The art of being me

On Friday morning I sat for an hour in an art gallery looking at a sea of paintings of people from times past; a few were of religious significance to the Christian faith, others were special commissions to show the sitters proclaimed importance and others were of a person in the crowd watching an event unfold around them. I considered how times had changed as saw people around me reaching for their mobile phones to take selfies of themselves with paintings they liked as captured themselves in that moment. I opened my sketch book and started to think on how I would draw me, with the opening lines of the Ben Folds’ Five song Best imitation of myself playing in my head.
In times past I would have drawn an ogre with big ears and nose, as thought with all the laughing and pointing to comments on how ugly I was that must be a fair representation of how the world saw me. I sometimes wish I had MC Escher’s talents, as love Hand with reflecting sphere as to me it is the ultimate self portrait but it is way beyond my drawing ability as an artist. However, as drawings are highly subjective, unlike photographs that are regarded as non-subjective as fixed in time and space, it made me question who I am at that moment looking at these great works of art.
I have learnt to appreciate, respect and love the woman I am but in my head at first it was more like a cubist portrait by Pablo Picasso, for example Woman in hat and fur collar and The weeping womanIt was then I saw a rag doll image in the style of Picasso enter in my mind, so it was that I focused on as I began to draw. As I drew the form became less rag and Picasso more patchwork one. For each patch was something that had happened in life (good and bad) in the past (be it yesterday, last month or over three decades ago) that has left an impression on the person I am today, stitched together with love, respect and appreciation of those closest to me.
I also acknowledged whilst drawing that I have faults,  I am not perfect, but then again what or who is? I smiled as thought of the Japanese aesthetic of Wabi Sabi, which is  sometimes described as one of beauty that is imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. The paintings around me had looked so perfect at first glance and thought of modern popular culture pictures, which are heavily stylised and edited to create images of people that are unrealistic. In the same way I would never know how realistic these paintings were of the people in them and how much was to the artist’s interpretation of the person(s) there in.
As I finished my drawing I decided it belonged only in my sketch book and not have a life beyond the book as not everything we see or do needs the world to see it. For art to me is a personal way of telling the story in heart and soul, life’s journey at that moment in time, giving it voice, sound and colour. Thus, perhaps in time I may paint a picture that looked more like those in the paintings in the gallery, but knew the one in my sketch pad was just as beautiful because it represented some things nobody could take away from or replicate if drawing or painting a portrait of me, as was me by me.
© Fi S. J. Brown

What you don’t see

This week is Depression Awarenesses Week, which this year is focusing on #whatyoudontsee. As open as I am with acknowledging I have depression on social media it is not as look at me but more a listen to me not judge or mute me.
By writing about my experiences it helps give them a voice of their own that can be heard by others and thereby lose the power they try have over me. Another reason is the stigma many of us with depression (and other mental health illnesses) still suffer from and it is about time that this taboo was shattered for good. A final reason is not everyone has a voice or able to talk about depression, so I am trying to open doors in order that people feel welcomed not judge or mocked.
To anyone reading this that thinks that depression is abnormal, consider this; if I asked everyone of my friends to make a cake I would have a variety of cakes with no two being exactly the same, each one is representative of the individual that made the cake but none of them would be abnormal. In the same respect we are all shaped by our experiences, traditions and beliefs. Imagine wearing our neighbour’s underwear every day as we both live in the same neighbourhood or feeling the odd one out at family gatherings despite sharing genes. Equally, we may share the same experiences but how they impact upon us varies, and sometimes we cannot “just get over it” as the trauma is still deep even decades after the event(s) may have occurred.
When the black dog calls, it is like a dog barking constantly at me from the garden until I give in and let him in. Then he licks my face all over till it is wet, but in reality these are my tears. In the past I would sit in silence for days as not even my favourite music that got me through my teenage years would bring me comfort. However, now I get out my pen to write or put on my walking boots armed with my camera to go for a walk, sometimes take a piece of clay to make my feelings 3D, other times I go to one of the many musical instruments I play to let them become a song and also cooking or baking as help me focus on the present moment, especially making bread by hand. So for me finding coping mechanisms like these as well as loyal, loving and trusting friends is what helps so I do not give up and remembering there are stars shining and ringing even when it looks pitch black outside.
© Fi S. J. Brown

Don’t give up

When we tire of this world,
With our vision slowly going.
The darkness seeps through,
Starts with a trickle to a roar.
Staggering through woods,
Painted black with our fears.

Insomnia learns our name,
Whispering taunts and jeers.
Waterfalls flow eye to cheek,
With an indeterminate pitch.
Gasping for air but choking,
Falling faster than a bullet.

Lying scattered in 100 pieces,
Like a puzzle with no box lid.
There’s a white flag to reach,
And stop the black dog’s barks.
But we must not try wave it yet.
Our final chapter lies unwritten.

© Fi S. J. Brown

The animals of mental health

Winston Churchill and I have a few things in common- we were both born in the United Kingdom on the 30th of November and have experience of depression, to which he likened to a black dog.

To me a black dog is an interesting analogy for depression; tears fall from my eyes do leave my face feeling like it has been licked all over by a dog and equally I feel like curling up into a ball to do nothing as the world is a cold and dark place I wish to retreat from. However, unlike a dog that wants attention, the last thing I feel like doing when depressed is having attention from a group of people but a reassuring hug every so often does. When depression hits, I try to think positively of the good people and things that exist at this moment in my life, but find myself saying but do they really want or need to hear I am not coping? Some days I wish I could give them good news, yet all I seem to find is the negative and think it is better to say nothing at all.

For many that do not feel the impact of mental health or seen someone close to the battle it, they cannot understand how we look well on the outside, yet inside came be feeling so bad that we may wish to take our own lives. Some even believe as it is in the head it equals being crazy and will do stupid things as read in the media or see on TV/movies how mental health patients are and as such should be locked away from others as may kill them in a rampage instead. I have realised this is because mental health is a masterful magician making us appear to be a fluffy pet rabbit on the outside, but on the inside feel like an old rusty ornament from years of neglectful abandonment. For those it impacts it is sometimes hard to work out which we really are, is the fur others see nothing more than a mask or is the rusty one a truer reflection of what we have experienced through life? Is there any way to find the truth?

The journey of life is hard to do alone, family are not always there and maybe even the origins of why we feel as we do from abuse or other toxic actions. We also try to make friends and even partners, people we want to share the journey with and would hope they love and respect us as we do them. When we let anyone close it can be hard for any of us, let alone when battling mental health as scared of how they will react. For when they realise we are not the fluffy bunny at all, feeling our fur disappearing in front of them and that first glimpse of rust. It can may may make them run away at any moment, scared through lack of understanding or amusement that we hear voices to survived a suicide attempt. Others may try to help, but feel powerless to do so and scared to say the wrong thing around us. Which all leave us feeling naked and lost.

What can we do? First how about oiling the rusty looking rabbit? Try it, as to those of us with mental health conditions it is like giving us love and support, as it help us to feel we can carry on again today and maybe even tomorrow too. Equally, it may look like rust but give it a polish as that becomes a form of reassurance and comfort that someone else cares about us. With oil and polishing we discover that we are not rabbits at all but flowers; all of different shapes, sizes, colours and textures that with support can bloom, being whoever and/or whatever we want to be. Collectively we become like bouquets as cluster together and showcase what makes each other so special, rather than a single flower in a bud vase.

Even if do not understand mental health, how our minds can make us think so negatively about ourselves and/or life, do not let your ignorance be an excuse. Ask and learn from those that it impacts not judge and mock, as may find more people than you realise are fighting this battle. Remember appearances can be deceptive, as do not tell all we have experienced in life to get to this point and how hard every day life can be. Today maybe hell with torrential rain and grey skies, but tomorrow can be blue skies and sunshine, nothing lasts forever. Equally, the reverse can happen, what someone may mock and laugh at today may come back to haunt them tomorrow, unable to cope in the relenting rain as did not learn from before. So lets work together to end this stigma, supporting each other, being a best friend that is loyal like the dog and gnaw away at problems like the rabbit with a carrot.

© Fi S. J. Brown

flowers

 

 

 

Therapeutic Photography

When I tell my story to others I sometimes mention how I overcame years to decades of self hate, self loathing, low esteem, and general dislike for who I thought I was to how I thought I actually looked to the outside world. For readers that do not know until I was about 34 I used to think I looked like the love child of the Hunchback of Notre Dame and Frankenstein’s monster.

I could not look in the mirror, and when photographs were taken of me there were always problems. When I was a pre-teen my photograph from school showed the photographer’s umbrella reflecting in my eyes, it looked like I had mushrooms growing from them, which planted a seed in my head. By my teens I had developed Alopecia universalis, I had no hair anywhere on my body, which combined with bullying and my ultra controlling mother left me feeling like the Victorian freak of old. When in my twenties my eldest brother would continue to point and laugh at me as he had since my earliest days, like many did in the street. When he took a photograph of me, usually for graduation from university, 99% of the time my eyes would be shut; he would find this funny and equally not understand how someone could react that quickly to a flash. I am highly sensitive to many things including light, so yes my eyes seemed to break this rule, and leave me in pieces. I would be called moody as did not want my photograph taken at all, why should I when it always ended up the same way?

By the age of 28 I was having psychodynamic therapy on a weekly basis and had begun using a Fuji camera to take the town I was living in and for fieldwork in Italy. In May 2007 I decided to try take a picture of me with it against some Roman remains, with all the emotions of the past racing to the present combined with thoughts of what do I look like and how do you smile? As my camera was a digital single-lens reflex  (DSLR) I could see immediately the result, which made me jump back hitting the Roman bathhouse with my head and stared at the image it showed for a good five minutes. Was that really what the rest of the world saw when they looked at me? I showed it to one person, my supposed then boyfriend, on my return from Italy. He laughed in my face as he acknowledged it was indeed me. I was scared by what this meant but at the same time I knew the image was of someone deeply unhappy.

It was not until my breakdown and suicide attempt the following year that I began using therapeutic photography in an attempt to see me and begin to repair all the years of hate to perhaps learn to learn to love me for me. Judy Weiser defined therapeutic photography as the name for photo-based activities that are self-initiated and conducted by oneself (or as part of an organized group or project), but where no formal therapy is taking place and no therapist or counsellor needs to be involved. Why use photography, aside from it being one of my hobbies? Photography shows how I actually appeared to others, not the horizontally-reversed image from a mirror or distorted one in my head that I would have drawn. Also, a photograph could let me see parts I would not ordinarily be able to see, e.g. my profile or back, when asleep or in action, or simply being me. Unlike drawings, which are highly subjective, photographs are regarded as non-subjective as fixed in time and space. 

It was not an easy road, even looking back on those early photographs now I can see how far I had to go and come. The first part of me I began to appreciate were my eyes, they are grey-green but appear more grey when depressed, and remembered the old phrase – eyes are the windows to the soul, which I was now beginning to understand. Gradually over the years I saw this woman developing in them that I could relate to and see as the me the world did, she was not a freak or ogre nor was she this glamorous movie star, and you know what I was almost fine with it. 

In 2012, Yoko Ono launched her #smilesfilm, which I decided as I was developing my creative self as much as learning to embrace my full self why not enter a picture of me smiling? I did and in that moment I no longer saw the girl or woman of the past, I saw me in the present moment smiling and content. By March 2014 I had grown so much from that photograph that during the no make up selfie craze for cancer I made a split second decision to post one without my wig as I next to never wear make up as burns my skin if I try and do not see the point in having a chemical mask, I felt like it would be my most honest picture ever and another milestone in the journey. The photograph has 112 likes on my Facebook profile with 142 comments, as well as messages on inbox, e-mail and text, all full of encouragement. I looked at that photograph last month and smiled at what doing that had meant to me then as it does now. 

I do not manipulate images like they appear in magazines, websites and the media, so my photographs are the truest representation of me at that moment. Many of you now reading this take a selfie with a mobile/cellphone several times a day may never understand this journey but others may be where I have been. We are all beautiful in our own way and accepting how we are without resorting to extreme change can be tempting but all they can be band aids over deep wounds. I highly recommend trying therapeutic photography, do not expect results today but explore and learn to love the most amazing person you will ever know, yourself.

© Fi S. J. Brown

 

 

World Health Day

On this World Health Day I have been thinking how many of us have so called “hidden illnesses”? How something that we cannot see lends some to act as judge and jury of how that impacts someone’s life, making them less “normal” and/or lesser of a human being. For example, if a healthy looking person came out a disabled toilet without a wheelchair, how many would tut because feel to use such facilities they should be as the image on the door? Really should be thought more as ‘accessible toilets’ as to remind us that they need to be exactly that – accessible. So those that need to use them are enabled to retain their dignity and independence whilst doing what all of us take for granted.

Our ability to live life despite apparent disabilities (physical/mental/hidden) do not change who we are inside. When someone gets a diagnosis today, they are still who they were yesterday or last week. It does not matter what the diagnosis or label says our inability is or because our body does not do or make the same as the textbook says it should in humans, does not make them less of human nor do people want pity. I can say from personal experience, it is often more of a relief to give it a name so can try to live life and adapt (if possible/applicable) to what this means. Please try to remember that for many illnesses there are no operations, cures or answers to why it happened.

For me the friendship, love, conversation, laughter, creativity, and acceptance of others gets me through the day. There are times when I want to give up as so tired from fighting to pain (mental and physical) but with my closest friends no matter where they are I know I will survive. Whatever health issues we may have, they do not matter, the world needs all of us. It is our differences that make the colours on the tapestry of humanity. It would be a very monochrome piece if we all were exactly the same, with so called “perfect” bodies, which did exactly as the textbook said – remember even machines need repairing now and again. So viva la difference and let’s paint the world every day in our multi-colours, showcasing that is what it means to be truly human.

© Fi S. J. Brown