Helen Duff’s show ‘Vanity Bites Back,’ an anarchic comedy about anorexia, attention seeking and finding the freedom to bite back at the stigma surrounding mental illness, comes to Vault Festival (Waterloo) on the 28th January – 1st February.
Duff’s charming voice of experience guides her audience through moments of hysterical revelation and shocking poignancy – encouraging them to laugh at their own anxieties. Vanity Bites Back promises to leave audiences hungry for more.
As part of our After Nyne @ The Vault Festival coverage, we met Helen to talk about the show, the root of her illness and why she thinks laughter is the best medicine.
Helen, tell us in a nutshell what to expect from Vanity Bites Back.
Well, it’s been dubbed a clown cookery show about anorexia, but that’s really just a way to wet your appetite. It’s an explosion of thoughts, feelings and digestive biscuits, all inspired by my love for clowning and my interest in opening up a wider conversation about mental health.
Take us back in time a little. When did anorexia start to play a part in your life?
Hmmm, play a part, that makes anorexia sound like a fun finger puppet! Outwardly, I was most ill while studying my A levels, but inwardly I struggled with the thoughts and feelings that characterise anorexia for a long time after that. Which one of the things that drove me to make the show.
I wanted to explore the belief that “I’ll never be good enough unless I achieve X, Y and Z, and if I can’t do that, at least I haven’t eaten A, B or C” – a thought process that can become all consuming. Feeling as if you have to earn the right to exist, or atone for being human, has a detrimental impact on your state of mind, not to mention your physical well being.
Thinking particularly in terms of information available to you at the time, was it easy to feel isolated by your illness?
I wanted to be “rescued” from my controlling thoughts for over 7 years before finally seeking private treatment. I knew that my quality of life was being severely restricted – spontaneity and self belief always felt like occasional treats rather than something I could appreciate every day. Anorexia has an extremely powerful hold – my self worth had become so low that the illness was a safety blanket. It set me clear boundaries and allowed me a mental check list of ways in which I’d either succeeded or failed during each day.
That sounds like a staight jacket, but I think a lot of people seek structure and rules to feel secure. Getting treatment in England is a mine field, because NHS resources are incredibly stretched and waiting lists are over a year and a half long. That’s created a horrific situation where people feel the need to qualify for treatment – losing weight until they become critically ill. Charities like B-eat (who I made the show at Edinburgh in association with) do amazing and essential work to raise awareness and funds but more needs to be done to break down the social stigma surrounding eating disorders and recognise that their physical manifestation is only a slice of a very complex story.
At what point did you realise that laughing at the illness was, if you will, the best medicine?
I never make direct jokes about anorexia because I’d hate to undermine other people’s suffering. The cookery show host that I’ve created, Jill, is determined to make her programme work no matter what. The extremity of that drive and the beauty of her idiocy creates a lot of the comedy. I’ve always loved observing interesting details about other people and creating stories in my mind. When I was really ill, I lost all confidence in my ability to communicate those imaginings. Losing my sense of humour scared me more than anything else.
Why are people so afraid to talk about mental illness, in your opinion?
Because it’s really hard to explain. Despite huge amounts of research, there’s no instant cure. People are complicated, mixed up, murky beings and your mental state is totally interlinked with who you are, what you stand for, how people see you. It can be terrifying to put that into words and think “am I giving the right impression of myself? Is that really how I feel?”.
There’s an intense fear of using the wrong words and being pigeon holed or ostracised. So it seems easier to cover up and carry on, rather than risk an unknowable outcome. In theatre we have the luxury of leaving gaps and allowing the audience to draw their own conclusions; to suggest stories rather than spelling them out word for word. Theatre allows you to explore being human on so many different levels.
Having seen it from the inside, what’s your advice to someone struggling to reach out to someone they love who is struggling with anorexia, bulimia or in fact any mental illness?
I would never go so far as to say I’ve made a “perfect” recovery. I think it’s dangerous to deal in absolutes – setting up unhelpful, unattainable targets, when who you are and how you feel is always shifting. I’m immensely lucky to have reached a point where I feel comfortable to talk about my illness openly. That was key to breaking down its hold over my behaviour.
It was also incredibly frightening. There were a lot of family and friends who assured me that I was loved. Ultimately though, it’s the patience and compassion I’ve been able to show myself that’s made the biggest difference – giving myself permission to think, feel and reveal things that I’d otherwise have punished myself for.
Finally, what would you like your audience to take away from Vanity Bites Back?
A sense that you don’t need to have all the answers to create something beautiful.
All ticket information can be found at http://www.vaultfestival.com