I suppose this game started for me, in this direction, from 1985 onwards. I was seventeen and I was working part time in a supermarket to support my studies towards an Art Foundation.
I was invited to a party with some friends and at the party one of the party-goers got stabbed. Everybody just stood back and watched the guy, literally dying on the floor. Me and a couple of my friends took it upon ourselves to help him out. The weekend had passed and I went back to my A level art class on the Monday and one of the guys who took me to the gig showed me a newspaper saying that the man had died. After that my tutor got wind of what I’d done to try and help him and thought she could take on the role of getting me interviewed by a Police Constable. It was from that point onwards that my relationship with my tutor changed. I just started to concentrate on Design Studies and started to bunk off her lesson, because of my disgust at the way I had to interact with the policemen – in the days when Black people’s relationship with the police wasn’t very nice.
That was the first downfall. I lost myself in my job for three years because I didn’t know what to do with myself. During that time I gained a lot of experience of retail. I was taken on as the wines and spirits manager. I did that for a while, then I started to feel the vibe of being in a rut. A new girlfriend came into my life and it was easy for her to say I was in a dead end job, but at the time I was so engrossed in the job that I took it personally. That lead to breakdown number one.
I make music and it has been a mixture of success and failure. There was a dance craze for a scene called Hardcore Jungle Techno. It started off as Hardcore – originally Hardcore House. The stepping stones – as I remember the introduction of the names – are: House, Hip House, Hardcore House, Hardcore Jungle Techno, Jungle Techno, Jungle Drum & Bass then Drum & Bass. In 1995, on the grapevine, people heard that I could do what I could do. So I did a brief stint with a record label and by this time I was at university doing a degree in retail. So I thought I was moving on.
But that spectre of the breakdown came back again when I was bogged down with an essay and a deadline for getting a song out. I took it personally and took my anger out on the record label and fell out with them. I had a week to think about what I was gonna do next, during which time I was on self-destruct. I froze my degree, took my turntables back and told the label where to go. After about six months, once I came back to my senses, I tried to re-contact them, but they didn’t want to know. During the seven days I had had to deal with all those things, I hadn’t slept. That used to be the typical symptoms of my illness, but they aren’t as present these days. It’s just the politics of my circumstance: because I’ve been on a Section, if I show any symptoms, I could get recalled. You’re subject to the terms and conditions of the Mental Health Act and although they tell you’re only having episodes, those very episodes can put you away for six months.
From there, you get to the present day and I’ve been doing things independently from that point onwards.
The year that I froze my degree I met Paul Monks and I saw the Core Arts premises at the old Hackney Hospital – at first I thought it was pretty basic – a little Atari, a couple of draughtsman’s boards, people making things with plaster – I turned my nose up at it a bit. And then, all of a sudden, it was like a community of people that corralled. People with the same kind of interest, outgoing in nature and internal in terms of art, music and creativity. It was what we would call in my culture a cotch: somewhere to come sit down, drink a cup of tea, light a cigarette. Talk about arty-farty type of things, but at the same time, get something done. And prove to others. When doctors were calling you grandiose and delusionary…
Bass In Your Face Paintng by DelroyI don’t deny my abilities, even after failure. Once I get back into the world of work nothing is going to stop me – I was good enough to be taken on by a label. I can’t deny my interest in music is a lot deeper than art at the moment, I think art is the front cover and the music is the content. I was a fan of the music before I was trying to make the music. I didn’t have a midi keyboard at the start and so I can write on piano keys or by arranging the wave forms, which is not something new, it’s developing something old – step time. Making music is my comfort zone and I don’t know when I will stop. Someone told me a long time ago: don’t wait for a dream to fall out of the sky, just catalogue what you’ve done, chart your musical history – whether or not it’s good enough to be commercial – until you’re are in a position to release it. For me, the next phase of my life is to become fully self-employed.
I suppose this game started for me, in this direction, from 1985 onwards. I was seventeen and I was working part time in a supermarket to support my studies towards an Art Foundation.
I was first in hospital when I was nineteen and that’s also the first time I was ever sectioned, before that I think there were signs of me having some kind of mental health issues. I was at Glasgow Art School when that happened and I think that environment is a strange environment to come down with a mental health issue, because it’s not easy to detect, because you’re doing creative stuff at art school and you’re given a lot of leeway. It’s all seen as you just making work, or getting carried away. When I had my first breakdown it was over the summer holidays. Then I went back for my third year and that whole third year was very kind of up and down. It was a difficult year and by the summer I’d just lost it completely, quite delusional, all the kind of ‘normal’ things that happen when you’re mad – I realise it’s quite strange to say normal – but things like, messages from the TV, paranoia, getting quite frightened, a lot of stuff really.
I took two years off art school and came back in the last year and during those years I’d been getting into photography, so kept on doing that. Luckily there was a very wide remit, I’d been studying sculpture and it was seen as a very open subject and I was encouraged to develop it in my own direction. When I was doing my MA the videos came about and I thought the link running through them can be that I’ll be in all the videos and that gave me a lot of freedom. So I got into video, performances and painting.
I can remember the beginning of my mental health issues, but I haven’t thought about the whole history, because at one point I felt I had to prove, like, what had happened to me, to say: ‘this is me, this is what’s happened to me.’ I did list every hospital I’d been in and every episode and all the medication I was on, but it’s all rough figures and I don’t list it anymore, now I’m just really past that. The only point you’re making is to yourself and once you realise this you have to say: ‘that’s enough, I’ve done that, I know what I need to do to keep myself going.’ I try and keep the responsibility of maintaining the medication of it and just try to get on with life. I try and make it as little a part of my life as possible. There’s years that go missing, if you like, and I don’t try to keep track of them, they’re just years that have gone now – that’s just the way it is.
My key worker said I should check out Core Arts. At first I found it very over-stimulating ‘cos there was a lot going on and I found it hard to fit myself into something. But the thing about Core is you have classes, workshops, so if something interests you, you can just pop along. There’s no pressure to do anything, but you can take it as far as you want to take it. I did a bit of portrait painting, it became a project to document my videos and I try and write some poetry every week for the poetry group. That and the stuff I’ve done over the years has got published in books I’ve made – The Spaceman Cometh, and I’ve Done Nothing Wrong Today which I published through Chipmunk Publishing. 100 Over The Horizon is the latest one I’m working on. I’ve just had a painting show at Core Arts and some films shown at the Rio Cinema in Dalston.
The paintings are like exercises for me, I just start one and see where it goes, it’s just a case of having choices. When I start a painting all the choices are there and the same choices are there with the photos, videos and installation, but in different time frames and different mediums. With photographs I like to think of the photograph as if it’s just happened, as if it’s just appeared to me or just been taken as a snapshot. I think what I’d say is: there shouldn’t be any real rules around what you do, it’s good to have a process to make work but I like not to know what I’m going to do before I do it. Any focus that you have that allows you to make choices and that you can see something of yourself in, or see a positive result, is beneficial. It could be anything – art, sport – it goes through different mediums, through writing, photography. For me not knowing what you’re gonna do till you’ve done it is very freeing. It helps me stay in the moment. It means I can just enjoy doing it.
The way I feel about the psychiatric services is that it’s person-led. It really is psychiatric care and the things you remember are the people that you meet along the journey. As in all professions, there are good and bad doctors and nurses. The people that are detrimental to you are the people who cannot show a caring side in that profession. I’ve had nightmare doctors, who are very shut off – you wonder why they are doing it, you imagine doctors are there to provide some kind of support, some kind of help, care. To say that though, at the moment I have a really good team; they’ve got to know me. I think that even when I was last in hospital, which wasn’t that long ago, two years this February, there were some nurses that were ridiculous, they were awful, they treated patients not with much respect, but the ones that shone through were the nurses that took time to talk to you even though you might not be making much sense at the time. Looking back now you can say that, but at the time they were there, just being there for you, y’know?
When I first got ill I had no clue about benefit and I remember queuing up for hours at housing benefit, and there was no support from the psychiatric services saying you can claim this, you can claim that. It wasn’t too long ago, I didn’t really know what I was entitled to, as someone with a psychiatric illness, but right now I’m really sorted. I have a good intensive team of advisers, the Assertive Outreach Team who have sorted it out. My psychiatrist and CPN at Mellmead House have been very supportive as well. The staff at Core are really understanding, they just stress the work really, people can be going through a hard time and you know you’re not gonna get judged for it.
The one thing I always go back to is art. When people talk about art and therapy, I think art can be, in a good way, a distraction, something to focus on and allow other things to come through that. You might not mean to express what you see when you do something, but it does come out – I think you need that direction, a sidestep to see something come out.
Really, mental health isn’t so marginalised. It isn’t a thing that doesn’t affect everyday people. Whether they know people who have had it, or if it happens once in their life, or is a recurring issue; it’s not something small and it’s quite a common thing. There isn’t a fixed answer, it’s like art – you can get glimmers of answers, but in a couple of weeks it might not be the answer. So I would say the main thing in all this is choice, if you’ve got the choice to live a happier life, take it. No matter how bad it gets, don’t end it. That’s always a mistake. No matter how bad it gets it will end, and become something else. Something will come out of it.
I would say to professionals: give that extra inch, come and see an event or an exhibition. It’s beneficial to our health, so take that extra step, if you are interested, come and have a look. You don’t have to beat the drum, just take an interest.
When I first found out I had mental health problems I was devastated – I questioned myself philosophically, and thought why me? What have I done? I felt I was the ‘lowest of the low’. Someone who no longer fitted into the social norm – we are so often judged by our material wealth, rarely for our inner beauty. My perception of mental illness was typical of many people’s: ‘look at her, glad I don’t look like that, there’s someone who’s doo-lally and has completely lost the plot of life’, you know, the usual stuff. But although it’s such a traumatic thing to go through (and I can assure you I’ve experienced nothing worse) it has been an incredibly enlightening experience as well.
I had my first breakdown in 1991 but wasn’t formally diagnosed till 1998. That was the year I gave birth to a beautiful baby girl. The experience changed my life. I had had my daughter and I think I just ‘saw through’ things and for the very first time saw my then husband in his true colours – I was in an abusive relationship and bringing up a child. I suffered with postnatal depression and felt completely isolated, it was not long after the birth of my daughter I had a psychotic episode, this time I sought medical help and was admitted to Homerton Hospital. It was such a positive experience, I met such nice people, real characters and a place where I felt comfortable, which is somewhat of a contradiction considering my circumstances. People there who made the difference were non-judgmental, open, honest. I was given a diagnosis for my experience and when I found that I had an illness it was a relief, because all this stuff I was thinking had no substance: it was a mental illness. I came to Core Arts and did drama originally and thoroughly enjoyed it, and the tutor at the time was really good, she was the one who originally introduced me to Core. I suddenly met a hub of people – so called people with mental illnesses – but also people with nothing to hide, they were people cut from the same cloth, if you like, and far more switched on than many other social groups I had met before. I wanted to hang out and make friends, start to socialise. My understanding was that these people I was meeting, so-called misfits, had no other way, other than to go up. In the early days I tried out all the different workshops and classes, however I really enjoy textiles, ceramics, portrait painting and photography. Core Arts is totally different, it’s loose and broad creatively and tutors, volunteers and members are treated as one. Twelve years since I first started, it is only now that I’ve found my true passion, fashion.
Originally I never thought of myself as being creative, I’ve always been quite good at putting my clothes and outfits together, I never thought of that as being creative. I’ve always been into making clothes and in the past have been to college and done some fashion stuff, I particularly love putting together second hand clothing I find in charity shops, I have a real eye for this kind of thing. If I hadn’t got involved with Core I don’t think I would have developed in this way. Core has been very supportive on many levels. Creativity has undoubtedly helped with my mental illness, it’s like a key that unlocks the door to a room. A room filled with madness and mayhem that makes no sense, however by opening that door we can unravel some of this madness.
I see myself going back to work and finding my own niche, just little steps on the way, in the meantime I am doing creative projects to further me along this path. I had a recent exhibition, and although it’s on a local scale, I think it’s way big-time to do it on this level. A lot of people came up to me who saw my work and said they were inspired. I know I mentioned this – but I’ve met some really amazing people through my experience of mental illness – have had and shared experiences that I would never have had. You meet people who have had extremely traumatic lives and who have survived and are around to tell the story. It’s a privilege to know such people.
If I was just going to work in regular jobs I wouldn’t meet them, it’s a totally different ball game, not just other people with mental health issues, but also people who work in the system too, tutors, psychiatrists, who have an understanding and who would also, I’m sure, say it’s a privilege to meet these people too, because they are people who have lived. Once you’ve had a mental illness life takes on a new meaning. I know people who have overcome their demons, and say they would never change their past and what they have been through, I too would say this at this point but with trepidation. When you deal with mental illness you don’t really worry too much about whether you’ve got the latest fashion and there’s no stereotypical way a person with mental heath issues looks or acts; I’ve learned about myself and found my path through having mental health issues, and I think that’s what we are more about – living, mortality. It’s made me who I am today, this path is my destiny (although it’s not for the fainthearted)
For me, spirituality really comes into it, you reach a path when you’re ready for it. What’s the point of living if you haven’t got a hardship? Accept your challenges, trust your inner voice, if you can come through this, and make a recovery it develops you and can change your life. Even if you don’t overcome it – what’s the point of living, if life is a breeze, if life isn’t challenging?
I hope you have gotten something out of reading this, and my artwork – all I ask is for you not to judge me by my cover. It’s such a well known saying, but how many people actually do this?
My experiences with mental health issues go back to the early 1970s, sometimes I’ve been able to work through it and sometimes I’ve been unable to work. Various things have played a part in causing it and it’s not always been that positive. The situations we are under sometimes are overbearing. I started writing poetry at around the time this was happening, poetry is like a way of expressing myself and being creative has helped me through it.
I went onto medication when I was twenty one or twenty two and the overall experience of that wasn’t very good because at first I didn’t get on with what I was put on, but then they changed my medication and that was better. I tried to carry on working as a hospital porter and store porter at a branch of Boots the Chemists in the West End. I was drinking heavily and just fell to pieces when I was working there. I found hospital can be like a refuge in a sense and that’s good and bad, but there are a lot of practices in psychiatric hospitals that aren’t altogether good. Electro Convulsive Therapy is bad, very damaging and certain hospitals still use them. I never had it but a friend did and it very badly damaged her memory and she killed herself in the end. Some people say it has helped them and fair enough. The overuse of medication can be quite a destructive thing, but if you are in a difficult time it can help a lot. Long term use of major tranquillisers can lead to Tardive Dyskinesia, a condition where your hands or the mouth go into involuntary contortions. Lithium can damage your liver and kidneys, so it’s a mixed bag. In those days they had things like art therapy, where your work is read into, which could be OK. Things like Industrial Therapy were very prominent then, a little bit of money, ten pounds or a pack of cigarettes for some mundane work, that was very much how it was then. I remember living in a hostel at the end of the 70s and part of your rehabilitation was finding a job and it wasn’t easy in that situation. The idea was that work, regardless of what it might be, was keeping your mind active; art and creativity outside of the occupation therapy department weren’t seen as being of any value.
I kept at my writing, you can’t always write when you are in a bad state but I kept at it as much as I could and I started drawing toward the end of the decade. Using crayons and felt-tip pens and things, I immersed myself in drawings.
In the 1980s I started to get involved in mental health campaigning work. I started organising benefit gigs with poetry and music and found there were lots of survivor poets out there, who I got to hear, it was like a voice for us. I was aware that on the alternative cabaret scene there were a lot of comedians who would get up and pretend to be mad. That world was full of drunken hecklers and the comedians would have a smart one-liner to give back and sometimes they’d pretend to be a ‘loony’ or take the mickey out of disability and it used to make us very angry.
So I kept going with the campaigning idea and I got involved in a group called PROMPT: Promotion of Rights of Mental Health Patients and Treatment then it changed its name to CAPO: Campaign Against Psychiatric Oppression. PROMPT and CAPO were very much outside the system in some senses, we had a crisis phone line and we did help a few people and had plans to reestablish crisis houses, but we weren’t big enough to manage that. Before PROMPT there was the Mental Patients Union, with branches in Notting Hill and North Kensington, Kentish Town and Hackney. A lot of these groups operated from squats, working alongside the squatting community of those days. I found PROMPT through reading their booklets and got involved with it all. In the 1970s The Mental Patients Union organised a sit-in at the old Hackney Hospital, the idea being to form a Trade Union for patients within the hospital. It never succeeded, but it was attempted and in a way it was the forerunner of the Patients’ Councils. If a member of staff had a complaint about a patient or their work they could go to their Trade Union, but if a patient had a complaint about a member of staff or conditions in the hospital they had no voice at all. So the idea was to get these issues sorted out. Patient Councils came into being in the 80s but were pioneered in the 70s in an alternative way. It all goes back to the early 70s, when the Mental Patients Union started. There were also campaigning groups in Scotland and Manchester at the time. The Manchester Mental Patients Union published a very good book called Know Your Rights In A Mental Hospital. There was group called COPE: Community Organisation for Psychiatric Emergencies which ran crisis houses in squats around North Kensington. Obviously not the ideal situation, but the counter-culture was engaging with these issues, whereas the mainstream culture wasn’t.
In 1985 there was a MIND conference in Brighton, where they had invited down a lot of mental health professionals and there were survivor groups from America and Holland and other places, but no one from England. So we went down and set up a stall by the door and we got to meet the Dutch people who got us a decent stall and got us into some conferences and parties and things. That was like a turning point: from it a group called Survivors Speak Out started, it grew pretty active and became well known.
I was performing poetry in the 1970s at the famous folk venue The Troubadour Coffee House at the Monday poetry evening. There was lots of different poets and musicians there, with some real characters as well. There was also a group at Battersea Arts Centre called The Junction Poets. I got to hear Kevin Coyne in the early 1970s and got into his music and went to lots of his gigs. He worked as an Art Therapist, suffered a breakdown himself and the mental health thing ran through his songs till the end. He was very much on the edge: there was a sense of danger about what he was doing on stage that was an influence on Johnny Rotten. I started to speak to Kevin at gigs and in 2004 was asked to interview him for a magazine: Mental Health Today. But he got really ill with a complaint called lung fibrosis and sadly he passed away before the interview was published. I saw a gig he did in October 2004 and he came on stage with a small oxygen cylinder and breathing tubes up his nose, but he put on a fine gig, brave man.
I had collaborated with some other people on publishing some magazines of poetry and artwork by people who had been through the psychiatric services and this, along with the benefit gigs that I organised, helped to inspire the funding of Survivors Poetry in 1991. It got funding from the Arts Council and a lot of things became possible. When I was working with Survivors Poetry, the Borough of Hackney gave us some money to start some workshops in the area. They took place at a day centre called Homerton Friends Lodge. When the funding run had finished, people wanted to carry on meeting. I had heard of Core Arts so I popped in and asked if they were interested in me setting up a poetry group, they agreed and I set up the first Core Arts poetry group. I ran it for a few years until someone else took it over and it’s still going strong today.
Being at Core has helped me develop my work. I got a chance to work in the studio with a variety of different musicians and my first CD ‘A True Voice Singing’ came out at the beginning of the century. I’ve done five CDs now, all have been recorded at Core except for the ‘Topsy Turvy Band’ record, which was more of a live thing. I started playing harmonica and really, my musical career started at Core. My next project is a CD and booklet celebrating the work of Smiley, who I met at Bunjies Coffee House in the West End and suggested that he came to Core and record. On it I’ve been working with Dave Russell a guitarist, poet and songwriter who’s been around since the early 60s – which in a sense was the era Smiley was relating to – that rebellious world. I save up money and release my records myself, apart from the first one, which Core helped fund. There will be another CD of my own this year and I also write punk-gardening and blues articles for The Big Untidy, and record reviews for a magazine called Louder Than War.
Anybody can have a nervous breakdown, I do believe in what they call the ‘social model’ – that something in someone’s life might trigger it – for example – childhood, a work situation, an unhappy relationship – can lead to mental health problems. The trouble with psychiatry is, because it’s all very much a scientific viewpoint, it can lose sight of the realities people are living with and the hardships of it. Different cultures and religions can be misinterpreted too, if there’s not proper understanding. I call myself a Christian and if I told my psychiatrist I prayed and talked to God, possibly he might say, ‘Aha! A bit of a…diagnosis?’, but people can be very passionate in their beliefs and it can be mistaken for poor mental health.
Stigma. Maybe you see someone with mental health issues walking down the street, being accompanied by someone, and see how they been affected by their experiences; and people sometimes feel a bit freaked out about the fact that there is a Forensic Unit on Homerton High Street. What I would say to people is don’t fear: there’s more to fear in your local pub on a Saturday night than ‘us’ walking around in the community.
I was unwell for the first time at the age of twenty-one. I was studying for a Computer Science degree at University, I had my first breakdown towards the end of my course and that was the first time I’d been in hospital. I wasn’t sectioned that time, I was in hospital for observation for a couple of weeks and let go out with a few antidepressants. Sometimes it’s considered a one-off when this happens. It was a breakdown, a lot of stress, I was drinking heavy amounts of alcohol, I was a binge drinker, exams, student ambitions, relationship – so it was a big, big, stressful time. That was my first big crash, I was in Homerton Hospital on Conolly Ward for a couple of weeks. The care – the nurses – was very good but I didn’t think I was supported very well, I think I was let out far too early and I didn’t have much follow-up support.
It literally lasted a few months and then I was just off the medication, not any follow-up support from a social worker or a team and I went back into my old lifestyle again. Drinking heavily, taking dead-end jobs, very stressed out still. I went back to college after about 6 weeks and completed the course and got the qualification, so that was quite a big achievement, but I was still under a lot of pressure and binge drinking heavily. The same incidents were happening, but I wasn’t very good at recognising the signs and slowly I started getting ill again, all the same issues were there and it happened again when I was twenty-six. Unfortunately, this time, it was far more serious and the police had to get involved, I became very violent and had to be sectioned for the first time. I got a diagnosis from Dr. Turner – everyone I know in Hackney has had him as their doctor at one time or another – a very well known psychiatric doctor. He diagnosed me as Manic Depressive – which was the term then used to describe Bipolar Disorder – a very frightening term to hear. I thought: ‘My God – my life’s over’. Terrifying.
The attitude I got from the consultants, the doctors, for me, really, was that it was all over, at twenty-six. I felt that they were telling me: that’s it. It felt like the attitude conveyed to me was that I had a recognised defect in the brain or something. I’ve got a permanent condition and that’s it: you’ve gotta give up now, put on five stone and take heavy medication for the rest of your life. I think the impression I got, hasn’t really changed that much now. If you are considered to have a mental condition, it’s a power issue, you are presented to a psychiatrist and you feel they’re saying: ‘you’ve had your breakdown, now sit in the corner, get fat, give up – you’re finished.’
That was the impression I got from every consultant I saw until I recognised in my own mind, intuitively, that it wasn’t completely true. Because I’d had a condition where I had been trying to fit into the world, which was chaotic, crazy, stressful, competitive, ego-driven, and I was sensitive and diffident. The world was completely crazy and they were telling me that I was the one that had the problem by trying to fit in, as if the world was normal. It was so pressurised. As a sensitive individual I crashed for a while and then I fought my way back to full health…
I went out of hospital with a diagnosis, I had a bit more clarity, I had something to work with. It’s very positive for me, some people class a diagnosis as negative, but my experience of it was a very positive thing to happen because I then knew that I could educate myself on it. I could start reading on Manic Depression, Bipolar. However, I wasn’t ready to really go into recovery, so I went back again to the same patterns: drinking alcohol, going out late at night, taking jobs I didn’t like. I got a job in the Civil Service at the Benefits Agency in Hackney, which was totally pressurised. I’d be there on a Friday afternoon and there’d be some really difficult characters looking for their Giro. I live in the area – I live up the road – so they’re saying to me ‘if I don’t get my Giro you’re gonna get it, mate’. They had to have really stringent ID – driving licence or passport and a lot of people didn’t have that, and they’d say ‘alright mate – outside: I’ll be waiting for you..’. I’d see these people in the pubs of Hackney, so it stressed me out and I had another three more breakdowns, very severe breakdowns and was sectioned.
It was then that I experienced Akathisia for the first time, an extreme side effect of Halliperidol or Droperidol medication. I was given massive injections in the buttocks at the time. It’s a very misunderstood condition, a lot of people describe it as an inability to sit still, which is not really describing the condition. I’ve researched it and other people have described it more accurately as an inability to sit still, coupled with an inability to move – chemical torture. And it’s exactly that. I’m almost sure it was caused by Droperidol, which is now discontinued but also by Halliperidol, its sister drug, which is still used. They are very cheap drugs used in psychiatric hospitals. It’s a rare side effect, but it can effect one in a thousand people. Just after coming out of the seclusion room, with just a mattress on the floor, when you’re really psychotic and you’re kicking-off and you become violent, the nurses have to hold you down. They inject you with a heavy dose of either of those two drugs and the Akathisia slowly comes on. It’s mistaken for psychosis, because it mirrors psychosis. So you sit on the floor dribbling and you’re in this state where you can’t move, function, eat, use the toilet or sleep and you are one hundred percent conscious. It’s like the last second of drowning going on for days and days. What happens then is, the nurses carry you around, you fall off the bed – if you’re in bed – and squirm your way down the corridor for an hour or two till you reach the end of the corridor, which is quite a long corridor in the Bevan ward. Then three nurses pick you up and carry you back to your bed and it starts again; you do this for a couple of weeks or so. I wasn’t sleeping or eating, just my family carrying me around wondering what the hell was happening. I held on to it for years – that happened to me in 1998 or 1999. For ten years or so I was trying to work out what it was about until 2009 when I saw a BBC documentary on Akathisia and I said: ‘that’s what I had’, and began to research it more. Now I’m campaigning to get Halliperidol discontinued.
After a very severe episode in 1999, a social worker suggested I looked round Core Arts and we arrived and went upstairs to the art department. At first I thought ‘there’s nothing here for me’, I just looked around and said ‘what can I do here?, I’ve never done anything like that in my life’. I wanted to get back into work, wanted to look for a job. Finally, I had my last hospital admission in 2000 and that was a voluntary admission. That was a big juncture, a big turning point for me. I then recognised that I could recognise the illness coming on and I went in voluntarily, whereas before, I had been sectioned – which is where you are dragged in kicking and screaming under a Section 2 or 3. So I started to recognise the illness coming on, I started to manage it and learn how to take measures.
I came back to Core, I just popped in and there was an art tutor who said ‘come upstairs for a minute’. I’d never done any art and he said here’s some pastels, here’s some paper. The first painting I made was of a fire extinguisher. The analogy was ‘putting that fire out’. Of years of sections and illness. Of being held down. Of spending months in depression. Of the inability to breathe. It was extinguishing it all. That was the start of my journey to recovery, finding creativity as a way of managing my condition.
I started attending the art classes, life class, printmaking – taking it very slowly, producing work. At the time Core was having exhibitions in the City and we had some exhibition space at one of the big banks, so I got the chance, very early on, to exhibit some big abstract paintings and a couple of them sold. It gave me a lot of confidence and self esteem, I felt on top of the world and the art tutors said ‘there’s something in this, you’ve got a natural ability and a talent, so just stick with it’. What came into my mind was, I can’t stop now, this keeps me well, I have to do art now. I started attending the poetry group as well and that was a massive influence on me and taught me a lot about connecting to creativity on a regular basis, through words as much as visual art. When I came to Core I was very vulnerable and I got a lot of support. It was the ongoing support that was fundamental, I could sit in the office and share my concerns, and it made a big difference. Also I had finally got a very good consultant who explained mental health very clearly to me in a way that I could relate to. He said it was a sensitivity in the individual, a diffidence. Spike Milligan, who was a Bipolar sufferer, described it as being skinless. So what other people can take on quite easily – family, relationships, careers – someone with mental health issues struggles with that. When I was young at school, I was a very shy introverted person, I couldn’t operate well within those circles, I still hadn’t found my voice and even when I reached my 20s I still hadn’t found my vocation, my purpose, so I was struggling with life. Anything affected me really badly and they consider that to be a permanent defect or something wrong with the individual, but when you look at how pressurised society is: the world is completely mad.
I have reinvented my world through art and doing talks, education. In recent times I’ve been educating junior doctors at UCL. I’m talking to them for an hour-and-a-half about all aspects of mental health. Travelling the country, giving talks on Bipolar, recovery and what really works for recovery. Medication can be really important, but it’s not the answer, it’s only part of the solution and the psychiatric services make it so much more than it is. Diet is important, drinking enough water, exercise, mindfulness. Creativity is powerful because it exercises the right side of the brain, most people who are ill are living solely out of the left side of the brain, the logical side, and that’s damaging for an individual with sensitivity, mental health issues. If you’re not challenging that right side, you’re gonna face trouble and I did until I was able to connect with that, the intuitive peaceful side. Some call it the feminine side but it’s the logical, masculine side, that society promotes so much.
I think the services haven’t moved on as much as they could have done in the twenty-odd years I’ve been engaged in them. A lot of my experience was being handed Lithium and not being given any education or pointers as to what it was I was given. They said ‘here’s your Lith’ – come back in three months and we’ll see if it is working’. It’s not going to have any benefit at all unless you take into consideration all causes of the problem. The analogy I like, is of the dripping tap: you don’t need to keep putting a bucket under and keep changing the bucket as it fills up, it’s worth turning the tap off. The psychiatric systems, if you present ill, will treat the symptoms rather than the causes.
I’d like to take my art onto the road and talk about the journey alongside some of the paintings, about leading an authentic life and creating art. About the journey, the benefits of art on mental health and how you marry the two. I want the opportunity to make the difference in mental health, help people see the benefits of creativity; be a catalyst for change within the system. When someone does present with mental health problems, the quicker they learn to self manage, to use self management tools and techniques, the better they are going to progress. I think Core Arts is unique, promoting positive mental health through creativity.