In early 2015 I was asked by Orion Publishing if I would be interested in illustrating not one, but THREE 51 page colouring books for adults, entitled ‘Colour Me Mindful: Birds’, ‘Tropical’ and ‘Underwater’. I had literally just moved out of my parents’ house and finished up two huge sketchcard projects for DC and IDW within the same week. The first thing I had moved into my new home was my drawing desk and computer and I spent the first few days surrounded by boxes begging to be unpacked while I furiously scribbled away. I had mistakenly thought that moving house ‘only down the road’ would be simple and of course I could take on two sketchcard projects in the middle of it – I mean, who turns down jobs from DC and IDW when they come knocking? My Kickstarter backers were more than understanding and so many of them wished me luck with the projects. I was just so proud to be working for two of my favourite comic publishers that I didn’t mind the sleepless nights.
I had been living at home with my parents for the last few years while I worked on getting my art career off the ground. It had been amazingly beneficial of course and I cannot thank my parents enough for giving me that chance to work on my portfolio, travel around the country easily and of course being there for me. But nothing prepared me for the incentive and drive having ‘the fear’ of living in a rented house again (especially when you are a self-employed freelance artist) would give me. So of course when Orion contacted me with their brief for three colouring books I jumped at the chance. This was not only an opportunity to work on a project which meant a lot to me (having studied mindfulness and art therapy in the past) but also get my name into bookstores (and of course pay my rent!).
At first things developed at a nice easy pace. The books were due in June and I was communicating back and forth as I drew up sample pages and covers, taking time to make sure they were what the publishers wanted and working up roughs and pencils before moving onto inks. As I was going to have to wait until the pages were all complete and sent in to get paid, I obviously had to take on other work at the same time, including several new sketchcard sets, private commissions and of course travelling around to conventions. On top of all of this I was determined to get ‘Cirque Du Mort’ ready for London MCM in May. I had already made my backers wait for so long due to being offered the DC and IDW work (as well as working on everything alone) and I was obviously getting worried about them becoming discouraged. So essentially, I was working on four books – the ‘Cirque Du Mort‘ and the colouring books.
It was only 10 days to go until London MCM and the final launch of the ‘Cirque Du Mort’ that I had the phone-call that boosted everything into overdrive. There had been an issue with the printers and Orion now needed the final pages for all three books by the 29th May instead of late June – giving me 16 days (not including the 4 that I would have to take out for London MCM) to completely finish the books – that’s 140 pages in 12 days. 11 pages a day. In those 16 days I think I slept for about 4 of them. My rubbish bin was full to the brim with energy drinks’ cans and when I did go to bed it was usually when my partner’s alarm went off for him to get up for work.
I suppose I can appreciate the irony that creating books to alleviate stress would be the most stressful experience of my life.
I did not have much time to celebrate getting the pages for the books in as I had to start sending out ‘Cirque Du Mort’ backer packages (now that the books had been printed and most merchandise ordered). Of the 268 amazing backers, I managed to pack up and send off 207 rewards before I got another message from Orion. They had liked the books so much that they wanted me to do another three. As I had not taken on any new work during the creation of the last books, I had nothing lined up for the coming months and of course I wanted to keep my working relationship with Orion going. They were a wonderful team to work with and they were giving me my own book series with my name on the cover – this is what artists dream of. So before I even had chance to breathe after the first Colour Me Mindful books were done and dusted, I was working on ‘Colour Me Mindful: Butterflies’, ‘Enchanted Creatures’ and ‘Seasons’.
I felt like I was ready for this series. That I knew what to expect. That I wouldn’t let any unforeseen circumstances creep up on me and force me to panic again. That was when someone very close to me, who had been in and out of hospital most of the year, became very ill. I was in and out of hospital visiting them and driving back and forth from Newport to Penarth, on top of which the emotional stress began to take its toll. I started turning down sketchcard work or having to finish projects early. I started coming home prematurely from conventions and getting my partner to post on social media for me when I was actually just zoning out and struggling to hold a pencil.
I knew the signs that my mental illness was rearing its ugly head. I had learned to spot them from a young age. So I called up my doctor for a pre-emptive strike and booked myself in for counselling. I was put on a three month waiting list. I called up MIND. Their waiting list was two months. I became even more reclusive and started cancelling social occasions with my friends (if I organised them at all). When I wasn’t traveling back and forth to the hospital, I was staring at a blank page trying to will my pencil to actually move. The publishers were amazingly understanding and I ended up getting the next books in a little late, but to a standard I was incredibly proud of considering the circumstances… You’d think it would end there, right?
Well. That was when I was asked to do three more books… Part of me of course wanted to say no, if only due to my mental health. But I didn’t want to stop working with Orion. It’s not often that an artist and a publisher work so well together. By this point I also needed the organisation of drawing every day, I felt like that was what was keeping me together. I needed a job to keep me structured. I needed to pay rent and bills of course. But mostly I had met so many people during the publication of ‘Colour Me Mindful’ who had messaged me saying that my books had helped them through tough times. I had emails upon emails from other people who had depression and felt that my work was helping them. That was probably the most inspiring thing that has ever happened to me.
Despite everything I was going through myself, there were people out there who found the fruits of my labour calming. One person even told me how they helped him stave off a massive panic attack when he was on the train. Another told me how they helped her forget her chronic pain – if only for a moment.
It was during drawing the last three books, the ‘Draw Your Way To A Younger Brain’ series, that the someone very close to me passed away. I had to take time away from working obviously, and stepped away from everything for a while. I phoned up my doctor and tried to push them to let me see a counsellor sooner and they booked me in with some local student counsellors after the books were done. I tried my best to keep on top of my mental health but everything just felt hazy. The stress, grieving, sleep deprivation, poor physical health (mostly from ‘deadline diet’ and reliance on energy drinks *see sleep deprivation), guilt from the other projects I had allowed to fall to the wayside and those that just overwhelmed me; all hit me at once and it just seemed like everything was just too much.
I had a bit of a breakdown in front of my partner (I’m sure it was more than one of course, but one really stood out) and he just said “What can we do to fix it?” I suddenly realised that all the advice I had been giving people with mental issues, all the mindfulness I had been preaching, the #endthestigma conversations I had been encouraging – I finally needed to practice what I preached.
I started seeing the student counsellor every week. I went off my hormonal pill medication (which had been changed by my doctor earlier in the year and had been causing me a lot of distress). I started meditating every morning using mindfulness tapes. I improved my diet and stopped drinking energy drinks as much. I slept. I slept so much.
When I handed in the final three books it wasn’t to huge fanfare and congratulations, but the largest sigh of relief I have ever felt. And I couldn’t even feel it due to my anhedonia (emotional numbness) flaring up so badly. I have not taken on any new work since and have saved up enough that I can work on personal projects like ‘Cirque Du Mort’ and commissions over the Christmas, in-between looking after myself and trying to get back on a more healthy and personally productive schedule.
I look back over the things I have done this year: Self publishing my first creator owned book, ‘Cirque Du Mort’. Becoming a recognised colouring book artist. Being published in Germany, Australia, Canada, America and Korea. Publishing 10 books in one year. Working for DC, IDW, Dynamite and Marvel as a sketchcard artist. And it is still hard for me to feel proud. My depression robs me of that and that is just a sad fact. I see the loved one I lost. I see how disappointed some of my backers are that I didn’t get my books out to them in good time. I see the little things I could have done better. Those are the things my depression shows me.
But I also know that I will not let it win. I know that I got help. I know that I told those closest to me what was going on and let them help me. I know that I can get through this just like I have got through this before. I know how proud of me that lost loved one is. I know how proud of me my parents and friends are. And even though I can’t feel that pride myself yet, I know I will. It will just take time. Time, rest, help and heck – maybe even some mindful colouring in. Why not?