My first encounter with depression was at a time when, from the outside, you’d have thought I had the perfect life. Plucked from obscurity to play a role on a leading British TV drama/soap watched by millions, earning money unheard of for most 22 year olds, living in London at the height of Cool Britannia; it surely didn’t get much better than that. But one of the clearest memories I have from that time is of lying on the landing of the flat I shared and thinking that I might not ever have the energy to get up again. Triggered by the grief over the breakdown of a long term relationship, the loss of two dear family members, isolation and loneliness living far from friends and family and the sheer bonkers life that celebrity brought knocked me for six. Had it not been for the dear English man who had the madness to fall for me and want to look after me, and his dear Mum who took me under her wing, I am not sure I would have got through that time as relatively unscathed as I did. I am eternally grateful that social media didn’t exist at the time. The worst tabloid slur I encountered was having my style named ‘granny chic’. I’m not sure I would have been able to cope with the scrutiny of today’s media.
Being an actor requires vulnerability in spades. Not least having to put oneself and one’s talent in front of casting people time and time again only to be rejected but even when on the job, the greatest actors enable themselves to open up, to feel and express emotions that most people would run from. Actors go where angels fear to tread and I don’t care if you think that’s hyperbole. But actors, or indeed any artist, who allow themselves to be vulnerable without first knowing their own worth are like someone going deeper and deeper in to debt, hoping that somehow it will be magically paid off. It rarely does.
If you’re going to embark on creative living, you, first of all, need to know that you are enough in and of yourself and that no amount of criticism, rejection, disdain or abandonment changes the fact that you are worthy of love and belonging, that you are enough as you are, that in terms of your place in the universe you have nothing to prove, nothing to earn and that you have value above and beyond your mere output.
When we work from that place, then we are free to express whatever truth we feel compelled to share. It’s vulnerable because it’s an expression of our deepest selves and may not be welcomed by others and that’s what also makes it brave. It is daunting. No one sets out purely to reveal their heart in the hope that they’ll be rejected.
It has been the undoing of many a gifted artist and it’s really no surprise to me that there are many creative people who turn to drink or drugs or sex or bullying to dampen the fire that laying bare deep emotion can light. Self destructive behaviour comes not as a result of vulnerability but as a result of the artist not believing in their own worth before they set out to be vulnerable. The idea that being an artist goes hand in hand with a life of starvation, addiction and mental illness is, at best, boring and at worst a damn lie. If self destructive artists are more noticeable, their stories make the news more often, that’s just because the culture we live in feasts upon misfortune and illness rather than understanding or healing. But they also wreak havoc on the emotional well being of others around them.
I was once bullied by an actor known for his brilliance and talent. It rocked my confidence to the point where I essentially ran away from my career. I was told by other more experienced actresses that this man hated women and younger men and that I shouldn’t take it personally. While the whole experience was pretty traumatic and while I blamed him for the gap in my professional life for years, I can now look at him with compassion. No amount of praise or fame was going to make that man know how brilliant he was because he just didn’t believe it of himself. He drew his sense of power from belittling and bullying more inexperienced or sensitive people not realising that his greatest power could have been in sharing his brilliance and shining his beauty on the rest of us, raising us up rather than pulling us down. Instead, his true beauty was hidden behind technical mastery and clever sleight of hand and no one could wait for the job to end so that we could be as far away from him as possible.
Depression could easily be described as the sense of forgetting your worth, letting go of the truth of your being of value regardless of anything you do. Those first years of my life in London I spent most of my time trying to be someone I thought the world wanted me to be, trying to be someone people would like, love, employ, be friends with. I forgot that I was enough already. And it’s a vicious cycle striving to keep the persona you create alive in order to get the work/relationship you think you need to fill the void that you’re running from by creating a persona…. Instead of vulnerability, we find ourselves oversharing. Instead of brave, we are brash. And it’s all to fill a well that can never be filled by other people’s opinions or by our own fears.
The body knows when it can’t run anymore and when the well is empty. The reaction is to turn in on itself (depression) or on others (aggression). When you’re at empty, it can take a long time to fill back up and heal from the myriad of issues that come with a body and mind that breaks down. The focus in our creative community needs to be on resilience and self care so that the well never runs dry. Self care is a phrase that’s bandied about a lot and used as an excuse for further numbing but the important thing to remember is that Self Care is not Self Comfort. Drinking a bottle of gin while binge watching Netflix could be classed Self Comfort. Self Care is knowing that in order to function you need decent sleep, good food, some exercise and perhaps a local AA meeting.
Self Care is about honouring ourselves, knowing our worth as human beings and understanding that to be able to share our truth with the world through our art, our bodies and minds need looking after. And listen, in case you think I’ve got this one licked, let me be truly vulnerable here (in the spirit of fostering deeper connection) and say I’m writing this at the tail end of yet another depressive episode that has meant that most days have felt like wading through mud. The stone of anxiety in my chest has been lodged for a while and simple things like making school lunches can feel overwhelming. I let the well run dry again. I got ‘too busy’ (read: too arrogant) to keep up my daily walks, my healthy diet, my teetotal life. I looked for comfort rather than care. I turned in on myself and on others. It’s no fun when your seven year old tentatively wonders whether Mummy has taken her medicine today.
Instead of indulging in shame however, I am acknowledging that I am a flawed human being who is still worthy of love and belonging. Every new day offers the opportunity to start again – this is grace and for that I’m grateful. I am enough. This is what my spiritual beliefs teach me, this is what I can return to again and again, building myself back up, filling the well.
Be brave, be of good courage, you are fearfully and wonderfully made and you are loved beyond all you can hope or imagine. Start from there. Draw from that sumptuous well. Bloom and grow and flourish. And then, be vulnerable and share your beauty with the rest of us.
This is part of a series on creativity inspired by my conversation with Noni Stapleton and the whole series will be released as an ebook exclusively to my mailing list at the end. For more tips and information on self care for artists, tune in to my Shout Out Friday at 11am this week on my Facebook page.
Brene Brown made the topic of vulnerability famous with her TED talk from 2010. It’s worth checking out.