Bad Plant Mama

My colleagues got me a fancy Magma sketchbook for my birthday, and I've been filling its pages with some speed. It's a revelation to me how quick sketching is compared to the labour of love that is embroidery.

I've been feeling a little glum this past week. First and foremost, I hold the weather responsible; it has been grey and drizzly most of the time.

A symptom of depression which I didn't expect and which I didn't experience before I entered the world of work was feeling constantly tired. It is increasingly difficult to get up in the morning; the thought that gets me through the day is the possibility of sleep soon.

There are other side effects; over the last few weeks my bedroom became what I can only describe as a "depression pit". It got to the stage where I knew there were things I needed to use in there somewhere, but where they were was another question, as was summoning the energy to find out. I didn't want to see friends (especially of an evening, when doing so would take me away from the bed base camp), yet felt intensely lonely.

This was by no means a very serious depression, only impinging slightly on my life, but I thought it was best to be mindful and act. I took a duvet day on Thursday, went back to bed for an hour or so, then tackled the detritus of my room, and felt considerably better.

My plants don't seem to be enjoying the dark days either; several are rather droopy. To turn this on its head and avoid depression-exacerbated feelings of guilt and inadequacy as a #plantmama, I did a little drawing in my sketchbook.

I might do a series of related drawings; this one could be a good fit for several zines in the works. For now though, it's back to embroidery.

Abnormal Feeling of Wellbeing

I have a huge backlog of blog posts to get through, and so I thought I would begin with a new project I am undertaking. Abnormal Feeling of Wellbeing is a lighthearted body of work about serious mental illness. Consisting of lists and mantras, illustrated infamous quotations on and historical allusions to the mind and observations on the absurdity of everyday life, it takes its title from a listed possible side effect of the antipsychotic drug Olanzapine. Reading this, it struck me that an abnormal feeling of wellbeing was precisely what I was aiming for, giving that I had been feeling abnormally unwell for half my life by that point.
The resulting works expand the notion of side effects and are hand embroidered on to vintage linens, overbearingly florid, so lovely as to be abject, naive and intricate. They are comprised of skewed self portraits and acrobatic word play, always looking at the power implicit in language; how language signifies sickness without spelling it out and can at other times imprison, but ultimately, when put into the hands of the marginalised rather than decreed to them, liberates.  

The piece below is a playful allusion to the phrase "she wouldn't say boo to a goose". 

This piece, List of Possible Side Effects, explores the other, less discussed, unusual side effects of Olanzapine; the sensation of "Walking through treacle", "Reduced dreaming" and "Unexpectedly finding oneself near cake", rounded off with the very bizarre side effect I read on that Olanzapine pamphlet. I "cheated" somewhat with this piece, as a very talented embroiderer of yesteryear has worked some incredible stem and satin stitch on to the cotton. All that was left for me to do was embroider the text in variegated blue thread, and bullet point each side effect with red gems anchored with pink beads, to pick up the tones in the roses.

Freudian Slipstitch is the third in the series, and is currently under construction, ready for its protagonist to be placed in the scene. After that, perhaps a series of handkerchiefs. Onwards and upwards!

Pantone 4545

Apologies for the radio silence. I'm in a bit of a slump; too worn out to write. Too worn out to do much of anything; I have lots of ideas but no energy to put them into practice.

Luckily it's only thirteen days until I'm off to Scandinavia for what feels like a very necessary holiday (the number of days to count down feels most portentous!)

I have been able to do a little cutting and sticking in my visual diary, however; the cheat's route to creativity. There are some old drawings of mine (the first two pages) and some new ones by my friend Kat which she illustrated my birthday present wrappings with (the last two pages).

"Broken but happy" was the result I was given from one of those silly Facebook analyser/fortune teller apps which supposedly compromise your online security. It feels apt; I am a relentlessly optimistic depressive, at least, if an exhausted one. The Pantone postcard which is its neighbour, with its fetching shade of vomit blancmange, encapsulates depression for me; all is acrid and beige, the tumble weeds roll past your window, we're in Kansas forever more Toto, and there will never be any colour.

That being said, as an optimist, I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. I am seeing a very kind and incisive CBT therapist and trying to get on with things as best I can. I think I need a big yet reachable goal to work towards to give me a sense of purpose/calling. My big goal for 2016 was to have a solo exhibition, but that feels almost unimaginable at present. Perhaps a few months down the line things will be looking a bit brighter. Here's hoping!

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.

Fortitude Potion

One of my favourite young artists, Caitlin Hazell, once scribbled an illustration which read "I'm sad because I'm not Kate Bush". I'm sad at the moment, but I thought that Kate Bush might help rather than making me sadder still.

Therefore, this week's #secretsofselfpreservation potion borrows (or do "great" artists steal?) a line from one of her most beautiful songs, This Woman's Work; "I know you've got a lot of strength left." Because I do, despite what even I may believe. I have been in this place before, and I have come out the other side. I will be happy and healthy again, and I will work at it until I am.

Accompanying the words is a tiny LED light, which I thought made a good metaphor for a kernel of hope. It was gifted to me by a lovely lady at a workshop I was involved in at the weekend. More on that later, possibly. 

The concoction is named Fortitude Potion. Fortitude, I am told, is defined as strength of mind that enables a person to encounter danger or bear pain or adversity with courage. It might seem a little contradictory to be talking about strength of mind when in fact my mind is so vulnerable. But buried deep inside me is a stubbornness that won't let me give in. That wills me to keep going, like Sylvia Plath's "I am, I am, I am." A little lightbulb, if you will.

 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.

I Get By Potion

I've been struggling lately. And what is the most important thing to do when you're struggling (other than admit it)? Ask for help. Call in the cavalry, get all the help you can get to get back on the ball.

That is what I have been trying to do, and that is why last week's #secretsofselfpreservation potion reads "It's ok to ask for help."

I didn't want to include any of the help-getting paperwork in the bottle as I'm feeling so wobbly, so, as last week was eating-out heavy, I included the business card for a lovely local restaurant, Orford Saloon.

"I Get By" is a Beatles reference of course, but also an allusion to the fact that sometimes simply getting by is the best we can hope for.

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.

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!

Stigma Smashing Potion

Earlier this week I was talking to some people I think of as fairly broad minded. I mentioned a mental health issue because it was relevant to the conversation, and something remarkable happened; there was a sharp intake of breath. It shocked me. Safely ensconced in the bubble of my network of likeminded (in oh so many more ways than one!) people, I forgot the "us and them" mentality of the man or woman on the street; the dichotomy of "we are well, happy and safe - they are mentally ill and dangerous" which fab mental health awareness campaign Only Us wants to dismantle.

There is also something of a hierarchy of mental illness, with depression and anxiety the "acceptable" bottom (the common cold of mental illness, I like to call them) and hearing voices and unusual thoughts and beliefs at the "unacceptable, dangerous" top.

As someone who has rather run the gauntlet of mental health and come out both stronger and more cynical about society's opinions on the matter, I stitched the phrase "Being your authentic self is a revolutionary act" for this week's #secretsofselfpreservation potion. But it's not just about blowing my own trumpet; I really believe that anyone being their authentic self is revolutionary. How often in our day to day lives, when asked how we are by a colleague or acquaintance, respond "Fine, thanks", when we are anything but? Or indeed, when we are brimming over with joy.

It's almost as if emotion itself is to be policed, and if it tips too far over into negative or positive, it too is "unacceptable".

I had a conversation with a friend the other week in which we both agreed that learning to accept the fact that we were emotional people was probably a good thing. Better to be emotional and irrational than a scary robot!

This fear of emotion is of course also sexist; the centuries-old binary of man/woman = rational/emotional. This leads to internalised misogyny which I know I myself am guilty of.

I was afforded a professional opportunity to be my authentic self last week, and I was a little shocked when good came from it. But thinking about it, people warm to people who are palpably human; who have perceived "flaws" and are honest about who they are.

To accompany the stitched words, inside the potion bottle I added cut up phrases from the "Wellness and Recovery Plan" I was given by a mental health practitioner when recovering from a period of serious illness. This plan was never mentioned again, and reading it back, the idea that a bubble bath can stop you sliding into paranoia and psychosis is slightly laughable. But the intentions are good, and so I picked a few phrases which seemed pertinent to include; "Ambitions and dreams", "When things are breaking down", and "What I am like when I am well".

The potion is entitled "Stigma Smashing Potion", which is just what I intend to do.

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.

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!

Stitch For Survival

I'm currently reading an utterly unputdownable book. Mad, Bad and Sad: A History of Women and the Mind Doctors may occasionally induce eye-rolling at the puerile preoccupations and sheer quackery of psychoanalysis, but for all that it remains a vital and fascinating case study of the treatment and interpretation of women throughout the ages. Unexpectedly, it also throws light on attitudes to needlework over the years, from the opinions of proto-feminists to the most famous mind doctor of them all.

Two famous Marys decried embroidery as a subjugating, dullifying activity that diverted women's attentions away from more intellectual pursuits, and ultimately, away from their emancipation.

 Mary Lamb, early nineteenth century co-author of the enduringly popular Tales from Shakespeare, even wrote that "Needle-work and intellectual improvement are naturally in a state of warfare". Indeed, literature of the early 1800s would lead us to believe that women were forever busied with their "work", hands industriously sewing away creating embroideries of questionable usefulness or purpose, kept in the home at their embroidery frames rather than in the same spheres as "great" men. 

Mary Wollstonecraft, in her watershed text A Vindication of the Rights of Women, perhaps for the first time in English literature, urges men to treat women as equals, and speak to them rationally. In fact, it is almost as if she does not believe women are the fragile little flowers men would make them out to be, capable only of embroidering yet more fragile little flowers rather than turning their minds to more lofty pursuits. Curious.

Now, as a feminist and an embroiderer, I am of course a little sceptical that needlework and so-called lofty pursuits are incompatible. Embroidery gives me space to mull things over in my mind; to ponder everything from the intellectual to the banal. Aside from that, the shared roots of textiles and written text offer an endless source for scholarly research and a rich artistic practice. What I will allow is that it is a calming past-time; one does get into somewhat of a meditative state, and this brings me to my favourite needlework-related quotation of all time, from the granddaddy of psychoanalysis, Mr Sigmund Freud:

"(Hypnoid states) it would seem, grow out of the day-dreams which are so common even in healthy people and to which needlework and similar occupations render women especially prone".

Women are also more prone to these "hypnoid states" because they are the weaker sex (disallowing, of course, the fact that many of them pull off the superhuman equivalent of shoving a watermelon up their nose during labour). For all his sexual liberation, Freud was no feminist, as his theory that women longed for a totemic penis of their very own (thus implying that they were deficient men) indicates. However, it is interesting to me that Freud views embroidery as dangerous; perhaps he's investing a little too much symbolic power in that needle? It reminds me of another quotation I came across once, from the French novelist Colette, concerning her daughter; "she is silent when she sews, silent for hours... she is silent, and she - why not write it down the word that frightens me - she is thinking."

God, forbid, a thinking woman. Dangerous. A woman thinking under cover of an innocent womanly pursuit; doubly so.

Now that I'm studying at the Royal School of Needlework, sewing doesn't often occasion daydreaming for me any more; but when I first picked up a needle, my mind was in turmoil, and the repetitive process both afforded me an occupation (much like the "woman's work" of the 19th Century) and soothed me. In many ways, it was my salvation. It has since become my career path, but it's much more personal than that; I have embroidery to thank, at least partially, for pulling me out of the darkest period of my life.

Despite Freud's misgivings, needlework has since been recognised as an effective form of occupational therapy; following the second world war, shell-shocked soldiers were encouraged to complete embroidery kits as part of their convalescence. More recent studies suggest that the act of embroidery has a physiological effect, regulating heart beat and breathing, triggering "the relaxation response". I myself feel much more relaxed reclining on the sofa with the telly on if I have a bit of stitching in my hands (although that may have more to do with being hooked on needlework than with its calming effect).

An up and coming designer and girl after my own heart, Hannah Hill, recently put into words (and pictures) my own feelings about the salvation of embroidery, summing them up in one of her typically apt and succinct phrases, "Stitch For Survival".

She's surrounded the phrase with tattoo-style illustrations, including a self portrait and her trademark Ghoul Guides badges that she sells in her Etsy shop, and my favourite touch, which one might miss in a quick glance; a tear falling from the eye socket of the skull and crossbones. A reminder that surviving isn't always easy, but that stitching helps.

Frayed: Textiles on the Edge at the Time and Tide Museum

An excerpt from Lorina Bulwer's stitched letters

Every now and then, you go to an exhibition that speaks to you on such a personal level it seems tailor made for you. It was that way for me with an exhibition of feminist art at the Ben Uri Gallery in 2012, and it was that way with the Frayed exhibition I went to see at the Time and Tide Museum in Great Yarmouth last Saturday.

The exhibition centred around how stitched artworks could act as personal testament, salvation, or therapy. Large swathes of the text accompanying the exhibition could have been lifted directly from my dissertation.

Stitching began as therapy for me; a way of busying my hands so my mind could work things out, and heal. Consequently, many of the art works in the exhibition were very relatable, a couple almost painfully so.

Elizabeth Parker's sampler

I got to see one of my favourite pieces of stitch ever (which I'd studied during my degree) up close, and read every word of it. This huge sampler of blood red text sewn on to minuscule canvas was stitched by Elizabeth Parker, a young woman who lived in the 19th Century. Elizabeth begins her stitched text with the paradoxical phrase "As I cannot write"; she hoped that she would learn to write with a pen, but for the time being she could only stitch her story. And what a story; born into an impoverished family who gave her everything allowed by their limited means, abused (and even thrown down the stairs) by her former employers, Elizabeth wrangled with suicidal urges and their impact on her immortal soul. As the part-confession, part-testament continues, it moves from autobiography to prayer to desperate, uncertain plea to God, to anybody who can save her from herself and her "sins". Hauntingly, Elizabeth's sampler ends with the words "What will become of my soul?"

 Elizabeth's story ends happily, however; the blurb that accompanied the sampler told us that she lived to the grand old age of 76, and presumably accomplished her dream of learning to write, as she became a teacher in a village school. I found it heartening that Elizabeth's story reaffirms that people who struggle with mental health issues can live full, long, productive lives; that there is redemption, and that the meditative, contemplative, suturing act of embroidery can help lead to this; we can stitch ourselves back together again.

Quilts created by prisoners, in the 1800s and now
A section from one of Lorina Bulwer's stitched letters

The exhibition included examples of textiles created by individuals who had suffered many different forms of psychic blows; from kits worked by soldiers convalescing in the wake of the Second World War, to a quilt created by female prisoners under the guidance of Elizabeth Fry, to pieces created as part of a mourning process, to perhaps the most startling items in the exhibition, a series of embroidered letters painstakingly pieced together out of scraps and rags by a resident of a lunatic ward (as it was then known) of Great Yarmouth Workhouse at the turn of the 20th century. It is not clear whether this woman, Lorina Bulwer, came to the workhouse because of her mental health problems, or developed mental health problems through coming to the workhouse. Either way, I doubt her environment could have helped, and she was certainly not a well woman; in one of her extraordinary, cathartic, stream of consciousness, unsettling letters, she announces that she is the illegitimate daughter of Queen Victoria; in another she is obsessively preoccupied with hermaphrodites and Socialists, and the "ills" they have supposedly brought her.

Further excerpts from Lorina Bulwer's densely stitched letters
Her letters and her story make me glad to be alive now, when mental health issues are so much better understood and sympathised with. However, despite the hardships Lorina endured, whether at the hands of the state or her own mind turning against her, her letters have survived, and once seen, cannot be forgotten. However fragile and irrational Lorina was, I wager she was quite a tough woman, and disturbing as her stitched letters may be, they are a testament to her irrepressible spirit.

The exhibition is accompanied by a fascinating blog which can be read here.

News, blues, and terrifying highs

Ages after everyone else has got their results, I’ve finally handed in my dissertation. In a matter of weeks I should know whether I’ve been awarded a 2:1 or (gulp) a First.

Before embarking on the real world, I’m having a little holiday in the Scottish Highlands. That means one thing – lots of stitching!

But before I get to that, I have a couple of bits of news. Firstly, I’ve been asked by Catherine at Significant Seams to intern on an embroidery project masterminded by Oxfam and the Craftivist Collective. I’m only too happy to be on board; craft with a social message is right up my street, and I could practically be sponsored by Oxfam given the percentage of my wardrobe made up of clothes from its shops! Not entirely sure what the project involves yet, but I’m very excited.

Secondly (and possibly even more excitingly), my work is going to be shown in a professional gallery in October. Not only that, but (and here comes more boasting), it will be shown alongside work by the likes of Susan Hiller and Cecil Beaton! The exhibition is called A Curious Invitation, and has been curated to accompany the launch of a book of the same name, all about famous parties in literature. My contribution is my embroidered handkerchief The Onion Cutters’ Club, which is based on the chapter The Onion Cellar which appears in The Tin Drum. Check out my artist bio, along with those of the other artists, on the gallery website. I must say I feel incredibly inexperienced compared to them; I’m the youngest artist in the exhibition!

Thirdly, during this year’s E17 Art Trail I will be writing a couple of reviews for the Trail’s official blog. I’m very excited to see this year’s artists’ efforts, particularly an exhibition on crying which I imagine will have a nice dialogue with The Onion Cutters’ Club.

Finally, I’ve finally succumbed to Twitter! Now that I don’t have Facebook any more, where else to take my inane (t)witterings? Jokes aside, I’ve heard it’s very handy for networking. Initial discoveries include Feminist Hulk and the (genuinely witty) witticisms of my wondrous ex-uni-mate (and future poet laureate) Adam’s bear Aloysius (inherited from Sebastian Flyte, but of course).

Now that all that’s out of the way, on to the sewing! I can’t seem to stop making pieces for Psychobitches, despite the fact that it hasn’t been officially unveiled yet. This latest piece follows in the tongue-in-cheek, snarky vein of its two predecessors.

I’ve never been a Zooey Deschanel fan, and now I know why. Firstly, there’s the fact that the archetype she repeatedly plays, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, reduces female characters to two-dimensional emotional props for male leads. But I also have a bone to pick with the name of the trope itself. Anybody who’s experienced mania can tell you that there’s nothing “dreamy” about it; unless by “dreamy”, you mean “nightmarish”. Sure, there’s the initial euphoria, the sense that you can do anything. But soon this tips over into an energy that’s out of control. You become irritable (and irritating), aggressive, incomprehensible. (When I was manic, I filled an entire notebook with writing, that – looking back – made no sense.) And when you come down – boy do you come down.

This would suggest that the trope appropriates terminology referring to mental illness and applies it to a particularly nauseating brand of “quirkiness” (and this is coming from someone who's about as twee as they come).

 As “Dionne the Socialist” so eloquently puts it, “Mental disorders are medical conditions. Mental disorders are not personality quirks.”

Despite this, you can suffer from mental illness and still be a fulfilled, interesting, attractive, productive, accomplished, kind person – with the right support.

Thus, there’s an aspect to my piece that isn’t tongue in cheek at all; you can be a manic depressive and a dream girl. Whether you'd want to be anybody's dream girl is another question...