How I Cope is an on-going blog series where colleagues from across the sector – and at different stages of their career – share their experiences of self-care and wellbeing.
Mental health and balancing work and life is increasingly recognised as essential to our happiness and ability to make the most of our talents. By encouraging greater awareness and exchanging tips and helpful advice, How I Cope aims to create a space for us to support each other, and the health of our sector in general.
Rosemary Waugh is a freelance arts and theatre journalist.
It’s the start of March, the beginning of the spring (hopefully), and I’m staring at my calendar. Each little square is filled with a coloured scribble denoting either an event I need to attend or a deadline I need to meet. I work freelance as an arts journalist, meaning those squares and columns on the calendar often feel like the components of a giant Tetris game I need to somehow turn into a plausible pattern.
I have regular working hours for Time Out, either located in the London office or out reviewing at galleries. Then I have unfixed working hours reviewing theatre for The Stage, Exeunt, Time Out, and then I have a host of other entirely varied freelance projects including conducting interviews, writing features or copywriting.
And that’s before you add in finding the time for any personal creative projects I inevitably neglect (such as a book proposal), or the space for spending time with my loving husband, cooking sensible food or exercising (all, again, inevitably neglected to varying degrees).
This constant juggling of deadlines, appointments, meetings and pitches can get quite stressful (and sometimes mega-stressful!) but it’s a common feature of working life for the many people who make their dream job in the arts a financial possibility by combining multiple part-time roles, over-lapping freelance projects or doing a mixture of remote and office-based work.
Last year, I found it was all getting Too Much. One of the absolute virtues of being freelance is flexibility (and yes, the option to work in your pyjamas) but the lack of any division between work and home life, even down to fact your desk is in the living room, makes ‘leaving work at work’ basically impossible. So, in search of some time away from the computer, mentally and physically, I had to step outside the house. Literally.
What I found at the back of our rented Walthamstow flat was a surprisingly large plot of land. I also found many, many, surprisingly large weeds. The ‘garden’ area of our flat was, in fact, overgrown to the point of the grass being up to my knees. Transforming what I’ve affectionately named ‘The Wasteland’ (English Lit habits die hard) has become my heart’s project.
In a more modest version of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden , the initial overhaul (read: ripping out) of the space revealed a garden path and massive flowerbed both overgrown to the point of being invisible. As I’ve worked further, rifts of bluebells have appeared from the cleared soil and – my favourite thing of all – new rose bushes have started sprouting and now clamber up the fence.
The metal health benefits of gardening are well documented. One of my favourite gardeners, Monty Don, has written beautifully about how the activity helps him manage his depression and Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). More recently, Emma Mitchell has published her gorgeously illustrated memoir ‘The Wild Remedy: How Nature Mends Us’, a book that combines her first-hand experience of swapping a city career for life in the Cambridge fens with how nature helps with depression based on multiple recent scientific studies using brain scans and other pieces of technology to monitor the changes experienced by the human body when it is in nature.
It’s also something many of us simply know to be true, even if we think we don’t. London, city of a thousand prospects, is as famous for its green spaces as it is for its city skyline. Ditto New York and Central Park, which people have heard of even if they’ve never been there. Whether for a sneaky after-work drink, a healthy run or some quality time with their kids, people flock to Hyde Park as readily as they head to Oxford Street. Why? Because being in the green – which is what being in nature is: being inside the green space – is good for us. It lowers our heartbeats, soothes our nerves and helps us gain some perspective on the colleague who gave your favourite play a lukewarm three star review (because hitting them on the head with the garden spade isn’t actually an option…).
I was incredibly lucky to have recently moved into a flat with its own garden. But the great thing about gardening is that you don’t need a meadow to get started – and, indeed, you wouldn’t want one. Starting small has multiple benefits. Another of my favourite gardeners, Alys Fowler, is a champion of urban gardening and finding the right solution for even the smallest spaces, be it a windowsill or some cleverly arranged hanging baskets at the front door. She’s also top-notch on advice for growing your own food (as is James Wong), because there are few things more edifying than getting to eat something you’ve grown yourself. Take baby steps with a classic window box of herbs (the most basic spaghetti sauce will thank you forever) or go more adventurous with a chilli plant in a sunny spot. Both options taste and, importantly, look fantastic.
Gardening, in turns out, hasn’t just helped me switch off from my career; it’s also helped me with it. There are many lessons you can learn from trying to make a functioning garden but the most important is this: you fail. For every time the sweet peas blossom spectacularly, there’s a time when the tomatoes fail to ripen, the lettuce gets irrevocably eaten by a slug and the prized camellia you’ve wanted since a child simply hates the conditions of your patch of land.
Each year, or cycle of the seasons, spent trying to make things grow is inevitably littered with mistakes. And every year after that is spent learning from them and aiming for success in a slightly different way. Which, to borrow a phrase from corporate psychology, is I think what they call ‘growth mind-set’.
Gardening hasn’t eliminated stress from my working life and indeed I wouldn’t quite want it to. In the same way that I purchase five more varieties of flower seed than I need, I say ‘yes’ to almost everything that comes my way partly because I’m too excited by the possibility of what my career could – excuse the pun – blossom into.
But it has helped me gain some distance from it, feel less overwhelmed by shapeless panic and sleep better. And there’s something very calming about looking down at your fingers on the keyboard on a Monday morning and spotting just the faintest trace of soil underneath the thumbnail. Like a secret shared only between you and some tiny seedlings.
If you are interested in contributing to the How I Cope series, please contact us. We welcome anonymous submissions, as well as named.