Opportunity >>Watch video>>
I had an experience in 2018. I got an opportunity. I met with a dramaturg of the Connections programme for the National Theatre in London. They commission 10 writers to write 10 plays which then go out to 200 youth groups across the UK and Ireland who then perform your play. 10 of those groups then get picked to perform the plays in the National Theatre in London. I had previously used books from this programme to teach young people. Brilliant writers had been a part of it and the organisation were looking at me as a new potential writer for the programme.
The dramaturg said, “Go away and just come up with some ideas”. That was as simple as it was. At the same time my family and I booked a family holiday. We’re all girls and it was our first time abroad altogether and the kids were all teenagers so we were all excited about that. I thought, “I’ll bring the laptop away and I’ll try and come up with some ideas.” I think I had notions of myself being a writer in Spain and then it all went wrong.
Panic Attack >>Watch video>>
I sat down. It was really, really hot. I had been drinking loads of coffee and we hadn’t been sleeping well in the place where we were staying. Nothing was coming to me. At that time, Me Too was happening and Waking the Feminists had happened a couple of years before that. I was thinking about the responsibility of writing for young people, especially for young women.
I started feeling like I couldn’t breathe and my sister said to me, “You’re having a panic attack. You need to lie down.” That was a bit scary. It didn’t come back for a while, but I also stopped looking at that work and I never went back to the dramaturg who gave me the opportunity.
I was talking to my friends in the new year going into 2019 and they were like, “You’re really stupid for not following up this opportunity. This is one of your dreams”.
Commissioned >>Watch video>>
The dramaturg from the National Theatre in London got in touch with me six months later and said, “Look, I’m still here. Whenever the idea’s right. There’s no time pressure”.
When you’re starting a project with someone, you don’t wanna say, “Oh I had a panic attack and I can’t do this anymore. Still wanna work with me?” I just was honest and said, “The scale of this opportunity and the job at hand, I think overwhelmed me a lot.” He was so kind in his response. When you’re going in to write a draft, that just takes the pressure off, whereas if it was like, “OK we really need this deadline by this”, I think I would have really struggled.
Him being really supportive was nice and then I suddenly just got the idea.
The play is set around a game and the minute I remembered this game we used to play, then I was able to build everything on it. I was commissioned two days after I submitted the idea.
Shock >>Watch video>>
Halfway through 2019 one of my friends passed away very suddenly. She was an actor. She was only 36. It was a real shock to the system and then you go straight back into life.
Away >>Watch video>>
At the beginning of January 2020, I was really lucky. I had a small piece in the 1st Irish Festival in New York. It was just a reading. There were like five Northern Irish writers who had this work on. Two of us flew over.
I landed in New York and I had been sick and I was surrounded by the tall buildings and I started to have another panic attack. I remember thinking, “I need to find a chemist. Americans take drugs for everything, maybe they’ll give me something”. I felt, “I’m never going to get back to Ireland. I’m going to die here and I’ll never see my daughter again.”
I was going to Philadelphia right after because I had a performance of my play, Removed, with PrimeCut Productions. They brought it over for the International Performing Arts for Youth showcase. When I got to Philadelphia, I had to phone some people to get support. It was a scary time. I was away for 10 days.
Counsellor >>Watch video>>
The panic attacks continued at random times. Well, I thought they were random times, then lockdown happened and I thought , “Oh I’m going to die, I’m locked in the house”.
It was the first time ever I’d gotten a counsellor. They were online sessions and the first thing she said to me was, “You can’t die of a panic attack. You’re in control of this”. I was like, “Great. Money well spent.” I never knew. I had always thought I was going to get to this stage where there are no more breaths left and I would just keel over.
I told my counsellor, “This is grief. My friend died.” I had completely forgotten about the episode in Spain. She said, “Are you blocking it out? The grief?” “No. I cry a lot about her. I’m not in denial, I think about her all the time.” I had completely assumed it was grief.
We weren’t getting anywhere in the first couple of sessions but my counsellor was really patient. She said, “Let’s look at your triggers”. I realised my triggers were all associated with work and it wasn’t grief at all. This was coming from anxiety about work which blew my mind a bit.
I tried to keep an eye on when things were happening. I started thinking back. The panic attacks were all on the way to meetings. It was nothing to do with deadlines because I think I was in control of that, but getting an opportunity was so scary.
I think there’s an element of “imposter syndrome” where you’re saying to yourself, “You’re not gonna be able to do this”, and, “You’re taking the opportunity from somebody better than you”. I had all of this in my head that I had to work through to finally say, “No. I’m deserving of this and I can do this.”
Knowing >>Watch video>>
Just knowing when a panic attack is coming on is the biggest thing where I say to myself, “Oh, OK I’m feeling this”. I just go into a room on my own. I’ll sometimes play a game or like a puzzle on my phone which will take my mind out of it. My counsellor had given me other exercises like count to 20 backwards while clapping your hands, but I find just going on my phone and focusing on something else can take it away.
I realised I can’t have coffee all the time (which I love) and I can’t have more than one cup because it’ll make me jittery and I can confuse that with not being able to breathe.
My sister, who kinda works in that field, told me about trying to retrain my brain, that this feeling is excitement. That blew my mind. Sometimes it is excitement and I’m thinking it’s something else. I have to say to myself, “No, this is excitement. You’ve an opportunity here. You’re going to work with somebody else. You’re working with a new team, going into a new project. This is excitement.” I tell myself that I’m in control and that I can’t die of this.
Headspace >>Watch video>>
People need to earn money. I want to say don’t be afraid to say “No” to work but I also know that when you have bills to pay that’s a really difficult thing. Sometimes it’s for the best if you’re not in the headspace. This goes for any creative.
If you’re not in the headspace, I think going in can make it worse – not only for you but for other people as well. Sometimes taking that time out is OK. It’s really hard to say “No”. It’s not just about money – you don’t wanna let other people down, you don’t wanna ruin a relationship you may have developed with an organisation or another creative but you know what’s best for you. Your gut tells you and you have to listen to that because you can make things a lot worse.
Panic attacks don’t last. Whatever it is you’re feeling, it’s not gonna be here forever. There’ll always be a moment when this stops and everything’s back to normal and everything’s really good again. It’s not gonna last forever. I think that’s a really important thing to say.
Most enjoyable ever >>Watch video>>
We had the pandemic in the middle of the Connections project which bought me a whole year. I think some of the writers were upset that it was delayed, but I just really enjoyed that process and really enjoyed working with the dramaturg. I trusted him with his notes that he came back with. It was the most enjoyable process I have ever had as a writer.
My play is set in Belfast. It’s called Hunt. We had a group from Dublin and I think Roscommon perform it. A group from the Isle of Man got picked to perform it in the National Theatre in London and they were brilliant. My daughter and I went over in July. They were so happy to be there and to be performing in the National Theatre in London. I was over the moon to have a play there. It was just amazing and the play is published as well which is really cool. It’s my first published work.
Opera >>Watch video>>
At the moment I’m writing an opera. (Talk about imposter syndrome.) I am out of my comfort zone massively. I think it’s probably been the most difficult one. NI Opera, who it’s with, have been very supportive. The composer is Neil Martin who’s done this a million times before and is a brilliant person to collaborate with. He has been so patient as well.
The opera has a working title of Nobody/Somebody and it’s based on a quote by Inez McCormack who was a big trade union activist up here in Belfast. She was an incredible woman. It’s for young people and I’m working with a group of young people through an organisation that Inez McCormack set up called, Participation and Practice of Rights. They support people to fight for their rights using grassroots campaigns through a human rights approach.
The young group I’m working with are campaigning for housing changes here in Belfast and they are just amazing. They’re so good. I’m writing a libretto based on them. They’re doing all the hard work, I just get to write about them. They let me sit in on their campaigns and meetings and stuff. I’m like the “opera person” at the back, but I’ve worked with them loads of times before. They’re great. That will hopefully be out in autumn next year.
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