Melancholia >>Watch video>>
Probably the year leading up to the pandemic was far more traumatic for me personally than the pandemic itself so I feel a little bit like Kirsten Dunst’s character in Melancholia. When the asteroid comes for the earth she feels fine about it because she’s already been through the worst but everyone else in the film freaks out.
Power through >>Watch video>>
The nature of freelance work is that you’re very resistant to anything that stops you because you’re operating independently and there isn’t really a structure there to fill in for you. Even if I have a physical ailment, I’ll tend to keep working unless it’s completely debilitating. I had a skull fracture in 2018 and kept working on projects even though I couldn’t stand up, which on reflection is incredibly unhealthy. There’s an element of fear that you might miss an opportunity or not deliver in a certain way, or that you will be deemed to be unreliable. When work ethic and ability to deliver are important elements of your day to day life, and also a source of pride, it can be hard to recognize when the demands you place on yourself become unreasonable.
I’d say probably the last time I had a serious bout of depression was September 2019. It was a consequence of a few different things: I had to move out of the house that I had been in for years because of the rent situation (which was probably common to a lot of people in Dublin at that time), and I had a bad experience on a job where I had been misled and taken advantage of, which affected me quite badly. Beyond that I had a few other personal things that were playing out in parallel to all this. I think your inner landscape is a little bit like the tectonic plates. There are always imperceptible shifts happening, which is natural, but sometimes those shifts are more sudden, or they coincide and clash, and the results are more violent and devastating. I definitely had the sensation of things pulling apart, at the time, and that I was being swallowed in the fault lines.
Alongside all these rifts there was the financial pressure to keep working, and the creative pressure to keep making work, and unfortunately those two things are rarely the same. Not really taking the time out at the point, when I recognised I should have taken time away from work, had a significant impact. All the signs were there to take a bit of a pause but I tried to power through it which I think was ultimately very detrimental.
First time >>Watch video>>
I got to a point where I realised that I couldn’t do what I needed to get done on my own. I had committed to a project on the basis that it was something that I could do very independently, but it turned out that I had to ask other people for support.
I think having to ask other people for help in a very practical way somehow made it easier to get to the point of going to see a doctor. These were friends and people I’ve worked with a lot, so as soon as I explained the situation they were very forthcoming and supportive. I don’t know what reaction I expected that I was so afraid of. Just the anxiety of misplaced pride I suppose.
I started at the deep end when it comes to finding solutions to depression. I went to a shaman years ago, and have tried various other esoteric approaches. This was my first time seeing a medical doctor. I was unsure of what to do, actually. Even as someone who has been around a lot of people with mental health difficulties and given talks about mental health, I was a bit unsure of what the routine would be going into a GP.
I went in and at the time was asked, “What are your symptoms?” I said, “We’ll I’m depressed and I’ve been feeling suicidal”. The doctor immediately prescribed antidepressants and also wrote an admission letter to a hospital. I think she recognised it was some sort of burnout; that a big element of it was fatigue or exhaustion from work.
I was a bit shell-shocked walking out of the diagnosis. I ran into a friend and broke down immediately. I suppose I’d never been confronted with a medical diagnosis before. I thought hospital seemed like an extreme measure, but there was definitely something appealing about going to a place where I’d be taken care of and sort of insulated from the world of outside responsibilities.
A physiological approach
I hesitated taking the anti-depressants, even though I know people who they’ve really helped and worked for. I thought about it for a bit and I also considered going into hospital short-term, but instead I went to another doctor to get a second opinion, which was very interesting, because the second doctor took a more physiological approach. I told her that I was feeling a bit reluctant about taking the antidepressants and she said, “Well, first things first, let’s check your bloods”. She wanted to make sure I was operating at full capacity in every other regard because there were things that could have been having knock-on effects on my mood that I wasn’t aware of. I’d never really thought about it from that point of view before.
It’s very hard to pinpoint a reason for depression as such, and it’s also not that constructive to search for a single rationale. When someone says to you, “What’s wrong with you?” you know it’s a question with no answer, but you still feel pressure to supply one. It could be a conglomeration of different things, it could be elements of fatigue or it could be current circumstances you find yourself in, or past traumas. There’s no real clear cut answer for me most of the time. I’ve also experienced downswings for no obvious reason whatsoever, just a general world-weariness.
Moreso than identifying a cause for depression it’s a process of eliminating the suspects. The physiological element may not be a contributing factor, but it may well be a barrier to you improving your situation. It can become a sort of feedback loop where you feel terrible mentally, and you’re less active and getting into bad habits so your physical health also declines, and it goes on, one decline feeding the other.
The blood results came back and it was very simple stuff, I had low B12 levels. I had a vitamin D deficiency; obviously we’re not getting a huge amount of sun here, so I think that’s probably quite common in Ireland. It’s not to say that identifying these things fixed the mental health problem but at least I could go, “OK well now physically everything is as it should be”. It definitely helped with energy levels and I think the knock on effect of that is that I felt a little bit more inclined to be active. I think just having identified something that I could fix was helpful in breaking a negative pattern.
I think a lot of the time you can have this compound effect where because you’re depressed you’re not doing anything, and then you feel terrible about not doing anything. I think especially in creative fields, your value is based on productivity and when you’re not able to be productive you have a sense of guilt. You feel terrible that you’re not doing the thing you’re supposed to be doing, that gives you value and meaning and then it just sort of builds and builds and builds.
New York >>Watch video>>
The medication the first doctor gave me is still sitting in a drawer somewhere only because I wanted to see where I could get to on my own first. I decided to hold off on it; but knew I had it there if I felt it was necessary. In the end, rather than doing anything the doctor instructed me to do, I decided to move to New York which was maybe a slightly unorthodox solution but I think there’s merit in pursuing something you suspect might make you happy, when the alternative is a situation that you know isn’t making you happy.
I realised what I needed was to go to some other place that was insulated from my day-to-day life. New York is probably not the obvious choice for quiet reflection but it was just the idea of maybe being in another environment and stimulated in a different way which shocked the brain a little bit into a different way of thinking.
I do remember the first day I was in New York, sitting in a little park on Lafayette Street and just feeling incredibly relieved. I think just being in another environment meant that I was at a distance from a sense of obligation or I knew that if anyone contacted me about a job, there’s kind of an easy out; I could say, “Awh I’m in New York now, sorry”.
I just didn’t feel so much pressure I suppose. I think there’s also a lot to be said for changing your pattern in any regard. You get into a routine of doing things and then at a certain point you identify, “something about this isn’t working for me, maybe if I try something else I’ll be able to hone in on what aspects aren’t working for me, or what are the bits that I find difficult.” I had some sort of objectivity about it. Aside from that I stopped drinking for a while and I was eating a bit healthier, I also took an introduction to ballet at the YMCA (I wasn’t very good) and really made an effort to get into good habits. It’s hard to say what ultimately helped but I definitely felt some improvement. Maybe it was all the Pliés.
Come hell or high water >>Watch video>>
I came back from New York in May at the height of the coronavirus and I was feeling relatively good by then. I had a lot to process about my time there, and it took me a while to adjust to coming home (nevermind the lockdown), but I had recovered from the more generalised feelings of depression I’d had when I landed there the previous autumn.
I decided in the late summer to start seeing a therapist. Though it maybe seems counterintuitive to go to therapy when you’re feeling well, I thought it might be helpful to process everything that had happened in the previous year and understand it a bit better.
I was lucky that I got a slot with a therapist that was recommended to me by a friend. I started going to a physiotherapist at the same time for my neck and I remember thinking, “These two things are basically one and the same”. I mean that in the sense that it’s completely reasonable to dedicate time every two weeks to have an expert heal a neck injury, likewise it’s completely reasonable to spend an hour of the week going to talk to an expert to repair the mind.
I’m still going once a week. There was one week where I missed it because I let a work commitment get in the way and I was so annoyed that I promised myself thereafter, “That hour a week is sacrosanct from now on, come hell or high water.”
I always thought of the role of a therapist as much more of an existential endeavour where they just prompt you, like, “Let’s really get to the heart of all your pain and trauma”. I think I had a certain resistance to that approach because I’ve already established a vehicle for how I process the world around me and that’s in my creative output.
What I didn’t really count on is just the idea of going in and saying, “OK this happened this week, then this happened and this is how I felt about it” and then having the time to process it. For me it’s more about looking at patterns within that to figure out if there’s a better way of doing things. I’ve found it very constructive. The reality is that I’m prone to experiencing depression, but I can always find better ways to equip myself with handling that reality.
You’re obviously collaborating with people all the time in film and from personal experience people’s motivations aren’t always necessarily in your best interest. When people want you to keep working because it’s in their best interest and not yours, you can be very easily compromised that way, so having somebody to talk to who’s outside of that sphere, who has no skin in the game in any financial or creative sense, has been really helpful.
I’ve also found going to sessions very helpful as a creative tool. I think it’s important to make the experience work for you in whatever way feels comfortable and constructive. In my case I’m talking a lot about projects and it’s been creatively very helpful to have a dedicated time to dissect themes of cultural trauma and identity that are connected to work I’m doing. My creative output is still my main vehicle for processing these things, but the sessions have given me a lot of insights that have fed very tangibly into the creative process. I think before going to therapy I saw it as a system I would have to subject myself to, whereas in reality it’s something I can steer in directions that I feel are beneficial. A good therapist will mould their approach around you I think.
I started studying traditional singing recently. I joined a singing circle on zoom which I find very therapeutic. I find singing in general very therapeutic but I feel I’ve tapped into something more essential singing traditional songs and particularly reconnecting with the Irish language. It’s been very grounding. There’s an element of blood-letting to a session, a sort of communal acknowledgment of emotion that’s very different from the standard audience / performer dynamic.
Last week there was a session on and I didn’t go, and it was purely because I had reached that point of Zoom fatigue. We’re in new territory in terms of how we communicate, so it’s important to learn to navigate that in whatever way works for you. There’s a sense that as a person working creatively you’re now tethered to your laptop and available twenty four hours a day because there’s nowhere to go, and this idea that we’re all just sitting around yearning for any kind of connection. I’ve got years of misanthropy behind me to navigate my way around that.
I’m probably more strict now than I’ve ever been about dealing with work out of hours and making time for myself to do nothing. Having a therapist has helped me to keep up healthy practices around time, as well as giving me some much needed context from week to week in what would otherwise feel like a bit of a freefall. John O’ Donoghue has a line in one of his books that really hit me; ‘stress is a perverse relationship to time’. I think in the past I’ve felt stress because I was trying to fit too much in, or because I had too much time on my hands and felt the pressure to be filling it. I’m finding I have a much better balance now.
I’m writing a screenplay at the moment. It’s my first stab at doing a feature-length which I got some development funding to allow me to work on it. Working on something longer-form has also slowed my working pace down. I was sprinting a lot before, and now I feel like I’m training to be a long-distance runner.
As part of the research for the screenplay I’m also doing a documentary. That will most likely be presented in early 2022. It seems very far away but that’s the next time I’m looking at releasing something substantial.
I have some other shorter term projects. I just finished a performance of James Joyce’s ‘Pomes Penyeach’ in the Museum of Literature with a great band and crew. I’m also editing a short documentary that I shot while I was in New York. It’s for my friend Vincent who’s turning 101 this year. I filmed his 100th birthday so that will hopefully come out on his 101st birthday – April 9th. and it’s about his longevity and his uncanny ability to overcome obstacles in life. I think it could be inspiring for people to hear him talk, he’s definitely been an inspiration for me. The film is called ‘Go Where Happiness Is’. It’s a phrase he uses a lot, which I think is good advice, if you can figure out where that elusive place might be.
Bob is currently artist-in-residence in D-Light Studios.
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