Some Words on Writing, Depression and Not Enjoying Barcelona Very Much

I’m going to preface this by saying I realise a lot of what I’m talking about below comes under the heading of “small violin problems”. All I can say in defence is that since starting this blog five or so years ago I’ve always wanted to document my writing journey (ugh) as honestly as I can. I hope there’s enough about the topic that’s clear and possibly familiar, despite the lens through which it’s looked at. I’ve been wanting to write it for a while, but held off until I was feeling a bit better and now here we are.

So. I really wanted to write one of those beautiful pieces about working through depression – you know, the ones with a lot of wanky water metaphors, illustrated with a cute little picture of a stick figure staring at a black dog (who’s in the water?) or similar – but I don’t know how to do it since the main problem seems to be that I don’t think or feel as keenly as I used to. For me, when I write, I sit at the computer and the images form like on a little TV in my head. For the last half a year or so that TV has mostly been screening static.

It’s an insidious process watching the person you understand yourself to be slip away in increments. Eating a bit more. Running a little less. Cracks from your housemate about how you’re sleeping late. Flagging instead of answering emails. Seeing your pile of work build up and up – work you solicited to get – and having no desire to touch it. Wondering when you last had a thought, an actual thought. Not answering party invites. Until one day you realise your clothes, the ones you’ve bothered to wash, don’t fit and you could be quite accurately be described as a lazy person who doesn’t care about anything very much. Wait. What? I love parties. I love people. I love my job. I’ve worked so hard to get here. This is not me. Or is it? Does this goes back or is this me now?

I don’t quite know what sent me in this direction, and I’m not sure if looking for trigger-cause links is particularly useful. It’s post-rationalising, isn’t it? There are things that seem likely, but how can you ever really know? Nevertheless, here are some things I suspect:

1) Getting to thirty. This was a psychological barrier for me as my mum didn’t make it to that age (29 years, 3 months) and I’ve always had a thing about doing as much as I could before I got there. Now I am, I guess the future feels a lot harder to formulate since, in a way, I figured thirty would be the end of it. I hear athletes can get a bit fazed after tournaments, even if they win a medal, because their whole life has been geared to make sense of that one moment. When it goes, it can be hard to replace it. Maybe it’s a bit like that.

2) The process of making Murdered By My Father. I’m less sure about this one, but the intensity definitely did a real number on me and I’d like to use this space to reflect on that whole experience so bear with me. It feels pathetic to talk about it in these terms considering the subject matter – especially since the incredible people we worked with at the charities deal with it every day – but I guess I wasn’t really prepared for what it would entail. MBMF was my first piece of television and I knew it was going to be quite a visible one. Plus the turn around on it was, from the perspective of someone coming from theatre, ridiculously short. PLUS I already had two theatre commissions to work on that I also needed and wanted to throw myself into.

So there were a lot of balls to juggle, but MBMF by necessity of its looming shoot date became my main concern. I had two maxims floating in my head at all times whilst working on it. The first, “Do right by the victims” the second “Don’t fuck up the honour killing drama for the BBC, Vinay, that would be really, really bad.” It was a hell of a privileged position to be in, I knew that, and it sucked up every thought, every feeling and I became monofocused like never before. I was very, very neglectful as a person during that time and probably not much fun to be around. I’m not going to seek out confirmation of that, but finding myself sobbing uncontrollably in the corner of an AirBnB room in Edinburgh during the Fringe (familiar to the Fringe, perhaps, but I didn’t even have a show on) told me all I needed to know. In way, this is the level of dedication a project like that needed, I don’t regret that at all, BUT! But…you can still probably approach it better.

I had an interesting conversation one day on set with Adeel where I asked him how he managed to play a character like that and still keep himself sane. I had so many dark nights writing him. Adeel told me that there was a tiny part of his brain that he didn’t let that character access. The part which had everything he cared about in it. Shahzad could take over every part of his mind apart from that part. At the time I think I dismissed it as an actor-y thing, but thinking on it later, I wished I had known how to do that myself.

I don’t think I fully grasped how much MBMF haunted me until it actually came out and I felt all the anxiety again but ramped up further still, exacerbated by the responsibilities you have to take for it existing. I love theatre deeply (despite my moaning) but it hadn’t prepared me for the very public responsibility that comes with television. TV can and does go anywhere and everywhere, which is both its strength and its curse. There’s the potential to be judged not just for your take on a topic but on your reasoning for doing it and that judgement can come from literally anyone on earth with access to an internet connection.

Within the production, we had had discussions about staying off social media for the duration of its launch. That was a sensible approach, but I vehemently disagreed with it. I don’t think you can drop something like that show on people and then not be out there, so everything that happened was stuff I was asking for, I accept that. No one forced me to be involved. But it felt necessary and part of my job to take responsibility for what I had helped create. This was no Roland-Barthes-Death-of-the-author stuff. We wanted it to have an impact, so I felt like I needed to take the resulting “hit”. It also was – somewhat contradictory to this post – the first thing in ages that gave me a sense of purpose and frankly I was grateful to grasp it. I did all the interview requests that came in, I wrote articles, posed for some pictures, the lot.

I was surprised and humbled by the overwhelmingly positive response that piece got, but within that there are things that stick and you have to take the good with the bad and sometimes the line between the two isn’t that evident. There’s the man who finds you on Facebook to tell you it reminds him of his own father’s abuse in 1950s Wiltshire and how that experience traumatised him forever. You can’t ignore him, but are you qualified to talk to him about that? Do you risk hurting them even more? There’s a woman who tweets you to say that her Pakistani friend in Northern Ireland was approached by a stranger and asked “Is this what you all do to your kids?” The friend was shaken and furious. My response that I was sorry to hear that (and I was) but sadly, this mostly stems from a lack of diverse representation on TV beyond dramas on these issues, felt truthful but still handwring-y. There’s nothing you could’ve done about it, but it’s still partly your fault.

The few out-and-out bright spots from this time was watching all types of kids take on this issue fully and discuss it with nuance. I also got to chat to so many young adults making their first forays into journalism and fiction writing and activism. I got to do interviews with them (and I liked them way more than the ‘bigger’ ones). I got to read some beautiful response poems. I got to go to an event in a pub in East London where what must’ve been near a hundred young women and men gathered to hear talks and performances about what feminism was and want they wanted it to be.

I was particularly heartened that so many of them were Asian too. It’s everything I wanted to exist when I was a kid and had tentative dreams of wanting to work in the arts but wasn’t sure how to ever make that happen. There was no path that was clear to me. How lovely then to engage with kids who see many different paths ahead of them.

Considering my low bar for MBMF was “don’t start a race war”, this was all a massive bonus. But making it wrung me out and responding to it wrung me out more and was a lesson in being careful in both how you approach a project and how you decompress from it. I was very lucky that by this point I had taken my misery to a GP (it took me getting drunk and swearing aggressively at some nice strangers for me to do that) and I had started four weeks of CBT just before it came out. Those sessions acted as a buffer against the worst of it.

3) Burn out. Again, a bit vague, but I suppose it makes sense. When I first told people I felt a bit off in October last year, just after MBMF had wrapped, they were very insistent that I’d been Working Very Hard For A Very Long Time and that I Needed A Holiday. I’d been on a couple of trips the last few years, mostly for weddings, but I genuinely couldn’t remember when I last went on a proper holiday. I wasn’t even that sure how you did it anymore. Truthfully, I’d rather have spent it in my pants, on the sofa, playing the PS4 I had bought but had not unboxed any games for because there was too much to do. I was then convinced by others that this wasn’t good enough.

So I tried to have a holiday. A few weeks later I found myself in a hotel room in Barcelona, quite a nice hotel room since I’d decided that I Deserve This. It was ok. I walked around a lot and listened to podcasts. But I found the stress of finding vegetarian food in a hugely carnivorous city enormous. I couldn’t bring myself to get on the subway. The football team weren’t even playing that week. I found myself on Diwali night sat in an Indian restaurant alone, overhearing a furiously red-faced Englishman explain curry to a patient Spanish woman, and all the while I wishing I was back home on the sofa, in my pants, playing my PS4.

The morning after I sat in my hotel room all day, writing an email that still sits in the drafts of my inbox that I never sent but can’t bring myself to delete. It was a long plea to my friends to not hate me if they didn’t hear from me for ages because I wanted to just disappear. I didn’t know how to be a good friend to them or how to be present in any meaningful way. I loathed everything about myself in that moment, probably more than I ever have.

So maybe it was this stuff. Maybe it wasn’t. Maybe it was just lingering concerns I have about my personality, my inconsistency, my ability to be a functional adult human enlarging themselves til they clouded out everything else. But what’s the upshot of it all?

The bad is that I’ve turned down loads of projects. I’ve even paid back a commission. I chastise myself for not being able to take better advantage of or more enjoyment from this moment in my life and career which by all measures is going fine. More than fine, pretty damn good. I want to grasp every opportunity, I want to be able to have a Jack Thorne-esque level of consistency and productivity but the truth is I can’t really handle it and it’s been better for me to consciously step back and sharpen my focus on fewer things. I might manage to get myself back to spinning lots of projects at the same time, but definitely won’t be doing that soon. It hurts me to say no, but I know it’ll hurt me more to say yes.

The good is that the CBT has started to give me a bit of a framework to make a comeback from. The hourly journalling of mood let me see when I was best placed to operate. Setting tiny goals has been an unexpected revelation. When the big goals disappear as a source of drive and value, I’ve found pushing yourself to consistently do the little things really does help. Cooking a meal for my housemate. Making the time to ring home. Read a book (until this month, it’d be nearly a year since I’d read a work of fiction that wasn’t a play. And even then, not many of those).

Slowly by slowly, through diligent little acts of humanity and progress, the static is coming into focus. I’ve even started using wanky metaphors myself.

6 thoughts on “Some Words on Writing, Depression and Not Enjoying Barcelona Very Much

  1. I can’t tell you how much I can relate to this.
    I’ve just turned Vegan (a high carb zero/no fat vegan-it’s been 9 days) to keep me at a happy weight (plus its so much cheaper than what I was eating before) because I found that i couldn’t commit to the gym as much because I’d said ‘yes’ to lots of writing projects and other drama based things that I needed to concentrate on all of that. Plus I didn’t want to just keep working out all the time. But this has really changed my mood as well. I get to eat loads of sweet fruit (banana’s and dates are my favourite) and not put any weight on, plus I feel happy and satisfied without having to reach for the chocolate!
    Then I started to follow Bullet Journal to manage all of the things I needed to get done and that too has helped me loads.
    But I totally know what you mean by saying ‘if I say yes, it will hurt more’. I think as artists we have to be so many different people (well I do) in order to stay in the game that it affects all aspects of our lives. I haven’t socialised properly for a long time or been on holiday for years and I’ve been single for a long time too because I’m worried that all these things would take my writing away from me, which is soooo important.
    Also, if I would go away it would probably be to actually do something like a camel hike in Morocco, whilst camping in the desert or some charity work in Asia whilst staying with a family rather than do the city thing. Something where I have to put the laptop away!

    But you’re absolutely right, its about trying to tackle the really tiny things, one day at a time, When I get a scene or even half a scene saying all the things I want it to say by not completely saying it (fucking exposition!) then it makes me really happy. Because it gives me that sense of achievement which is actually the reason as to why I’m doing this. I used to think it was the sharing element of it but I realised that this sharing part of the process was about pleasing other people. So as a result I’ve really stopped caring what people think when they see my stuff and just done it purely for me. I’ve got what I’ve wanted out of the process and that’s the main thing. And most often than not most people tend to like my stuff (either that or they’re lying to my face!), which I see as a bonus. So achieving that one tiny goal (however long it takes) makes me feel good. Going Vegan (funnily enough) has also helped with this because i now have more time to dedicate to achieving that.

    But when we’ve done that, what next? Which I suppose it where you’re at? Maybe its about constantly re-defining our goals.

    I was in a workshop with James Graham and he said that he youtube’s shit loads of stuff, does loads of research before he can get to writing to which a mother of two replied ‘fuck, you’ve got a lot of time on your hands.’ That summed it up for me. This mother only had about 1 hour a day to write (through no choice of her own) so would use that time wisely and ended up writing shit loads of stuff and just trusts her influences and inspirations to get authenticity straight onto the page. She gets commissions too.
    I think when we’re given the time to write we lose our motivation and dedication to it – that’s my experience anyway. So maybe its about doing something completely different? But when you don’t need to financially, that’s when it gets hard. Maybe have a kid? ha!
    I hope I haven’t made the situation worse!

  2. Hi Vinay, I came upon your blog above by chance in a moment of Saturday morning relaxed procrastination. I do have stuff to do. However, I kept on reading and feel compelled to write out of kindness but don’t really know what to say. It feels such a personal outpouring on your part that I don’t know if I could say anything that could be of any use. In a virtual sense I suppose I’ve just listened to you and if we were sat in the real world and you spoke I’d probably do the same – just sit there and hear you. Sometimes people need a right good listening to. I identify an awful lot with what you wrote and I also know that when I’m in that place it’s horrible. It’s full on and I don’t care what anyone says I’m just fucking in it and it’s grim. But eventually, for me, it does pass and I know this because I’m suddenly like “Whoah. Flippenheck that was a bit heavy but I think I’m a bit better now…” And I always think right I’ll be a bit more prepared for the next time and usually I am but often I’m not. I’ve read loads of books and stuff and, as you said you’d been reading, I’d like to recommend one and I honestly won’t be offended if you don’t read it or if you’ve already read it and you think it’s a load of rubbish. “Man’s search for meaning” by Victor Frankl. Its just one of them books that I’ve often thought back to in moments of meaninglessness…Take care. Dom

  3. Vinay I promise I am not stalking you but came across this almost by chance.Thank you for letting others see that glimpse of you when you were probably at your lowest.My son on the brink of his life and career is facing depression at 22.Those symptoms you describe is what he’s going through.His inability to do anything is crippling him and others judging him as being “lazy” and emotionally detached really distancing him from those who care for him.As a parent I picked up on his changes fairly quickly but it has taken ages for him to be totally honest with me and himself about just how much help he needs.From being an enthusiastic teenager at Uni who never rang home to the 22 year old he now needs his Mum to ring him at 7.00 every morning to motivate him to get out of bed.As a parent my heart bleeds for him but then I realise that I must be strong and be the beacon that urges him to try and reach out.Anyway this piece made me thank you for being brave enough to express your feelings in the hope it will help others.I am going to copy and paste it to him in the hope that he realises help shouldn’t gave stigma attached to it.Thanks Vinay.

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