Helena Fox

Content note: This article contains detailed discussion of mental illness.

When I left hospital in September 2017 and moved to Cambridge, I was a fledging: catapulted into a world so much brighter and louder than the one I remembered leaving behind, not sure I could navigate its complexities and its vibrancy.

I wrote this at the close of that year:

In 2018, I will not be a beautiful tragedy, only daring to choose tearful greys and smoky crimsons to illustrate my days, months, and years. Instead, in 2018, I will be fearless in my recovery, actively choosing to follow its guidance and accept its challenges. I will cover my hands in paint and I will be as I am: messy, complex, emotional. I will tread the path of every colour under the sun.

Two years later, I am confident that I have truly left the nest, and Rust the Musical has played a huge part in that. When CUMTS advertised for writers for their original musicals at the Edinburgh Fringe last Michaelmas, it struck me that I had never seen a show – not least a musical – that really focused on the process of recovery from mental illness, rather than the illnesses themselves or their aftermath, and that I was well-placed to write something that attempted to depict what this process of recovery may look like for some people.

“My time in rehab was immeasurably challenging, but it was also, surprising as it may seem, genuinely funny.”

This is, at its core, the place which Rust comes from: a place of recovery, and hope. It aims to uplift and inspire where it can, and to reach out to people in the midst of the struggle and tell them that maybe, actually, things are going to be okay. We have all been conscious, too, of fostering a sense of fun and playfulness in the script and the performance. My time in rehab was immeasurably challenging, but it was also, surprising as it may seem, genuinely funny. I was struck by some of the adults I met there saying – after times like when we collapsed laughing following a frenzied slipper-duel, or sneakily replaced a staff member’s photo with that of an uncanny doppelgänger in Star Trek (Jean-Luc Picard, if you’re wondering), or got kicked out of yoga class for giggling – that this was the first time they had laughed in years, and certainly the first time they had done so sober. As cliché as it sounds, a lot of recovery was learning to let ourselves be joyful again, and it is so important to us that we capture this in Rust.

But we are also tackling the severity and the stark reality of mental illness head on. I left hospital knowing that the statistics were not on our side, and we lost a member of our cohort nine months later; they left behind a child who was not yet a year old. It would be a disservice to all those suffering with these real and powerful illnesses not to acknowledge the tangible damage they can do.


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So, creating Rust has been about finding a balance between the palpable suffering of mental illness and the equally palpable possibility of recovery. I would never claim to have voiced the experiences of all those who have lived with mental illness – after all, each manifestation is so different – but I sincerely hope I have managed to provide a candid portrait of the characters in Rust and that there is something in the show which speaks to the people who see it. Meeting audience members at the Fringe or receiving messages from them after the show which thanked us for telling this story or said that our musical had helped to inspire the fight against their illness was indescribably special, and I am acutely aware of the privilege I have experienced in being able to present a story so close to my own.

It is so exciting (and nerve-wracking!) to be bringing Rust to Cambridge this week; it is mind-blowing to be able to stage this musical about recovery in a place that has been so integral to my own. To those of you reading this who are currently fighting your own battles: know that you are not alone, and that recovery is possible – I am living proof.

Rust will be showing at the ADC Theatre at 11pm, Wednesday 13th - Saturday 16th November.

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