Who is Sarah Firth?
The first time I met Sarah Firth, she was delivering a talk was about using drawing to map and process your emotions. She was honest, funny and incredibly self-aware, and at the end of the talk, I felt like I had to get to know her.
Sarah is a prolific comic artist, writer and animator based in Melbourne, Australia. Her first memory associated with her art was when she was a toddler — she remembers getting a hold of her mother’s lipstick and drawing all over a toilet and bathroom walls. She would also steal pens and scribble under chairs and tables at home, restaurants and other people’s places. If you turn over her parent’s furniture, it’s all still there.
When you read Sarah’s work, you get an insight into the things that she holds dear, mental well-being clear among them. When you get to know her, you learn she buys herself flowers every week as a self-love gesture and that gardening is her main joy go-to - “I love plants, worms, insects, snails, trees, flowers and growing things, ” she says. Among her other everyday joys — watching birds, playing with her cat, naked yoga in the sun and going to weight lifting club.
Most people think Sarah is very outgoing, sociable and warm, which she says is true, but also that she’s not as extroverted as she appears. “I really like being alone and quiet most of the time. I like space. If I spend too much time in busy public spaces, socialising or with people I get really overwhelmed and exhausted,” she says. If she’s upset or processing something, she usually takes slow walks; or likes lying on the floor focussing on her breathing, writing it out or making art to express the tension. She also likes meditating on the upset and letting it go or figuring out how to shift the situation.
I chatted with her about mental well-being and her life as a creative person who works for herself.
How important is it for you to consciously look after your mental health and well-being?
Looking after my psychological and emotional well-being is a necessity. There have been times when I’ve neglected my mental health support practices, because of the usual things like work, travel, and having too much to do - and it always has repercussions. So I take looking after my mental health seriously, just like I take physical exercise, sleeping and diet seriously.
As someone in the creative industry and as someone who runs your own business, what are the challenges you face with regards to mental well-being?
The biggest challenges are managing stress, time and setting appropriate boundaries to prevent overwork and burnout. Managing stakeholders and client expectations can also be a challenge – I need to make sure I don’t contort myself in unhealthy ways to meet unrealistic demands.
What are some of the ways you look after you mind?
I have a very fast and voracious mind, an overactive imagination, anxiety and hyper arousal issues, where noise, light and movement can set me off – so finding quiet spaces and doing things that get me to focus and calm down is an anchor. For example, I make sure I read long essays, research and physical books, not just online bites. This helps me slow down my thinking, and sense of time. I also write every morning to order my thoughts. It helps me offload stress and anxiety, understand my emotional states with compassion, and I like to write affirmations to counter negative mind chatter and feel more empowered.
Moving my body every day has a huge impact on my stress and anxiety. 4 times a week I do gentle walking and deep breathing, and sometimes hiking if I have the time. I also do olympic style weight lifting 3 times a week. I find particularly with weight lifting, it is a very focused challenge that reminds me that I am stronger than I think I am. And gets me out of my head and into my body – which when I’m feeling mentally weak and panicky is very grounding, and floods my system with endorphins. I also jiggle and dance a lot throughout the day to loosen up my body, which inevitably improves my mental state.
Sometimes when I am really overwhelmed or having a panic attack, I will just lie down on the floor and breathe or jump into bed for 15min. I also have baths, call friends and meet up, get massages, spend time with animals and in the garden, and go and see my cognitive behavioral therapist.
Diet and sleep also play a huge part in my psychological and emotional well-being. I hardly eat sugar because it really messes with my body and mind, I try to eat lots of green vegetables, complex carbohydrates, good fats and fish for brain health, and only have takeaway or junk food occasionally. I usually drink a lot, but am on a 6-month sobriety stint to see how that impacts my mental health. I usually need at least 7-9 hours of sleep to feel really calm and rested. However, because my schedule can get hectic, if I sleep under 5 hours one night I will try to have a quick powernap after lunch to tide me over or sleep extra the next night.
What are some of the things you stay away from to ensure mental health hygiene? How does that help?
I try to say no to things that don’t light me up, so I can say yes to things that do. I am careful how I engage with, and how much time I spend on social media. I avoid getting caught up in combative internet arguments. I have a rule of no phones allowed in the bedroom. I am careful not get involved in people’s drama or take on stress when it is unnecessary. I’m very conscious of where I put my attention and energy.
I limit how much time I spend in crowds, and around loud noises. Sometimes I even find Melbourne city stressful. If I do have to be in situations that I know will be intense, I make sure I offset them. For example – I’ll ride my bike into the city, and often listen to nature sounds on my headphones – or might escape to the Botanic Gardens and lie on the grass after a meeting. If I’m doing long-haul flights for work I will make sure I have a few days to recover from travel and jetlag before I do a client job. If I’ve been facilitating a big workshop or graphic recording at an event all day – I won’t attempt to socialize, go out or plan anything afterwards other than resting somewhere quiet or going for a gentle night walk.
As a creative person, and as someone with the emotional sensitivity that comes along with that territory, what are some recommendations you would make to other folks like yourself?
I would say that it’s important to be brave and courageous and make what you make from a sense of purpose and enjoyment, as opposed to fear, comparison and chasing success. That mindset is so toxic and the art and writing worlds can be weird, cliquey and competitive. It can leave you feeling really uneasy and disempowered. My recommendation is, keep making because you need to, because you want to. Define your own measures of success. Work on and for what is meaningful to you. Set boundaries, get to know what you value and don’t value. Connect with a creative peer group you can feel strong with and get constructive criticism and feedback from.
What’s a meal you would eat at any time of the day, any day of the week?
In a fantasy sense, curry laksa. But not really. It actually gives me pretty bad farts unfortunately. I also love rojak, and dim sum or lo mai gai at yumcha - but again if I ate these all the time my digestion would be unhappy! A meal that reliably makes me feel great is a simple salad – cucumber, tomato, kalamata olives, feta and a splash of olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
One way to bribe you would be?
To give me a massage.
What's your favourite season and why?
I love autumn and winter. Autumn is my second favourite, for the rain and all the mushrooms and the smell of leaves – it makes me really nostalgic for raking leaves with my Mother when I was a child. Winter is my number one favourite because I love cool crisp air, it does wonders for my brain and writing. I feel at my creative peak. I like the limited daylight hours, sleeping more, feeling more calm and quiet and I find it more enjoyable to exercise without overheating.
The weirdest thing about you according to your friends?
I’m a weird mix of confidence and friendliness, but am also very sensitive like a child. I have a strange sense of humour and like to roll around on the floor. My dancing is pretty weird.
Thanks, Sarah. This was so much fun!