February 20, 2013

Shaddow puppet show with "Anxiety" written in the background | Time to ChangeSometimes life can be pretty paradoxical. I have anxiety, mild depression and I used to have panic attacks so bad that I was agoraphobic and could hardly leave my house. Despite this I have always had a desire to perform. In fact, I am a puppeteer and puppeteering has changed my life for the better.

Sure, I still excessively worry when rehearsing and performing and I do understand that it's a bit weird that I like to be in front of a judging audience, when I use too much of my brain worrying about what people think of me.

But it is something I've always wanted to do. During my most anxious time at school, drama was the only lesson I would go to without having a debilitating panic attack. It was the only lesson I would go to in the first place!

Drama and particularly puppetry drive me to work hard and make me confront some of my deepest anxieties. I still get anxious but it feels worth it because I have so much fun doing it.

I use puppety to explore mental health

However, the most rewarding thing I have gained from doing puppetry is I have finally found a way I can sincerely express what it feels like to have a mental health problem. Which, I'm sure you'll agree, is so important.

It started when I was puppeteering on a piece that tackled a serious semi-autobiographical story. I realised how puppetry was not only a beautiful art but could give a person the chance to explore their trauma.

I then remembered the metaphor that Winston Churchill gave his depression: the big black dog. This metaphor has no personal detail but almost instantly a person can imagine what it would feel to have a big unfriendly dog in their life and, in turn, they could maybe imagine how it would feel to experience a depression like Churchill.

Perhaps I could show depression physically

This idea melded with my passion for puppetry. If I could build a big black dog puppet and give it life, I could maybe physically show depression instead of explaining how it felt. I could show depression as physically real. And isn't that what everyone who has a mental health problem wishes they could do?

So, I started to think about my own metaphor: Sometimes I saw my mind as like the weather; unpredictable and constantly shifting from the good to the bad. With some friends, I started to experiment with shadow puppetry and my overhead projector. Eventually, I managed to produced a short film. It was exactly what I was looking for.

Is started the 'Do you Mind?' project

But it felt like my experience was only one of thousands. So, I started the 'Do You Mind?' project to collect more metaphors and maybe (eventually) create a show with puppets.

I want to do this because it's important for me to tell people about my anxiety and I want to help people talk about their own mental health. I feel that if people know, then it's not something I have to hide. But on the other hand I'm scared of telling new people, employers etc.

My project has helped me to open up about my anxiety

My project has helped me to open up about my anxiety. Instead of jumping in with, "hi my name is Joni, oh by the way I have anxiety!" which never works, I can say, within the natural flow of conversation, "I'm doing a project on mental health with puppets… I have anxiety you see...'

I've found now that I can be more honest, other people feel that they can be honest with me. I've been blown away with how people suddenly feel comfortable to talk to me about their own or a loved ones’ experiences after I mention my project. (Turns out we all have a voice, we just need to feel safe to be able to speak!) And that's the reaction I’ve had from just talking about my project. Imagine the power of actually seeing the puppets!

The benefits don't stop there! Puppeteering calms my mind. With all the focus puppetry requires, it acts like a sort of meditation, something I've never got the hang of.

It is liberating to find my own way of expression

What is important is that I have been able to combine something that I love to do with something that has had quite a negative impact on my life. It is liberating and rewarding to find my own way of expression, especially for something that can be so hard to express.

I would really encourage people who are struggling with mental health to find a way of communicating their condition in any way they can. Life is hard enough when words have the potential to leave you feeling stigmatised. Draw it, paint it, act it, write it, film it. Find your metaphor for how your mental health feels!

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