Content warning: some of this blog post discusses anxiety, depression, still birth.
This is possibly the most personal – but hopefully helpful – post that I have done (and think I will do) on this site. Over the last few years, I have changed and the Wild Writes project will change too. Here we go.
In this blog I’m going to talk about coping mechanisms through creative practice, how I’ve used creativity to respond to Rochdale for my project and also to manage low feelings and any anxiety that creeps in uninvited. I do acknowledge that creative practice is not a panacea. I’m not a mental health expert, however, I’ve included some links that I’ve found helpful, please note that they are either UK or Manchester-based. Most importantly, if you do struggle with any psychological distress, do contact your doctor, an organisation such as Mind, and see alternative support and advice services listed in Asylum magazine.
While growing up, we never talked about depression. Depression was sometimes synonymous with being “lazy”. Moreover, just the admission of any mental weakness was the doom toll, it was something that would instantly impact on education, career, friendships, relationships. . .
This, of course, is mostly a load of b******s.
For me, while I’m generally a chirpy optimist I do get those dips. These lows are truly horrible, and the tiredness. A fatigue that I imagine is like wading through bitumen-hot molasses. I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone. It’s taken a long, long time to recognise the signs and symptoms; to not confuse “sadness” with the heady combination of: an inability/motivation to leave the house/bed, comfort eating/no eating, self-loathing. It has taken a while to learn how to practise self-care, and how to recognise and manage this. When Branwen was stillborn in 2011, new coping mechanisms were required for deeper sadnesses and for the familial sadness that is linked (you lose the baby, but you’re not the only one who loses the baby if that makes sense). By no means “cured” of this grief, or of sporadic anxiety, I am fortunate that I have a solid support network.
It was losing Branwen that led me back to university; at the time, it was a choice between learning about ecology to help with the job that I had, or developing the creative writing that I’ve always loved to do. I went down the creative route and happily brought ecology into the writing. Fast forward to 2014 to the beginning of the PhD. I know how lucky I am – I had a tempestuous final year with my first degree (it was just a relief to get that Desmond to be honest) so to have been awarded a PhD scholarship over a decade later I still find an incredible achievement.
I cannot believe that the PhD has sped by and I’m now just finishing the final rewrites and edits. (And dealing with the feelings that spin around this: I’m still anxious about whether what I’m doing is ‘good’ but accepting of ‘good enough’. Although it won’t be perfect, it will be done and then I can
worry about the viva and what the future holds become excited about what happens next.)
Creative responses over the last three years (AKA “procraftination”)
I taught myself how to crochet way back in 2006 partly as a way of dealing with depression (highly recommend it – even though it IS difficult at first. I learned from this book and through pointers from my friend Dave)*. I’ve used this skill to crochet Maud the Baum Rabbit who came with me to my first academic conference (shout out to the wonderful Sheffield Gothic). I also made three crocheted Cthulhu for Manchester Gothic Festival 2015, each one came with a ‘story’.
— RAH! Manchester Met (@mmu_RAH) September 24, 2015
(Yes, I know, I spelt Cthulhu incorrectly. And I think Noodles is still my favourite.)
I learned how to use a sewing machine (better late than never). I wanted to explore other ways to creatively respond to Rochdale, in particular, different ways of map making. I took the plunge last October with a short beginners’ course at the Ministry of Craft in Manchester. I’m still learning – on a machine I received with a magazine subscription, win! – and am still quite wobbly with stitching but would love to learn how to applique better. Eventually, I’d like to tie this in with storytelling and writing plus crochet (because mixed / multi media is where it’s at IMHO) and organise/attend skill-sharing workshops.
During the PhD I made two short films. Once Upon a Time In Manchester is a collage of film and poetry constructed from songs about the city (a cento of word and image). Sounds of the Roch / Irwell is filmed at the confluence of the river Roch as it becomes the river Irwell. I love making films – I learned how to do this at the University of Manchester (UoM), however, once I left Manchester the equipment was beyond my budget. Thanks to smartphones it’s relatively easy to make short films, slightly jerky with a lack a tripod but you get the idea! There is an abundance of free editing software out there too (as much as I did love the Adobe Premiere Pro suite at UoM – Kden works just as well). I edit sound using Audacity. Once I’ve finished the PhD I will do a couple of short ‘how to’ blogs if you’re reading this and want to have a go.
**adds to list of things to blog about including academic talks**
All these skills are all well and good but how to combine them to write about Rochdale? While I’m doing the rewrite, I’ve been thinking through different ways of creatively mapping Rochdale in Chapter Four and some of these discussions come up. Mostly – because hey, at heart I’m a bit of a hippie – I still feel that there is an element of egocentric mapping and that it would be better if mapping could be more of a shared, meaningful, experience. I argue in this chapter for a more collaborative way of place-making. (I’m already thinking of ways in which to do this for post-PhD projects.)
One way of doing this is the Rochdale Story Trail project – using a mapping ‘game’ to hide stories and encourage new writing around Rochdale. (nb. Currently paused for a fortnight after dealing with domestic issues. Had no water for a bit due to the ceaseless rain which threw out the timing of everything and I have to prioritise the rewrite.)
Finally, I’ve said it before that although doing the PhD has, at times, felt like an isolating experience, having a proactive, supportive, and constructively critical supervisory team has made all the difference. Finding fellow travellers is also great (Twitter is especially good for this). I love meeting people – virtually and in real life – and hearing about their research or simply reading advice**.
Right, have three more chapters to rewrite before the final tweaks.
* There are some fantastic resources and life stories about how crafting can help with depression and anxiety including:
- Crafting for Mental Health = blog on Mind‘s website.
- Start2 = I have found this website helpful and cannot recommend it enough. Free resources and craft / creative ideas with timed activities. It’s brilliant.
- SANDS = UK-based charity with advice and support for those whose babies have died, they also campaign for improved policy and care. If you can knit or crochet, the charity always need blankets.
** Academics who write about kindness, mental health, and being a new academic:
- Emma Hutson = Associate Lecturer at Sheffield Hallam, writing on post-90s trans authored literature, reflecting on conferences and the PhD experience.
- Ellie Mackin = Ancient historian and early career researcher. Her YouTube vlogs are educational and inspiring – they’ve certainly helped me with organising research notes. Dr Mackin writes on research, managing mental health in academia, and is the organiser of the Academic Kindness gift circle (which I found out about a little too late to participate – next year!).
- Nadine Muller = Senior Lecturer at Liverpool John Moores. Dr Muller is a specialist in literary and cultural histories of women, gender, and feminism. Nadine blogs on academia, research, her collection of thoughtful posts, and guests’ posts, on mental health are here.