Out of drama school >>Watch video>>
When I came out of drama school nearly ten years ago, like most people, I was very eager to get involved. You’ve just spent two years where you’re completely immersed in this environment, it’s your entire life. You’re in there at eight in the morning, maybe even ‘til eight at night. At times, you’re doing 12 hour days, you’re around other people who are incredibly passionate. You’re also around this strange atmosphere, especially towards the end of drama school, of, “Not all of you are gonna be here in five years”. That was this phrase that kept getting thrown around. It instilled (in me anyway, I don’t know about anyone else) that we’ll have to hit the ground running.
The problem in this industry is, there’s so much rejection and there’s so much negativity and there’s so much of this sense of scarcity. There aren’t enough places, there aren’t enough jobs so you’re constantly competing. You have to be ahead of everyone else. If you don’t have a strong base within yourself, that can be really corrosive. When you’re trying to get a foothold in an industry that is built on rejection, it starts to feed on your own insecurity and it starts to almost rot away at the core of you. That’s what happened to me.
Toxic atmosphere >>Watch video>>
I was thinking, “I’ll do any job, I’ll just get involved. I have to make a go of this because this is my life, this is my passion and I love this. This is what I want for the rest of my life.” While all that is positive, unfortunately I ended up working for a company, almost out of the gate, that had a quite toxic atmosphere. It was intense, there was very, very heightened stress. It wasn’t really an emotionally safe place in my opinion.
I realise now that I was very naive coming into the industry and unfortunately I just found myself in the wrong place at the wrong time. While I was still able to get jobs and get going, the effect that that environment had on me was quite profound. It really affected my mental health because I accepted that this was the norm. I believed that this was exactly how the industry was supposed to be run – the way people spoke to me, the way I was treated, the kind of stress I was under, the anxiety I was feeling.
I was being told, “That’s it, if you can’t handle this then get out”, which is not just a rhetoric particular to this company I was working with – I think it’s something that is embedded in this industry. “If you can’t handle it, go do something else. If you don’t love this enough, go do something else. There are other people behind you. There are 100 other actors who are willing to take your place.” There was a lot of that kind of conversation and while people meant it in a nice way, there were people who took advantage of that saying, “If you can’t handle this, then you’re not good enough”. When you’re a young actor who has just come out of drama school, who is just so in love with this world and this job, that can turn a bit dark.
There are so many gorgeous, beautiful humans in this industry across the arts but like any industry there are people who will take advantage of you. When you come into a room where you’re really eager to please, sometimes people see that as an opportunity. They will take as much as they can, whether they mean to or not I don’t know, but they will use that eagerness and that openness to their advantage.
I feel like I was bullied in that situation. I got completely confused with who I was an artist and as a person. It caused anxiety to spike, I was having panic attacks and it took a really long time for me to pull all that stuff apart.
Panic attacks >>Watch video>>
I ended up being in this place for a few years that really damaged my mental health. When I came out of it and I left that company, I was having severe issues with anxiety, depression and I was completely unaware of it.
It’s the strangest thing now looking back because everything about my experience had been so normalised, “This is just how it is, this is life”, and it was up to me to get over it. That was kind of the constant thing. Being told, “This job is hard, get over it. This is the way it is, get over it”. The truth was, it had reached a point for me personally that getting over it was not ever going to be the thing that helped me.
It was really kind of a fluke when I realised that what I was going through wasn’t how the industry should be. I came across an article online about panic attacks. I had heard the words in movies, “Oh someone had a panic attack”, but I’d never seen one. I’d never spoken to someone about what it felt like. I didn’t have the language to even communicate what was going on with me, how I was feeling. I’d never had a panic attack around anyone. They’d usually happen when I was by myself. Something would happen and I’d just kind of spiral. I read this article and I was like, “Oh my god, my brain isn’t broken. This is actually a thing.” It was from that one article that I was able to start a journey to healing those mental health illnesses and issues I was having.
To me, information is power. If you don’t know, you can’t fix it. I really, really didn’t have the information. Mental health wasn’t something in school anybody really talked about.
Magic of therapy >>Watch video>>
One article led me to another to another that then eventually led me to the charity Aware. Through them I was suddenly able to see that what was happening to me wasn’t my fault and it wasn’t how my life was gonna be forever.
If you’ve gone through a difficult period where you’re constantly being told you’re the problem and you need to get over it or your feelings are being dismissed, it can cause a lot of internalisation. You think this is just who you are, this is how you’re gonna be and you’re stuck. The magic of therapy is that that is never the case. It’s hard work and it takes a long time but you never have to be stuck if you’re willing and able to talk about it.
There is always hope. That was a big thing for me. Coming out of this situation where I had felt completely hopeless because I couldn’t communicate, I couldn’t talk about it. I didn’t know how to say what was happening. Then suddenly I felt, “Oh my god there’s a whole world out here that’s gonna help me and support me and the more I talk to professionals and my support system, the easier every day gets and I can take those steps forward”.
I realise now I had this tendency towards an anxious personality. For my entire life it had been that way and I just didn’t realise. Things used to wind me up and my partner would say, “Why is that annoying you so much?” I’d be like, “How could it not annoy you?” I had absolutely no awareness.
I ended up finding a counsellor who I’m still seeing to this day. She has just changed my life completely. I think about who I was six/seven years ago and I’m just not the same person at all. It’s because through therapy I’ve been able to realise things about myself but also how to change them.
The things that aren’t working for you, you don’t have to live with them. It is hard. While I think counselling and therapy and reaching out to anyone is absolutely the best thing you can do, it is incredibly hard and it is very, very challenging because it will challenge everything you know about yourself. I thought I was this super organised, really on-top-of-it-person but that was just a fabrication that I had made up about how I was not really coping. I was hyper-functioning in my anxiety.
A lot of the time therapy can feel like a circle. People think you’re going around and around and around, talking about the same thing, but it’s actually a corkscrew. I think that’s a great visualisation. You think you’re going in a circle but you are moving towards something.
There are days when I’d go in and I’m like, “I’m not gonna have anything to talk to her about today” and then I’d come out and I’m shook to my core with the level of realisation. It’s just stuff about how you see the world. Having someone guide you through that journey is extraordinarily powerful.
Awareness is I think one of the greatest tools you can have. I’m now aware that maybe someone is being mean to me because they’ve got a lot of pain. It doesn’t mean it’s acceptable but I can have empathy for that person. Before I was like, “I’m never gonna talk to them again.” Now I’m like, “There’s something going on with them”. I’m not gonna tolerate that behaviour but I can also see that they need some supports right now. Now I think, “What can we do to help that situation as opposed to just dismiss it completely?” Awareness for yourself also creates awareness for others which is incredibly powerful.
Refocused >>Watch video>>
I was very burnt out for about two years. I didn’t write anything for all of 2018. I had not a single idea. I was producing more at that point and acting occasionally but I wasn’t creating anything really. I look back on it now and was like, “Yeah that was burnout. Proper, proper burnout.” I only kind of started coming out of that level of burnout really in 2019.
It took a while and it really took stepping back from the industry and focusing on the other things in my life. Really opening myself up to being a person again. Engaging with friends and family and hobbies, the stuff that you take for granted but that stuff helped to refuel me. I needed that space. I needed that time away from the pressure that I was putting on myself. Then the pandemic happened which actually for me was quite helpful because it allowed me the space to reconsider how I was approaching my work.
I realised I had no joy for producing anymore in my heart. I kind of Marie Kondo’ed it. I was like, “I don’t find joy here”. I decided I’m going to step away from producing for now and I’m really going to focus on writing. Telling stories has always been the thing that has really inspired me. I love telling stories that people haven’t had the chance to hear before.
Over the lockdown I got the chance to spend more time writing and delving into the craft of writing. Because of the pandemic, it forced me to think, “I don’t know if this play is ever going to go on”. Most of the time I had written plays and they had a date they were going on stage so for the first time I didn’t know if this work would ever be produced. I didn’t know when theatres were going to open, so it sort of took that pressure off. I refocused my energy on the process and really engaging with being a writer and being creative and my imagination being let loose and just trying and failing. Embracing that cycle made me realise, “Oh wow this is it, this is what I love. I actually love the making of the work more now than I ever have before”. Part of that as well is that I no longer feel like I need the result.
I get such a high from writing a line. I’m like, “Ugh I wrote such a good line there, and that character is so witty”. For me that’s it, I’m done for the day, that’s where my joy comes from, that’s where my sense of accomplishment comes from. It’s all the process now for me and I think that’s been a really powerful tool in taking a lot of the pressure off.
Radicalised my life
I feel now my mindset is so completely different. The way I approach an audition, I’m so glad I get to see a glimpse into this world and I get to have an opportunity. Before I was all about, “If I get this job, I have worth. I have meaning. I have proven that I am worthy of being here”. Whereas now I’m like, “I don’t need anyone to tell me I’m worthy of being here, my worth is not dependent on my job.”
Whatever happens at the end of an audition is not up to me. I don’t get to say if I get the job or the play goes on or whatever but I can control the amount of effort I put into an audition, the amount of time I spend learning lines, the research I do, the amount of time I spend writing a script, focusing, crafting, learning, all that stuff is where I get my joy now. Before it was all dependent on other people. That switch has really just radicalised my life in the best way. I no longer feel like my job is this thing I’m fighting for.
Boundaries >>Watch video>>
I can’t control how other people are going to want to treat me but I can always control how I set boundaries and choose to be in a room. I think now back when I was younger I wouldn’t have known a boundary if it hit me in the face. I wouldn’t have known how to say, “No”, I was such a people pleaser. While I still always very much want to help people if I can, I’m also aware that I only have a finite amount of time and energy that’s gonna go to me first.
It’s very important to be able to walk into a rehearsal or any room knowing, “This is my line and nobody gets to cross that.” That might be a small thing of saying, “That doesn’t work for me” or “Can I get back to you on that?” I’m always coming up with phrases like, “Can I just have a think about that and get back to you?”, when I’m really probably going to say, “No” but I need to build up the courage.
If someone uses a tone with you, there’s a way of not getting into a conflict. I think I was always afraid of causing fights and I would put myself last in that situation. I would just take it, keep taking it, all the stuff that was upsetting me because I didn’t wanna rock the boat.
The truth is, you can have very healthy discussions without anyone raising their voice. Most of the time, people don’t realise that they have said something that has upset you. It’s actually really easy to say, “Can I clarify what you meant by that comment?” Or, “I don’t understand”. Owning that kind of stuff usually completely opens up a room I find. Having that sort of level of empathy towards yourself and others can be really, really useful in creating art. Much more so than situations I’ve been in when the room has just been shut down because someone’s anger is so all-consuming and everyone’s tiptoeing around. No one can create art like that.
Everyone kinda thinks that everyone’s a narcissist and a sociopath. I’m gonna tell you most of those people are just unhappy. Some people just maybe are not in a great place. That doesn’t mean they get to treat you badly but you get to go, “They don’t have the power in this situation”. Definitely for me, it’s about considering, “I can never change another human being but I can change how I react”. I can say, “You’re not gonna speak to me like that, I’m gonna walk away from this situation”. I am not gonna tolerate that. I certainly feel now I have far more power than I’ve ever had.
Trauma >>Watch video>>
One of the things I learned from counselling is that trauma is a very personal thing. People can go through the same experience, the exact same situation and react completely differently because all of us bring a history with us into a room that is entirely unique.
During that difficult period at the start of my career, I had people in my life who were going through the same thing and they were fine. That made me go, “What is wrong with me, why am I the one that feels this more deeply than anyone else?”
My counsellor talked about this analogy. You’re one of two people in a car crash. You’re in the same situation. You both get out and walk away but one of you can get into a car and drive home, and the other will never be able to get into a car again.
Your experience of any situation is yours. Trauma isn’t about the size of it, it’s about the impact it has on you. That’s one of the things that I’ve seen unfortunately in multiple rehearsal rooms and work environments. One person is like, “This is fine” and unfortunately I know other people who have left the industry because of a toxic environment. For them, that behaviour just affects them in a different way. I just think we all need to be aware of that and I’m not saying we need to tiptoe around each other’s emotions but there has to be a level of compassion in every room that’s like a bare minimum. We need to be aware that we’re all bringing our own stuff into a room, none of us know what the others have been through and it’s none of our business as well. I don’t need to know what anyone’s been through but if we can just meet each other in a place of compassion, I think that’s the most radical thing we can do to change not only the industry but the world as well.
I’ve been involved with the Percolate Programme with Bewley’s Cafe Theatre since 2021 which has included me writing a new play with their support and mentorship. The play, The Lamentable Tale of Darkey Kelly, will have a rehearsed reading in this year’s Dublin Theatre Festival in October, which is very exciting as I have never had any of my work featured there before. I am also starting work on a new play with Axis Ballymun under their Axis Assemble Bursary. They are a theatre I have admired for many years and it is a privilege to get to work with them on something new.
Remember, if you’re a member of the Irish music industry, you can talk to a counsellor free of charge at any time of the day or night. Simply call the phone number below.