I keep coming back to this mental health topic, time and time again. That seems strange when my answer would be ‘no’ if I were to fill out a form on which a particular was ‘any history of mental illness.’ But I am, what friend and collaborator Andrew Cotterill referred to as a ‘spectrum man.’ That’s his way of describing the people with these artistically inclined minds of ours, the ones that are simultaneously our coping mechanism, our blessing and curse. It’s why he and I have spent five years creating an exhibition of his music photography and my illustration, celebrating the larger than life characters who have showcased beautiful examples of identity, self-expression and creativity. Perhaps, like us, they simply had to stay afloat.
There’s an unhealthy stigma that still lingers around the term ‘mental health’ that makes those somewhere in the grey area between ‘I’m alright’ and ‘I struggle to get out of bed’ feel guilty about the idea of expressing how they really feel on the bad days. The truth is, we’re human and we all suffer sometimes.
I met Andy, a music photographer one generation ahead of me, because I was looking for another collaboration after moving to London and finding myself consigned to the bedroom again, working from home, climbing the walls. I get like that. Need the separation between work and home. Funny thing is, looking back, many of my favourite side projects came about partially as a way to cope with the solitude, the dangerous practice of spending too long bickering with the various versions of myself.
Andy and I have had many discussions about creativity, how it tends to keep us away from the sharp end of mental illness, thanks to the purpose it provides us with, the people it has attracted into our lives. The identity it has afforded Ben Tallon, an otherwise worry riddled, average bloke without a lot to say has been essential. I know I am far from alone in having to manage this unruly mind, so here are a few things I’ve learned in doing so.
- It’s worse in the morning and at night. Give it time to lift and be sympathetic to the way you feel until it does. Mental illness, even the tiniest form, should be treated no different to a physical ailment. Rest and remedy is important, just like it might be to shift a common cold.
- Concentrate your mind during the challenging times. Stay off digital devices. Read, draw, write, talk to someone, listen, go for a walk, dance, sing, run, climb. Whatever you choose to do is a personal choice, but making it your sole focus helps. The white noise of modern life is dangerous, a thousand things vying for attention is overwhelming and causes unnecessary confusion and skewed perspectives.
- Find your balance between people time and solitude. Be honest with yourself about what works for your personality and act on it. Studios, co-working, coffee catch-ups, a part-time or full-time job (there’s more value to these than simply the income). Too much time alone leads to even the most trivial worry taking on Herculean proportions and most of the time, it’s hard to even notice.
- Don’t buy the ‘best life’ lie. I’m completely jaded by social media. Let me assure you that even the biggest hitters are struggling with real life like the rest of us. In this game, only you can be you and this makes you invincible, unique. Stop taking the edited lives of others as the truth and embrace your own life. You’ll get where you’re going sooner, even if you don’t know where that is.
- Manage that money. Capitalism is a system at odds with happiness. But it’s the system we’re trapped in. The balance between lavish spending and tear-jerking penny pinching is important to find. Sensible investment in your business is healthy, as is a lifestyle that you enjoy.
- The foggy cloud of disorganization is one of the chief antagonists of a freelance creative professional. I’ve literally found myself hiding piles of receipts behind folders before now because their visibility was terrorizing me, putting off my accounts for weeks when a few hours out of one day to sort them would be a major mental boost. AOI’s #NotAHobby has been great for this – helping me get a checklist together that otherwise I would almost certainly neglect.
- Tidy up! Every time I sort my studio or bedroom out, it’s remarkable how all those heavy tasks weighing down my mind feel far easier to accomplish. The chaotic mind runs riot in a space that matches it. Make the spaces you spend most time in somewhere welcoming to you, appealing.
- Steer your ship. I’ve spent as much time as the next person doing work that meant nothing to me because it met a brief and paid those bills. But if you lose sight of why you wanted to do this in the first place and fail to ever make time to create for you, it is very easy to feel disillusioned.
- Get to know your creativity. It has a symbiotic relationship with your character. There will always be long days and there will always be quiet spells. That’s freelancing. But do not separate fun, excitement and personal exploration from the conventional business stuff. Your product is innovation, which needs watering like a plant. Going to the cinema, relaxing in cafes, walking the dog, meeting interesting people, whatever you like to do, do it! This keeps you fluid and will maximize inspiration, encourage ideas and creativity; the lifeblood of how we earn a living – be on guard for the inevitable guilt, but know it is false. All work, no play and all that…
Limit rigid planning. Creativity ebbs, flows, expands and contracts because it is alive and constantly changing. To go against its nature leads to frustration. Stay responsive and do not panic when the future is not clear. It rarely will be. Where you end up is often far better than where you planned to go.
Find out more about Lend Me Your Ear. The free exhibition opens at Stance, 3 Neal Street, Covent Garden on 24th May and runs until 6th June.
Ben Tallon is an illustrator, author of Champagne and Wax Crayons and host of The Creative Innovation Podcast: Arrest All Mimics.
See more about our #NotaHobby campaign.