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James Nokise: Balancing sanity and involvement

James Nokise
“People don’t necessarily drop out of the arts because there’s no work. They drop out because psychologically it becomes too heavy.” Comedian, James Nokise on welfare in the arts.


Earlier this year, I spoke with theatre practitioner, Anya Tate-Manning about the often contradictory space of vulnerability and resilience that artists must hold in order to create work that resonates with audiences and also to survive in the industry. It opened up a larger conversation, one that is not being discussed enough in the arts and in society at large, about a lack of meaningful action around mental health. This was highlighted again recently after comedian, Mike King publicly resigned from New Zealand's suicide prevention panel, saying the draft plan was "deeply flawed". The conversation, previously closely guarded, is beginning to crack open in the arts as role models in the sector have begun talking about their own experiences. I chatted with comedian James Nokise about his journey recognising and working through alcoholism and how he views welfare in the sector at large.

“Society”, says James, “frames being an artist as a luxury verging on a burden.” It is considered a choice of the privileged to put their energies into the whimsical, idealistic, romantic world of making art at the expense of making fiscally responsible, career advancing, sensible decisions. There is often little recognition of the fact that for the majority of artists the choice simply does not exist. “I’m 34. I’ve tried. I’ve experimented. At this point I know that I can’t do other jobs. I don’t know how to be alive, physically, and not do it. If I cannot express myself, cannot find a root to expression, I believe I would implode.” The social risk here is that upon placing artists on a pedestal we are denying the real and lived challenges that artists experience, dismissing it as just the price one pays for choosing the privileged path.

As a result, it is simply “staying sane” that becomes the biggest challenge for those working in the sector. The career path brings with it a financial and psychological burden that largely goes unrecognised. “People don’t necessarily drop out of the arts because there’s no work, because in the end you can make your own work. They drop out because psychologically it becomes too heavy. In a physical way – there’s a weight to both the financial pressure and the psychological pressure of making yourself vulnerable and feeling a burden to other people.”

James is equally critical of the language used by artists to describe their own profession and considers it a contributing factor to this misconception of the life of an artist. “Sometimes the language we use in the arts, you’d think we’re in Harry Potter. That the arts life isn’t a real life. That 9-5ers are muggles and artists are ethereal beings. When we use that language, we create problems for ourselves. It’s saying you have chosen to learn magic so you must live with all the problems of being a magician. It doesn’t make it real for the artists, or for those who aren’t artists.”

James rejects this language and instead considers being a comedian as a trade. It is a skill that only through hard work and persistence can be honed into something of value. “That mentality helps me stay grounded and helps my work ethic. It’s not magical what I do.”  

When we scratch the surface, it does not take long to find evidence that mental health is an area of major concern in the arts, and that there are a disproportional amount of people in the industry experiencing anxiety, depression and addiction. While no study has been done across the sector at large, the New Zealand Music Community Wellbeing Survey conducted by the NZ Federation of Music across 1350 songwriters, composers and performers produced alarming results with musicians reporting double the rate of attempted suicide than the general population; double the incidence of being diagnosed with a mental health disorder; and 84% reporting that they had experienced stress in the last year that had impacted their ability to function day to day. Although dangerous to assume, it is easy to imagine that these statistics would not vary too wildly across other arts industries.

James has found in his experience working in the sector that mental health illness is pervasive, insidious and goes largely untalked about. “We struggle to officially acknowledge that the amount of people in the arts industry with mental health issues is larger than many other industries. They don’t go hand in hand but there is more.” As a result, there is no plan in place to support people in the sector who are struggling. “We don’t seem to have strong mental health plans in the arts. We need to find a way for artists to have an easier understanding of mental health and mental health practitioners.”

The place to start, James believes, is with education. “If you’re going to arts school, mental health should be a fundamental part of the teaching.” There needs to be dedicated resources that are committed to teaching young graduates about learning to deal with stress, anxiety and the danger of addiction, as well as positive role models who can help them navigate their path. “They need to know that smoking and drinking will affect their physicality which will affect their ability to get a role. There’s a lot of high functioning alcoholics in our industry and that’s something that we don’t talk about. These addictions make you vulnerable to the stress and the anxiety.”

Currently, with no education offered around these areas, there is an increased risk of students leaving school with rose-tinted glasses of their road ahead. “If you leave arts school thinking you’re going to walk into fame and then end up poor in a damp flat with no food you can start to feel depressed. Depression sneaks up on you, it taps you on the shoulder and then boom, I’ve been in bed for four days and I’m not answering any emails. Or, I seem to have spent all my money on alcohol again.”

James cut his teeth as a comedian on the UK comedy circuit. In New Zealand, the pathway to becoming a comedian can seem hard to navigate, but he says that is not the case in UK. There’s live comedy on every night, it is financially rewarding and the steps to becoming a professional in the trade are clear. The live comedy scene in the UK is one of the biggest in the world with London alone having over 100 venues. He worked a day job for a couple of years and did as many live performances as he could. “The only way you can learn standup comedy is by watching and doing." Plus, there is the added bonus of getting to share the stage with your heroes. “You might be the rookie in an act for Dave Chappelle. That’s the difference between gigging in London, and gigging in New Zealand.”

However, there is evidence of this changing in New Zealand. While still living in the UK, James received a phone call from a friend telling him that the New Zealand comedy industry had built up enough that it was viable to be based here and successfully build a career as a comedian. Upon hearing that news, he came home.

Drinking is often part and parcel of being a comedian. You’re based at bars, it’s a great way to relieve stress, and repress anxiety. And, most of all, it can provide an escape when things get too much. “I drank alcohol to tap out of society, to numb. Some people watch entire tv series. These things are all part of taking a step out and disengaging.” The need to disengage can be especially marked for artists because pursuing any art form, says James, requires you to step back and observe society. This practice carries a certain weight of its own. “If you step outside of society and look in with empathy, it can be very disarming because the reality of society can be quite crushing and quite overwhelming.” James relied on alcohol to provide that escape but had no idea that his drinking habits could amount to addiction. “I didn’t realise my addiction. I wasn’t a messy drunk. I don’t think my addiction was real to me, or my friends, until I went to the [Wellington Hospital Alcohol and Drugs] programme.”

James recognised that he was depressed. “I reached a point where my depression had got to a dangerous level of suicidal thoughts. I had been there before and I had a red light flashing. I was very confused because my show was successful, my relationship was strong, financially I was going well, but I was really dark and I could not see it.” He asked a couple of his friends to come and observe him for a couple of days. They hung out, had some drinks and at the end they agreed that he was depressed but could not see why either.

So he reached out and decided to seek professional help. “I tried to take [the anxiety and depression] on myself with just a few friends helping, and it had all folded in. I thought maybe I should go talk to people who know about this stuff.” He went to see his GP, who referred him to the drug treatment programme at the Wellington Hospital. It was there that they told him that he was an alcoholic and he couldn’t drink again. “That sucks, it still sucks.”

James was determined to take his condition seriously. He committed to the Wellington Hospital drug and alcohol programme and he worked with a counselor weekly. He learned to reject his fear of being ostracised due to his own assumptions about depression and anxiety, and made a conscious decision to be open about his condition. James is now more than a year alcohol free. “Dealing with my alcoholism made him more comfortable talking about the other stuff, and doing that makes things lighter. Sitting underneath my alcoholism was a giant ball of anger which I hadn’t addressed so I have had to address that. I write more. I work more. And when I see the wave coming and lean in and go through it.”

“Artists don’t recognise what a mental health resource they are to other artists. It’s not about carrying someone else's weight it’s about sharing to lighten each other’s burden. If you can share your experiences with each other you realise these are not individual experiences, these are normal. You realise that your life isn’t fucked up. Your life is normal. These things do happen to everyone else.”

The rest, James says, comes down to making sure that you put the things in place that you need to in order to survive. Find the right role models who can become your touchstones. They are the people who can help you learn the fine balance between sanity and involvement, between vulnerability and resilience.

“Be comfortable with the work you’re involved in. Make sure you are financially strong (because you're never really secure). Find a financially strong place where you are not panicking when you check your account. There is a way to live poor, we call it the hustle. It’s about figuring out what you need and how you can get it without spending much. Often price is associated with comfort. You can pay a lot for something for it’s ease of access.”

Most importantly, he says, take ownership of your time. Step away from work, and go out of the house so you aren’t tempted to do something. “You have to take breaks. You gotta take at least five days in a month of just not being in the hustle. I love the hustle. I genuinely love it. I love my job so I look forward to being in it. But you have to stop and rest.” He says that now he checks back in with his family and community in order to “recharge my cultural batteries.”

James sees these issues being talked about much more openly within arts communities now. “It goes back to our friends committing suicide. Every generation has had a wave and our generation’s wave is understanding that we need to not just support each other, we need to go out and ask for help.” But he says that for any real change to happen, there needs to be more action at a national level. “It’s 2017 and we haven’t got around to this yet. Acknowledging that [these issues] exist is not good enough. We need the funding to turn the tide back. Mike King, the most established standup comedian in NZ, has quit stand up to put all his energy into youth suicide. That’s the level that we have to go to - someone of his stature has to throw all of his being to just get the government to look – that is a huge problem.”

Check out James Nokise’s upcoming show, Rukahu, on from 4th-8th July at Basement Theatre, Auckland.

If you’re experiencing stress, anxiety or addiction, there are a number of resources available to you that you can call right now:

Mental Health Foundation

Lifeline (open 24/7) – 0800 543 354, 09 522 2999

Depression Helpline (open 24/7) – 0800 111 757

NZ Music Foundation (open 24/7) - 0508 MUSICHELP

Alcohol Drug Helpline (open 24/7) – 0800 787 797. You can also text 8691 for free.

Suicide Crisis Helpline (open 24/7) – 0508 828 865 (0508TAUTOKO). This is a service for people who may be thinking about suicide, or those who are concerned about family or friends.


Written by

Hannah Mackintosh

27 Jun 2017

Hannah is a Wellington-based writer, community organiser and lover of stories.