That time I almost wrote a book…

Nov 29 / Jude Schweppe
I was looking for something in a folder on my laptop this morning and I came across the piece of writing below. It’s the prologue I wrote for a book that I started working on when I was pregnant with my second son, Artie. I got 10 chapters in and then, at 9 months pregnant, exhausted and too damn hot (we had a full-on heatwave that summer), I literally could not write another word. And I haven’t returned to it since. I’ve no idea when or if this book will emerge from the safety of my laptop, but the prologue might help someone who feels or felt like I did.


This one time (not at band camp), I decided to write a blog. It was just coming up to World Mental Health Day 2017, and I really wanted to add my voice to what I felt was a massively important conversation, but one I had, for a long time, been reluctant to engage with. Shame, embarrassment and being brought up with an attitude of ‘stiff upper lip and just get on with it’ had prevented me from opening up publicly about my own struggles with that cursed Black Dog. But this year as I scrolled through my Facebook feed and saw post after post from friends and acquaintances, bravely sharing little snippets of their own mental health stories or posting videos and memes in support of the discussion and the need for amplification of that discussion, I decided it was time to step up and add my own thoughts on the subject.

It was getting to the stage where I was starting to feel worse about my lack of courage and contribution to an issue that has become nothing short of a crisis, both here in the UK and back home in Ireland, than I ever would about telling my own story. How could I beat the drum for more support in mental health care, more intervention and indeed prevention at a much earlier age, when I couldn’t be honest enough to say, ‘and this is why I feel so strongly about the issue.’

I was prepared to post articles from various news websites about the devastating effects of cuts to crucial mental health services; I would post comments of support when people I knew opened up about their ongoing battles –  but only from a distance – yet I was not prepared to lift the lid on my own boiling pot of despair and admit that I too had struggled. Eventually, I realised that one foot in and one foot out of the debate was no way to show my support. My Black Dog was, after all, a part of who I was; he had shaped the person I had become, and after years of not really understanding what caused the bugger to appear, seemingly out of nowhere, I was, at last, starting to figure out why he had rocked up at certain points in my life, sucking all energy and enthusiasm for anything beyond eat, sleep and bed out of me, and replacing me with this morose, Zombie-like husk of a woman before I even realised he was there again.

Over the course of the previous two years I had decided it was high time I started getting to know myself, as in, really getting to know myself. Knowing myself meant I could cut him off at the pass, as it were, by being vigilant when it came to my mental health and understanding what it was I needed to do in order to keep him at bay. What was it that made me fire on all cylinders, feel alive, feel connected, feel as though I was making a proper contribution to this crazy and getting crazier world? And what was really happening when I withdrew from life, turned away from the people and things that made me happy, and began the familiar slippery slide down the horrible slippery slope to that dark and airless pit where my Black Dog lurked. Where there was no joy, no colour, no taste, no purpose, no point to anything, no inspiration, no energy. In short – no real life. I began to realise (in one of the biggest ‘well, duhhhh’ moments of my life) that one of the few (but perhaps the most important) things that could chase that mongrel away was my creativity. When I am actively engaged in creating something, I am mentally in pretty good shape. The mongrel doesn’t like it when I’m creative. It’s not what he feeds on. He takes one sniff around, realises that this sort of carry on, where laughter, inspiration and joy live, is not to his taste at all and slopes off out of sight, waiting for his time to roll around again.

By the time I had come to this perfectly obvious conclusion, I had made an awkward peace with depression (though I must admit, I do still struggle with that word.) I had forgiven myself for succumbing to it on so many occasions over the years; some of the episodes lasting months on end, some of them just a few weeks. I no longer blamed myself, because now, finally, I had figured out that there were a number of ingredients that went into the bowl when it came to my mental stability, and the chief ingredient –  the 8oz of flour –  was my creativity. I now felt as though I wanted to share this lightbulb moment with others and share it in a way that, I hoped, would give them at least some insight into their own suffering.

So I mustered my courage, sat down at my laptop and wrote what turned out to be the catalyst for this book. I decided not to shy away from the darkness – from the pain, confusion and debilitation of depression – and I shared my experience as openly and as honestly as I could, all the time thinking ‘I hope my Mum doesn’t read this, she’ll be devo!’ and chasing away the saboteur who sat on my shoulder throughout the entire process, telling me to get back in my box and that nobody wanted to hear my sob story anyway.

I then fannied around for ages wondering whether or not I should actually post it. Was I being self-indulgent, was it all a bit woe-is-me, was I teetering on the edge of the dreaded ‘overshare’? Would people be rolling their eyes as they read it, scoffing at the lack of any real tragedy. ‘Jaysus, hasn’t she little to worry her?’ being the historical attitude of much of Irish society to depression and mental health issues. ‘Possibly, maybe, who knows, just post the damn thing now you’ve written it,’ was my eventual conclusion. And so I did. And of all the posts I had written that year it was the one that resonated the most with my small community of followers. Depression was not an uncommon affliction in the creative community – not that that was news to anyone, least of all me – but what I also sensed was that in a lot of cases that depression had been triggered by feeling very disconnected from the creative self or not really knowing how to live in harmony with this self. I sensed in lots of people the frustration that comes with desperately wanting to do that which you know you were put on this earth to do, yet finding it a real challenge to do so when often times it simply doesn’t pay the bills, or the breaks just don’t seem to be coming your way, or the kids have taken up so much of the space where that creative passion used to reside that you don’t even know if there’s a dying ember anymore, let alone the fire that used to burn fiercely when you were an innocent day-dreaming 8 year-old.

Now, having hung out in that dark and airless pit more times than I’ve tried new fad diets, I understand that getting the balance right is the key to leading a healthy creative life. And yet, getting the balance right has always been the biggest challenge for me. Not just a challenge but a head scratching conundrum. How do I navigate life as a creative person and inherent dreamer in a world where it is becoming increasingly difficult to keep one’s head above water even with a decent and regular income? How do I do the things that keep the fires burning in my soul, while paying my mortgage, feeding, clothing and educating my children, and taking them on a yearly summer jolly where I can fret about them getting too much sun and eating too much ice-cream. And do I even have a right to keep thos fires burning? In a world where so many people are literally hanging on by their fingernails to whatever scrap of a life they have, starving, fleeing from unspeakable terror and cruelty, desperately trying to eke out a living on land that barely supports life at all, what right do I have to dream, to want and to need creative fulfilment?

These are all questions that, in recent years, I have had to explore at length. It was often painful to do so. I had days when the only conclusion I could come to was that I was an out and out failure. I didn’t have the talent; I didn’t want it badly enough; I gave up too easily; I allowed myself to be lured away from my creative life by things that really didn’t matter. Who needs money anyway? Why couldn’t I live on beans and toast in a crappy, cockroach infested apartment in New York city like so many other actors were willing to do. What have I ever sacrificed for my art, really? The judgements rolled in thick and fast and I went through so much guilt I considered making my way to the nearest confession box and asking the priest in situ if he was allowed to dole out punishment/absolution (I’m, never entirely sure what they dole out) to heathen protestants like me?

While I was going through this process, I was also coming to terms with the fact that I had recently become a mother, and unlike lots of amazing women I know, I did not take to motherhood like the proverbial duck to water. I took to the water and sank like a stone. It took me six months to fully accep the fact that I was now responsible for this tiny human being, and a further two and a half years (give or take) to fully embrace that responsibility. Don’t get me wrong, I diligently breast fed him, changed the shitty nappies, cleaned up the puke, didn’t sleep, got into the shower still wearing my clothes, locked myself and my new born baby out of the house on several occasions and, generally played the role of mother very well, but all the while I was thinking: this is all wrong, I’ve been woefully miscast here. What was the director playing at?

This was followed by terrible money anxiety. For the first time in my life, I had to consider, as in really consider, another human being when it came to making plans and decisions about my life. I had always been good at making money when I needed it, being of the opinion that as long as I had two functioning arms and legs there was always a pint that could be pulled or a burger that could be served. Now, things were entirely different. The avenues I usually rolled down to earn a few quid were suddenly entirely blocked off – no way around. Whereas previously I had done quite well freelancing as a copywriter at various creative agencies around London, this was no longer an option. Babies weren’t welcome in the creative room. They yelled non-stop and were shit at table tennis.

This crushing money anxiety soon smothered my creative flame, and I decided that it would have to remain as ash for a while until I figured this shit out. How can I be a good mum, contribute my fair share to the household bills and earn money in a way that doesn’t make me want to curl up in a ball and die? And only when I have figured all of this out, am I even allowed to contemplate how I might do it while still pursuing my creative passions. I pondered and pondered and pondered and drove my poor husband almost to distraction with said ponderings and never-ending questions, and eventually I came up with some answers that seemed to satisfy my various constantly arguing selves, and allowed me to fully embrace the creative side of Jude. I finally realised and accepted that this is part of who I am. It’s not up for debate. It’s a non-negotiable.

Because here’s the thing – I fervently believe that we don’t choose our creativity, our creativity chooses us, it is a part of our DNA, and we must honour it in whatever way we feel inclined to or capable of doing so. To deny your creativity or your yearning to perform and share what you create with other people is to deny who you are. And that is no way to make your way through this bonkers journey we call life. We cannot deny who and what we are. It simply doesn’t work. It is painful in the extreme and will always come back to bite us in the ass. Or, worse still, strip us of everything else that makes us who we are. In her wonderful book Big Magic, Liz Gilbert talks at length about her thoughts on this theory, and how she believes the work chooses us to be the vehicle and we either agree to this arrangement and show up for it, or we don’t. In Bird by Bird, a beautiful and insightful work by Ann Lamott on writing and life, she discusses a similar attitude to the creative contract and the part we play in bringing artistic work to life, arguing that, in the case of writing at least, we do it because we must do it; because we are ‘a species that needs and wants to understand who we are.’

I agree with both women and I remember feeling a huge sense of relief when I read their books. I began to come to the comforting conclusion that it was not so much that I had chosen this path but rather that it had chosen me, and that helped me to make sense of the fierce and, at times, all-consuming emotions that often seemed to be part and parcel of choosing to walk this path – particularly when one of those emotions was intense disappointment. When you start to wonder if you are, in fact, just a little bit mad to be wilfully and continually putting yourself in situations where rejection is the likely outcome 80% of the time, it helps enormously to think that it’s not necessarily because you have inherent sadomasochistic tendencies, but rather that you have answered the call, agreed to the contract and you are showing up and keeping up your end of the bargain.

I also believe, even though there was a time when I didn’t properly understand what it really meant, that a gift not honoured can go bad on you. We’re a bit like dairy cows in that sense! If a dairy cow is not milked every couple of days or so there’s a very good chance that she will become ill, or at the very least suffer a great deal of discomfort that only a good long tweak of those udders can relieve for her. If you have a story, a piece of music, a painting, a song, a performance inside of you that needs to come out and you don’t give it the opportunity to be made, then much like our friend Daisy the dairy cow you may very well become ill, or find yourself in an on-going state of extreme discomfort for which, unfortunately, there is no other relief.

Once I had set it on its merry way, my blog took on a little life of its own and people I didn’t know began to engage with what I had written, as is the way with Facebook when something seems to strike a chord. And as I read through the comments, it seemed that my theory was, if not 100% right, then at the very least hitting pretty close to the mark for lots of people who were reaching out and saying, ‘Yes, this is my story too. You have spoken directly to my experience of what it is to be a creative person, struggling to navigate the choppy seas of life with my creative soul intact.’ I was not alone, and that was as huge a relief and source of comfort to me, as my blog seemed to be to those who read it.

A friend I had gone to primary school and danced with until we both moved on to secondary school wrote something in response that made all the agonising over whether to post it or not worthwhile. Louisa went on to specialise in circus movement while also painting, drawing and following the creative breadcrumbs wherever they might lead her. I have such admiration for her dedication to honouring her gifts and yet it seemed from her comment on my blog that she was not entirely deaf to the ‘what the fuck are you doing’ monkey either. Her comment is printed here with her permission:

‘I would say that at some point EVERY day, I question my time spent on all this circus and movement malarky. Surely, I should be investing my energies into some form of career progression instead of researching forward roll transitions on a trapeze. Climbing some sort of career ladder instead of attempting a front balance off the third rung. And again today, even after a lovely 7am movement class, those familiar voices of ‘what the &%*@ are you doing’ started up as I checked in on computer stuff. Then I read this by a school friend, and dance buddy from back when we were just nippers. Thank you Jude Schweppe for such a nice blog post and shutting up those pesky monkey voices and to hear my own voice think, ‘this is why I do this’. Happily off to a handstand class this evening to beat those chatters into even further submission.’

The artistic vocations that chose me were first dance and then acting, and my passion and love for both runs deep. At various stages in my life, both have brought me such immense joy, and at the same time (because I am, after all, a drama queen) not inconsiderable pain. I remember so well the desperate longing I had as a little girl – who was always that bit too tall and a bit too well endowed in the hip department –  to swap the lower half of my body for one that was altogether more pleasing to my hyper-critical eye and much better suited to creating the graceful and elegant lines of the perfect arabesque. And yet, at the same time, dance gave me the most precious connection to my body and a way of expressing feelings and emotions that I simply could not wrap words around during some of the more tumultuous episodes of my childhood.

As my dancing years came to a natural (or unnatural, I still haven’t decided yet) conclusion, my focus switched to acting, which made perfect sense to anyone who had happened upon me having full blown conversations with groups of people who did not, in fact, exist. It’s not so much that I had imaginary friends, it’s more that I acted out the movies that ran through my mind, playing all the characters in my little dramas and directing at the same time. And because I was an anxious and serious little girl in the period just after my parents separated, these movies were quite often great dramatic weepies which never ended well. Acting was therefore a perfectly natural and organic replacement when I finally hung up my ballet shoes. And once again, the process of creating and embodying entirely new characters and immersing myself in their stories was one that was hugely comforting; the ultimate escape from a reality I didn’t want to inhabit a lot of the time. Is this the draw for a lot of actors I wonder? Or just the deeply unhappy ones. Was acting the one thing that provided much needed pain relief for the beautiful yet deeply troubled Robin Williams? Or Philip Seymour Hoffman? Or would they not have been such exquisite and distinguished actors had they not also suffered the most debilitating and, in the end, all-consuming depression and addiction; the very sensitivity and connection to the most delicate part of what it means to be human having been both their gift and their excruciating cross to bear.

It’s a question I’ve pondered more in recent years as I have come to terms with my own mental health struggles. What came first for me, and indeed, what comes first for any creative person battling with their own particular brand of wretched demon? The call to create or the darkness? Was Amy Winehouse a troubled soul before she was an extraordinarily talented musician? Was it because of her darkness that she felt called to channel with such searing honesty so much of her pain into her music? Was it her music, and the fame and lifestyle that ensued, that in some way facilitated and fuelled her demon?

In his Ted Talk on the root causes of addiction, Johann Hari suggests that what is really missing in the lives of many addicts is true, meaningful connection with other human beings. So was it, that despite creating work that connected with, moved and had such a profound impact on so many people, these remarkably talented people remained fundamentally lonely and isolated in their own private hell. It’s a thought that makes me terribly sad. Does it really have to be like this?

I read an interesting interview recently with a band from Leeds in the UK called Hookworms whose frontman, by his own admission, has battled ‘chronic depression’ since his teens. Yet his darkness is not necessarily the source of his inspiration. He argues that he writes some of his best songs when he’s happy, adding that ‘personally, I’d rather be totally sane and stable and never have made any music than be depressed and make music that people like.’ This admission really struck me and made me reflect on my own feelings on the matter. Would I rather never have gone through depression but at the same time never experienced the other-worldly joy of dancing or acting or writing something that my small band of merry readers found touching and moving? Personally, the answer is no. Perhaps it’s because my darkest days seem to be behind me and, much like childbirth, there is a tendency to disremember the agony, but in all honesty, I don’t think I would erase the experience from my life completely. Like many things in nature, time spent in the dark, underground and very far away from the source of our light can be part of the natural process of growth and development. This is certainly not the case in all circumstances, and for some people, the crippling experience of being buried in that dark is one they could quite happily do without, thanks all the same, but I do see the sense in this analogy and I do believe that there is something valuable to be learned from our pain, should we choose to and feel strong enough to stay open to the lessons.

So, back to the question of finding that all elusive balance. And what do we really mean when we talk about living a balanced life, creative or otherwise. In the coaching world, we often use a tool called The Wheel of Life to help clients take a meta view of their current situation and how they rate different aspects of their life including things like relationships, money, health, environment, work etc. It gives us an opportunity to see where things might need a little work, and very often when one area scores very low it has a direct impact on another. So, for example, if work is a big issue then the direct impact might be on health or relationships, which get a pretty low score as well. Chatting recently with a friend about what it really means to live a healthy and balanced life, we came up with the following list of questions, which have been very helpful for me in assessing just how far I’ve come in recent years. They are as follows: 1. Can you pay your bills? 2. Do you have a fulfilling relationship? 3. Are you mentally healthy and functioning? 4. Are you pursuing your creative projects? 5. Is your physical health good? These days I’m delighted to be able to say that pretty much all of them get a smiley face, but there have been times throughout my life when the only thing I was doing was paying my bills – just about. I wonder what the answers would be if we were to put these questions to people we perceive to be living the creative dream? How many of the people whose work I have loved and studied and admired could add smiley faces to that entire set of questions? I suspect the answer might be fewer than we would like.

Having pondered and reflected and mooned and navel gazed for quite some time on the issue of my mental health and my creative passions, particularly acting, I’ve realised that my love for acting was very much like being in a relationship that began with all the crazy, heady euphoria of finding that person you believe with all your heart is THE ONE, then a few years into the relationship, realising that you’re not entirely sure you know how to be with this person in a healthy, loving way. Yes, the fire is there, the passion is without question, but you want things all on your own terms. You want that person to sustain you and support you in every way possible. You must make me feel alive, you must bring out the very best in me and then allow me to bask in the glow that comes with being my shiniest, most talented self. You must get along with my family and all my friends, you must support me emotionally, spiritually and yes, please, financially – that too. And most importantly of all, you must always be there when I need you. I don’t want to have to come chasing after you.

I realise now that in my naivety I expected that acting would be all of these things, and that it would always go my way, and when it didn’t, I wasn’t equipped to deal with the consequences. I didn’t know how to compromise or take stock to try and work things out. As in all my relationships at that point, I was black or white, all or nothing, inflexible and not prepared to negotiate (Christ I was a pain) and when acting refused point blank to bend to my will, I simply walked out on it. Ha, see how you like them apples. See how you get on without me, now eh? Acting got on just fine without me, there were a million more fish in the sea. I on the other hand didn’t fare quite so well. I broke my own heart, left all the records and CDs behind, walked out without looking back and couldn’t bear to even think about the love of my life for a very long time.

When I could bring myself to think about it, I was determined to take a new approach; one that involved balance and measure, rather than launching myself full tilt at one end of the spectrum or the other. Will Smith in one of those ‘follow your passion, live your dream’ motivational speeches he is so damn good at suggests that if you are called to the performing arts and really want to make a go of it, then you shouldn’t have a Plan B. Your Plan B will end up providing a comfort blanket that will make it too easy for you to give up when the going gets tough, as it certainly will time and again in the business of show.

On the one hand, I do agree with him, but on the other, I don’t believe that everyone is blessed with the required mental fortitude to withstand the really tough times in this business, and there may come a point when the going is so tough that you literally start to sink. It’s at this stage that you must ask yourself if this is really what you want? Does chasing the dream have to come at the cost of your emotional and spiritual well-being? Surely, there must be another way? Surely it is possible to integrate your creative passions into your life in a way that nourishes and supports you and allows you to remain pieced together as a human being. Doing whatever it is you feel called to do should be a delightful and fulfilling way to spend your time, something that fills your cup, rather than something that drains and exhausts you and pits you in a permanent battle against yourself – one you cannot hope to win. And surely it should be possible to do this without any sense of guilt or shame at having pulled out of the professional race because you couldn’t catch your breath?

I believe that there is another way, and I believe that we reach a certain point with our creativity when it becomes about more than chasing a personal dream, yearning for validation, seeing your name in lights, or whatever it might be. Call it growing up or call it reading too many books on personal development, but my perspective on creativity and the role it has to play in my world has changed dramatically. Whereas in my twenties, acting was a drug for me – the ultimate high and the ultimate escapism – nowadays I am consciously choosing to be in a very different relationship with it. I feel less of a desperate need to perform and more of a passionate desire that comes from wanting to make my own contribution to the stories that I feel are crying out to be told. And this seems to me to be a far healthier, far more balanced approach than the one I adopted as a wannabe ‘bright young thing’, fresh out of drama school and ready for my close-up Mr. DeMille.
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