Letting In The Light

I very much wanted to write a post for International Women's Day, but was at a bit of a loss until I was mentioned in a lovely tweet by my friends over at Daily Life Ltd.
This decided it for me; my International Women's Day blog post will be dedicated to the women I share the stage with at Daily Life Ltd's light box installation in the square outside Stratford Library, Letting In The Light, which is on until the end of the month if you fancy taking it in (it's worth it; these photographs don't do the scale or the luminance anywhere near justice).

I have to start with Bobby Baker, of course. Several of her diary drawings, completed between 1997 - 2008 and began while she was a day patient at a mental health centre.

This illuminated illustration particularly spoke to me. It's called The Daily Stream of Life, and features Bobby's mind as a river through which life flows, and she in life, sometimes in a rowing boat, sometimes in a canoe, sometimes in a fancier vessel altogether.

After a brief blip in my mental health due to an unfortunate series of circumstances, I feel I am bouncing back to a place where I can leisurely row along on the river of life, enjoying taking in the scenery and getting fresh air as I go.

Liz Atkin is an artist, advocate and speaker who raises awareness of, and promotes recovery from, compulsive skin picking through her art. The work featured in Letting In The Light, Lavish, transforms an illness which dominated Liz's life for more than twenty years into something really quite beautiful.


My favourite piece in the exhibition involved one of my very favourite things; word play.

By Jane McCormick, the piece has a back story that is well worth reading.
Bats in the belfry

An honorary mention goes to male artist (gasp!) Anthony Woods who created a joyous ode to fashion icon Iris Apfel:

My piece is in great company:


I couldn't resist a quick selfie with my work. It was rather wind and rain swept as you may be able to tell; apologies for the quality of all the photos.


Letting In The Light is well worth the trip to a slightly unassuming corner of East London; brighten up your evening, and discover the truth behind Groucho Marx's quip, "Blessed are the cracked, for they let in the light".


World Mental Health Day: Thoughts on the Dragon Cafe and Bobby Baker's Diary Drawings

In the run up to World Mental Health Day, I have been reflecting on my visit on Monday to the most extraordinary place. The Dragon Cafe is the UK's first mental health cafe, "a relaxing cafe and imaginative space, open to all." They certainly got the relaxing part right. It immediately put me on a level playing field, where I could be open about myself without judgement, and have a laugh with the like-minded. Perhaps surprisingly to the uninitiated, the Cafe was a hive of activity; Tai-Chi, gardening, filming of conversations about "re-covered" chairs, dance, and a workshop with the wonderful Daily Life Ltd (and more) featured in the few hours I was there. The food was delicious and the volunteers big-hearted. I spent my time drawing a big bowl of stew and dumplings, to explore cultural identity and heritage through sharing an illustrated feast on a white paper tablecloth with many others at Daily Life's workshop. The conversations were as warming as the satisfying stodge I drew on the paper.



My rather paltry (and unfinished) offerings to the table, alongside more delectable dishes


I spent several blissed out hours nattering away with Daily Life, until it was time for a "one-man play" which gave voice to one of the re-upholstered chairs. Referencing everyone from Blake to Bob Marley, the wordsmith's generous spirit was infectious, and he received riotous applause and laughter.

Bobby Baker of Daily Life Ltd, who I am beginning to think of as a punk rock fairy godmother, gave an illuminating talk on the Diary Drawings she drew first daily, then weekly, whilst a patient at a mental health day hospital. 

I had more than one moment of something more than empathy whilst listening to Bobby and looking at her drawings. Recognition; realisation that I wasn't the only one, that I perhaps wasn't as singularly and hopelessly mad as I had previously thought.


Two of Bobby's Diary Drawings; one portraying her time of weeping tidal waves of tears (another thing we have in common) and another asking how many hats can one woman wear?


Two drawings in particular led to this realisation; the first a drawing of Bobby's skin lifting away from her face like a mask, to reveal a demonic skull beneath. Bobby had shown this drawing to a mental health professional to try to explain her desperation; to seek help. It had not had the expected effect. The mental health professional asked for a copy. "I know a lot of people who feel like this" he said.

The second was perhaps more distressing. A distraught Bobby wept blood from her eyes, mouth and nose. Blood was something she had hallucinated frequently during her illness, she told us.

Aside from my immediate family and medical professionals, I have never (up 'til now) told anyone that I hallucinated blood when I was ill. Buckets of the stuff. Everywhere. I won't go into particularly grisly details, but suffice to say, it was not unlike the lift scene in The Shining. For someone who faints during blood tests and once had to go and lie down in a darkened room after reading a passage in The Bell Jar about self harm, it wasn't the most pleasant experience.

Bobby may feel she had her public "outing" via her Diary Drawings thrust upon her, but she could have said no. And as her son gruffly said when she consulted him about the matter, "It's got to be done, Mum." Showing the world at large how monstrous you feel beneath your exterior, exposing that vulnerability, is an act of extreme bravery. But we are not in fact monstrous. We have had monstrous things happen to us.

That's why I wanted to write about my psychotic symptoms (the hallucinations, the delusions) today. Because, aside from the occasional slight whiff of stiff-upper-lip-pull-up-your-bootstraps-ism when I am open about anxiety and depression, I do feel that society at large is beginning to understand and accept these illnesses. But mention that you have heard or seen things that others don't, or have had, as the mental health literature politely puts it, "unusual beliefs", and be prepared to brace yourself for the reaction.

If you have these symptoms, you have crossed over from being "run-down", from "having a lot on", from being "sensitive" or "over-tired" or "angsty". Congratulations, you are 100% genuine, prime cut bonkers. Even up to the middle of the last century, schizophrenia was classed as a degenerative illness, and this stigma still looms spectrally in the background. What comes into your mind when you read the word schizophrenic or psychotic? An unkempt vagrant moving erratically and mumbling to themselves? I would hope by this point we have moved beyond the facile stereotypes of mad axe murderers, although as recently as 2013 supermarkets were peddling "mental patient Halloween costumes" at this time of year.

How about a young woman with a first class honours degree, holding down a job, taking on self employed work, in a committed relationship and surrounded by friends, family, and love? Or an artist with a thirty year career, director of an Arts Council national portfolio organisation, who tours and exhibits internationally is one of the most patient and generous souls you could ever meet, and similarly has a whole host of family and friends who cherish her?

I'll admit, as Bobby said of herself, I am incredibly, incredibly lucky. Not everyone has back-up; people who love them and will fight for them. Which is why it is so important that we all fight for them. For all of us who have been touched by mental illness. Because there is no them and us; there's only us.

Please allow me, if it won't ring the alarm bells that I'm having one of my "funny turns", the liberty to see into the future. I can see a day, and it's not too far off, when the stigma is gone. When we have killed the most insidious and inextricably woven in part of mental illness; stigma, the real monster.

Roving Diagnostic Unit

A few weekends ago I was asked by Daily Life Ltd to be an "expert" part of their Roving Diagnostic Unit at Shuffle festival. The plan was simple, though baffling to a number of people I explained it to before and after the event; use the language of the DSMIV to diagnose selected elements of the cemetery park where the festival is held.

The DSMIV, or Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders 5, is a means of categorising the mentally ill. 

The DSMIV encompasses everything from "schizotypal personality disorder", (which I was once told by a medical professional I "probably had") characterised by eccentric dress and behaviour (otherwise known as being an interesting person), to the recently adopted "emotionally unstable personality disorder", which I consider one of the most abhorrent labels you can give a distressed human being. 

In earlier incarnations, the DSMI categorised homosexuality as not only "deviance" but mental illness, and made a distinction between psychosis and neurosis and never the twain shall meet (I am living proof that the two are inextricably interwoven).

As we began to diagnose the bins, benches and ponds of the cemetery park, the biased, arbitrary, reductive nature of the DSMIV became more and more apparent. How can an effective diagnosis be made after spending only a few minutes with a patient? What are the ethical implications of standing around talking about a subject who cannot talk back? Bobby Baker, leader of our troupe of "experts", related this to her own experiences of being on a ward round, unable to speak for herself as twenty medical professionals "observed" her. I was reminded of my own experience of being incredibly distressed, half dressed in my untidy bedroom, whilst medical professionals invaded this most personal of spaces "for my own good".

The tours of the cemetery park our merry band made revealed further categorisations which had little to do with the DSMIV; the bench and bin, man-made objects, were broadly categorised as deeply troubled, whereas the pond, though overgrown and unkempt, was diagnosed as working its way through its troubles, and the tree, splitting off in many directions (dissociative identity disorder?), was generally felt to be coping and developing its personality normally.

This speaks of a tendency to idolise that which is "natural" over that which is "artifical", which is seen in everything from the #eatclean Instagram craze to unfortunate conversations I have had where I have been asked if I am "dependent" on the psychiatric medication which, you know, keeps me alive (I wonder if the people who asked would ask the same of a diabetic who takes insulin?) This in turn reminds me of the hysterics I was in when I read in the leaflet that comes with my anti-psychotic medication that it may lead to an "abnormal feeling of wellbeing"; an abnormal feeling of wellbeing was kind of what I was going for, given that my "natural" state leaves me feeling like I can't go on.

It is always so refreshing being with Daily Life and the people they bring together; knowing you can give an honest answer to the question "How are you?" Knowing you are amongst people who have had the same experiences and won't treat you with kid gloves or from a safe distance "for detonation".

I eagerly anticipate the development of this project; Viva La Roving Diagnostic Unit!










Tenacity Potion


As #secretsofselfpreservation continues, the "mantras" the bottles contain are becoming more realistic, even bleak. I think this reflects the situation I find myself in currently; not where I'd like to be at this point in my life, but not capable of doing a whole lot about it, at least not for now. That's why this week's potion reads "You can't control everything, but  you can choose to get up in the morning." A slightly gloomy edition of #secretsofselfpreservation, but a grimly determined one nonetheless.

It is accompanied by the sticker I wore for this weekend's Roving Diagnostic Unit with Daily Life Ltd at Shuffle Festival, which I will write about in full shortly.

The potion is named "Tenacity Potion", because I feel that, now, this is what is required.



 Remember you can get involved too, via the hashtag #secretsofselfpreservation, by writing about a simple way you plan to, or already do, take care of yourself. Alternatively, you can create your own embroidered (or written on paper) potion - just remember to include the hashtag #secretsofselfpreservation along with your snaps of it.

Basket Unweaving



I've had what could best be described as "a funny old week". My Twitter, if it didn't blow up, certainly had a very tiny controlled explosion, resulting in being approached for commissions and sales, which is always lovely. I haven't made the best use of Twitter in the past, but I'm certainly making up for that now, and all in all I think I've had a bit of a social media overload. Pip was away, and on Thursday, when I had the polling station, a double bill of performance curated by Daily Life Ltd, and First Aid Training to get to, I, rather embarrassingly, became the practical demonstration at said training. I'm not even good with descriptions of blood, and felt so fragile and rotten that I didn't make it to the performances that evening. Just before I went to bed the possibility of a Tory majority government was beginning to look likely, and I had a terrible tension headache from my visceral reaction to mentions of blood.

On Friday morning I felt hungover and funereal with the election result. I think I'm not the only one who's still in a certain amount of shock. 

Thank goodness, then, that I had a second Daily Life Ltd ticket for their cabaret evening on Friday. I was late and flustered to the event, but within two minutes of walking through the door, I felt better.

Poets associated with F.E.E.L. (Friends of East End Loonies) performed a rollicking variety of texts, from the elegiac to the ethereal to the positively zinging with all the "madness" of life. Listening to them made me want to get up in front of a microphone again, which I haven't done since I was fourteen.

Dylan Tighe performed wondrously crafted songs interwoven with looped 80s keyboards, with words both poetic and realist.

But the two highlights for me were Simon Raven's "basket unweaving", a witty riposte to the busymaking distractions of  mental hospital mandated "art therapy", and Bobby Baker's Ballistic Buns

Bobby told us the story of her grandfather and grandmother, extraordinary individuals who met in the early twentieth century. Her grandfather, a "senior angler" or Oxbridge mathematics superboffin to you and I, was tasked with creating the British answer to "Big Bertha", an enormous mortar gun used by German forces in World War One. He never forgave himself for the devastation his engineering engendered. Her grandmother was from a wealthy background, hardly ate a thing, but, much like Bobby, loved feeding people.

One of Bobby's abiding memories of her grandmother was of sitting at the dinner table, when her granny would suddenly shriek, "Catch!" and pelt rock hard home baked buns at Bobby and her siblings.

As Bobby was a tomboy (believe it or not, so was I at the age of ten), her favourite film of the time was Dam Busters.

Thus, in homage to both her grandparents, whilst footage from Dam Busters scored by the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain played, Bobby pelted her captive audience with (mercifully soft) Madagascan vanilla buns. And, as Bobby demonstrated her pitcher's arm in a curiously balletic style, all the tension which had been building up in me over the course of the week bubbled up and overflowed into uncontrollable belly laughs. The laughter, as Alice of Daily Life put it, of jouissance. Just what the doctor ordered.

It made me think, as I have often privately thought before, that it's ok to be a bit mad. But here was collective, joyous, jouissance madness.

I felt buoyed up, and all these thoughts have led to the embroidered words of this week's #secretsofselfpreservation potion; "Raise each other up."

I refuse to despair in the face of another five years of Austerity Britain. I refuse to silently seethe, to grow complacent or apathetic. I won't stop working, however much arts funding is squeezed, however much the rug is pulled out from under vulnerable people. I will do my bit.

I wasn't quite sure what diaristic elements to include alongside the words, so Pip had the excellent idea including collage elements of the stack of Labour party literature he'd accumulated. I simply cut out the words and phrases which seemed most pertinent.







Remember you can get involved too, via the hashtag #secretsofselfpreservation, by writing about a simple way you plan to, or already do, take care of yourself. Alternatively, you can create your own embroidered (or written on paper) potion - just remember to include the hashtag #secretsofselfpreservation along with your snaps of it.

Expert Advisory Day

Today I had arranged to go to Chinatown with some friends, but they cancelled (due to perfectly valid reasons). However, nothing can come between me and dim sum, so I went by myself. It may not seem like much, but I felt like it was an important step, and demonstrates just how comfortable in my own company nowadays; there have been times in my life when I haven't been able to go out at all. There have been other times when I have gone to a restaurant and embarrassed my significant other by wolfing down my food and hightailing out of there, so convinced in my paranoia that other diners and staff were watching and talking about me, and could somehow tell there was something wrong with me just by looking.

Today I spilt half a cup of tea on the tablecloth, mopped it up with a napkin, and thought no more of it. And yes, that does feel like an important step.

I have been thinking a lot about mental health this week, as well as food. On Monday I went to an "expert advisory day" organised by the delectable Daily Life Ltd. Daily Life is an arts and mental health organisation collaborating with, and co-producing the work of, individuals and artists with experience of mental distress. Daily Life is headed by Bobby Baker, an artist about whom Nigel Slater said "I would go without food for a week just to get a ticket for her next show". I'm inclined to agree with him. I have been lucky enough to have been invited along to a couple of Daily Life events since first seeing Bobby and Co. present Mad Gyms and Kitchens back in 2012. I have written about the Experts By Experience workshop, run in collaboration with Jake Spicer of Draw Brighton here, and the resulting exhibition, The Expert View (in which a teeny weepy drawing by yours truly featured), here.

The purpose of the expert advisory day was for Daily Life to bring us up to speed on their activities and ambitions, to discuss language and the media around mental health, strategies around being a mentally ill artist and getting work out there, quality control in disability arts, and finally to share our work with likeminded (obviously in more ways than one!) peers.

It didn't take long for my blood to boil. This was brought on by our discussion around representation in the media. I was glad to hear that Bobby, as well as many of the other artists and activists present, feel a sense of disparity between all that we can offer as people with varied and unique life experiences (which often lead to us having a greater sense of empathy and social justice, as well as providing a rich seam of strikingly original ideas and creativity), and media and political portrayals of "the mentally ill" as "burdens", or, as I put it, "the great unwashed".

I doubt many people, on first meeting me, would be able to tell I have a mental illness (well, if they didn't take the bright clothes and pom pom earrings at face value, anyhow!) I'm bubbly, upbeat, friendly, and at first glance, confident. Not society's view of people who have had some of the life experiences I have; I rather suspect the tabloid press would instead expect me to be blithering in a corner.

It's almost as if the attitude to disabled people in general is that we are a problem to be solved, and, in extreme cases, that we originated the source of that problem ourselves. This is the medical model of disability. The social model is that society should accommodate the so-called "disabled", and give them every opportunity to not be a burden and instead make the most of their abilities; to contribute.

I mentioned sitcoms such as the pervasive Big Bang Theory, in which characters fairly regularly "accuse" each other of "acting totally psychotic". So often I have wished I could tell the writers of these shows that the word they are searching for is "psychopathic", and that they probably don't mean that their characters are being talked at by the washing machine (true story).



Misuse of language is not restricted to low-brow entertainment, either; in academic texts, slippery and changeable literature is sometimes referred to as "schizophrenic". The words these writers are searching for are "dissociative identity disorder". They are rather making the same mistake as Celtic fans did when they learned one of the team's players was schizophrenic and began chanting "Two Andy Gorams, there's only two Andy Gorams" at matches.

Luckily, despite our ranting and the odd #crazypersonproblems joke, we were there to talk about the work. Bobby shared with us the history of her career, struggles and triumphs as an artist, with her trademark warmth and generosity. Aidan Moseby presented his linguistic and empathetic ingenuity. It was fabulous to meet Jacqui Dillon, chair of the Hearing Voices Network, to know that there are so many people out there like me, we're not completely abnormal, and there is peer support for us. James, aka thevaccuumcleaner, talked about his deceptively simple utopic asylum project Mad Love, and his upcoming performance of his one-man show, Mental, in Sigmund Freud's bedroom, which I am so excited about.

Next week, on Thursday the 7th (election day!) and Friday 8th May, Daily Life Ltd are presenting their first micro festival. The Expert View brings together the work of Bobby and Daily Life and a whole host of artists, organisations and activists. These include Selina Thompson, who makes big-hearted, challenging, participatory performance art I could watch again and again, Jacqui of the Hearing Voices Network talking about her work in more detail (which unfortunately I won't be around for, but you should hear Jacqui speak if you can), and oh so many more. I'm gutted I can't get around to see it all, it's such an exciting prospect. Perhaps converse to your expectation of an arts and mental health festival, I guarantee that you will leave feeling elated. I always do when I spend time in the presence of these wonderful people. They are the future, and I am more than up for the ride there.


The Expert View

Louise Bourgeois' scrawled slogan "Art is a guaranty of sanity" and Tracey Emin's "I need art like I need God" are both saying the same thing. That art is at once proof of our humanity, and also transcends it. That the human spirit is endlessly resilient and capable of greatness, whatever hardships have befallen us, whether external or internal.



I kept this in mind as I visited The Expert View on Thursday evening. The installation of light boxes in Dalston Square is the culmination of Daily Life Ltd's Experts by Experience workshops, shown alongside Bobby Baker's Diary Drawings. As I explained in another post, I was lucky enough to be a participant in one of these workshops, and, I'm thrilled to say, one of my little drawings is included in the exhibition.




I was surprised that such a humble offering was included, particularly with the wealth of talent on display. Ironically, when I went to art school I became less confident in drawing; to begin with, my work was mostly text based, and then embroidery became an all-consuming compulsion, where I would stitch the design directly on to the cloth without figuring it out on paper first. Experts by Experience has inspired me to pick up the pencil (and inks, and paints, and pastels, and...) and learn how to draw again. I feel it can only be good for my textiles practice.

Despite my misgivings about my artistic capabilities, at The Expert View I was overwhelmed with positive responses to this tiny illustration of my erstwhile expertise at crying. People seemed to find it very touching, which to some extent was unexpected; I find it rather humorous. I think, in mental health, humour about the situations we find ourselves in can be a very powerful resource. That is, so long as we are not laughing at each other, or bitterly at our own "shortcomings", but together at the absurdity of the world we have to navigate.

Bobby's work, of course, is rich with the power of humour. It is very hard to be truly afraid of something if you can laugh at it. Even if that "something" is the amorphous and unpindownable "spectre of mental illness".




 

The drawing above, of Bobby buying Christmas presents for her loved ones, I found particularly heartening. At our workshop, Bobby showed us this drawing and explained that she loves buying presents for others. I think, in mental health, it can be so easy to discount the things that really matter in our lives; the media and society at large can reduce us to how productive we can be; to scroungers sitting around sponging up benefits, feeling sorry for ourselves, and not "contributing". But people living with mental illness have families; have loved ones; have cherished relationships, and it is of vital importance to celebrate this, because so many of us can feel like our illnesses are a huge burden on those we are closest to. We forget what we give; we forget that the world is a better place because we're in it.




I think The Expert View is palpable evidence of this. It is a celebration; a riot of colour, of life experiences, of the whole gamut of human emotion. There are contributions from mental health professionals, patients past and present, and people who intersect with the field in other ways. Of course, you could be all three, and that is, in part, the point. The question being posed is Who is the expert? And the answer, given in the installation flyer, is another question: Who's to say?




People who study and treat mental ill health, psychiatrists, psychologists, support workers, doctors, nurses; can they ever understand these illnesses in the same way as people with lived experience? I would argue not; unless of course, they have lived experience of mental illness themselves. Certainly, mental health professionals can bring expertise to the table that those of us with lived experience may not have; years of training and study, in-depth understanding of individual illnesses and symptoms, and (hopefully) the compassion which brought them to the profession in the first place. But this can sometimes translate to seeing people as just a set of symptoms to be "cured" and not an individual. Perhaps a more holistic approach is required. Which is where art comes in. 

Daily Life Ltd.'s Experts by Experience workshops were not art therapy. They were not an exercise in psychoanalysing our drawings, or a means of alleviating symptoms. For some of us, these may have been by-products of the workshop, but this was not the objective. What I came away with from the workshop was a profound sense that there is very little separating those designated "mad" and those designated "sane". For some people, that is a deeply troubling thought, but as an individual who has been placed in both categories at different times, I found it comforting. 




This is why I think it is so important for The Expert View to be exhibited in such a public and well-frequented place. Members of the public whose lives have been touched, or not, by mental illness, will happen across the installation in their daily lives. I'm already proud to be a part of this exhibition. If even one person who happens upon it reconsiders mentally ill people as people just like them, I will feel I have made a very small but nonetheless substantial difference for mentally ill people in this country. Being involved in this project has already made a difference to me personally; I'm more open, more outspoken about mental health injustices, and more enlightened. 

The Expert View shows what people with experience of mental ill health are capable of; beautiful, riveting, touching, hilarious, heart-breaking, unique art, positively zinging with life.







Experts by experience


Remember I talked about crying and making art about crying yesterday? Well, today I am reeling from doing the same; making art about crying, but not actually doing the crying itself; from laughing and smiling and making and chatting and absorbing and opening up and being receptive and empathising and oh, the list goes on and on.


You see, I attended a very special workshop today; facilitated by the brilliant Jake Spicer of Draw Brighton, it was run in participation with the also rather brilliant Daily Life Limited, set up by art hero Bobby Baker and based in Stratford (where Pip's from and a short bus ride from me, coincidentally).


I'd met Bobby very briefly once before, when my dear friend Jess and I went to see her performance Mad Gyms and Kitchens at the Barbican. I did write about my experience there, but unfortunately it has been lost in the annals of the internet. Suffice to say it was a practice (if not life) changing experience. Bobby was lovely to meet then, and she was lovely to meet today too, as was Jake, the rest of the Daily Life Limited team who were present, and the other artists participating in the workshop.


The workshop was based around the idea that people who experience mental ill health are experts by experience, and more generally, who is an expert/what makes an expert?


It was suggested (though by no means prescribed) that we consider what we were experts in/of in our drawing experiments. I drew myself as an expert at crying and an expert at eating. 

Thankfully I don't cry as much as I used to, though I'm sure my many years of unwavering service to tear-letting still qualify me as a professional weeper of some expertise.

Eating is a funny one; it would be hard not to be an expert at eating in my rather food-centric family. However, when I am unwell it's often the first thing to go out of the window. It becomes a way of punishing myself for my many perceived failings. I am happy to report that for now, however, my eating is prolific and unlikely to wane in quantity or quality.




The workshop was a particularly interesting one to undertake whilst I'm looking for work. I have a funny feeling that a lot of "expertise" is blagging anyway.




Aside from the self-portraits, I was back to portraying potions (and emergency glitter!), which I plan to bring back into my practice in a big way in the near future.




The most lovely thing about today was meeting so many like-minded individuals (in more ways than one). Even at art school, people weren't necessarily open about mental health, and my fellow workshop participants today just made sense to me. If anything, they were more sane than a lot of people I've met who haven't been through the mental health mill.








I now feel invigorated to go out into the world and make some damn art! Thank you, Bobby, Jake, and co!