In this post, Talking Heads volunteer Stephen Higham explores lifestyle choices which help him to stave off the worst effects of depression and assess how lockdown complicates the maintenance of a positive mood.
Honestly, a part of me is disappointed not to have written the great British novel by now. I’ve often thought to myself, “If I could just spend a month alone in a cabin with a typewriter, I’d get so much done.” If I lived in a film, it would be easy. I’d skip weeks in a montage of shots, portraying me late at night, running my fingers through my hair, making coffee, typing away, but film skirts over the work and focuses on the cathartic result. Reality is not so accommodating. Activity breeds activity and inactivity feeds my anxiety. One of the exercises I did in therapy was an hourly diary, recording work, exercise, entertainment, and skill development. This helped at the time. I took up swimming, planned a festival with my film-club and rejuvenated the podcast which I co-host. Lockdown has made these things either difficult or impossible. I’ve got a brain which obsesses and interprets. It can be self-destructive but when it comes to media it can be pleasurable to turn stories over in my head. We’ve adapted to distance-recording for the podcast, even moving to a weekly schedule that shapes my time, culminating in a Sunday release. I have also digitised my film-club output, moving from physical screenings to daily Instagram recommendations. It’s not the same but responses have been good and it’s always nice to apply the analytical part of my brain to snappy copy. If you can combine a passion with an outlet it will be helpful. Happiness is internal, so if you can find small things which make you feel more productive and satisfied, then you’ll be doing yourself a favour.
There’s a pernicious myth that people who have bad jobs or no jobs at all are naturally lazy, that they just do not want a job. It’s rarely true. From an early age we are taught to conceptualise our sense of identity in terms of our careers. I worked in kitchens before the outbreak and so lost my source of income. I wasn’t alone but I do still connect my self-worth to that sense of societal contribution. I wanted to do something to help. I applied to volunteer for the NHS but I fall into a major at-risk group for Covid-19 so I wasn’t eligible. Another service I could offer was working in the food supply chain. Supermarket employees are key workers and were in demand. I updated my CV, made some calls and ended up on the employee register of a major retailer. This, however, came with its own set of problems. I was a nightshift worker, with long shifts, doing repetitive and physically demanding labour. Socialising doesn’t work on ten-hour night shifts, you dip into a fugue state which is only exacerbated by a disrupted sleep cycle. Sleep is vital for good mental health. It’s important to maintain a sense of normalcy in the current state of affairs, but so many of the jobs available, when they are available, are menial and either lack human-contact or include a dangerously high amount of it. Despite their necessity, retail and warehouse jobs rarely offer full-time hours or accordant benefits and retain a social stigma. What’s important is to remember that these are difficult times for everyone and that old-fashioned notions of value are not objective fact, nor must someone’s value system influence your own.
It’s hard to imagine the current situation without digital space to keep new voices coming in from the outside world. People are social animals. At times of crisis there is an urge to take “coming together” very literally. During the war, workers came together in factories, soldiers in brotherhood; a unified drive in companionship. If we did that now, the death rates would skyrocket. I’m an introvert, which means I have always appreciated the value of podcasts, documentaries and YouTube round-tables as a social nicotine-patch. I think that many are learning a similar lesson. Fortunately, Zoom has risen from the ashes of the old world to the bewilderment of Skype. I join Scalarama video calls, have fallen for the charms of “pub” quizzes and maintain group chats. I was struck by how unnatural digital communication is some weeks into the lockdown. I went to safely pick up recording equipment from my fellow podcasters and realised that my friend Eva was the first new, friendly face I had seen for five weeks. It was a surprisingly emotional moment. Faces on a computer screen are not the same as sharing physical space. Written words lack the immediacy and energy of a conversation. They are a small part of the social exchange which includes a thousand imperceptible nuances of expression, movement, and tone. We crave variety. So even if you get on well with your housemates, which I hope you do, you shouldn’t feel guilty if the repetition gets to you every once in a while. Just try not to let the resentment build up. Communication is as important now as it has ever been for our mental health.
I find that film stands as a compromise for the reality we’ve left behind. It skips over monotony and speaks about our experiences in a visual language which we all share with fluency. The close-up reveals thought, the edit reveals a connection, the montage evokes experience. Watching films is a creative experience as we fill in the time between frames and the space beyond shots. I’m looking forward to viewing the art in this year’s SMHAF as I know that there’s a lot of quality work out there. Isolation can exacerbate several mental health problems and I hope that sharing art can make us feel less alone. Artists express the feelings behind words and appreciating that can bring us closer - though not physically - together.
by Stephen Higham
Stephen Higham is a graduate of Glasgow University. He once volunteered at numerous film festivals and arranged public screenings under the banner of the Red Thread Film Club. He co-hosts the weekly Spectacles: A Pop Culture Podcast.