This is an edited transcript of a short presentation I gave to the local RSA group following a kind invitation a couple of years ago by Sarah but (Dunchurch Park notwithstanding) just as relevant now. It was an excellent evening organised by writer and creative writing tutor, Sarah Salway for the Royal Society of Arts, with input from an artist, Tony Crosse, Carol Lynch, Chief Executive of Kent Community Foundation, and William Benson, the Chief Executive of Tunbridge Wells BC.
“Art is fundamental to my life. My late father was a poet, my mother a watercolour artist, although she’s hardly able to draw these days. Both had a profound sense of the magic of the moment, capturing an event, a happening, even if it were only a certain angle of the light at a certain time of year…
I am a writer and a poet. If only I could make my living that way! Some years ago, way back in 1997, during those heady times before the Millennium, not long after New Labour had come to power, I was diagnosed with bipolar affective disorder.
Since then I’ve gradually worked my way out of the experience, with the help of psychotherapy which I had until 2006. I have written and performed and presented to conferences and workshops, and I have taken my own show, with a singer songwriter friend, to the Brighton and Edinburgh Festival Fringes, and published two books, along the way. The first, Fast Train Approaching in 2007 was an autobiographical account of my breakdown.
Here’s a quote from Henry David Thoreau who was a source of inspiration for me, from his book On Walden Pond, 1851. I used this as part of the opening of my Edinburgh fringe show in 2009.
The poet is a man who lives at last by watching his moods…as narrowly as a cat does a mouse.
And my reply…
I am a poet. I watch my moods. Not only to be aware of the extremes, but also to register those subtle changes that may accompany that first slip towards oblivion. I have been close to the edge. I have fallen over.
Breakdown. Nervous breakdown. Fragments. And in those fragments, something of the truth. I didn’t see it coming until the third time around, bearing down on me. I’m more aware now. I watch for tell-tale signs, try to feel the ground ahead of me to predict and prevent that first slip into madness. As if it could happen at any moment.
And so I come to deeper reasons for wanting to speak up, to wish to raise a voice that is bold, confident, self-assured, inspiring even.
Because when you think about life, when you really think of it, the very fact that we exist at all, that we are conscious, that we live and breathe in this present moment of time and space in this world is nothing short of utterly amazing!
What is this to be inspired? To be moved by beauty, art, winning performance, ballet, dance, music, painting, sculpture, the human voice, the human body, ecstasy, heights we aspire to?
(I guess I could add gardening as an art form, in view of Sarah’s work in particular, (see Digging up Paradise: Potatoes, People and Poetry in the Garden of England, by Sarah Salway) but it’s not one I take to willingly! :-))
I’d like to think I could write something definitive on the human condition but of course nobody can – all art is a product of the particular experience and the person, their unique perception, together creating an infinite variety of interpretations of what it is to be alive.
It takes a certain genius to tune in to many people’s taste to create a resonance in a multitude. But then it’s not the person it’s the moment, the universe, the zeitgeist speaking through that person.
I don’t know why I should’ve been so surprised that bipolar happened to me since 1 in 4 of us will have a mental health problem at some time in our lives (although bipolar affects some 1 in 100 people). It’s likely that you will know several people with experience of mental ill-health, even though you may not actually know it, because you’ve never had that conversation.
Writing about difficult experiences, can be cathartic. Following in the footsteps of my late father who also wrote a poem about his experience of my breakdown and won a prize for it!
Writing Fast Train was really important to me. Being able to consolidate my experience in a book was a true delight. It underscored the ending to times in hospital and it gave me a platform to share my experience through performance and theatre.
Crafting my autobiographical account with fictional extracts enabled me to express myself, to come to terms with what had happened and to draw a line beneath.
We all have physical health, and we all have mental health.
My vision is for “mental health to be discussed freely in every part of the country, over coffee, over a pint, without stigma, judgement or gossip.”
Labels are not helpful, they control and belittle all that is human, we need to look behind the label to the person and to imagine their experience from their perspective.
I remember one writing exercise that hit the spot. We were to think of a time when we were in crisis, maybe an accident, to write about it and then to write from the point of view of those that were there to help, or otherwise witnessed what happened. I wrote about coming off the motorway in my car and being helped by a couple who’d been in a car behind me. Writing in first person from their perspective, really brought home the shared experience and a universal humanity.
As my former psychotherapist Jenny Bloomer, would say, (she contributed considerably to my latest book, Voices):
My practice respects, values and celebrates our uniqueness as individuals. I therefore attempt to get to know ‘the person’ as fully as possible. There are often underlying strengths that can be utilized and always reasons for temporary or long-term inability to cope.
One of five steps set out by the Foresight project on mental well being, in 2008, relates to creativity, it is to: Be curious… Catch sight of the beautiful. Remark on the unusual. Notice the changing seasons. Savour the moment, whether you are walking to work, eating lunch or talking to friends. Be aware of the world around you and what you are feeling. Reflecting on your experiences will help you appreciate what matters to you.
Foresight Mental Capital and Wellbeing Project (2008) Final Project Report. Government Office for Science.
Writing (& Art) can be a vehicle for this reflection.
The process of reflecting on experience can be healing, somehow it aligns the psyche with the greater flow of life, and opens the door to a more universal connection.
Poetry first became a revelation to me when I discovered it didn’t have to rhyme. Reflecting on life, gathering a poem is something of a mindful experience for me…and I’d like to think the process connects with something deeper, with elements of spirit.
And what of performance? Always nervous, and before the first show controlled panic having had the date, the deadline, stepping onto the stage in mind for months…possibly not the best thing for bipolar!
As a kid I was terrified of being up in front of my peers. I’d opted for Drama at 8 years old because I thought it meant drumming! And at 10 and 11 I’d deliberately write my stories so badly so I wouldn’t have to read them out…but perhaps surprisingly I got into performance by chance at the Poetry Society when it was in Earls Court for what I thought was ‘Poetry Round’ but turned out to be a workshop with a Russian Stanislavski method actor and director, Igor Dimont.
Art can also parallel the experience of mindfulness, of being acutely aware of the depth of the moment by somehow capturing it, to then be repeatedly shared with different audiences at different times whether through visual art or the written or spoken word.
Concentrating on anything that takes you out of yourself can be a lifesaver but for my aunt (both an artist and sculptor) it was not all therapy – art allowed her to express herself in ways that she couldn’t do otherwise, ‘it is a way of exploring yourself in safety’.
There are many projects for healing in the community which are centred around art and creativity as a means of expression.
Equally, for those who are bereaved there is a much deeper benefit, being able to express their own personal solutions, rising out of depression and finding themselves in a meditative state, reflecting and healing.
Creativity can reach to the core of our being through giving expression to who we really are and, in the process, healing…”
Watch this space for news of the Kent Writing and Wellbeing Network.