It’s World Art Day and SANE – The Mental Health Charity asked me to do a drawing to celebrate and raise awareness of how affective art can be to help with mental illness.
Art saved my life. Not figuratively, but literally. I was at the end of the road in 2010, after suffering my 4th severe break down. I was suicidal and told that there was no support for me. I then stood at a cross road, with a paint brush in one hand and a self distruct button in the other.
Then I just started to paint.
I am able to communicate with art, sort through painful memories and help create change for others by raising awareness regarding mental health and the stigma people like myself deal with due to having mental illness.
I encourage people to find a creative outlet this world art day, you won’t regret it.
Please support SANE and if you need help or resources follow the link to find out more:
The death of my Mother is something which I have been prepared for since a young age. When you are the child of a suicidal parent you learn how to make preparations for yourself for the worst, spending years thinking of how you will cope, what this will mean for your future and how it is possibly your fault that your “caregiver” is so sad that they don’t want to live. For a child this is confusing at best and life shattering at worst. Understanding the complex nature of suicide is something most adults are unable to cope with, let alone a child still developing their own grasp on existence and surviving what life throws at them.
My mother has always seemed to think I am oblivious, however from the age of 8 I began to see my mother slip away and her illness start to take grip of everything that made my Mother my Mother. Her moods became erratic, her temper – palpable and her tongue sharp with abusive slurs, yet still I saw nothing wrong with her, she was my Mummy and had stayed when my Father had abandoned me, so she had to be the best mother in the world , no?
The day I realised my Mother wanted to die was the day I saw her in the bath with cuts all over her, it was the time period that my mother didn’t get out of bed and the curtains didn’t get drawn, it was when she fully left me as my mother and attempted suicide several times, it was when she was put into a psychiatric hospital but left me at 11 years old with a teenager, who was unwell herself. It was when I was raped at 15 and put into an NHS psychiatric hospital and my Mother abandoned me and checked herself into a private psychiatric hospital because she was at risk, she didn’t want to save her child and care for her, she wanted to die.
Defending herself and her bad parenting jumping back and forth when it suites her, blaming everything as a consequence to her illness, attempting to let herself off the hook for just “being there” and not walking out (which I was made to feel was a tremendous task). Adults, including doctors – regularly stated to me throughout my childhood and teens: “do you realise you are the victim of circumstance Charlotte?” or asking “do you resent your Mother for being this way with you?”. My answer was always the same – no! Some adults even suggested she was abusive to me, which I was in no way ready to accept or believe, I did not understand this, admitting this would mean both my parents were unable to love me or care for me in a healthy way.
The truth is I felt sorry for my mother, I still do have an overwhelming amount of empathy for her. I feel she is stuck in a loop, a romanticised view of loneliness and melancholy has hold of her and is never going to let her go. In a perpetual spin, blaming everyone else for life’s disappointments and suffocating me with her negativity. Love doesn’t seem to be at the forefront of my Mothers focus, having been told repeatedly that life gives us choices and that no one else is responsible for our choices (advice she is never able to take herself). I was told that if she upsets me that it is “my problem”, that if I take offence that she or others have not given offence. Telling me I am too sensitive, high maintenance, a drama queen, a baby or just lacking a sense of humour. I believed these labels for a long time, occasionally these judgements come flooding back, which triggers my BPD – leading me to be unable at regulating my emotions and becoming highly unstable as a consequence.
In amongst my Mothers suicidal ideation I too started to see the allure of death and my first suicide attempt was at 12 years old, whilst my Mother was in hospital after a suicide attempt and breakdown. For 5 years I stood over the edge of a cliff, attempting to jump, still remembering the feelings that consumed me; that life was pain and death was the cure.
Bipolar is a serious illness, as are my illnesses: borderline personality disorder, complex post traumatic disorder and psychotic depression (just to name a few), however my Mother sees her Bipolar as a badge of honour, as a get out of jail card and an explanation for everything. Never taking my illnesses seriously, suggesting that I was mimicking her, when I first showed signs at 11 – ironically relinquishing herself from all responsibility and diminishing my experiences and pain. Getting angry at me for being suicidal – the cheek! For most of my life she has made it abundantly clear that I am not worth living for or taking care of when it comes to the big stuff.
Seeing my Mother as a human being , not just a parent is possible for me, I realised that she did not choose to be severely ill when I was around 18. My Mother did not realise she married a child abuser (my Father) or could she have predicted her own illness, however she did choose to have me, I was actually planned, now this choice is one that seems to be brushed under the carpet, yet – this is the choice which I judge. They weren’t children, uneducated or religious, they made a very conscious decision, one that in hindsight was a hideous mistake.
However I am able to be grateful to my Mother for doing the basics, for giving me valuable advice and for helping me be the activist I am today. For introducing me to art, literature and my French heritage, there have been lovely times, we have laughed. The holidays we took or the deep discussions we had about life, politics, philosophy and social injustice. I admire my Mother for many reasons and I have never stopped loving her.
Is love enough? It could have been, if the foundations of my life had been maintained, cared for and not left to rot. But now? No. Love is not enough. At 34 with the relentless stress of fearing most days that I shall receive a phone call – telling me my Mother has taken her own life, I am unable to have a relationship with her. She has taken my ability to function when around her and has left me a hollow shell of inabilities. As I write this I imagine her response to this statement, she would say: “I did not take anything from you, you chose to give it away”. Mind fuckery at every corner, a grand manipulator of logic and a riddler with words.
To this day she taunts me with her last will and testament which she has be preparing for nearly 10 years, maybe longer – it feels like longer. The “death file”( which I named), is referenced at every opportunity, making it seem that she is continually putting her affairs in order so that she can take the next step. My husband and friends are understandably complaisant and reassure me that she is just being manipulative and trying to control me. This I don’t doubt to be true – however my Mother has bipolar and is at risk.
In an ideal world there would be enough support for those wishing to start a family and established parents with mental illness, there would be intervention at appropriate times, that patients who are parents within the private psychiatric services are treated as those in the NHS services with children – social workers being made aware of any dependants and assessing the safety of the child within the home. There is no doubt in my mind that my Mother needed more support when she was raising me – I feel for her with this. However she has a part to play, she had choices and she certainly could have learnt by now, after 34 years, that the psychological warfare she has taken against my mental health could have stopped before now.
When identity is unstable life can feel as if you are staring through a mirror wondering what the “other side” means ?
Like Alice who questions the world on the other side of the mirror’s reflection – before stepping through and entering an alternative world; our concept of self is greatly developed from infancy through our interpersonal interactions and mirrored back through society. Suggesting that we have a tendency to understand ourselves through our understanding of how others see and judge us; this is thought to be how we develop and understand our own identity.
As a child we learn how our crying, smiling and silence elicits a response from our caregivers, this forms our first mirroring and understanding of how we are perceived and responded to. This continues throughout our interactions and learning.
“The thing that moves us to pride or shame is not the mere mechanical reflection of ourselves, but an imputed sentiment, the imagined effect of this reflection upon another’s mind.”
(The looking-glass self is a social psychological concept introduced by Charles Horton Cooley in 1902 (McIntyre 2006). The term “looking glass self” was coined by Cooley in his work, Human Nature and the Social Order in 1902.)
There are three main components that comprise the looking-glass self
(Yeung, et al. 2003).
We imagine how we must appear to others.
We imagine and react to what we feel their judgement of that appearance must be.
We develop our self through the judgements of others.
As a person who has Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) – identity is something which has always been an issue for me and so many other sufferers. My entire life seems to have been an identity crisis and it is one of the 9 traits you have to have in order to be diagnosed with BPD.
The specific issues which concern the stability of self in BPD sufferers is exhibited in:
Fragmentation – Which is in no way as dominating or persistent in BPD as it is in Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), however it still causes many issues. BPD can make it so you have adaptive personalities depending on who you are with and what scenario you are in – which to some extent most people do. BPD however causes this to be such separate fragmentations of the self that it is disturbing for us – the sufferers, to a degree it damages our personal relationships, careers, idea of self, family life and integration into society. It also affects our memories and association to people and places as our identities can separate what is dear to one “personality/self” over the other.
Boundary confusion – Also known as boundary dissolution is the failure to recognise the psychological distinctiveness of individuals or a confusion of their interpersonal roles. Boundaries are believed to be established in childhood within the family setting, when roles are clarified such as who is the parent and who is the child, with a flexibility to create close bonds and also have a separateness allowing you to build your “self”.
Kenji Kameguchi (1996) likens boundaries to a
“membrane” that surrounds each individual and subsystem in the family. Like the membrane around a cell, boundaries need to be firm enough to ensure the integrity of the cell and yet permeable enough to allow communication between cells. Overly rigid boundaries might constrict family relationships and limit family members’ access to one another (e.g., “children should be seen and not heard”), whereas overly permeable or blurred boundaries might lead to confusion between the generations (e.g., “who is the parent and who is the child?”
Lack of cohesion and continuity of the self across situations and life history – Most individuals who have secure identities do so because they remember themselves as the same individual they have always been. Noticing the changes one experiences with age, experience and gained knowledge, developing their core identity through life’s stages. BPD doesn’t allow for this due to the fragmented self which has been present throughout our lives, causing perceived gaps of identity knowledge and incompatible memories. Timelines become confusing when remembering what past events mean in regards to identity.
“I don’t know who I am”
“I don’t know what I want”
“I don’t know how I should handle this situation”
These questions seem harmless to most – however when you have BPD these questions are so confusing that emotional stability is compromised and becomes dangerous if we are not supported or receiving some kind of treatment. These questions are second nature and the answers come to mind with a certain amount of ease when you do not suffer from psychological identity issues – something taken for granted by most.
When you have BPD you are seen by different people as polar opposites at different points in your life or even at the same time, such as myself; I am seen by many in my life as a self righteous, egocentric, judgemental, scary, aggressive, rude person. However I am also seen by many as an inspiration, kind, loving, empathetic, polite, selfless person. Many people without BPD may encounter this kind of reaction from certain people, contradicting what makes you, you. This doesn’t phase well adjusted stable personalities as they know who they are and realise they are probably a combination of things to different people due to differing interactions and other peoples personalities. With BPD this causes self annihilation, an instability of emotions and further fragmentation and less awareness of the self.
“who do I believe – me or me or you”
In truth – at times I feel as if my identity is a game of guess who; or that this confused dissociated state is in fact a malevolent monster controlling and interchanging me – to torture me.
Friends, family and people who have crossed my path along the way will have no idea to a certain extent that these different identities exist within me or at different times in my life. The ones who remember are those who I have split, those who got to meet the protective identity, the no empathy, unforgiving, hateful identity – who has kept me alive in times of pure distress. These people have gone from being idealised to then being devalued and thrown away. The hardest part is being aware of this, of others being more aware of this – knowing I can rip you off the pedestal in which I created for you at any time just because you reveal to me that you are in fact human and fallible.
Sometimes the mirror reflects back that no one really knows me, so in turn I can’t know myself – which then brings about the depersonalisation and not feeling as if I exist at all.
The looking glass is the perfect metaphor for how this feels – knowing one reflection is in one world and another in the next. Feeling unreal or full of identities fighting to be seen or wanting to hide. Not knowing when in front of the mirror – who will reflect back.
Hiester, M.”Who’s the parent and who’s the child: generational boundary dissolution between mothers and their children.” paper presented at the biennial meeting of the society for research in child development, Indianapolis,1995.
Yeung, King-To, and Martin, John Levi. “The Looking Glass Self: An Empirical Test and Elaboration.” Social Forces 81, no. 3 (2003): 843–879.
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There hasn’t been a day since being 11 years old that I wasn’t prepared for my Mother to die. There is no scenario in which my mind has not investigated or planned; from her funeral, what I shall say, how I will feel, who will judge me as the cause of her death. This is not due to a macabre obsession or a morbid wish, this is how it feels to be the child of a suicidal parent.
My Mother has Bipolar Disorder, she was diagnosed when I was a toddler after seeking help because she couldn’t connect with me and feared she didn’t love me. My awareness of her illness was not completely realised until attending secondary school, before this point my Mother was a workaholic and never cried, she was a passionate, opinionated, clever woman who people loved to be around, the life and soul of most parties and fancied by most men. Always doing what she wanted when she wanted and never apologised for living her life. Even when she would drop me off to friends so she could meet men on trips away or when she made fun of my weight or told me I was too sensitive or too serious – my adoration for her was impenetrable, thinking of her as the best Mother in the world and wanting to be just like her.
However my Mother had a sever break down. Suddenly this vibrant woman was in bed, unable to get up, dress herself or wash, her room was dark and filled with cigarette smoke. This made no sense to me, I did not understand why she had changed; it was like Invasion of the Body Snatchers – this wasn’t my Mother. Suddenly she was crying all the time and she didn’t want to do anything, she would watch daytime TV in bed and would be surrounded by books, paper and food wrappers.
Life hadn’t been easy up until now for many reasons for both of us, having experienced depression and loneliness at the age of seven, this new darkness took it’s toll and this was when I started self harming. After seeing a program on a TV talk show about self harmers, after hearing of how these people felt the pain go away and that they actually felt even better whilst cutting, this seemed like the ideal relief. Knowing my Mother had lots of books on psychology and psychiatry I asked her if she had anything on self harm and said it was for a school project, (which for the early 90’s would have been very progressive). My Mother found me a book on self harm and I took it to my room and started to plan my first cut.
A few weeks later I caught my Mother in the bath weeping and cutting herself with razor blades, a mess of tears and blood through the crack of the bathroom door. Shocked that she did it too, shocked that she was in pain and devastated that I had possibly caused it or was going to cause more. In hindsight this is when my Mother and I truly severed our relationship, it was the beginning of the end, even though we were almost on the same page, my need for a parent and stability and her need to be alone and have no responsibilities was like a knife slicing our family tie.
Soon after this my Mother tried to kill herself and she was admitted to a psychiatric hospital, I was left at home alone with our 18 year old lodger (who was very unwell herself) and was allowed to do what I wanted, structure and adult care went out the window. Upon turning 12 I stole some sleeping pills from our lodger and tried to kill myself, instead of dying, sleep was all that was achieved for almost two days and awaking to the realisation that the darkness still existed, there were still no adults or safety.
From this point on, again and again, my Mother tried to kill herself or self harmed to the point of needing hospital treatment. This is when preparation for the inevitable was my only solus – her death. Having lost my best friend to suicide and many other friends; suicide became such a possible outcome that I started being unable to determine when my Mother was actually in danger. She would say “If I didn’t have you I would die” or “I want to die – there is no point”, always reminding me of how much I didn’t understand, how no one understood – when all the while I understood more than she knew.
After several hospital admissions, 17 ECT sessions and continued private therapy from her psychiatrist on Harley Street in London, it was clear my Mothers condition was getting worse, no cocktail of drugs seemed to help and the bipolarity of her disorder caused havoc on our lives. My Mother experiences mixed states with her Bipolar Disorder which cause her to be irritable, to have high energy, racing thoughts and speech, and over-activity with agitation and becomes an even higher risk of suicide.
This effected me as a child and teen and still does now as an adult. The instability of her impulsiveness, her recklessness and her allowing me freedoms that other children envied, which I did not like or want, I envied the children who sat down for dinner, who had curfew, got money for chores, did homework with their parents, had rules; whose parents wouldn’t discuss anal sex with your friends or discuss their many sexual escapades. In mixed states of mania she would become aggressive, argumentative and so unkind that this emotional abuse still causes me sever pain till this day; name calling, screaming, mental abuse and belittling me with the advantage of not remembering what she had said or done when she was feeling “better”.
There is one act which however hard I try – my mind cannot understand it. When I was raped at 15 and hospitalised as suicide is all I wanted, my Mother made my rape about her and ended up abandoning me and admitting herself to a private hospital (with room service, massages, ice cream) whilst she had stopped my private health insurance (as you do) so I had to go into a mixed boy/girl NHS adolescent unit situated on an old Victorian asylum ground. How could my Mother consider suicide when her baby had been violently raped, operated on due to the rape and then hospitalised? The doctors would ask me how I felt about her doing this, I would always protect her regardless of the fact I was so hurt and felt so unloved.
At 17 she became physical with me on the day I was moving out as I could not take living with her anymore, this truly became my only option to survive, she began to shake me, she slapped me and then she tried to push me into a single pane glass window on the fourth floor of our apartment building. In amidst of this she was shouting at me that I was a whore and that I had probably made up my rape. My boyfriend (who is now my husband) had to pull her off me and at the age of 19 had to confront her with some very stern words and managed to get me out of there.
Another aspect of her mixed states is that of mass overspending which she has done to the extent that all our family money is gone – to be fair my Father contributed to this too with his mental break down. However my Mother seemed to have plenty of money to buy Louis Vuitton bags and accessories, take long haul trips and buy expensive cars, but when money started to get tighter and tighter as the money became less and less, she became selfish and from 17 to 22 let me be homeless, go hungry and I had no access to medical care or dental care, I was very unwell at this time so needed a lot of extra support – but her need to keep up appearances and maintain some of her luxurious lifestyle came before my needs. Anyway it was my own fault after all for being a bad child.
My Mother withdrew from life, hers and mine and as a consequence her sadness took over our relationship and her own guilt for how she has treated me – chokes her just enough to say what a terrible Mother she was or is, something which makes me want to protect her, deny and tell her all is fine, I am fine and she is fine. But her withdrawal made me withdraw from her more an more emotionally, so to not get hurt when she eventually kills herself. Hugging her is painful, when she cries I want to stuff a sock in her mouth – when she complains about her life I want to be anywhere but near her.
Loving my Mother is not hard, liking her is impossible at this point and wanting to have a relationship with her is damaging. However the feeling that at any moment I shall get a call telling me she has died is always there, the preparations are always in place and the guilt consumes me. The illness, the Bipolar Disorder is not my Mother however her core personality and ability to care and love for me is a mixture of narcissism and emotional blackmail.
Who knows what will happen with our relationship, all that is evident to me at this point is for anything to be possible with regards to my Mother is a question of recovery and acceptance. Not forgiveness, we do not need to forgive abuse, however accepting it happened, and that it was not my fault is probably a better focus than my obsession that she will take her own life.
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Signs are like spoken word
pictures form sentences
letters are transferred
meaning is given
or even when blurred
the beginning of us
the metaphor of genesis
or the theatre of the absurd.
When waiting for a sign
one knows what to look for
the mind conjures meaning
without knowing or seeing
which is hard to ignore
constructed from nothing
like an imaginary being
or with warnings
such as folklore.
Stabilise the interpretations
surrounding images with words
can appear as
two lonely song birds
between sight and sound
so that signs
can be undeterred
in our expectations
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Are there two worlds, one physical and one mental?
Can we experience both with a conscious awareness?
What is introspection and how does one use it?
These questions were “in my mind” when creating this piece of art, as a student of philosophy and psychology the idea and practice of introspection – caused me to introspectively ponder the dualism of my body and mind, my consciousness of the physical self and the internal self.
Is my perception of what is thought in my mind governed by my external experiences?
Introspection is a process that generates, or is aimed at generating, knowledge, judgements, or beliefs about:
mental events, states, or processes, and not about affairs outside one’s mind,
or beliefs about one’s own mind only and no one else’s,
about one’s currently ongoing mental life only; or, alternatively (or perhaps in addition) immediately past (or even future) mental life, within a certain narrow temporal window.
Introspection is considered to be the process of “looking inward”, self analysis to understand and know ones self better. In fact this idea was what caused psychology and the theory of mind to branch out from philosophy with Wilhelm Wundt analysing the workings of the mind in a more structured way, with the emphasis being on objective measurement and control hence why he is considered the father of psychology.
“Nothing is in the intellect that was not first in the senses, except the intellect itself.”
We do not continuously introspect and it is not an automatic occurrence such as breathing, it is a reflective task on one’s own internal mental state – not unconscious, as we are aware of this monitoring and analysis. Introspection is comprised of attitudes and conscious experiences; our beliefs, desires and intentions as well as emotions and sensory experiences.
How do we know our own minds?
It is our first person access which privileges us with the awareness of self – how can we be wrong about our own internal perspective. Other minds can not know other minds, it is an exclusive “way in” which only ourselves are attendees with unshared knowledge. However being aware of your own inner workings does not mean one can truly know our own minds with authority; as they are small internal universes with expanses of undiscovered planets and solar systems.
Is there nothing that we can know about our minds with authority?
The only philosophy which can be responsibly practised in face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things from the standpoint of redemption. Knowledge has no light but that shed on the world by redemption: all else is reconstruction, mere technique.
Introspection is considered by most to be a short lived state, some suggest from “The Inner Sense” view that our minds operate like a scanning machine which monitors certain thoughts and sensations.
“The word introspection need hardly be defined – it means, of course, the looking into our own minds and reporting what we there discover.” (William James, Principles of Psychology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard 1890/1981, p. 85)
Is self knowledge achieved solely by introspection?
Many philosophers an psychologists have claimed that the only way we can determine our own mind is from the observations of our own behaviour; the way we determine others is no different to ourselves. Gilbert Ryle argued that our first person experience of our own mental states is due to the fact we can not leave ourselves, we are always present within ourselves – as ourselves.
Is self knowledge an epistemic phenomenon?
There have been many claims that self knowledge is infallible and that we are omniscient about our own mental states; that upon being in a particular state of mind and knowing this to be happening, is sufficient evidence that there is self knowledge of this state. However does this ring true; or are we really “all knowing” and in charge of our own faculties enough at all times to be omniscient about our mental states?
“I think therefore I am – je pense, donc je suis – Cogito ergo sum”
Descartes’ Cogito ergo sum argument (Descartes 1641/1895), is the proposition which demonstrates that if you (the thinker) is paying close attention to your own thoughts, that not even a “powerful evil genius” who is able to control your thoughts and deceive you – can not mislead you into doubting your ability to think and therefore confirms you existence as a thinking individual.
In 1641, Descartes published (in Latin) Meditations on first philosophy in which he referred to the proposition, though not explicitly as “cogito ergo sum” in Meditation II: (Latin:) hoc pronuntiatum: ego sum, ego existo,[c] quoties a me profertur, vel mente concipitur, necessario esse verum. (English:) this proposition: I am, I exist, whenever it is uttered from me, or conceived by the mind, necessarily is true.
Introspection literally means “looking within” in its description it illustrates a metaphor which expresses the split between the “inner” world and the “external” world. There is an opposite view called the “Transparency View” which suggests that by looking outwardly, into the state of the world we determine our own thoughts – by “looking through” the transparent (introspective) mental states we posses, reflecting what it is like to have an experience with mind-independent objects.
What is “the ghost in the machine”?
The phrase was introduced in Ryle’s book The Concept of Mind (1949) and was a criticism of the Dualism theories within philosophy especially from Descartes. Ryle rejected the idea that mental states are separate to physical states, referring to this idea and distinction between mind and matter as “the ghost in the machine”, his main criticism being that logically – mind and matter are not within the same categories:
“it represents the facts of mental life as if they belonged to one logical type/category, when they actually belong to another. The dogma is therefore a philosopher’s myth.”
A category mistake is the mistake of assigning something to a category to which it does not belong or misrepresenting the category to which something belongs. For Ryle this means that the term “mind” and other terms which refer to mental states are often categorised inadequately; treating the “mind” as a thing, an object or even an entity. When it could be believed that physical processes are mechanical, whereas mental ones are “para-mechanical”.
Ryle believed that there was a dogmatic “official doctrine” which leads to unchallenged views to their own detriment:
There is a doctrine about the nature and place of the mind which is prevalent among theorists, to which most philosophers, psychologists and religious teachers subscribe with minor reservations. Although they admit certain theoretical difficulties in it, they tend to assume that these can be overcome without serious modifications being made to the architecture of the theory…. [the doctrine states that] with the doubtful exceptions of the mentally-incompetent and infants-in-arms, every human being has both a body and a mind. … The body and the mind are ordinarily harnessed together, but after the death of the body the mind may continue to exist and function.
(Ryle, Gilbert, The Concept of Mind (1949); The University of Chicago Press edition, Chicago, 2002, p 11)
The difference between Descartes and Ryle is the “inner” or “outer” view of the mind. Are we a ghost in the machine or are our mental states dispositions, to engage in bodily activity?
For me neither of these view points are adequate enough to explain the concept of mind and introspection, however they draw light on further questions to be asked in order to find more answers.
Introspection is a tool none the less which our minds use in order to ponder ourselves from our conscious thoughts, beliefs and judgements (whether external to us through behaviour or internal to us in a dualistic sense). It is our secret window which allows us private access into our internal selves (which no other can experience) .
[It is] impossible for any one to perceive, without perceiving that he does perceive. When we see, hear, smell, taste, feel, meditate, or will any thing, we know that we do so.
(Locke 1689/1975 II.27.ix)
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However which way I say these three words they are always a lie. Not a vicious deceitful lie, but a lie which serves me well whilst simultaneously crushing me emotionally; with each utterance. This little sentence has become a habitual response to the question:
How are you?
Which is a very common occurrence, most people do not divulge their entire life story when asked how they are, it is just an extension to how we greet one another, a politeness (especially in England) to reply:
I am fine, thank you. And how are you?
However when you are really asked this question by a close member of your family, your partner, a close friend or even your therapist and you still only ever say:
I am fine.
Well this kind of situation is what I am talking about and is what this art piece represents. This is about how self preservation means losing part of your identity, emotionally but more importantly the denial of your present state. Never allowing your armour to be compromised, focusing on other peoples problems and absorbing them, when asked about yourself you divert conversations as if they were on-coming traffic; as if your life depends on it – because it does.
The majority of the time I do not look “sick”, I have mainly unseen illnesses and my most debilitating of ailments is completely invisible to the eye. As well as this many people do not “believe” in mental illness or recognise certain neurological conditions, saying things such as:
It’s all in your head!
It’s mind over matter.
You don’t look sick.
These statements are very unhelpful and also redundant in this context. Saying it is all in ones head is a correct statement, mental illness is in our encasement’s which we call heads, in our brains – our minds. It is not in our legs, nor our arms, it is very much a head thing. However saying it to someone as a dismissive statement is not a logical statement as it suggests that your mental illness or neurological condition should not be “in your head”. Suggesting that it maybe make believe or a lie to gain sympathy (which if you are a person who suffers from mental illness you will know this is an insult as there is no sympathy granted to the mentally ill, instead it is stigmatised). As for “you don’t look sick” this one is nothing more than an ignorant judgement, looking at someone with just ones eyes and not a full body CT scanner (which also can not see everything) there is no way to determine someones health or disability status.
Due to all this added conjecture to this particular scenario , it is not hard to understand why the “I am fine” mantra is a fail safe for so many. You get tired of explaining yourself, defending your diagnosis and dealing with people saying things like:
I don’t really believe in mental illness.
Mental illness is a conspiracy to control and label us.
Mental illness is just mental weakness.
So the simple solution is to pretend that you are fine, that you do not need help, that you are not “weak” or “dangerous”, for every mental illness denier there is another person who believes we should all be locked up and not trusted due to the stigmatisation and misinformation on both the mentally ill and those with criminal intent.
This may be the simplest of solutions but it comes at a cost to most. You see there is only a finite amount of space in ones emotional storage unit and the continuous throwing anything and everything that you wish to hide in there can mean that you reach a time you can’t shut the door anymore, let alone lock it. This can lead to you bursting and spilling out onto everything around you or it can mean you just implode – self detonate.
Truthfully for me it is a constant battle inside my head, of not wanting to alienate people or scare people with my overwhelming emotional instability and behavioural abnormalities – having to remain stoic by being the person who people come to, the provider, the rescuer. Against letting it all out, a completely “no shits given” attitude, a liberating freedom of being able to just be me, all parts of me at all levels of intensity. This of course is very black and white and a thought process due to my borderline personality disorder, the middle ground does not tend to exist in my world, it sometimes appears but rarely when experiencing high emotions. To pass off the “strong” persona I have to use the “I am fine” line a lot, which is a kind of middle ground, at least it is when one is trying to manage social boundaries and interpersonal relationships – which to me are like alien concepts that cause feelings of being an outsider.
There have been times in my past when “I am fine” was a defence mechanism as I was in denial about my illnesses and wished to hide the entire idea from myself, blaming my emotions and behaviours on alcohol, drugs and being a “bitch”, that crazy girl thing was easy to flip and present myself to the world as a “bad” person in my twenties – so I stuck to it. People even liked this persona, some celebrated it by telling me they loved my “fuck you attitude” and loved to see me being abusive to others or violent. If the other side, the vulnerable side – was presented (which was me during my teens, from 11 yrs to 20 yrs old) people looked at me as an emotional drain, a liability, dangerous, scary, I became an undesirable human. At these times of no control self harm, suicide attempts, eating disorders, psychosis, machiavellianism, disinhibition and an emotional sensitivity that was never-ending was my way of life. I learnt valuable lessons on survival and how to mimic other humans as a visiting entity from the planet “strange”, using manipulation to gain friends and taking on other identities which were visible to me as ideals, I could be the most popular person in the room or the most disliked, this was not up to my audience or friends, this was up to me and my chameleon like personality. The important thing is I have forgiven myself for being this way, knowing now this was and still is a neurological condition and a perfectly OK way to survive when you have only ever known trauma.
Now that I am in my thirties things have got to a point that my life is more introspective and having the perspective of an “adult” allows me to look at my teens and twenties more objectively and see how and why I had to survive this way when there were no adults parenting me and keeping me safe. Being an adult in this way means that when I look back I ask different questions than I did before, such as:
Where were your parents?
How long were you left on your own?
How was it looking after yourself at such a young age?
Did you have to grow up quickly?
There is a draw back to being older however, my emotions get buried deeper, I detach more and say “I am fine” even more than ever. Wanting to be liked for me, not wanting to buy friends or manipulate them to like me, not wanting to be the extreme me who needs someone to safeguard them at all times, not wanting to be the rescuer and the “strong” one all the time. Wanting people to understand my pain more, I want and need actual medical support for my disabilities but am not at a vulnerable age anymore, so am taken less seriously. Hiding in medication and being likeable and not too intense feels like a life sentence:
But still all I can say is:
I am fine!
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Somewhere among the clouds
my mind reflects back at me
creating faces in moments
telling stories with whipped cream
floating overhead they enshroud
changing colours of our family tree
searching for every branches atonement
shadows engulf my daydreams
Somewhere among the leaves
I am laid down to rest
foliage surrounds my anatomy
craving the light from beneath
rustling below my knees
knowing I am dispossessed
with the numbness of apathy
as the earth moves underneath
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Hope was a young woman who carried around sadness, as if it were a suitcase of old belongings she had lost the key for a long time ago. Hope wanted to be free of this baggage that weighed her down each day; wishing she could take flight as if she were a bird heading for warmer weather.
One day Hope felt a pressure in her head as if something was trying to escape, it pushed at her temples and made her ears pop. The feeling was excruciating and left hope feeling overwhelmed and scared. Suddenly something was in her mouth, it had made its way up her throat and was now sitting on her tongue as if it were a pill waiting to be swallowed. Instead she went to the mirror apprehensively and opened her mouth and stuck out her tongue, to her disbelief a perfectly intact leaf sat there, she reached into her mouth and carefully took the leaf out to examine. It was an ordinary leaf, from a tree or plant and it was a glorious green. Hope was very much perturbed by this turn of events, feeling very tired suddenly and still suffering from an intense headache, the only thing left to do was go to bed.
Upon waking the next morning after what felt like a years worth of sleep, Hope opened her eyes and could only see green; she wiped them and blinked repetitively, hoping it was just a dream. As the green came into focus she realised that she was surrounded by branches and on those branches grew leaves like the one she had found in mouth the night before. Hope was unable to move as she was in so much disbelief regarding these events before her. In an attempt to move her head in order to sit up, she felt trapped; her head was heavy and felt as if it was tied to her bead posts. Hope reached into her bedside cabinet and blindly hunted for a small hand mirror she knew was there, finally she found it and opened it up to see what was holding her down. When hope looked at her reflection she did not trust what she could see; it was surreal. Hope had somehow – overnight, grown branches out of her head, there was no blood or pain and the tree looked the healthiest she had ever seen a tree to be.
Hope was able to free herself from her bed and navigate her way to her bathroom, she washed her face and brushed her teeth, rustling around as the leaves touched. It was a struggle to get dressed as her head weight pulled her down – if she was not careful, but eventually she was ready to go outside. Hope lived in the middle of nowhere and had acres of land beyond her garden. This was a relief to Hope as the idea of seeing anyone right now filled her with dread as she didn’t know how she would explain her appearance. The aim she had in mind was to go to the woods and see if she could find a matching tree and maybe this would bring about some sort of explanation.
Hope ducked under her door frame and stepped outside into her garden, she looked around and the world seemed the same, nothing obvious had changed so she proceeded down her path to her gate. As Hope closed her gate and looked back at her little home she felt a sense of loss but couldn’t put her finger on why she felt this way. With no further thought she walked toward the woods and was determined to find answers.
The trees looked dense and there was a darkness – that you would think would fill you with fear, however it was inviting. As Hope approached the edge of the trees, she stopped and heard a noise and felt something moving about “up there” on her head, in her branches. Reaching into her pocket she pulled out the hand mirror she retrieved earlier and took a look to see what was going on. It was a beautiful bird, sat there looking at her; before she could think of what to do the bird started to sing. The most beautiful of melodies came out of this delightful creature, she felt calmer and prepared to carry on. Thinking to herself:
I shall name the bird Journey.
Hope and Journey entered the woods and manoeuvred their way through the trees, trying not to get her branches tangled with the foliage. Inspecting each tree she passed, looking at each leaf desperately trying to find answers to her predicament. All the while listening to Journey sooth her with song. Suddenly she heard a new tune and it was complementing Journey’s. Once again Hope got her hand mirror out and glanced to see what was happening. Another beautiful bird was sat up there harmonising with Journey. Now hope thought it only fair to name this bird too:
I shall name this bird Duality.
Hope, Journey and Duality continued on their path searching and singing together in perfect harmony. Suddenly a clearing appeared, it was a circular clearing with one lonely tree in the middle, it was huge and looked to be well over a hundred years old. It was so big you could build a small home in its trunk. Hope continued towards it and could see something glistening in the sunshine, it was hanging from the tree. As she approached it another beautiful bird flew down from the other tree and it too had something dangling from its mouth, it was a key. Both items were keys and before she could process what was happening the bird dropped the key into her hands and took a perch in her branches. Hope compared the two keys and they were the same except for their colour – one being blue and the other pink.
what could this mean?
Hope thought to herself.
The third bird joined in with the singing and looked at home with Journey and Duality. Hope put both keys in her pocket with her mirror and started to inspect the tree before her, the leaves were the same as hers, the branches were identical and the aroma was a perfect match. But how and why had this tree which naturally grew from the ground, also grown from Hope’s head and what were the keys purpose. This thought was so tiring and complex to understand, as nothing seemed real or based on the natural order of things, so Hope surmised that if and when she needed to know these things, they would unveil themselves to her in good time.
The third bird seemed to complete the harmony so exceptionally, the sound was enchanting, it made Hope feel less weighed down by her past and her sadness, it elevated her to a place which felt unlike any other, it was as if she had found her home. Not the kind of home she had left behind earlier, it was not that of bricks and mortar it was the sense that home existed inside her – meaning that she was always home and this feeling made Hope feel whole.
Hope suddenly had a thought and said:
I shall call this third bird Transcendence.
This name felt fitting as this is what she felt upon meeting this bird and hearing the symphony this trio had created made her feel that she had gone beyond ordinary limitations. Hope sat beneath the tree and lay against it, with her branches touching the other tree’s, weaving herself into a comfortable position. Journey, Duality and Transcendence began to sing a slower melody, lulling Hope with a lullaby, soon she was asleep and the sun set. As Hope slept her branches curved around her creating a blanket of leaves and all three birds nuzzled into Hope and one another.
When Hope woke up the next morning she was alone and she felt different, she raised her hands to her head and all she felt was her hair and beneath it her head, simple skin and bone. It was a relief that she had returned to her normal state, however she was sad to loose her friends, Journey, Duality and Transcendence. When she stood up and turned to the tree she had laid under all night, she was shocked to find a door. In front of the door were three little parcels made out of leaves, one was filled with nuts and berries, the second was a cup shape with water and the third was a little growing bud, ready to be planted. Hope ate the berries and nuts, drank the water and carefully put the bud in her pocket, which is when she remembered she had two keys, she pulled them out and went to the door – but neither worked which perplexed Hope very much indeed. Then she had an overwhelming feeling that this door was not for her and she felt strongly that the blue key was the correct key, so she hung it on the door knob and decided to return home.
On Hope’s journey back she started to ponder what this all meant, knowing that her life had been filled with pain from her past she wondered if this was a wake up call from some kind of higher power – such as the force which aligns us and keeps the earth spinning, the sun rising and setting and the tides drawing in and out. Was it a window into the in between, with the duality of body and mind had she found the centre, the answer to – what are mental states and what are physical states? Had she experienced a mental state which took her to another world where trees growing out of heads, bird friends, keys, magical trees and little doors were the norm. Or were these things physically there, tangible and part of the order we know to exist, just undiscovered? Or possibly she had transcended, moving beyond physical needs and realities.
Before she knew it, Hope was at her gate and could see her little home which when she left yesterday she had felt such loss, today she felt excited to return home and be amongst the things she knew to be real. Once Hope had opened the gate and walked up the path she was met by a small trinket box with three beautiful feathers beautifully attached to it, as if they were a gift tag, she knew these patterns they were from her friends; Journey, Duality and Transcendence, this made Hope smile and she knelt down to open the box, inside was a tiny note which read:
Plant the bud, watch it grow – in dirt and darkness, watch it burst through to reach the light, tend to it, water it and even when nothing moves know that growth happens from within and one day you will have a tree which will nourish you with fruit and bring you shade when weary. This growth is part of you physically and mentally, it is your journey and being beyond the limits of all possible experience and knowledge you have transcended from your past and hold the key to your future.
Hope felt a tear fall from her eye and she felt such relief, she reached into her pocket and got the pink key and placed it around her neck as a reminder of her lesson, she then hurried indoors to fetch her gardening tools so she could plant the bud. When she returned outside her three friends were all splashing away in the bird bath, chirping with delight. Hope knew this was the beginning of a new adventure and that there was no turning back.
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