much artistic raw material is mined from turmoil, the very place that spawns anxiety or depression. Wright's recent memoir, Chapter & Verse (Chorus Verse), relates his time in and out of the hard-touring rock circuit, a place not known for being gentle on the mental state. The 37-year-old sees the dichotomy but pushes against it.
"I wouldn't want to eat cheesecake all the time," Wright says. "It's the same with that darkness - we all need different ingredients. As a child, I never thought, 'I must reflect the ills of the world.' It was more I want to sing this song because it's fun. Art can be massively therapeutic, to understand and process pain. You can draw from the darkness for so long but you don't want to stay there. It has a very romantic pull to it that can trap a lot of us."
Nessa Matthews is a dramatist whose latest work Infinity won the First Fortnight Award at last year's Dublin Fringe, meaning automatic inclusion on this year's bill. Its tale of an astronaut on a one-way mission is a thin veil for her own struggles. She knows all about the tangled relationship between therapy and creativity.
"People who create don't consciously say 'this is therapeutic for me'," she says. "It can be super stressful. Often you're asking yourself, 'why am I putting myself through this?' It has to be more than just a cathartic release. For a long time, I didn't feel I should be an actor because I was shy and introverted. What keeps me going is connection with the audience.
"I find it hard to separate mental health and my participation in the arts. What it first offered me was expression in a safe place and the ability to articulate things I couldn't in life. But as you continue and make a career, it becomes more complicated. There are elements that start to contribute to difficulties - financial insecurity, inability to make plans, unemployment."
As well as staying mindful that art is something she does and that life is more important, Matthews speaks about the importance of having a job in tandem with creative endeavours, not only to provide regular income and structure to the day, but also decompression from the tight, inward-looking cocoon of the writing desk or studio. Arnold Thomas Fanning, the writer who lost a decade to severe mental illness (as detailed in bestseller Mind on Fire), feels the same. For him, harmony of the head is a strict regime comprising exercise, diet, Lacanian psychotherapy and diary-dumping.
"There's nothing admirable about skipping meals or being macho about stress levels," Fanning says. "I'm organised in the way I write, and I exercise a lot. Today, for example, I was working on draft two of book two, which is a nice place to be in. I had a couple of hours set aside for that and the first thing I did was go for a walk in the park for half an hour. Even if I have a word-count target or a deadline, I never skip the walk or the swim. It's that important.
"We need to be talking about mental health in terms of practical things. Cooking is a very important part of my life - it slows me down and it's something to share with people. It's too simple to say the artist is allowed to do things which are not good for them. They should have healthy practices like any other profession."
Constant self-doubt is part and parcel of being a writer. Almost by definition, it is a practice in self-editing, but it's important not to beat oneself up too much over things such as "fear of the blank page", Fanning believes.
Setting reduced targets on off-days - half a page, half an hour, etc - means greater scope for a sense of achievement. (Another method for times when the words aren't coming and you're doubting yourself - journalists are not immune - is to walk away and embrace distraction).
Sara Baume, a star of Irish literary fiction's new wave, will be in conversation tomorrow with Fanning and artist Eoghan O'Driscoll at an event entitled Madness, Mental Illness, & Creativity. While she stresses she is at the "low end" of the mental-illness spectrum, despair and disillusionment struck in her mid-twenties in what she calls a "quarter-life crisis".
"Our generation was given this high sense of what one could achieve," Baume says, "and then we get to 25 and realise we're average, and find that hard to deal with. I don't think I ever suffered from clinical depression, I was just lost at a certain stage in life because it wasn't working out the way I wanted it to. We were in a recession, I wanted to be a great artist, my work wasn't getting out there, I was getting rejected and I was deeply disillusioned with society. It was like a period of grieving for the person I wanted to be at 25, and then it was a process of gently readjusting my expectations."
Baume placed traces of this at the core of her second novel, A Line Made By Walking, a book that received rave reviews and award nods. It's interesting, therefore, that she prefers to work with her hands rather than frown at a laptop all day. Like Fanning, it is the non-writing - the walking of the dogs, her parallel career as a visual artist - that allows for good writing.
"I hate writing!" says one of the most acclaimed authors of her generation. "It's boring and you have to concentrate. I find sitting still and using my mind very arduous. When I'm making stuff, however, I can listen to podcasts or chat - that's the therapeutic part. It's deep introspection balanced with distraction from having to look deep into your own mind."
Dublin-based poet Raven trades in a medium that arouses immediate two-way audience connectivity but one that is notoriously naked and tricky to make a living from. He's had his share of difficulties, including a suicide attempt in his twenties.
"I worked in community mental health for years and one thing I noticed was everyone goes through it at some point. You see what's been going on in this country the last few years. So much change, laws overturned and repealed, church abuse, suicide rates in this country. Mental health is part of Irish history."
Rehearsals for Raven and the Crone, the play he has co-devised for First Fortnight, have been intense due to the personal nature of the content. Nonetheless, he insists that for him, the art itself is a coping mechanism. "I'm feeling something - it's gotta go somewhere."
We're back to the delicate balance/interplay between separating oneself from those dark raw materials of the creative bent, while finding dynamic outlets for them.
And perhaps this is just part of being a functioning, productive artist - the ability to look around as well as inside, to find the mindfulness of outward detail as well as managing interior disquiet.
"It took me a long time to find what worked for me," Wright says, "and I'm still finding it, and probably always will be. You can feel terribly alone, but then you look around and see you're not alone, and that there's actually loads of us out there. The world is not a cold, dead place, to quote that [Explosions in the Sky] album title. It's actually pretty spectacular if you look beyond."
Three shows to look out for at First Fortnight:
Raven & The Crone
An indelible presence in Dublin’s slam-poetry scene, Raven collaborates with Nicole Rourke and Deirdre Molloy for this spoken-word theatre piece that promises to be a receptacle for tales of harsh truths and a place to leave your worries behind. Expect an arch seam of the macabre to permeate proceedings. January 9-11, The New Theatre, Dublin,
This show about an astronaut following a distant signal into the lonely abyss of the cosmos won plaudits and courted awards at last year’s Dublin Fringe Festival. Written, and performed by Louth-born LAMDA graduate Nessa Matthews, it tackles themes of anxiety and solitude. January 7-12, Smock Alley Theatre, Dublin, €15/€12
Leads 2 Better Mental Health
One of many quirky but worthwhile events happening nationwide under the First Fortnight banner, this aims to bring people and their dogs together for a day of walkies, talkies and fresh air with like-minded strangers, all with a view to celebrating the mental health benefits of having a dog. January 6, Blackrock Sunday Market, Cork. Free
For more information, go to www.firstfortnight.ie