The Struggle Is Real
The struggle is real, it really is.
It just may not look the way you had expected.
Grins a lot.
Checks in to see if everyone else is comfortable.
Lays out space full of colourful stationary and props you want to interact with.
Makes a bad joke and pulls a silly face.
Wears a Pussy Riot t-shirt (it is a workshop about gender politics after all).
Sips a hot lemon and honey without burning her tongue.
Gets everyone to playfully throw juggling balls before we speak to soften the space.
And this is all before the workshop has begun. Therefore, as we move through the introductions and I explain to the group that artist Luke Pell is with us because I am currently suffering from crippling anxiety, I am not surprised to see the participants surprise.
Luke's role would be to hold the space should I need to leave the room because of my mental health. His presence is possible because Fiona Ferguson, Imaginate's Creative Director, not only believes in artists but fully invests in them without ignoring the trickier parts. As a PUSH artist with a deep rooted practice exploring gender, Fiona wanted me to deliver the workshop and if that meant finding support to enable me to do so, then so be it!
Unsurprisingly, being able to honestly explain that at present my anxiety is often debilitating means that I immediately relax and completely enjoy facilitating the space. I am more present and excited than I have been in over a fortnight. This is no small thing in a room full of brilliant, experienced and respected artists each with a thorough practice that when preparing left me questioning how I could possibly create a meaningful workshop for them all.
The content was challenging but the space remained safe, safe enough that we dealt with some fairly triggering material - but more about that in another blog...
The most prominent personal realisation was the level of thanks received from the participants solely related to how I had acknowledged my anxiety. Most commented that they 'would never have known' and noticed how naming it normalised the condition which many artists face. Many said it genuinely gave them permission to engage in the workshop in whatever capacity they could, given that we were all in the second day of an extremely intensive conference. A few even said that they hadn't realised it was possible to be so explicit about this when your role is to hold the space for another people.
But, it is.
That is my lesson from the experience.
I hadn't really chosen to discuss it but felt like I had no other option given my current fragile state. I ensured that nobody in the space felt responsible for my mental health, simply acknowledged it and explained what would happen if I needed to deal with it. I was at a loss as to what else to do but be brutally honest and I am extremely glad that I did because I am struggling but I can still be trusted to get things done.
High functioning mental health disorders are not uncommon, just not commonly discussed. I have struggled with my mental health since I was a teenager but very few people would realise because in a crowd or work situation I try to keep everyone else comfortable, laugh along and keep it positive. I achieve things. What I had not realised is that is possible to do all of those things whilst also being honest about how I really feel and taking measures to keep myself safe.
Presently, knowing that being vocal gives other people permission to do the same encourages me, maybe if we all practice the words we will find them easier to say? It is not a revolutionary idea but there is no harm in reminding people. Talking about mental health is as simple as saying 'today, I'm not okay' regardless of how I may look.