Practicing Self Care with filmmaker Kate McCabe


I met Kate McCabe when I was on a women’s emotional sobriety retreat in Joshua Tree in October.

I spent two nights in the desert with 12 other recovering women as we opened up to each other about coping with negative emotions that were ignored when using alcohol or drugs.

Kate was hired on by our leader as a chef and she graciously cooked every meal during our retreat.

As I indulged myself in her delicious offerings, I found out she was a filmmaker about to head to Portugal for a screening of one of her films.

As she disclosed she was first a photographer before she was a filmmaker, I knew I had to interview her for my project.

McCabe is based out of Joshua Tree, California where she founded the art collective Kidnap Yourself. She grew up in Philadelphia where her youth was dominated by dance and art where her mother taught ballet and later performed Flamenco.

She is a graduate of the University of the Arts and she obtained her MFA in Experimental Animation from the California Institute of the Arts under the innovative Jules Engel.

She is an award winning independent filmmaker who has shown films globally since 1995 in both film festivals and galleries and the occasional guerrilla drive-in. She is most re-known internationally for Sabbia, her first feature film, a visual album for musician Brant Bjork.

Her current work includes paintings, photography, short fiction, and art books; including popular sketch comic book “Mojave Weather Diaries.”

McCabe has taught film at CalArts and UC San Diego and has worked with some of Los Angeles’ most prolific independent filmmakers including Eli Roth and Pat O’Neill.

During our conversation, she explained how her collective Kidnap Yourself is essentially about being in control of your own destiny; which deeply resonates with me as a woman in early recovery.

We talked about the big risk of moving out to the desert and how she experienced divorce within the first year of making the big move and what has she done to cope with lifes’ challenges.

Although she does not consider herself in substance abuse recovery, she is a wonderful example of why you don’t necessarily need to be suffering from addiction to learn from the tools and principles of recovery.

Here are the highlights from our conversation.

How do you take care of yourself- mentally and physically- when working on projects? In general, how do you avoid burnout?

My first year living here in Joshua Tree, I found a dog out front of my house and I ended up keeping her. I ended up having to walk this crazy dog who had too much energy. So I started walking a lot and it became a form of meditation.

It’s where I get my ideas, it’s where I cleared my head. Even though my dog passed away last year, I still force myself to walk. I’ve been in the desert now for almost 14 years, now it feels like something is missing in my day if I don’t make time to do that.

I grew up in a city where you just walk, you don’t really think about it… but walking in the desert is a whole different experience, it’s more meditative.

So I walked and meditated. A few years after I moved here, I got the job as an executive chef at a residential treatment center and they (the rest of the staff) were teaching clients how to meditate.

Everything they taught were stress handling techniques. I was cooking 17 meals a week for the residents, so even though I wasn’t in the rehab programs myself, I soaked up what was around me.

I actually would like to confess that I also roller skate in the house. I do not have far to go but I go any way or I will dance. Especially if I am working on a project for a long time, like if I am editing and I have to sit for long periods of time . I will make sure that I jump up and move around. I do it to freshen up my brain and get my blood pumping so I highly recommend dancing or rollerskating when you’re working on projects.

As far as burnout goes, I think avoiding burnout is hard for anybody. Burning out is OK, it’s OK to be exhausted, it’s OK to be tired.

I think my friends in recovery helped me reach a level of maturity that was totally unseen in my entire ancestry. No one has ever been this emotionally mature in my family ever.

So I’m not the little angry kid that burns out anymore. I used to get upset, frustrated and impatient with others. I had more of a temper (in the past) and now I approach things in a more practical way because we have to remember it’s a marathon, right? It’s not a sprint.

Either I grew into it or if it was the practice of learning how to accept and control expectations over time but I know that time I spent working at the rehab was important to me.

I feel I have an advantage over most because I had this chance to learn from other really beautiful women. I ended up admiring them greatly because of their struggles, and they were good mentors that taught me a lot about maturity.

How do you deal with the isolation during the creative process?

Part of the creative process is reaching out to total strangers to show your work.

I was a terribly shy kid so I’ve had to mature into a person that understands part of my practice is contacting people, researching where to go to display for art or who to talk to and seeing what happens.

I am trying to apply to places where I can get a critique because intellectually I could use a little push from others (in the art community). So that’s why I keep applying to residencies that are international so I can meet other artists solving different problems.

I also reach out to my friends because they are all spread out. I don’t have a lot of friends in the desert so I can only text or call a lot of the important women in my life. I try to do check ins now and that helps when I’m feeling overwhelmed, which is what I feel now more than burnt out.

My friends will tell me they are super glad I reached out because they needed to talk about some things.

Let’s talk about perfectionism and the creative process: how do you cope with getting down on yourself when a project doesn’t go your way? What are some tips or words of wisdom you have for others experiencing this?

There is a time and a place for perfection. I am more from the school of happy accidents because I’ve had things that I thought would be this way or that way, especially film because I did a lot of experimental cinematography.

There are times where you need it to be perfect and there are other times where thing runs backwards and you get a totally different result by accident but it’s more beautiful than the thing you planned.

So I think you have to leave room for play, you have to leave room for accidents. I was taught to experiment with things.

There are some shots you are going to take 20 or 100 times before you get it right, there are other ones you get right the first time. Each subject is going to have its own boundaries, obstacles or challenges. I don’t know if I believe in perfectionism so much  as there’s no room for organic processes when you’re trying to have that much control over something.

Right now I am selling paintings of slices of cake. I’ve sold more Slices of Cake than any other paintings. It has become a symbol of hope in these chaotic times. They have this playful narrative and it is resonating (with others).

I never would be painting these cakes if I wasn’t just in the moment – I would not have given myself the time. Now I’ve painted 100 cakes!

I painted cakes while I was in Berlin and (this art collective) wanted to display them in neighborhoods as part of an interactive street art project.

So they told me, you are going to make stickers –  you make them, we’re paying for them.

They wanted me to put the word “Hope” on it and hope is supposed to implied in the cakes, it’s not supposed to shout it out at you.

But then I thought, “OK, maybe it will make it more accessible.”

It took me about 5 times to get the lettering right. I had a cold when I was doing it, I actually wasn’t feeling very good. It was the last day when I had to get the designs done, so I told myself “Let me try one more time” and that’s the one I ended up using.

Sometimes it’s not perfectionism – if something doesn’t feel right then it’s also your intuition guiding you. If it doesn’t feel right, then it’s not right. There are other times you may have to live with it and move on.


Slice of Cake
Slice of Cake in Berlin’s Lichtenberg neighborhood

I also want to talk about impostor syndrome- this idea that us women, LGBTQIA+ and non-binary folks feel somehow are not good enough or that we are “frauds” in our fields, even when we have accomplished great things.

Have you experienced this and how have you coped with it?

I am having imposter syndrome right now as I am applying for a PhD program.  I didn’t even feel like I wanted to go back to school until someone said I should and said I already do a ton of research anyway, so why not?

Then I asked myself, what am I even doing with my life?

I don’t consider myself a scholar. I’m more of an action verb, I won’t sit and think as much as I will go walk and think. To me, that’s how all the flowing of ideas happens. It’s very much a physical process.

People are always surprised when they find out that I have smarts. It’s not important to me to be perceived as intelligent, sometimes I just want to be an observer, sometimes I just want to do a great job then leave, sometimes I don’t want any attention.

So why would I be braggy, why wouldn’t I be humble about my intelligence?

It’s nice when people are surprised but I also realize part of me has been doing it since I was a little kid because I didn’t want people to expect too much from me and then I would disappoint them. The idea of having to live up to a higher intellectual standard scares the bejesus out of me.

You mentioned how women in recovery helped you through hard times in the past. Do you still integrate what they have told you into your life? 

I am forever grateful for my experience with women in recovery. I called them my maturity coaches at the time. I was like “Fine, OK tell me about my resentments, how do I get rid of them?”

When I was there, I had to lead by example – they held me to a higher standard since I was not in substance abuse recovery.

It was great though, I was like “Accepting shit is super hard, how do I get through it?” and they took the time to talk with me, especially when I was going through my divorce.

They would say “hey, start your day over, you’re really bumming out about this guy. You need to go do something nice for someone else today, get out of your head.”

I even did a Step 4 where I made a list of resentments and amends!*

I was guided to get through some of my icky things.  It was brilliant, I wish more people could have the opportunity to have access to these lessons. To me, these lessons are stress handling techniques at their most simple and I’ve seen it save peoples’ lives.

It’s phenomenal, it made me a better person and a more emotionally mature person.

You can read more about Kate McCabe and see more of her work at her website:

* Note: Step 4 is part of the The 12 Step Program originating with Alcoholics Anonymous in which an individual takes an extensive moral inventory and makes amends with others.

This is part of a Q&A series with photographers who identify as women, or non-binary, about mental health in relation to their personal lives and professional work.

You can read more about this project and its purpose by visiting the About page for Amber J. Stephens Photography.

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