As part of our in-depth look at the effects of mental illness on illustrators, Canada-based illustrator and designer Jamie Lawson, the man behind Poly, his small, multi-disciplinary creative studio in Ontario, opens up about his experiences.
Tell us about your experience with mental health and/or addiction.
"In retrospect, I’m able to see that I’ve always struggled with some anxiety, depression and confidence issues, though I wasn’t always willing or able to identify the symptoms in such a way.
"I recognised my drinking was more than a “bad phase” some time before I actually pursued real help. It wasn’t until I had an alcohol withdrawal seizure in the lobby of Rolling Stone Magazine (where my wife, illustrator Jacqui Oakley, and I were to have a meeting with the art director) that I had to admit how bad things had gotten. Following that though, were still a few years of struggle and further destruction (a night in jail, serious legal consequences, separated from my wife, lost my job, sold my house) before I found some more solid ground."
How have these experiences stemmed from, or been tied to, the life of being a creative?
"When I was at my worst, I was senior designer at a small design firm – lots of responsibility, less influence and decision-making clout. This situation was frustrating in many ways, but not exactly the same as being freelance. I had wanted to go on my own for some time, but felt too relied-upon and lacked the confidence to go for it.
"It was coming out the other side of my ordeal that set me on my path to being freelance. As I mentioned above, my wife Jacqui is a freelance illustrator. She provided so much support, encouragement, and the benefit of herself as an example. I’m glad I went through all that shit before attempting a solo career though – I’m so much better equipped now than I was."
Where, who, or what organisation did you go to for support?
"With the help of my (at the time) estranged wife, I tried a lot of different avenues: AA, various outpatient clinics, voluntary educational groups. Ultimately, the rehab clinic recovery house that I spent eight weeks at, the therapist I saw when I returned, and a series of support groups run by an organisation called ADAPT were the combination that set me on a better path.
"The recovery house was where I really got some time alone to be with myself, read and try to heal. More importantly though, I was living in a house with 30 other men, to whom I was emotionally accountable — that was a big deal, more so than my (somewhat self-indulgent) reading and pondering. A giant lesson for me was how much we really need other people — that our emotional and mental health was much more interwoven with others than I’d ever imagined.
"That’s something that I think really applies to creative workers in general, and freelancers in particular. My experience is that many creative types often have hermetic tendencies, which can be exacerbated by intoxicants and crushing workloads. Working for yourself, by yourself will see you spend perhaps an unhealthy amount of time alone — sometimes this is even fetishised and encouraged with the suggestion that one isn’t really ‘hustling’ unless they have what amount to terrible habits.
"This is, of course, nonsense. Though it’s an attitude that I see changing in the culture, it still bears repeating that developing healthy social habits is as important for a freelancer as their technique, professional practices or work ethic."
What advice would you have for a fellow creative who may be experiencing mental health issues?
"Don’t wait to seek help, or minimise how you’re feeling. Listen to yourself and trust your instincts. Try to get outside yourself — literally go outside, but also spend time with other human beings. Don’t be afraid of change — it’s going to happen no matter what you do, so try to accept and embrace it. Try to eat properly. Get some exercise. Listen to good music and don’t be afraid of other people."
Jamie is part of a group of illustrators – Ben O’Brien (aka Ben the Illustrator), Tobias Hall, Sydney Lovell, Jimi Mackay, Sharmelan Murugiah, Franklin O'Toole, Charlene Chua and Elle Jackson – who’ve shared their stories during Mental Health Awareness Week, with the purpose of providing insight and encouragement to someone who may be unsure on how to deal with their own mental health issues.
If you're experiencing feelings of mental illness, here are a few links to helplines and charities:
Mind – UK mental health charity that provides urgent help, advice on treatment, and sources of support
Mental health helplines suggested by the NHS – including Depression alliance, Men’s Health charity and OCD UK
Samaritans – A 24/7 helpline and charity providing emotional support for those experiencing suicidal thoughts, struggling to cope or in distress
Rethink – UK mental health charity providing information and services for anyone affected by mental illness
Anxiety UK – charity for people with anxiety. Many on our staff and volunteer team have personal experiences of anxiety
Bipolar UK – charity for people bipolar, their families and their carers