By Freddie Cocker
Everyone has had a hobby in their lives they no longer take part in. From karate, swimming classes, yoga to spanish lessons, for one reason or another, they often fall by the wayside.
This could be for simple reasons that affect us all in adult life; lack of time, no one to go with, social anxiety or work/family commitments. No one would begrudge you for not keeping up with an interest you couldn’t commit to properly. Life goes on and you find other activities which stimulate you.
However, when you’re a child or a teenager, the reasons for giving up hobbies can sometimes be problematic, stressful and even traumatic. For example, if a child gives up playing an instrument they had previously used to tap into their creativity, the reason may not be practical; it could instead be a cruel tutor, bullying by peers or due to pressure from their parents.
The role that suppressed creativity has to play in adolescent mental health is rarely discussed. Furthermore, the consequences of what happens when a child’s creativity is locked away rather than allowed to flourish is also a proverbial elephant in the room when discussing mental health issues in teenagers.
When I started Vent and told my own story about being bullied, I quickly realised that one cathartic article wasn’t enough to tell my full story. I had other experiences to elucidate on and, like peeling away the layers of an onion, with every experience I broadcast and every allegory I tell I feel that much better about myself and that much happier that my lived experiences could end up helping others.
From as young as I can remember, I loved acting. I was the lead in all my school plays and would always be the first person to either perform or just be involved with a production. I admit school plays aren’t always a barometer for knowing you possess thespian-like qualities. However, I did bring a multi-layered performance when playing ‘Mr Bear’ in a live-action portraying of the children’s book ‘Peace at Last’ in nursery. Getting an audience to laugh when you’re King Herod in a school nativity play is also no small feat when he does murder a lot of babies.
Joking aside though, even at that young age, the joy of performing in front of people gave me a rush and happiness I’ve rarely enjoyed elsewhere in life.
I could never pinpoint one all-encompassing reason that ignited my love-affair with the stage but instead I feel there were a myriad of reasons why it became such a large part of my life for so long. When I was on stage, never was I told to be quiet by either adults or children; being loud, extroverted and standing out were qualities to strive for as an actor.
This perfectly suited my natural disposition and, as a result, I never struggled with that part of the job nor needed any encouragement to project.
Another reason was because I yearned to be accepted. When you have no friends, you crave belonging and a social group which can support you and allow you to be yourself without fear of reprisal.
Any actor will tell you that being in a production there is a certain camaraderie you enjoy with your fellow thespians. Living temporarily ensconced in a creative bubble for most of a working day means that the people you work alongside must all share the same energy.
Being in a positive environment alongside peers who enjoy each other’s company allows everyone to lift one another to be the best they can be; the chemistry on stage is better, people will cover for one another when someone forgets their line and generally speaking, the show will be better as a result.
In my case, the stage became a haven for me, a safe-space where I was free from ridicule and the suppression of who I was, a creative utopia where the only limits to my contentment were in my ability to remember lines off a script. Receiving adulation from strangers was more enjoyable than receiving abuse from people who I used to consider my friends.
The mask of anonymity was more beneficial to me than the risk of trying to be accepted and failing.
No one knows who you truly are when you’re on stage. No one knows the mistakes you’ve made. The only limits to your self-expression are the four walls you perform within. There is no such thing as judgement, exclusion or cruelty.
Perhaps that was the key reason why theatre gave me such a cathartic release. Such an emancipation of my creative soul meant I was temporarily liberated by an oppressive environment I was enduring in my day-to-day life.
By playing other people and portraying different characters, the extrovert that was being slowly destroyed could have a glimpse of what it was like to be loved, even if only fleetingly.
At the height of my enjoyment of theatre, I set my sights on becoming a full-time professional actor when I had finished my A-levels and got my University degree. Unfortunately, this dream died when I went to drama school.
The reason I articulated all of this is because at drama school I too was affected by the very traumas that children can encounter when they lose interest in an activity they love. In my case, being bullied at drama school stopped me acting.
I’ll preface this by saying prior to year 11, I thoroughly enjoyed my time at drama school. The school still does amazing community work, allows people from all walks of life to visit it, puts on productions that cover a host of issues and provides a space for local children to come and create their own dramatised experiences. I will never speak ill of it and although I never really made more than a handful of friends in the younger age-groups, I never developed any resentment towards it. Sometimes you don’t form lasting friendships with everyone you meet.
Whilst I was in the younger groups, they allowed me to do what I loved. I was given roles that gave me a chance to shine and it was clear the directors, who I loved being under, placed an emphasis on giving everyone a decent speaking role irrespective of ability.
However, when I reached year 11, unfortunately I encountered a group that was pretentious, clique-centric and exclusionary.
People didn’t seem to be joining for the pure love of acting but rather as an exercise in social dynamics and hierarchical manoeuvring. The behaviour that I thought I had left at the school gates at 3.30pm continued in an alternative location but this time with older perpetrators who had a corrosive influence on the younger actors.
I was only bullied for several months before I quit the school. However, that doesn’t mean to say I didn’t experience a horrible time in those few months.
Rehearsals were twice a week and when I turned up, I was only turning up out of the love for acting – not for any pleasure I derived from being around that group of people. I just put on a brave face and tried to shrug off the barbs they shot my way. You can’t shrug it off on social media though.
I think that affected me more than simple patronising or belittling comments. To work alongside people who will be pleasant to you one minute and then disparaging behind a keyboard is a horrible and belittling experience that I hope I never experience again.
By the end, I simply said to myself “what’s the point of this anymore?” I was already suffering from depression so deep-rooted and ingrained I didn’t realise I had it myself.
I had already gone through several suicide attempts and had self-destructed to the point of oblivion. Why was I choosing to put myself through this too? This was supposed to be my escape from all the pain, not an extension of it. In the end, simplicity won. I put myself first.
The point that affects me the most is that those people almost single-handedly destroyed my love of being on stage. Before, I would get a nervous excitement about performing in front of people. There were obviously worries and nervousness about what would happen if I forgot an important line but every person gets that before a big performance. I rarely had any anxiety creep in and it felt exciting to be able to show off a skill that many people rarely saw from me.
What it morphed into was a great sense of anxiety creeping in every instance in life where I have had to make myself vulnerable or for use of a better phrase, put myself out there. This used to affect me even in every-day occurrences like speaking up in class or doing a presentation at University. I gradually overcame this mental scarring but, to this day, projecting myself on any form of public platform gives me untold anxiety for the hypothetical negative reaction I might receive.
In any form of life, children or adults should never feel pressured to quit doing something they love out of fear or a degradation of joy. More support should be given to those who feel as if something they love doing is slipping away from them and, if it is irretrievable, alternative pathways to creative expression should be explored.
Maybe one day I will try and take up acting again, even if it’s just a play in my local area. I still love watching plays in the theatre and immersing myself in that environment. Perhaps it’s my mind’s way of crying out to a place it couldn’t reach. Maybe it’s an attempt to reconnect to a pursuit of happiness I lost. Maybe it’s simply a good distraction to keep myself off other, more important worries in life. In time perhaps I could recapture that same sense of wonderment and serenity I felt when I used to perform. For now though, it seems a distant aspiration.
Freddie Cocker is Founder and Editor of Vent.
You can follow Freddie on Twitter.