By Katie Powell - North east based actor and theatre maker, and Mortal Fools' very own MELVA!
I’m standing outside of my workplace and I can’t stop crying. I was supposed to be back 5 minutes ago. I wish I was at home with my family; where no one would look at me, no one would expect anything of me and I would be warm and safe. I reflect on how poor my mental health is at the moment. It comes in waves generally, but the past 6 months have been particularly hard and I haven’t had any time to process it. I wish more than anything the world would stop turning just for a minute so I could catch my breath, regroup. I can’t go on like this. I feel like I need to take a year out to focus solely on getting mentally healthy again: to meditate, exercise, sleep, go back to therapy, take stronger tablets, read books. Then I remember life doesn’t work like that. The impracticalities hit me like a bus. How would I pay rent? How would I eat? Sure, I’ll just ask my mam and dad to financially support their 26 year old daughter whilst she sits on their settee looking perfectly healthy. But this is the second time this month I have run away and cried uncontrollably at a place of work. It’s raining and dark and freezing cold out here. Someone crosses the car park towards me and I turn my head to face the wall, hating myself for behaving like a mad person. I don’t have the strength for what is required of me.
A week later the country goes into lockdown. It didn’t turn out exactly the way I imagined it but pretty close. I’m not in my parents’ living room – I’m in my flat with my housemate, living off Universal Credit. 8 weeks pass and this is the spiritual retreat I quite literally prayed for. Jared Leto would pay a lot of money to be in my little ashram of a flat. I have psychotherapy sessions over Zoom every Friday. I run in the woods 3 times a week and I can now run faster and longer than I ever have before. I meditate every morning while my coffee is brewing and before I turn my phone on. I listen to podcasts and absorb their wisdom on long walks. I get out my mat and practise yoga most days. And it is very rare for me to sleep less than 9 hours a night. (See?! I said I was exhausted.)
In the spirit of keeping it real, of course there have been hard days. Turning inwards to take care of your mental health is scary and overwhelming and gruelling. There have been times when I would have given anything to shake off the strangeness and go for drinks with friends, the world back to normal. There have been shivery times after therapy when I could have really done with a hug. But overall, lockdown is the best thing that’s ever happened to my mental health.
I drink proper coffee every morning whilst listening to radio 6 in the sun in my back yard. I watch classic rom-coms I never got round to watching before. And I like Spring! I thought I hated Spring. It generally meant people would try and make me do things and I’d be tired and cold. Turns out Spring is beautiful. Have you seen cherry blossom? Have you smelt wild garlic? And for me, the most crucial part of enjoying this lockdown has been the whole world stopping with me. I feel neither shame nor panic at spending my afternoon alone on a walk because I couldn’t be on a luxury city break with my most Instagrammable friends even if I wanted to.
Since I left college at 18, the hustle has been unrelenting. As a self-employed actor/theatre maker, I live in a constant state of high alert. Who’s doing what? And where? What should I be seeing? Who should I be getting to know? My life is one long hot summer’s day where no matter what lovely thing I’m doing, there are other places I ought to be, doing more, doing better. The only routine is provided by the bi-weekly panic of “Will I be able to pay rent this month?” Last year I worked for over 15 different companies either acting or writing or marketing or answering phones or photocopying. In response to your very reasonable question, I do often wonder if the creative industries is the right place of work for me. But I haven’t ever really stopped to check. There aren’t many people in the world who can afford the luxury of stopping and checking they’re on the right path.
And if I think the hustle of employment is merciless, it’s nothing compared to the hustle of a young woman constantly trying to look attractive. I feel nothing put pure giddy joy getting dressed every morning into huge jeans and warm baggy sweatshirts. I don’t have to wear a bra. I don’t have to put make up on. I don’t have to attempt to make my hair look not shit. I don’t have to hold my belly in! I have stepped out of the monotonous rotation of nail painting, waxing, waterproof mascara removal, hair trims and H&M changing rooms. I don’t think a single day has gone by since I was 12 years old where I didn’t feel bad about my appearance in some way – from acne, to fat, to wrinkles, to clothes with holes in. How glorious it is to just… stop trying. It’s interesting to find out which “self-care” habits really are for myself and which ones are for the benefit other people. In lockdown I still spend lots of time on lovely skincare and regular exercise, but if I ever put eyeliner on again it will be too soon.
I want to get down on my knees and thank the universe. I don’t have children to look after. I’m not in lockdown with a difficult partner. I’m not a key worker. I am not high risk. The list is infinite. All I can say is thank you.
Every day someone messages me to tell me how much they’re missing the real world. I still have no idea how to respond. I am thriving. Giving myself permission to take my foot off the gas and heal during lockdown has been one of the greatest, hardest and most generous gifts I have ever given myself. And I’ll put a healthier and stronger person back into the world because of it. I would encourage anyone to cancel their next Zoom meeting and put the kettle on instead. Who says the hustle is more real than sitting down to watch 2 Meg Ryan films in a row?