"I didn't know actual loneliness until I left – I no longer live with my parents, I can no longer go into town and just bump into someone, I can no longer just ring someone up and go for a coffee. And, I like being alone. I'm the type of person who really likes being on my own – I love my own company. But when it's not a choice anymore, and you're forced not to be around anybody, that's when your mind starts going a bit ... that's when you start to freak out a little". Conor Clinch is a fashion photographer from Dublin, now living in London.
Although Conor was already making a name for himself from behind the lens at the age of sixteen in Dublin, it was his entry into a reality television show at eighteen years of age, in which he became Rankin's protégé, that opened him and his work up to a wider audience. The show culminated with Conor's presentation of Fresh – a body of work that would prove foundational to the development of his aesthetic, namely an ongoing referencing of lad culture, macho masculinity, and meticulous self presentation. Following this, a move to London would quickly follow. And so, off Conor went.
Conor was realistic in setting out, and was all too aware that he would be trading his status of a big fish in a small pond, to a smaller fish in a much bigger pond. He makes no attempt to play down the difficulty of the move, and is frank about the challenges he faced. "I’ve been living [in London] for two years, and I feel like I’m only becoming happy now. It takes a long time. In London, you can be happy for a tiny little moment but, when you think things are going a bit well for you, someone will drop a bomb or just shit over everything and you'll just be like, 'oh fuck, I’m back to square one again'". What Conor anticipated the least, however, was the cumulative effect of so many things – adjusting to life in a bigger, more anonymous, and expensive city; coming to terms with the demands of a more intense industry; as well as his own [not to mention others'] expectations of himself and his work – on his mental health.
Although he initially overlooked the link between the two, it would be through physical symptoms – aches in his muscles – that Conor would first begin to become aware of the pressure his headspace was increasingly coming under in London. Soon after, the effects of stress and anxiety would take root in his head. Although he is a self professed over thinker, Conor felt something was up. "I was really paranoid about things. I started to get mega brain fog, and a constant feeling of being overwhelmed. I just didn’t feel like I was alive – there was nothing going on. And, when this affects you, you just can’t go about your day to day things". Conor continues, "it’s a feeling as if you’re watching yourself. I was constantly checking myself and watching everything I did. I used to love going and chilling in a café on my laptop. But then I would go and chill in a café but [not] get any work done because I’d constantly be thinking about what way I was sitting. You’re not really there – you constantly feel like you have to slap yourself awake; you’re not really alive. You’re just watching yourself as a movie – you’re two different people, it’s like your mind is separate from your body".
This state of mind weakened Conor's drive – although he was still working, this was out of necessity rather than any desire or want. His social media engagement at the time served to veil his offline reality to others. "I went quiet. But if someone was to look from the outside in they’d be like, 'no, you had an Instagram up every week – you’re grand!’". On whether Instagram is part of the problem, Conor says, "I guess there are pressures there of having to update your shit all of the time [...] so everyone looks in and they just think it’s easy breezy and you’ve got work up all the time". This kind of keeping up appearances extended to Conor's offline as well as online existence, and reached its peak when he came home to Dublin last December. "I was only saying it to my mam today – I was looking back on last Christmas, and we went for a drink in Pygmalion. We sat outside and I was literally in another world. But I just had to put this smile on my face and be like, ‘I’m fine’. I came back for two weeks and I think I was sober for one day. I ruined myself. I went back to London in January and I was a mess – a shell of a human. I was drinking because I felt so shit when [I was] sober. I went back [to London] in January and had to get my shit together".
Conor does not claim to have recovered his drive in full, or to be 'better', but he's getting there. He appreciates that the process of returning to a clearer headspace is a slow and incremental process; one that demands patience, "you can never say you were cured from anxiety, it will always be there, it’s about learning how to deal with things". On returning to London, Conor used exercise as a tool with which to improve his mental health. However, that in itself would prove problematic. "My whole life became exercise – it took over for a little while. I'd be like, ‘oh, I’ll do spinning in the morning, hot yoga in the evening, and then I’ll go to the gym before bed'". Although this regimen made Conor feel better, it was as unsustainable in its intensity as it sounds. "When I went back in January, I was exercising every day and feeling really great. One day, I was in a hotel lobby doing some work and, in my head, I was like, ‘I’m on my own, I’m on my laptop, I’m getting work done, I feel amazing’. And then I had a panic attack. I was on my own. There was nothing I could do. I had to put my laptop down and run to the bathroom".
For Conor, that experience illuminated how working out would not be the sole quick fix he first thought possible. He now accepts that such a thing probably doesn't exist, much like there not being any one remedy that can be replicated between people working through challenges to their headspace. Mental health is intensely individual in terms of the causes of difficulties, manifestations, experiences, and solutions. Since the hotel lobby, Conor has come to appreciate a more rounded and balanced approach to his mental health, and believes strongly in the power of others in helping him work on himself. "It’s about surrounding yourself with really good people. There were some people at the time who had a really negative outlook on things and that rubbed off on me a little bit. It’s about finding someone who is positive, who makes you happy, and makes you laugh. It’s good to have people around you who are passionate about what they do – they encourage you and push you and get excited for you. When there’s no one around, there’s no one".
In spite of, or because of, the lows that Conor worked through, he feels more empowered in his mental health, and his particular experience has, ultimately, been something bettering. "If I was to just step into the position that I’m in now from where I was five years ago, I wouldn’t have enjoyed it. The best thing about where I am now is everything that has happened along the way – it’s been amazing; the bad as well as the good. As much as I have my downs, I have my ups. If I didn’t have my downs, I wouldn’t have my ups. I’m actually happy that all the anxiety happened. It was such a big part of the past year that has totally changed me, made me different, and made me appreciate things more".
West Dublin might not be East London, but there are things that Conor has brought with him which have helped him on his mental health journey. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the loneliness he was faced with in London, he says, "the sense of community at home is something I’ve taken with me. I always kind of looked down on it for some weird reason. I always kind of hated that everyone knew everything about each other. But, in a way, it’s kind of nice – nobody means any harm, or anything bad".
He continues, "before I left, I was like, ‘success comes from your career – if I’m not at the top of my game then I’m not successful'". This narrow understanding of success – one that is based on the work you do and how others appraise you for it – was one of several factors that contributed to the mental health difficulties Conor encountered. He has since ditched the notion. "I’m cringing at myself saying this, but happiness is the epitome of success. Success doesn’t come from anywhere other than being happy and that is what I’ve found – no matter how big I am in my job, or who I’m shooting for. Everyone's notion of success is different, and for some it more difficult to achieve than others. But if you've got what you want and it makes you happy, then you've fucking succeeded".
Note: For information around mental health, including details of support services, please click here.