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.

Come up and see my stitchings

Sometimes I feel like my creative streak is one of those joke "can of worms" where a bouncy snake pops out. Only in this case the snake is constantly methodically working at the lid and cackling deviously to itself. I like to think that's where the figurative meaning of "unhinged" originates, but perhaps I should digress.

In any case, what I'm erratically trying to say is, I think artists are a little more unhinged than your Average Joe. Our brains are more porous, and this porosity works both ways, or at least it does in my case; art goes in, art comes out (or perhaps more accurately, everything goes in, everything comes out; not always a good thing).

It makes me think of my favourite French word: entrouvert/e, meaning "ajar" or "half open".

It has vert in it, too, green; the colour of new life, new hope.


Now I am training to be a tutor at the Royal School of Needlework (unimaginably far-off though the intended end result may currently seem), I'm having to keep a lid on my creative can of worms for a little while. It's a wise person who said that one has to learn the rules to break them, and that's what I am slowly, falteringly doing; learning stitches at a staggering rate, learning history and composition and my way around the Palace, and just about keeping my head above water (though my legs are working frantically beneath).


And my days working from home are spent up in the loft wedged between computers and their entrails, plonked in front of The West Wing, stitching until the light gives out. 

I like that dependence on the light; I like that it roots me within nature's rhythms, and connects me to needlewomen of the past, who stitched by the guttering of candles until their eyes were ruined.


And I like that endurance and dedication too, that almost obsessional dedication. That refusal to settle for "almost good enough", that tiny, painstaking delicacy.

"Passitivity and obedience, moreover, are the very opposite of the qualities necessary to make a sustained effort in needlework. What's required are physical and mental skills, fine aesthetic judgement in colour, texture and composition; patience during long training; and assertive individuality of design (and consequent disobedience of aesthetic convention). Quiet strength need not be mistaken for useless vulnerability." - Kate Walker (feminist embroidery artist)

I am all too aware of how vulnerable I am now, at the start of my journey; I'm like Bambi in the snow, wide-eyed and open mouthed wonderment at drawers filled with thread every colour of the sun, archival boxes of ancient textiles, the living history of Hampton Court and above all the inestimable knowledge that pours from those around me.


But I intend to soak it all up, like a sponge, like a door flung not half, but fully open. And I've begun my own efforts, paltry though they may be... slowly, slowly... stitch by stitch...