Dealing with the Death of a Friend (in and out of lockdown)

In May 2020 one of my closest and kick ass friends Ellie died aged 39, after a 2-year intensive battle with cancer. I have lost people before, but this was different in that we all went through the journey with her – from the misdiagnosis at the start, to the announcement that she had a 10cm tumour (that she lovingly named Thor), to her denial and vigorous fight for her life, which continued until the end. It was devastating for everyone who knew her and 2 weeks before she died, when cancer had ravaged her body, she looked at me terrified and with tears in her eyes and said “I’m dying”. This image will stay with me forever as she loved life and loved being alive. She did not want to go.

Elie died 2 months into lockdown. In a way lockdown delayed real life kicking in and put grief in a weird state of suspension. I grieved of course but life wasn’t normal, so I didn’t feel the full implications of this loss. Emerging from lockdown shone light onto many things and grief was suddenly real and multidimensional. I was grieving the loss of my friend, I was grieving the loss of my business, I was grieving the loss of community, I was grieving the loss of freedom. It all seemed to come at once and I felt incredibly isolated and fragile.

Ellie was a person who always made plans and we had a string of glossy events and meet ups throughout the year to look forward to. She loved planning and I knew that however mundane or challenging life was, we would always meet up and have a blast. Money was no object and boy did she love to treat her friends. Covid annihilated having things to look forward to and I remember coming out of lockdown feeling that there was no future, everything was unstable, moveable and it was impossible to plan. Where had our lives gone?

When Ellie died, I wanted to get a tattoo. I have never felt the urge before, but it felt right to have something I could look at that was in memorial of such an incredible woman. Grief is ongoing and mutates and evolves. Having a tattoo stirred up so many feelings – it was a profound experience. Ellie was suddenly everywhere, she was in my thoughts, I could hear her voice and kept re-running times we spent together. I felt the loss acutely. This is 16 months after she died. The tattoo acted as an anchor to her, to what she gave me and to a part of myself that was lost when she died. It reads “Beautiful” in Buffy The Vampire Slayer font (which we worshipped). Ellie used to call me her “beautiful friend” and she used the word a lot – “the restaurant was BEAUTIFUL”, “the dress was BEAUTIFUL”, “the food was BEAUTIFUL”, “the flowers were BEAUTIFUL”.

I think what is hard when you lose a loved one is that the grief doesn’t just stop. You don’t “get over” someone dying. When people have stopped asking how you are, you are there in your own head trying to push forward with your life but feeling as if you are wading through heavy water. Some days it is easier than others, but it is always there. A feeling of having to push on, knowing that there is a big, gaping hole in your life where your friend used to be and that nothing can fill it. There is no quick fix, there is no replacement person, wine just makes you feel rough, and there is nowhere to run away to. It’s just the feeling of intense loss of that beautiful and one-of-a-kind human that you loved so much. I have tried to philosophise, do things that make me feel good, make new friends etc but the hole remains. I guess the more brightly someone shines the bigger the hole they leave. Ellie’s in this case is EPIC! (as she would say).

The Magic of Manifesting Ideas (And How It Looks and Feels in Real Life)

I was chatting to a successful business owner recently. He came to see a workshop of a musical I am writing and was speaking animatedly to me about how much he enjoyed it. I explained how hard it had been to get it to this stage and how easy it would have been to have had the idea and never done anything with it. He said that it sounded exactly like creating a new business. You have a seed of an idea and then you go about turning it into a reality. It exists in your head at first, you don’t mention it to anyone, but the more you pay attention to it the more it comes into light and starts to become more detailed and vivid. The idea then gets so big that it has nowhere else to go but out of your head into an action or a real-life thing. This thing then has a knock-on effect and before you know it you are staring at a room full of actors with a script, musicians and director staging a presentation on a West End stage (or off West End in our case!).  When the idea first popped into my head my partner looked at me quizzically and said “But why would you write a musical? Sounds like a really hard thing to do.”

I had a chat with someone else – a pop star who had achieved fame and success in his career. I asked him if he had a strong sense that what he and his band were doing “on the way up” would lead to success. He said that in hindsight if he knew how long and how hard the road to success would be, he never would have started. I found this interesting.

Life has a habit of shielding you from the degrees of difficulty that lie ahead on the way to achieving your goals. It’s a bit like playing a game; I’m like “hey I’ve finished level 5 things must get easier now”. What happens however is you are armed to the teeth with weapons, extra lives, first aid kits, magic potions but what you don’t know is that things are going to get even harder and you are going to use each and every resource you gained on your way to level 5 to get to level 6 and it’s going to be by the skin of your teeth.

What I love though is hindsight. If you just keep looking forward you only see where you are and it’s easy to feel like you are not getting anywhere. If you take a moment and bung a flag in the ground when you’ve achieved something (however small) you can then look back and see all the markers. It feels really nice and gives you a boost of energy to keep moving forward and taking those next steps. I have learned over time to look around and take notice at where I am rather than just keeping my head down, pushing hard to get to the end (wherever that may be). The details in the journey (and I know that this is nothing new), make the whole process richer.

I have had lots of ideas in my life that turned into things and all of them started with a small first step. It’s the first step actually that feels the hardest as in my experience that’s when you get the fear. My fear sounds like this:

What if I don’t succeed?

What if I make a total prat of myself?

What if what I make is rubbish?

What if I sound really stupid?

What if I am wasting my time?

What if I fail?

What if I don’t have enough money?

What if nobody cares or listens?

What if I am just not good enough?

The list goes on and on. Being stubborn certainly has its place here. I am so stubborn that in spite of all of these doubts I crack on regardless as the stubborn part of me wants to get it done and has a toddler tantrum desire to finish stuff.

Take for example the massive plot of overgrown scrubland at the end of our garden. It was so bad that you couldn’t walk on the area, there was a rubbish heap, old bits of carpet, broken toys, glass, barbed wire, tarpaulin covered in moss and a huge and unruly bush that was having a whale of a time spreading out and enjoying the space. It had been on my mind for a while to clear the area and I had no clue how much work it would take. This having no clue was actually really useful in that I just started to do it. I used the wrong tools at first using some comedy shears to clip back a bush the size of the Amazon and it took ages but as I went along I kinda found my groove. Again, my partner said to me “Do you have any clue how much work this is going to be and do you have a plan?”. No, I did not. My plan was to make a start and keep clearing it until it was clear. The rest worked its way out as I went along. And I am not gonna lie there were days when I ached all over and felt like it was two steps forward and three steps back. If I looked too far ahead all I could see was the scrubland that was yet to be cleared. If I looked at the little plot I had cleared, I felt a sense of achievement and kept going.

For some ideas, you need a plan sure. For others just cracking on and taking that first step is all you need. It could start with something seemingly small – sending that email, creating a Facebook page, making a logo, updating your CV or something bigger like handing in your notice, moving out, ditching your friends.

If you have a big goal (like making a musical!) I would say that breaking it into small chunks with realistic timescales really helps. If the plan is unfolding rather than being premeditated then it is going to feel like you have lost your way at times. Also, the information or contacts and resources that you need never look like you think they will. That’s why taking stock, stopping and looking around at where you are is so important – just so you don’t miss anything.

Having an idea and acting on it is a powerful thing but it can feel lonely at times. If you are the one with the vision you might have to go it alone working hard late into the night with no audience or anyone really caring about what you are doing. It’s hard when you know that if you don’t push on then nothing will happen and the whole thing could fall apart – and who would care if it did? You would. I try and spring clean my mind and thoughts and keep a few things in check. My inner dialogue can rage at times and can beat me into submission. I am also reactive, over sensitive and can be a total nightmare to work with. I can overanalyse and make everything personal. I hold onto things and don’t find it easy to let them go and to trust others to cherish and nurture my ideas like I do. But I am telling you, you cannot accomplish big things by yourself. You need others around you for support as when times get tough you are going to be on the phone to these people sobbing your heart out (I speak from experience).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Smoother Ride

I am enjoying watching other people’s lives unfold. It’s nice to see from an outside perspective how a career can appear to be slowing down, in a drought with no clear path forward and suddenly BOOM! A great job comes in. Everything changes – at least for the duration of that job, and suddenly things are back on track (wherever that track may appear to lead).

It’s a key driving force for performers in the theatre industry – you never know what’s around the corner, and it’s true to a degree. I am growing tired of living life like this however. Is “what’s around the corner” any better truly, than what exists now? It’s nice to feel that you are getting somewhere – but where is somewhere? Can you ever be anywhere but here? (Thanks JRB)

That said, it’s a thing of beauty when someone you know who has worked, grafted and struggled, suddenly has a career shaping moment – they get THE JOB. The sense of relief is not only financial, but life affirming. I am in the system, I have value and worth, I belong in the industry. The industry wants and values me. I EXIST.

When we got our first round of Arts Council funding last year, I had this moment. I was so overwhelmed with emotion that I was almost sick. It felt as if I was given a big gift and the tide had come in for once. I’m not gonna lie, I really needed this to happen. My celebratory mood was quickly replaced however by the fear of going into the unknown (loved Frozen II), and then panic at how to make our budget and plans a reality. It didn’t last long, and low and behold the mundane crept back in. It’s the mundane that now interests me and I want to feel better “in between” jobs. I don’t want the highs to be as high and I don’t want the lows to be so low.

Take me back to my twenties and I would had said that this was a boring way to live. I would have worried that I wasn’t edgy enough, I wasn’t damaged enough, I was living too comfortably and needed some drama to make good art. Feeling better about my everyday life makes me work better, be more efficient, and less reliant on outside elements to bring me happiness. I don’t think there is such a thing as a permanent state of happiness as it comes and goes like other emotions, but I do think that you can feel more alive and connected. I want to experience things on a deeper level. Does this mean that the big, life changing events mean less? Not necessarily. It just means that there is less of a rollercoaster. I don’t want to be bashed around back and forth anymore. I’ll take the smoother ride please.