Yesterday was my twenty sixth birthday.
Birthdays can be difficult.
Not because I fear growing old, but because I have a tendency to look back. I consider the previous year and see how very little I have achieved, and, because I am a human and we tend to zero in on pain, how unhappy I was for parts of it.
I also had a slightly stressful week, combined with feeling quite burnt out.
Yesterday evening we had a little soiree of sorts in the new studio I am sharing with three artist friends. We invited attendees to stitch "talking pillows", watched "The Pillow Book", and drank sake with cherry juice. We ate Japanese snacks and I wore my faded and threadbare kimono. We chatted and giggled.
And it was lovely.
It was perhaps the most unusual birthday party I've had, and will stay in my memory for quite some time.
Last year I was descending into a horrible depression around the time of my birthday, which wouldn't lift 'til early March.
Mid-late January can be a very bleak time. Post-Christmas, cash and energy is low, waistbands have expanded, it's the coldest it's likely to be all year, and, though the days are getting longer, it's not by very much at all. I think I, like many others, may suffer from a touch of the Seasonal Affective Disorder.
I've made a deal with myself, though; I'm tough. A lot of people might smirk at that, knowing, as I do, that I'm a bit of a doormat, I'm timid, insecure, needy (the catalogue of failings goes on and on...), but I am tough. I've got grit. I wouldn't still be here otherwise. I'm tenacious, and when I want something, I dig my heels in and get to work. I'm the little engine that could, and I laugh in the face of the spectre of mental illness.
Self-mythologising aside, I had a point here; I made a deal with myself that I wouldn't fall into a depression, I wouldn't have what seems to be an almost-annual late February/early March melt down (it always seems to be around the time of my father's birthday, poor man) and need to take time off work to recover.
I struck a bargain with myself that I was allowed to feel sad (I've had some disappointments lately) and I was allowed to express this, but I wasn't allowed to beat myself up about it too much. I still find myself beating myself up on a daily basis; that's just the way my wonky little mind works.
I have, however, been taking the time to congratulate myself too. Keeping an "achievements" journal coupled with daily tasks which I do not berate myself about not ticking off. Coupled with this is more girly forms of self care (read: lots of Lush from my bath bombs dealer best mate), and just chilling out a bit more about my limitations, or at the very least attempting to. Learning to enjoy my own company and not relying on others for my happiness so much, which is an achievement in itself.
When you've lived with mental illness for almost half your life, you get quite adept at taking care of yourself. Let's face it; the health care system won't (I can't help but smirk at the government's self-congratulatory move to pump a little money into mental health care when it has been cut disproportionately to even the NHS at large).
In two weeks I will have the fourth of six half an hour Cognitive Behavioural Therapy sessions in which I am only allowed to focus on one aspect of my illness, and in which I have been shown and told things I am already familiar with, having spent my entire adult life and most of my teens in contact with therapists. And this is the best a struggling NHS can offer; it's fast track, a (supposedly) six week waiting list as opposed to waiting up to eighteen months for the traditional route to NHS therapy. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is cost effective; it has fast-acting results. It's the best a bullied NHS can offer.
So you can see why those experiencing mental distress need to take matters into their own hands.
Telling myself I'm not allowed to be ill may sound counter-intuitive. I am trying to dupe myself. I am also trying to re-contextualise myself away from an ill person, which is a light which, wrongly or rightly, I have been cast in by mental health professionals, friends, family members, boyfriends, school, university, colleagues and employers, and myself.
It's akin to a practice suggested by therapists to patients who experience voice hearing; only allowing the voices to visit for a short period of time each day. It's also akin to some practices of (whisper the dreaded word) mindfulness, for example allowing experiences, feelings, thoughts and anxieties to wash over you like gentle whale song waves.
It makes me feel in control, and by making this decision, I feel I am able to make other decisions about my life.
I haven't "beaten" mental illness; I don't like the way in which illnesses, from madness to cancer, are characterised as video game bosses which need to be eliminated in order to win the game and ascend to a higher level in which illness does not touch one's life. Illness is a part of every person's life, and a part of life's rich tapestry.
At about nineteen or twenty a mental health professional asked me if I thought I'd be so creative if I wasn't mentally ill (quite a preposterous and infuriating hypothesis, but that's by the by). I said I'd rather be well; I would rather not live through hell and have to rebuild myself piece by piece and in an entirely new pattern.
I don't feel that way any more.
If I'd never been ill, if I'd never been a door away from death, I don't think I would have such an appreciation for, such a hunger for, such a love of life.
I would not be able to empathise with people who have struggled, coming from a comfortably white middle class background of immense privilege; even with people who were a little bit different, who were outsiders.
I am creative; I am not quite right in the head; I am sad; I am anxious. I am also impulsive and mature, messy and a perfectionist, a friend and a daughter and a sister and a worker and, and, and...
We are all many things to many different people, and most of all to ourselves. We are always learning and growing.
I now look on my long and illustrious history as a mental health patient through the lens of a Louise Bourgeois embroidery:
Most people have to take hallucinogens to experience some of the intense beauty I have experienced; I got it for free. As for the intense horror of some of the other experiences, once you have lived through them, nothing else can really touch you.
The wonderful thing about having to rebuild yourself piece by piece is that you can be whatever you want to be once you've forgiven yourself, once you've got over your shame. You are human Lego, and you realise that you can take many shapes and sizes over the course of your life, and from situation to situation.
This is not to say that you are a chameleon, a master of reinvention; you are not a Madonna or a David Bowie, fickle or characterless.
You merely do not have to be what was expected of you. You do not have to be what you expected of yourself. You can peel off the labels that were assigned to you; "shy child"; "unstable"; "uptight"; "high strung".
Once you let go of what is expected of you, you are free to live truly, and simply, and honestly.
I think I have very recently gotten over my shame. I am still yet to forgive myself; I know this because I take the blame even for things which have nothing to do with me. But I am getting there. I am beginning to accept my anxiety, my clingyness, my impossibly high standards for everyone and everything, my emotionality, my introspection and over-analysing as parts of me, and perhaps in some small way as strengths as well as weaknesses.
As an artist I have always been fascinated with notions of strength and weakness; the dichotomy of hard and soft. I want to prove that the two are not mutually exclusive, to myself and for my own peace of mind as much as to anyone else.
I am planning and hope to soon make a start on my first art quilt. I have some flying geese batik fat quarters, and I want to arrange them in a flying geese formation. The gaps I will fill with squares exploring a different derogatory phrase around softness/weakness; "She wouldn't say boo to a goose"; "Yella bellied"; "Big girl's blouse", with the last square featuring the embroidery below, proving, as in the film Amélie, that shy people would have the last laugh.
I'm sure these ideas will keep percolating and developing. I look forward to sharing the results with you as they appear.