Why I am Worried to Talk

Last year I wrote a blog about my mental health and how it is tied to my work as a theatre maker. I think it generated a lot of discussion, and it was also a great help for me, as many people reached out with kind words and boosted my self-esteem when it was at its lowest. 

The blog undoubtedly was a useful stage in my recovery so it would make sense that I write another while I’m struggling again. But this time it has been much harder. I have tried to type some words every day for about three weeks and I haven’t been able to until maybe this moment. We will soon see… this might be deleted or if you are reading this now, then it might just be that I’ve manged to scramble something together. Thank you, I hope it is a worthwhile read. 

The last few months have been very difficult for me for lots of reasons. I have been signed off again after having a big dip in my mental health. I had to leave a production I cared deeply about and was really excited to work on. To top it off, with my actions, I scared a lot of people who I love and respect. This has naturally come with lots of mixed up feelings, guilt, helplessness, vulnerability and huge amounts of regret. I am getting lots of support and help to deal with it. My family are caring for me on an hour to hour basis and supporting me in particularly low ‘can’t get out of bed days.’ The NHS mental health team and doctors in Fife are working with me to try and make this a long-lasting recovery. My industry peers have picked up and carried on what I had to leave behind.

One of the ways this was achieved was by putting the standard out of office on my email. My colleagues picked up any emails coming my way and spoke to contacts, carefully explaining that I was taking some time off and they would deal with things in my absence. This is of course absolutely the right protocol. Standard procedure, I would imagine, for any sickness.  My team mates were stepping in and stepping up to ensure that I could step away. This meant I should not stress over work and focus on my recovery. 

The only thing was, this is  incredibly difficult. As difficult as it is to write this blog. As difficult as it is to write in a tweet that I’ve been unwell. As difficult as it is to mention to friends and colleagues when I see them face to face. 

This is for one simple reason, I am scared of letting people know. I’m scared that ‘everyone gets one’ is the way we might look at the world. Ross was unwell but now he’s better. But if he’s ill again, not even one year after the last time,  then maybe, he’s not getting better. Maybe the unconscious bias is that I have just put myself in the unreliable zone. There is a truth in that. I have dropped the ball on things, twice. That’s hard to say but maybe that’s what other people might think. 

I worry a lot about what the narrative of having a consistent mental health problem might do in an industry where work can ebb and flow and there is no shortage of artistic talent who can do what I do, reliably.   

I also worry about what that means as a director who is looking to take on more demanding projects with greater strains and stresses. Does it seem like I can’t cope? 

I also worry about my role within the room. If the director is anxious that can feed into the room and affect the process. Even if the anxiety is medical and unrelated to the strength of the project. No one wants that director in their rehearsal rooms. 

I’m unsure how many of these worries are well-founded and how many are fed by my current high level of anxiety. 

What I do know is that so far, the industry has been incredibly supportive and open. 

Amazing podcasts like ‘Don’t Speak’ by Mim Attwood and Amy Taylor, and ‘Putting It Together’ by Brian O’Sullivan are opening up debate about mental health. Activists like Drew Taylor, Cultured Mongrel’s Emma Jayne Park and FST’s recent training programme highlight our growing awareness in Scotland to consider mental health in an industry that can sometimes be very exposing.

However, my recent bout of mental health has made me wonder What Can We Do Better?

I am a heterosexual white middle-class who has the wide support of family and friends. I am incredibly privileged and yet I have been knocked by the pressure of our industry.  Mental health affects us all so we need to ensure that our industry can protect those less well supported  by our society. We need to make space for more diverse voices, so we need to do more for well-being in our industry. 

For instance, we need to create opportunities for people to talk about mental health not just at external training events but when they are right in the midst of productions.  Can we make people aware of who they can check in with  throughout the process without feeling embarrassed or stigmatised? 

We need to examine how the rehearsal process works. I love a tech week. Love it. But recently as I was signed back into work my doctor recommended me working only 37 hours. I completely ignored this. Production weeks are not scheduled this way and I didn’t feel empowered to have the conversation. Schedules are in place and the show has to work to the deadline of opening night. So, I ignored the advice and I worked. And this has arguably had an impact. It was my own decision and I take this on but could an actor or a stage manager really feel supported to ask for reduced hours on production week? Would it be allowed.  Maybe we need to start thinking differently to ensure that we can support a neurodiverse team to work in new ways to make exciting new work. 

Is there that space when you have a cup of tea with a new theatre or producer or company where we can ask each other not just what do we want to make but how we can support each other in the best ways to do it? Each artist might have different invisible needs. Is there a way we can make the conversation easier and not necessarily rest on the shoulders of the freelance artist pitching for work?

 ‘I would love to direct a show for you, can I get some extra time to stretch out the tech weeks?’ 

I’m not even sure I could say that right now.  I need to get better at figuring out what I need and talking up front about it. But if there is an early career artist struggling like I have; can we find a way to make those questions and conversations easier for them? 

 This has been a hard blog to write and I don’t have any answers (evidently, I’m bloody sick again) but I’m heartened by the support I have been given. I know there are wonderful artists, producers and theatres working hard to figure this out. I hope my experience might help a little. 

Bumps in the Road

I’ve not written in a wee while. Mostly, because normal service has resumed, and I am pleased to say I am doing a lot better than I was at the start of the year. Hooray! Bring out the bunting and the platters of lactose free treats! It is good news for me and I am so happy to be working and doing what I love. But it would be a total fabrication to say it has been plain sailing.

I have wanted to prove to myself I am fit and healthy and I have dived back into work. And work has been very kind and forthcoming. I just finished a twenty day stretch. Not something I would usually brag about. There are so many people out there working much harder and much longer than me. But considering I wasn’t even managing to get out of bed a few months ago, this really does feel like an achievement. Some of the days were very long and some were shorter, but it was 20 days of work in a row. And I’m proud of the projects I worked on and everything I achieved. So seriously, I would like some lactose free goodies or something…

But this is perhaps a weird sense of achievement. I can sense my family, my friends, my psychiatric nurse smiling encouragingly while at the same time saying, 

‘ummm maybe it was this kind of work routine that didn’t help in the first place.’ 

And in a lot of ways they would be right. But the thing is, I am a freelance artist and when I’m faced with the chance to do what I love and get paid for it. It is really hard to turn that down. I don’t earn much for what I do.  And sometimes there can be stretches when not a lot comes along. So, if you get the chance you take it. You say, yes, I’m sure I can squeeze that in. And you do it. Because it’s probably an exciting project and also, it’s a pay cheque that keeps you going for another month. You might even stretch it over a couple if you have a lean patch coming up. 

And what happens in that lean patch. I don’t know if it’s the same for everyone, but it can be when I work the hardest. Get those applications in. Dream up the next few ideas. Update the website. Email out for some more work. Try and build my skill sets. Hustle for the pennies! 

Days off are great but they can be more of a rare treat than an expected outcome. You take the work and then you hunt the work. You love the work, so you forget that there should be space between the work.  And that can become an issue. Easily. Your mental health can slip and slide when you aren’t even noticing. When your mind is on the task in hand it is easy to forget that the breaks are important too. 

So, I have been thinking a lot about this. I can’t be the only one who feels this. I want to offer something practical. A genuine offer that isn’t much, but it might be something for someone. Are you in the midst of a massive project crying out for a weekend or have you been staring at a blank calendar and despairing at an ever decreasing (or increasing if you don’t count the minus sign) bank balance? Need a few days respite… I have a pretty comfy double bed in my little cottage home in Aberdour (recently voted second best place to live in Scotland – screw you Melrose!). The village is a 35 min train from Edinburgh. It has not one but two beaches. Its surrounded by acres of farm land and great walks. It has its own castle. A good pub. Some great cafes. We do have a cat. But she is pretty friendly. 

So maybe you need a couple of days. Maybe you know me, and it would be lovely to catch up. Maybe you only know me in passing. Maybe you’ve just stumbled onto this blog by accident. You can use the room as a hide hole and we won’t bother you. You can come down say hello and join us for dinner. It’s up to you. This invite is open to someone who might need it. An artist that needs a wee break. 

Anyway. I’m going to stop now. I’m taking a wee break myself.

Difficult by Default 2. Dangerous by Default

I made a promise to myself I wouldn’t write this blog until I could complete the story but there has been so much frustration built up over the last few weeks that I need to share it before I end up dying from helpline exhaustion.

So, when I left of on my last blog I was already pretty annoyed but hopeful that an hour-long meeting at the job centre could sort it out.  An hour speaking to an expert who can help me through this labyrinth of bureaucracy. Someone who deals with the system every day and knows the ins and outs can help me with what I thought would be a fairly simple task, apply for and receive statutory sick pay for the period I have been signed off for. As you may have predicted my hope was very misplaced.

I asked my dad to join me for the meeting. I was anxious that I might get frustrated with the process and thought it was best I had support there as I was informed in the last meeting that the task ahead would be gruelling. So once again me and Dad head up to the G4S security guard at the door and give our names. Once again there seems to be no record of us on their numerous lists but after showing our email notification of a meeting we are allowed in and sent upstairs.

There we are greeted by William. William is an affable fellow who will be leading us through the process. We begin working through my Universal Credit claim. Standard questions. Showing various documents including bank statements and passports. William clicking through in response to my answers.  Then it comes onto my work. As usual, freelance is not a box that sits happily in these systems, so I am required to list every payment I have received over the previous two years.  This involves me going through every invoice I have given. UC doesn’t work in tandem with HMRC and won’t go by financial years like myself assessments.  I need to work through various spreadsheets to ensure that they have a record of every payment. With each payment I need to list what the job was, when it occurred and who engaged me with this work. As you can imagine this is something like 40+ projects I need to list out. I’m lucky I’ve come prepared.

My dad is perhaps dealing less well with the absurdities of the system. ‘Is this system not much harder for you guys?’ my dad asks affable William. He guffaws. ‘No, no, no I love it.’ He replies genuinely. ‘I put it all into the system and it works it all through, calculations and everything. In the old system I had to do much more work.’  I am taken aback. Confused by someone having job satisfaction in just inputting data. My dad continues to explain, ‘you know it seems like a lot of work for someone who is looking for their sick pay. When I was working it was just paid by my employer, I suppose it’s the same with you too. You don’t need to worry about it or so many hours of forms.’

‘I hadn’t really thought of it as statutory sick pay before, replies affable William. He then goes on to explain how when the system came in they weren’t trained in all the aspects of it and he doesn’t know the background of things and how interesting it is to think of sick pay and he might look into that. Alarm bells ring in my head. This is not an expert. It is a man clicking buttons in response to my answers. He is literally a middle man between me and a computer screen. He functions to nod his head at my passport and then as a giant index finger on a mouse. What does he mean he has never thought about Statutory Sick pay? That is what I have always asked to be looking for. A creeping sense of dread comes over me. This has been a huge amount of bureaucracy, such a giant amount of form filling. I have paid my NI contributions, why do they need to know about my income? 

Oh my god, the feeling tingles over me. It honestly makes my hairs stand on end. I am in the wrong system. At the start of this process. I have been put down the wrong rabbit hole. This man isn’t an expert, so he is not going to identify that I am not here for his particular set of click button answers. We leave the meeting; the UC claim is complete. Emma just needs to fill in another box or too and I can claim apparently. But already I am thinking, what the hell am I allowed to claim here exactly?

As an aside, I begin to think, this is not at all what I imagine a job centre to be like. I have read the horror stories in newspapers and I expect a faceless bureaucracy. But not this. I expect a job centre to be a place for guidance also. A place where you can go to look for work and be helped and supported in this process. It is not that at all. It is a giant form filling machine. You are just a hole to be punched in a punch card. No wonder people get trapped in these systems. There is no help out they only offer warrens of bureaucracy to burrow down with the promise of a bit of cash at the end of it maybe 5 weeks down the line. It is such a self-defeating system.

Anyway, I get home. As you can imagine as someone suffering from anxiety with depression the realisation that literally hours upon hours of work has been a waste of time sets me back a lot.  I phone a Universal Credit helpline. A very helpful lady named Nicola listens to my situation and decides that I am right. When I first phoned the ESA helpline they advised me that I was in a universal credit area and would need to deal with them. Universal Credit then, not listen or perhaps understanding my specific claim for statutory sick pay advised me to begin filling out a universal credit claim online. But what should have happened, what could have stopped this whole debacle. I should have been informed that I am actually eligible for a ‘New Style’ ESA claim. These are for people in Universal Credit areas whose claims where previously covered by ESA but not by the replacement service of Unversal Credit. Nicola speaks to my case manager, Shahzeb (I have a case manager?? It would have been good to know that) who will look into it.

Shahzeb and me enter into dialogue on my Universal Credit claim page via the journal. Its like  a messenger service for my claim. There are 73 entries in this journal, most with tasks me and Emma had to complete. But my journey with the journal is coming to an end…hallelujah. Now Shahzeb emails me 4 forms. 2 of which I have to fill out. 2 of which are the proofs of ID I need to bring along to my ‘new style’ ESA meeting at the job centre.

That is right one more meeting. I fill in a 8 page 53 question form that is so poorly formatted the text of the questions and the tick boxes don’t align.  Questions repeat themselves. It’s like a Kafkaesque puzzle to decipher what they are actually asking at points. I look out every form of ID I can find, and I wait for my meeting. This time it better work.

So along me and Dad go. Affable William is waiting. Here we go again. He takes my forms. He looks confused. He laughs at his confusion. Not realising his body signals make me fill with dread each time. What has gone wrong now?  He photocopies some documents. That is it all complete. I’ve not even been asked a question. I could have emailed these forms and bypassed the meeting. The process has taken so long, that I am now back at work, So I’m taking time off for this meeting.

Ahh well. Hopefully that’s it sorted.

One week later, I check my Universal Credit page and see my claim is closed and I can no longer ask questions etc without starting a new claim. But no one has told me when my payment might be due. My sick period is over, but I have no sick pay (which I remind you I pay my national ‘insurance’ for this very reason). I decide it might be best to phone and find out what is happening.

That was this morning.  So today I have listened to hold music over my phone for about 50 mins, a culmination of 4 phone calls.  You see I looked on the Gov.uk page on ‘new style’ ESA, it advises me to phone Universal Credit. They apologise, website must be wrong.  My claim is closed. I need to phone the ESA helpline. ESA say they have no record of me and that there is two ESA’s. There are part and full ESA’s and I’ve been put through to the wrong one, they will transfer me.  Beep Beep and I’m back in the Universal Credit helpline.  I speak to them. I am mildly frustrated. They explain that they can’t help the only thing Universal Credit does for ESA is send out the applications and arrange the appointments. I am given a whole new number. A different number to call. I call it. It transfers me to the ESA helpline I have already been on. They have no record of me, perhaps they can transfer me through to Universal Credit who can help. MY DEAR GOD. I sigh and say, ‘its fine.’ Im worried now that all of this will be for absolutely nothing and I will find out I should have applied for a ‘new style part 2 universal support claim’ or something.

I am so lucky to have a loving family support me. My health has not been great. I can’t imagine how people suffering depression can go through this system without support. I can’t imagine how people with more sever or longer-term conditions can survive this. It is a test of resilience that I am so close to failing. It’s genuinely painful. It makes you feel small, it makes you feel like you are begging for something, as a citizen you are entitled too.  I am exhausted by this process and it is now affecting my mental health and my work.  It’s inhibiting my step back to work not aiding it.

I’ve emailed Shahzeb, I’m praying he might be able to answer me with something more than ‘your universal credit claim is closed.’