‘When mental illness changes the landscape of our lives’
The paintings on this page are the series of seven works I created for 'Views of the Void', a collaborative exhibition exploring mental health.
The seven paintings explore my past experience of post natal depression and is effects. It was also a chance to be a part of the discussion for proper Mental health support, which is vital when we remember the Health Survey for England (2014) found that one in four reported as being diagnosed with at least one mental or neurological disorder at some point in their lives.
This exhibition hopes to give a small insight into the many facets and challenges of mental health through a visual representation of personal experience.
A View of the Void
I am well now.
For two years, I was not
I clearly recall the moment when I realised that there was something wrong. I sat in the warm morning light holding my infant son. I was comfortable. It was peaceful. My little girl was at school, my partner at work. Life was good. No traumas. No drama.
But there was a void.
There was an enormous void where my feelings should be. A vast blank space.
I sat. I sat and I stared down at my son and felt nothing. No emotion at all. Disconnected, an automaton, a voyeur of my own life.
I was diagnosed with postnatal depression.
I would as an artist describe depression as an absence of colour and form,
As a mother, it’s a thief leaching the joy from your relationships
And as a lover and a friend it’s a furtive, sly barrier between you.
Chains of Thought
Pastel on Card
Weighted down in a quagmire of doubt and self loathing. Fettered by shame and fear and by the perceived expectations of others. Frozen with indecision.
The negative effects of depression on thinking are known as cognitive dysfunction. This can include among other things poor concentration, restlessness, reduced speed of thought (brain fog) and difficulty in, or avoidance of decision-making and problem solving .
Perhaps, most unfortunately, while I had trouble concentrating on the world around me, I had no respite from the negative thoughts caused by depression.
With depression I unconsciously became a person who was quite literally ‘their own worst enemy’
Masking the Void - Self Portrait I
Pastel on Card
‘How are you?’ I’m asked. An innocuous everyday question, a staple of our verbal social dance.
How do I feel? There are no words. I cannot connect or express. I cannot explain. I stand on a teetering precipice, in dread of something unnameable.
So, of course I reply, ‘I’m fine, how are you?’
Sleep / Not Sleep
Pastel on Card
“When the act of sleep is neither rest or respite. There is no refuge here. No pleasure to be had.”
Common symptoms of depression include an inability to sleep or excessive sleeping, a lack of motivation and enjoyment, and often a lack of libido.
Acrylic on wooden panel
Alexithymia is described as an inability to identify and describe emotions in the self. The core characteristics are a marked dysfunction in emotional awareness, social attachment and interpersonal relationships.
Venetian masks are a centuries-old tradition of Venice. The masks are typically worn during the Carnival but have been used on many other occasions in the past, usually as a device for hiding the wearer's identity and social status.
So when asked ‘How do you feel? It's much easier to put on a pretty mask, a device to hide the truth. Although on some days it is harder to drag that mask up out of the void to put it on to be a facsimile of oneself.
The mask referenced in this painting and also in ‘Self portrait I’ is a personal memento of a fondly remembered trip to Venice
Shattered – Self Portrait II
Pastel on paper
How do you mend something when you don’t know how it broke to start with?
Beginnings and Re-Beginnings
‘The Gull Lightship circa 1860’
Pencil on paper 1987
In the midst of my mental illness my partner discovered this drawing within a dusty folio in our loft and had it framed as a gift for me. It reminded me of an earlier self, someone who over two decades ago had loved to paint, to draw and to observe life in a creative way. With encouragement, I signed up for a 10-week intro art class at Southend campus. This incredibly thoughtful gift was a pivotal moment on my journey to recovery. I cannot express enough how profoundly important and helpful making art was to me as part of my recovery from depression.
This drawing resonates with me because it is from memory the first meaningful piece of art I produced as a young adult. The Lightship was a constant in my childhood, it rested on Grays Beach, Essex, like a grand old lady - neglected but still beautiful. I recognised the slow decay of what was once a beautiful craft, and I wanted to capture the Lightship as it was a that moment, a memory of childhood falling behind me.
Pastel on paper
The effectiveness of medication in the treatment of mental illness appears to be a very individual and varied beast.
It took me several months to come around to the idea of medication. For me it felt like failure. ‘Wonky thinking’ is a common symptom of depression, but more than that there was an unconscious but ingrained perceived stigma of medicating mental illness. Why though? It’s no different to taking the necessary medication for a misbehaving thyroid, or a therapy for Parkinson’s disease (a lack of Dopamine). Eventually being able to look at my mental illness as a tangible chemical imbalance rather than an intangible emotional disorder was a positive step, and over time medication was a definite aid to my recovery. However, I still did not tell anyone I was taking antidepressants until long after I had stopped taking them.
Fluoxetine (Prozac) is a type of antidepressant known as an SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor). It is not known exactly how antidepressants work. It is thought they work by increasing levels of chemicals in the brain called neurotransmitters. Certain Neurotransmitters such as serotonin and noradrenaline are linked to mood and emotion.