Interview with Digital Arts on mental health, depression and addiction


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Tell us a bit about your experience with mental health and/or addiction.

"I’ve suffered from episodes of depression for most of my life. It’s always seemed to be closely linked with addiction. I dropped out of university after the first year. I felt so low I didn’t want to leave my room, life felt empty and pointless and I had insomnia for months. It was pretty brutal. At that time I was smoking a lot of weed. This was the first time I talked to other people about how I was feeling – my mum, a doctor and a counsellor. I quit smoking which definitely helped for a little while.

"Throughout my professional career, I would binge drink and take cocaine which would lead to anxiety attacks and suicidal comedowns. The hangovers and comedowns seemed to get worse and worse as I got older. It would take days, sometimes weeks to convince myself that my life hadn’t completely fallen apart. I was stuck in a cycle of getting trashed, feeling awful, feeling okay, celebrating the fact I felt okay, feeling awful again.

"For so long I would blame everything entirely on drink and drugs. I became T-Total for a year. I definitely felt better to start with but then episodes of depression started to return. This was a scary time as I didn’t have a comedown or hangover to blame it on. That's when I started to realise that drinking and drug-taking might not be the root cause, if anything I was using those things to self-medicate, they just weren’t working."

How have these experiences stemmed from, or been tied to, the life of being a freelance illustrator?

"Ultimately I don’t think these experiences of depression have stemmed from being a freelance illustrator, or from any particular job or creative role for that matter. I think it’s more deep-rooted than that. My understanding is that it’s a lot more to do with past trauma, conditioning, upbringing, exposure to advertising and marketing, than a reaction to current circumstances.

"In the past, I've definitely felt less able to cope with certain insecurities associated with being freelance - not getting paid on time, not winning a job I've pitched on or when there isn’t much work about, but I don't think these things have caused depression, they've just triggered something that's already there.

"Depression seems to be rife amongst creative people so I definitely acknowledge the link. As a creative person, I spend so much time in my own head, making mental notes, watching and analysing everything, attempting to connect the dots to create new ideas. I can have trouble switching off and can carry this over-analytical perspective into all aspects of my life. In my experience, depression exists predominantly through negative thought, so it makes sense that deep thinkers have a greater chance of getting depressed. If your thoughts and ideas form the basis of your career its easy to slip into the trap of giving them too much power and respect even when they turn negative."

Where, who, or what organisation did you go to for support?

"My ex-girlfriend was a big help. She encouraged me to seek professional help and reach out to people when I just wanted to ignore how I was feeling. My Mum and sister have always been good to talk to as well although there are some things I felt I just couldn’t discuss with my family or girlfriend.

"I tried AA and NA (Narcotics Anonymous) for a little while. I met a lot of great people and really felt the community vibe. I think I just found it a little too focussed on presenting alcohol and drugs as the main cause of suffering rather than a reaction to it.

"I’ve seen a few different therapists. My first experiences weren’t great, but eventually, I found somebody I clicked with. I felt a real connection with her and she really helped me process and acknowledge certain things from my past.

"I read books and listen to podcasts on spirituality, mindfulness, meditation and philosophy. My understanding is that depression happens when we get too identified with negative thinking and mistake our thoughts for who we are rather than an occurrence, heavily influenced by external factors. Certain people with certain life experiences will be more prone to negative thinking (and attachment to negative thinking) than others, but I've found reading and learning about life from alternative perspectives really helpful. 

What did you find helped your situation?

"One of the biggest helps was exploring and understanding some of the reasons why I was feeling like I was in the first place. Processing past trauma with a therapist was very helpful. I also found it much easier to be completely honest with someone I didn’t know.

"I try to participate in life as much as possible, even when I think I don't want to. I try to avoid isolating and get out of my house/studio to hang out with people. I speak to strangers when I'm out and about and try not to always listen to headphones when I'm walking. I like to take in what’s happening around me and feel connected to my surroundings. I also make sure I get out of the city once in a while and get down to a park whenever I can. I try not to smoke or take drugs and watch out for my alcohol consumption, these things can so easily put me in a haze that pushes reality back and in doing so, amplifies the voice in my head. I try and eat more natural whole foods and watch out for consuming too many processed/junk foods. Excessive processed/junk food can give me a proper hangover. I like to exercise, gym, jog, walk, hike, play football, all these things are great and often involve interacting with other people which always always makes me feel better.

"Again, reading and listening to podcasts with a spiritual/conscious/connected (whatever word you want to use) aspect to them has helped massively, I just started at a certain point and went on a journey with it."

What advice would you have for a fellow creative who may be experiencing mental health issues?

"You are not alone. There's an undeniable link between creativity and depression. The way you are feeling is not your fault but you 100% have the power to change it, just be open to that idea.

"Talk to someone and explore where this is stemming from. I recommend a good therapist. I realise there's a cost involved but it's a worthwhile investment if you ask me. Plus, I would rather be poor and happy than rich and sad.

"Find activities that get you out of your head, that involve you actually living life rather than thinking about it or watching it on a screen. All the cliches work, walking in nature, exercise, getting out of the city, interacting with people, meditating or other meditative activities instead like ping pong (all my troubles disappear when I play ping pong).

"Volunteering. If you're like I was, you might be thinking “no way, I have my own problems to sort out before I help anyone else” but I would recommend it, it feels good to help out or dedicate yourself to something that isn’t directly benefiting you. Depression is so focused on this idea we have of ourselves as completely separate from everything and everyone around us. Focus on someone or something else and watch it evaporate.

"Go on some kind of spiritual journey. I realise that this sounds really cringe to a lot of people, but I wouldn't know how else to describe it. I'm not necessarily talking about visiting India, yoga, meditation, or chanting. Pick up a book or subscribe to a Podcast. I recommend Alan Watts, Sadhguru, Eckhart Tolle, Joseph Campbell, even Russell Brand. I find the vast majority of things I read or listen to are mostly very logical but I can’t tell you how many times I've stumbled across the most helpful ideas and had the most incredible realisations. We've been conditioned to believe we are completely alone and separate from everything and everyone around us, depression feeds off this idea. so I'd recommend reading and learning about some ideas that will convince you that we're not separate at all."

You've recently been creating work based on mental health. Tell us about this.

"As I've mentioned, my mental health, creativity and general peace of mind seem dependent on how identified I am with my thoughts. So recently I’ve been making work that serves as a reminder that my thoughts are not who I am.

"I made a piece called MMICATML which is a big custom mirror with the text 'My mind is crazy and tells me lies' screen printed on the front. The piece explores the idea that our thoughts are so heavily conditioned by external factors, our upbringing, our parent's views, societies views, past traumas etc that they’re not really “ours” at all.

"I used to give myself such a hard time, I would be so self-critical and put myself down and I just remember thinking 'how can this be who I am?' I've since realised that it isn’t who I am, the negative thinking is just the result of certain life experiences. This realisation has really helped to remove the power these thoughts used to carry. I now find it so much easier to let thoughts happen without attaching myself to them"

Jimi MackayComment