Some facts about me: I am a graphic designer. I have had aspirations of becoming a writer (you’ll be able to really tell this when I casually drop the word ‘deleteriously’ into the article). I am thirty-two. I am male. I am attempting to put my life back together after burnout and long illness.
I never talk about that final fact, despite the degree to which it has affected me. Partially this is because I fear that it may affect my employability; mainly this is because talking about it would be to finally admit that it was real and that, yes, it actually happened. My experiences with illness has affected my mental health deleteriously and, although I like to believe that the illness itself is behind me, it is true to say that it casts a long shadow.
I am beginning to see that talking about my experiences may be important, despite my reservations: and so we have this article. This is my attempt at urging others to take better care of their mental health than I did mine and allows me, like a prisoner in a gibbet, to serve as some kind of grisly warning. “Don’t let my past become your future, stranger” I’ll say, and then a crow will come and peck at me a little.
Years ago I read a theory: regrettably it was far enough back in time that I cannot remember its original source: so I can neither double check my memory nor give credit to the theory’s originator. This theory is that creative people create because they have less armour with which to face the world: that the creative process is a means, manually and through painstaking internal processes, of creating filters.
… creative people create because they have less armour with which to face the world:
If you are too raw against the world – if you feel it too keenly – then you require some mechanism by which you can process it. The creative act is your means of internalising the world, of digesting it until (like with a vaccination) you have adapted to it.
While it is unprovable as a theory it is certainly an attractive rationale as to why the people I know in the creative industries (and I myself) suffer from a range of mental quirks and erraticisms that make us strange, strange people. To this day I am uncertain as to what self-care is (although I believe it has something to do with drinking lots of water) but I would suggest, if nothing else, that you cultivate a sense of internal emotional honesty. If you are sad, be aware of it. If you feel fragile, be kinder to yourself. If you feel happy, perhaps some kind of small dance is in order? Above all else: try and find people with which you can honestly share your feelings with and talk about it.
I recognise that this may be hard: talking about how you feel can be enormously difficult and there is certainly a stigma against talking about mental health: more so poor mental health. There are a myriad of reasons for this: fear of burdening others, fear of seeming weak, fear of a lack of understanding, fear of making something more real, more concrete, by committing it to the external world: the one outside our heads. All these are valid reasons, as much as I hate to say it. It is true to say that talking about mental health problems is hard – as is listening to someone talk about them – and many people may be unwilling to hear what you have to say or be unable to process it in a helpful manner.
It is true to say that talking about mental health problems is hard.
Despite all this, it is something worth doing, as the alternatives can be far, far worse. Some people may be unhelpful, and this will have to be fine. The next time someone tries to assuage your fears by telling you that “it’s all inside your head”, feel free to remind them that this is where your entire construct of self and understanding of the world resides, that it would be much more comforting were it not all inside your head, or simply start silently pressing wet grass into their pockets until they walk away. Your mental health should never be belittled and, if it is any comfort to you at all, many of us are struggling alongside you and the journey is long – certainly long enough for things to get much, much better.
Your mental health should never be belittled…
Take care of your mental health (no, I don’t have any advice for this – if I did I wouldn’t have let mine go to waste) or find people who are brave and aware enough to help you when you need it. Respect the fact that you may have internal structures that make you inherently more likely to succumb to depression, anxiety, or anything else, really. Pursue creativity as a means of understanding the world, or as a career choice, or for any other reason you can think of. Drink lots of water.
I have a problem with uncertainty. Too many times, as I’m performing an action, I allow myself to be filled with uncertainty as to whether or not it’s a good idea. Uncertainty washes out the head: it dilutes your intention and it distracts your focus. It preoccupies the brain with determining whether you should be doing a thing at all, rather than focusing singly on making it the best thing it can be.
There’s a piece of family lore that I think about sometimes: the story goes that my Dad was driving one day when he reached a fork in the road. If he took the road on the right he would be able to continue his task, whereas, if he took the road on the left, he would be able to visit the person who would eventually become my Mother. Driving to the right would show diligence and hard work, driving to the left would show romance: unfortunately he did neither and, while thinking about which route to take, he drove directly ahead into a lamp post.
It’s absolutely possible that this story isn’t true – it’s certainly true that my Dad has never grimaced on a cold morning and rubbed his ‘old lampost injury’ – but it is a helpful reminder that, in being distracted, neither action is performed particularly well. In thinking about whether something should be done or not, you can end up somehow taking the impossible middle-ground.
There’s a recurrent thought that I’ve been having that I’m keen to formalise into a mantra: the thought goes “that’s not reason enough to not do it”. A year ago, I built an outdoor cupboard for people to be able to donate to those who needed it. As I was building it one of the most recurrent questions I received was “how do you know that these things won’t be taken by those who don’t need them?”; to which the only response I could think of was “I don’t, but that’s not reason enough to not build it”.
Recently someone drunk drove into the cupboard, breaking it. While many people were sympathetic, some people had the oddly pugnacious attitude of “what did you expect?” and “you should have known something would happen”; to which the only response I could think of was: “the chance of it being broken wasn’t reason enough to not do it”.
While this is still a long way away from the enviable certainty I see motivating others, this attitude at least banishes the nagging, nebulous thought that ‘my doing of a thing’ is pointless or unwise: and so I now want to embark on a thought experiment where I use this consciously and consistently.
If I’m working on a design and my mind becomes awash with the thought that I won’t be able to make it look good, I will simply remind myself that ‘that’s not reason enough to not do it’: after all, I might be able to make it as wonderful as I hope it can be. If I’m writing an article that I think will never be published (hey article, I’m talking about you!), I will tell myself that ‘that’s not reason enough to not do it’: writing an article, even one that isn’t going to be seen, is good practice for me. If I’m enjoying a self-initiated project and my mind becomes fogged with the realisation that it’s fiscally unrewarding, I will remind myself that working on something fun and stupid can be an opportunity to recharge and learn new skills.
… I will tell myself that ‘that’s not reason enough to not do it’
So that is the experiment: to suspend uncertainty for long enough to commit, fully and wholeheartedly, to whatever project I’m working on; to see what can be accomplished when I spend less time indulging in self-doubt; and, above all, to avoid life’s lamp posts.
Timothy Ames is graphic designer with proficiency and interest in campaign/branding designs for small businesses and startups. Graduating from University of Portsmouth with a BA (Hons) in Graphic Design, Timothy has worked on many physical and interactive projects. He is enthusiastic about humanitarian acts, writing and advocating for positive mental health.
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