After what felt like a lifetime of preparing to hit a wall, two years ago, I found myself having the worst week I could ever imagine. I’d lost my relationship, my flat, my social enterprise was facing a large deficit, and I was exhausted.
I lived with depression since I was seven years old. Panic attacks followed by mild social anxiety and later on in life low – levels of anxiety – meant I was a high-functioning anxious person. I excelled in so many ways, but at the end of the day, would have panic attacks in the shower.
The culture I grew up in prized competitiveness, overachievement, ambition, perfectionism, and hard work with a teensy dose of creativity. Though I found refuge in dance, music, painting, and writing, even that was made competitive at school. Only the best in our class would get help with their portfolio for art college; the rest simply had to accept that their creativity would become a hobby.
Then I moved to Scotland. I came to Edinburgh for university in 2010. I had aimed to stay involved in creative pursuits like dance, painting, and writing but quickly I found these outlets too competitive at university as well. I only had six hours of lectures a week and three hours of tutorials—for the first time in my life I had a break. I had so much time, which I quickly filled with student politics, friends, clubbing, wandering the city, and being an 18-year-old. University was not something I wanted. It was something was told I had to do. It was expected of me, though I was acutely aware of the privilege I had to be able to attend university.
Fast forward four years. I was elected President of Edinburgh University Students’ Association in 2014, the first international, black woman President of the union in its 130-year history. Amongst other things in my year as President, I pitched an idea to the university principal which turned into the Edinburgh Student Arts Festival (ESAF), later a social enterprise that would provide a platform to emerging artists and creatives to showcase their work to the public. We had greater ambitions and aspirations to support people to realise their creative potential by working in partnership with Edinburgh City Council in schools to help raise the profile of the creative industries for young people.
We were funded by three major Edinburgh-based universities and we had entered into every pitching competition for startups, news ideas, social enterprises, and arts businesses. We would often make it to the final round, then lose out to some huge, high-growth tech business or a company setting up solar panels in sub-Saharan Africa. What I would quickly learn is that people do not value the arts as much as people within the arts community do. A person will be willing to buy a cinema ticket but to pay for a ticket to hear a slam poet perform a new piece of work, listen to a band they had never heard of, to see some art — nae chance, pal.
“After my burnout, I went back to the basics of feeding myself, sleeping, and exercising. I relied on my community to support me…I found solace in being allowed to experience all the emotions that arose “
I spent a lot of time between 2015 and 2017 working 80-hour work weeks. I managed being paid late, sometimes by months. I used nectar points to pay for groceries and borrowed money from friends. I stopped having a social life beyond spending time with my partner, working, and occasionally going to the cinema when I could afford it. I believed in what I did so much it often took up my evenings and weekends. I rarely went on holiday, partly because I could not afford it but partly because our busiest times of year was during the holiday period. I have clear memories of working on a layout for our festival programme on Christmas eve and writing copy for our website on Boxing Day. I was a festival director and organiser working in the arts—there was really no such thing as a holiday in the months running up to the festival. And then I realised I was wiped out.
Not only was I exhausted, I was completely burnt out. It was only when I was visiting a friend in Stockholm, an incredible performance poet and feminist activist, that she spelled it out for me. Burnout, in Sweden at least, was a fully diagnosable medical condition. The indicators were often an individual who was overworking, had limited resources, and limited support with a huge responsibility akin to a company or an organisation.
In the lead up to our festival programme for 2017, we had received bad news after bad news that spelled financial and funding disaster for us. It was becoming apparent that there was a wider, systemic factor unfolding here. Cuts to the public sector were having an impact on everyone and the Edinburgh Student Arts Festival (ESAF) was simply one of the first organisations to feel the impact.
A SECTOR-WIDE BURNOUT
Systemically since late 2016 and early 2017, the public sector has been facing a series of cuts that have been devastating the publicly-funded arts sector. The fact of the matter is that most major arts organisations and institutions receive some level of public funding. Social enterprises and creative businesses have mostly been able to avoid the impact of these cuts, but as less money becomes available and public spending also shifts as a result of economic downturn, the knock-on effect of this is nationwide.
Many friends I speak to that run their own businesses and or freelance have told me that 2018 has been the worst year for them financially in a long time. While public funding is contracting, many are taking alternative initiative by crowdfunding, fundraising, doing things themselves (DIY), at low cost, and forgetting about public funding all together. Artists have always been creative and resourceful. This time is no different, but when an entire sector is running on fumes because most staff working for these large arts and creative institutions are also practicing artists that work part-time for institutions so they can afford the rent, we are looking at an entire sector with a workforce that is overworked and living with low-level burnout. A study by Arts Professional confirms this.
Burnout’s long term impacts can cause physical symptoms similar to the impact of long-term unaddressed chronic stress including adrenal fatigue, migraines, chronic fatigue syndrome, negative impacts on the immune system, irritability, and many other symptoms.
Many of these symptoms I experienced myself, but ultimately I can attest to the fact that burnout is the best thing that ever happened to me. First, it is hard to understand your limits unless you have surpassed them. After my burnout, I went back to the basics of feeding myself, sleeping, and exercising. I relied on my community to support me. In the period after that fateful week, I was hidden homeless for nine months and relied on the hospitality of my friends until I decided where I was going to live. My visa status was in question because my former partner and I had planned to apply for an unmarried partner visa together. In January of 2018, I had secured a Tier 1 Exceptional Promise Visa in the arts, proving I was an emerging leader in the sector. I decided that I needed to take things slow. I started by addressing pressing issues regarding the festival. Otherwise I went to work part-time. I was still surrounded by artists, festivals and creativity. I found solace in being allowed to experience all the emotions that arose as a result of my burnout. I went to therapy. I went to yoga. I journaled. I read a lot, and that was so deeply healing. I worked with a shaman who taught me energy healing practices and modalities. I allowed my experiences to deeply sink in before I made any decisions about my next steps. I started to explore the core of my burnout—what caused it? What was I running away from?
I took a deep hard look at a lot of the abusive relationships in my life – some close friends, one in particular, the relationship I had with my ex-partner – that had caused me to people please, be unable to say no, overachieve, and ultimately overwork. This overwork and its close cousin, perfectionism, had stemmed from avoiding situations that were causing me anxiety because I was so used to living with them. The anxiety I had when I was younger occurred as a result of an abusive relative at home. Her taunts, criticisms, and bullying had been with me my entire life.
FIND YOUR COMMUNITY
Having no funding in the arts is a bit like dealing with a bully. You need to take them for what they are and not try to decipher their motivations. There’s no point in exploring why the funding has been cut and if any concessions can be made—accept the situation for what it is. Then talk about it—rally together with people also experiencing the bullying and talk about how you are treated. When funding is scarce, come together to talk about your pain points, your needs, how it is impacting you and your organisation. Then, once everyone is on the same page and aware of how the bully works, you can put strategies in place that prevent you from being so negatively impacted by it. You can share resources, check in on each other, support each other, pool resources, cut things where they need to be cut, and get more creative about how you solve these problems.