Reflecting on the meaning of winter

Bringing the Heavens Down To Earth (colour)

It is a month since Samhain, always a time of year for reflecting on loved ones who have passed and to honour our ancestors. I move in the dreaming of connection to weathered stones and prehistoric traces in the Sussex landscape – this time of year when the sun has lowered its message to the earth, making stronger shadows on the wrinkled escarpments of the South Downs – the strip lynchets tracing our bond with the land – echoes from the Bronze age to medieval times. The land talks in shade and umbrae, calls out in sunshine, wind and rain. Yet we struggle to listen beyond the hubbub of the everyday litter noise that fills our lives.

I was thinking about the runes, when making this drawing and that squarish shape in the centre of the drawing could be the rune ‘ing’, or ‘ingwaz’ which is a rune that’s connected with fertility and creativity, names connected to the Norse god Freyr legendary ancestor of the Ingaevones. I don’t know the way back to the message. We feel the Old Names whisper when we allow silence to enter our breath. Like the meaning of Freyr this ultimately presents us with the soul of grief. Covid-19 has arrived – the call of nature to help us reflect through a mirror made of sorrow.

This year has pressed hard on our consciousness; awareness of our mortality sharpened by the death rates and the ever-increasing numbers of friends and family affected – if not by the virus itself, then by breakdown of health care systems and the broken promise of national insurance, left rotting amongst the swilling corpses of our loved ones, whilst the System gorges itself on corrupt contracts handed on the nod of a wink and the cynical batting of a capitalist eye.

This month just gone, I felt close to my old friend and lover Anthony who took his life seven years ago in August 2013 – known in the last ten years of his life as Kraean Fever. In my last blog I alluded to a conversation that brought alive the resemblance of the figure in this drawing to Kraean. It was maybe 2006 when I last saw him; grief is like an ocean wave moving around and through consciousness in a spiral dance resembling the double helix of our DNA.

Grief is an atmosphere, a murmur rising from the shadows; a heart calling to loss; the mass and weight of its particles seeming greater the more that absence inhabits us. We were two boys together clinging during the time of Thatcher and AIDS – chaff cut from the stalk of society dwelling in squats and broken spaces at the edge of time, outside of a choice of anything but to feel the pain of it all – the breaking of society rendered to the will of Milton Friedman’s economic policies. Friedman said “A society that puts equality ahead of freedom will end up with neither.” As I feel it, a society that puts the market ahead of equality will end up in slavery.

I knew Kraean as ‘Ant’ and we bonded over a hatred for the emergence of a new politics of greed that stamped its mark on our years together in the 1980s. Ant had a predilection to be out of the ordinary with a fierce intelligence and devilish humour. His influence on the direction my life took following a childhood of psychiatric torture and the uncertainty of a brain trauma after an accident on my 11th birthday was huge, especially in terms of creative aspirations … he drew me out of the wood of a mundane worldview and accelerated me towards something deeper – as harrowing and joyous, difficult and agonizing as that grappling with estrangement was. Ant had an extraordinary facility for recounting philosophical ideas … it was a kind of cloak he put on to reveal something darker and deeper than you might ever have imagined. He embraced Buddhism and gave me an invaluable capacity to return to the breath and to use that as a resource for finding healing and resilience in the moment.

Ant could also be soft and loving, though often he wasn’t. And maybe there was an intensity in the bond between us – two children of Scorpio tied to all or nothing in a land of extreme sacrifice and extreme selfishness. There was no middle ground between us; nothing bland or ordinary would do as we fuelled a flame of something darker within each others natures. We’d both been born out of hell, shaped and moulded by a Christian madness … Ant’s mother died when he was still a toddler – thrown to a bag of nuns for whom persistent swift brutal beatings were the way to God. And I was cast out of the Jehovah’s Witness as Satan’s messenger just for being a small boy. At core we both held a sense of past lives entangled in the Burning Times … we flew to the stars and saw visions of ourselves meeting on a stake in some European backwater – made scapegoats for wild egos immersed in a belief in the healing powers of nature; children of hemlock.

So here we have Ant in this drawing – his hair on fire and the brightness of his keen eyes piercing air and storming fire at the heart of the universe. There’s a creativity here that relates to the form of the rune ‘ing’ floating – a conversation between us at the dawn of being and purpose. There was love here, difficult and tempestuous, outrageous and soaring, in the years we were together from 1982 to 1987. We continue to merge in sadness and challenge, joy and freedom. I want to run from that emptiness but somehow I can’t – a memory dwells in my drawing hand compelling me to face the question that begs an ending. We’ll get there in the end. It’s as inevitable as the winter, whether it’s full on and raging, stormy as night, or as a gentle shiver of the spine rocking into a smile.

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Bringing the heavens down to earth

I have decided to write something about my drawing process; to put down some thoughts on the drawings and to give some background about what they’re for. I draw for myself primarily unless I’m asked to do an illustration for a specific project and so I rarely think of exhibiting or selling the drawings, although when opportunities present themselves (pre-Covid I had an exhibition at the Poetry Cafe in London lined up) I will make the effort, although to be honest my experience of exhibiting has been mostly that it’s more pain than reward.

I prefer the process of drawing without any intent in mind other than it being a way of focussing nervous energies and of relaxing; giving in to the moment and entering a liminal state i.e. a mental space that exists on a threshold, neither here nor there, existing paradoxically both inside and outside of time.

So drawing is intuitive and although I may date a drawing, generally there is no clear chronology as to when and how the drawings are made. When dates do appear they are more often misleading as I work randomly through sketchbooks, going backwards and forwards and often it can be years before any given drawing comes to any conclusive end point.

The drawings that emerge often include bits of text and this drawing ‘bringing the heavens down to earth’ was given its title maybe in response to some outside stimulation but it’s likely it was a phrase that came to mind randomly and then became central without realising it. So I have no idea where the title ‘bringing the heavens down to earth’ came from.

On the one hand it’s a haunting concept that reminds me of having had an extreme, oppressive Christian upbringing, whilst on the other hand it also represents those moments when everything comes together harmoniously. It could refer to the idea of drawing down otherworldy energies – the central figure is part man, part animal. There is something primal about him with his bovine ears and his too-alive, fiery hair. There is an extended gap between the end of his nose and his lips which accentuates the anger in his face and just how troubled he appears. But then he is wearing an ‘about town’, well-to-do patterned suit, which suggests he has a mythic status.

Opposite him on the right side of the drawing is a cloud-like, almost invisible face, which is the most menacing presence within the drawing. Perhaps it is jealousy that is descending here. There is some kind of inner conflict playing out within the drama of relationships in this drawing … and below on the right side of the drawing is a third character who crops up in drawings often.

He seems to represent a more reflective aspect to this unfolding story with an expression that’s at turns melancholic but accepting. Their left eye is intense yet inward-looking, whilst their right eye holds a sadness to it; it feels as if it’s looking outwards recalling a long distant story from the past.

Central to the image are the shapes – a series of rectangles and circles falling – this appears to be the part of the drawing where the eye lands. And they could be DNA or they could be snowflakes. What’s interesting is that these kinds of patterning look similar on the surface, but on closer inspection both are made up of individual and very different types of form. And looking closer here it seems that more and more marks emerge suggesting human figures and forms, surrounding the square shapes.

I am reminded finally of lying down on the ground on Reigate Hill on a balmy summers’ night with a group of friends many, many decades ago. More specifically Anthony who seems to be represented by the Scorpionic figure in the drawing, was there, leading us into chaos with his wild, yet sophisticated intelligence.

It was a profound moment. We allowed ourselves to be absorbed by the night sky – and the more intensely we looked and relaxed so more and more stars emerged deeper into the night sky. And the more we were able to connect with their energy, the more we felt we were being taken into outer space.

And being one with the stars felt like connecting with our origins outside of time. I found a quote from Dr Ashley King explaining that “nearly all the elements in the human body were made in a star and many have come through several supernovas.”

William Blake wrote of a similar kind of experience in the poem ‘Auguries of Innocence’ – expressing the dichotomy between microcosm and macrocosm.

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour

So it seems finally that ‘bringing the heavens down to earth’ is a reminder of something still to be resolved about a deeper spiritual connection with Anthony who sadly committed suicide five years ago now… and myself looking up in awe of the depth and breadth of his intellect, both of us emotionally damaged by childhoods wrought-through with the kind of violence that Christians seem compelled to mete out in that kind of inimitable mask of kindness they adopt when condemning children ‘for their own good’.

There is chaos inherent to shapes in the centre of the drawing. The sense of movement here gives those diamond forms the appearance of escaping upwards yet falling downwards at the same time. Ultimately the drawing feels like it represents the difficulty in managing chaotic emotions – the intensity of feeling creeping up on these two unlikely figures and the malevolent cloud threatening to consume them. Yet the attention lands on these shapes like bits of DNA or snowflakes. And that’s where the freedom, the search for compassion lies in the knowledge that we are all made up of billions of atoms, all seemingly alike, but each one its own individual container of space and of ideas.

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Knitting Time: Bird Song

I have decided to come back to keeping an art journal in this space, not having visited it for some time… it’s been on my mind since the exhibition of drawings from Knitting Time was due to happen at The Poetry Cafe in Covent Garden in London – and which hasn’t happened because of Covid-19.

It feels like a good moment to go through and tell the story of the art that went into Knitting Time – to pick up the journey again, having faltered on the road to fools’ gold – a project which has consistently slipped out of my hands like viscous oil over the past few years.

Time passes like the wind and my mercurial personality struggles to alight in a space to carry creative endeavours through, despite it being a lifeline. And so having had an encounter with a sparrow this morning who dive-bombed a bench where I was sitting and then came back to perch on my knee for 15 seconds or so – I thought it an omen to write about the poem ‘Bird Song’ and the accompanying drawing of a sparrow, which takes me back into childhood memories – and that feeling of yearning for connection and a meeting of minds.

a line drawing of a sparrow

The poem relays the solace shared with my mother in communing with sparrows – a break from the existential pain that was the cornerstone of my life as a child. I learnt to draw from copying birds from a Ladybird book and the drawing carries with it some of that search for detail. The male bird sits on a twig surrounded by a pulsing myriad of intertwining fragments of roots and filial connections.

In mythology the sparrow is connected with Aphrodite and is a symbol of undying love, loyalty and commitment because of its propensity to sacrifice itself for its family. It’s also known as an omen of death, linked to how miners used it, like the canary, in determining the safety of a mine.

This drawing represents the connection between the sparrow and the psychiatrised – those who fall victim to neuroleptic drugs designed to induce zombiedom; those disabled by the psychiatric machine and the powers it invokes.

Bird Song

This brick house didn’t stop loving you.
Its morning cornflakes smile kept on fussing
from behind the clipped privet hedge.

An avenue looked on; a quiet aroma
of complacence blocking the battle
waging from inside the shuddering front door.

A flapping letterbox spoke in Morse
but you couldn’t listen: thoughts too loud;
beliefs like pneumatic drills closing down
capacity for reason or purpose.

I found a freshly-pecked silver-top bottle
on the front step; a message from a sparrow
or an adventurous blue tit, reminding
me of places beyond the chaos
inhabiting my four walls.

And I tried harder to reach beyond the voices
in your head; found mundane articles:
a pink powder puff, a mothballed stole,
relics of a desire to connect
with a material world outside
the head demons that splattered

the wallpaper with their hypnotic
endlessly repeating patterns,
echoing the menace.
Beyond the malice, our fingers touch
to the tune of bird song.

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Fools Gold: who wants to be perfect anyway?

 

“In the woods, they will blast your courage
To tell you, you are not a tree
That the wild woods and the grey skies
Are not your cousins
Though their atoms be like yours.”
Ellen Link

 

Leonoras-Death-BirdOver a period of 40 years I’ve produced art, poetry, play, essays, drawings, prints and paintings to tell a story of childhood abuse at the hands of Psychiatry.

Psychiatry is the only branch of medicine to have an established movement set up to challenge it. Can you imagine the idea of an Anti-Oncology Movement or an Anti-Gynecology Movement? No, because people accept that these are valid branches of medicine. Despite the difficulties both morally and in terms of intervention that medical treatment represents no-one would argue that those working within these professions are – working within the unpredictability and frailty of human limitations – doing their utmost for the common good.

However, for centuries an Anti-Psychiatry Movement has talked about the uses of Psychiatry as a means of social control; and a coercive instrument of oppression, due to an unequal power relationship between ‘doctor’ and ‘patient’. Daniel Defoe argued in his book Augusta Triumphans (1728) that husbands used asylum hospitals to incarcerate their disobedient wives. Mary Wollstonecraft’s unfinished novel Maria: or, The Wrongs of Woman (1798) revolves around the story of a woman imprisoned in an insane asylum by her husband.

Elaine Showalter extensively critiqued 19th-century literature and its impact on the emerging field of psychiatry from a feminist perspective in her book The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture, 1830-1980 (Virago 1987). As the 20th-century progressed (and with the advent of the scientifically-justified murder of so many ‘mentally ill’ under Nazi Germany) the field of anti-psychiatry became more prominent, questioning the medicalisation of “madness”. A key understanding of anti-psychiatry is that mental illness is a myth (Szasz 1972). The argument is that illness is a physical concept and therefore cannot be applied to psychological disorder without any physical pathology. Anti-psychiatry takes the view that psychiatric treatments are often more damaging than helpful to patients, and that the diagnostic process is highly subjective.

In more recent years the Critical Psychiatry Network – led by a group of consultant psychiatrists – has challenged the role of Psychiatry from within. Dr Joanna Moncrief wrote The Myth of the Chemical Cure, (Palgrave, 2008) challenging the idea central to modern day psychiatry that psychiatric drugs work by correcting ‘chemical imbalance’ and arguing that this false ideology is shaped principally by commercial and political vested interests, rather than the aim of supporting individuals in ’recovery’.

Through a combination of performance and imagery Fools’ Gold tells the story of my art-making. It tells the story of the torture and murder of my mother by her psychiatrist. And it tells the story of my own journey through psychosis over several decades, on the run from psychiatric treatment.

Fools’ Gold tells the story of my compulsion to make, exhibit and perform autobiographical work based on the experience and understanding of how psychiatry disables through the public acceptance of the misconceptions of a false medical science.

In order to find outlets for making the work public – both funded and unfunded – has meant the work being framed within a Survivor and Disability Arts context. Under the auspices of these frameworks the fuller deeper messages of the work within a political context – be it playwriting, poetry or artwork – has been undermined.

In attempting to unravel a story of how psychiatry can and does disable people I’ve been knocked back by clichéd responses. Art reflecting on abuse and trauma within a Survivor or Disability Arts context is invariably viewed as Art Therapy because of the tradition of using art as a means of ‘overcoming’ trauma.

Because of the history of these frameworks and the purpose of Survivor Arts and Disability Arts being seen as a means of ‘expression’ rather than of ‘Art’, there is a sense in which the political will of the work is repeatedly reduced to a personal context either as a story about impairment or a story about triumph over tragedy. The challenge to understand how contemporary Psychiatry gets away with oppressing society is subsumed by a dismissal of the work as ‘catharsis’. Due to its autobiographical nature there is a general assumption that the work has been made for the self as an act of ‘therapy’.

Audiences miss the point that the work has been made to try to kickstart a meaningful conversation. From where I sit there is a need for intervention to support people in crisis, but the ‘medicalising’ of peoples’ experience obfuscates. It is much more an issue of welfare and wellbeing, more often than not affected by the economic situation an individual finds themselves in than it is a ‘medical’ matter.

The US journalist Robert Whitaker has published much research on the disabling impact of neuroleptic medication going back to its beginnings with the introduction of Chlorpromazine in 1951. His books have spawned the Mad In America movement with its mission to serve as a catalyst for rethinking psychiatric care in the United States (and abroad) https://www.madinamerica.com

Being appointed the role of being one of ‘The Mad’ by the State can happen to anyone in the wrong place at the wrong time. At that juncture the individual then becomes a ‘disabled person’ by virtue of being placed in an unequal power relationship, subject to stigma and put simply, not being taken seriously. In this context Disability is not something a person ‘has’, its not a condition that inhabits the body, but is a role that society metes out to individuals who do not conform to the ‘normative’ structures in place that society demands are adhered to.

I’m not criticising the motives of mental health workers or the existence of a support mechanism for supporting peoples whose lives are in crisis, but Psychiatry’s role is so often to act as a pseudo-scientific ‘religion’ dedicated to pathologising human behaviour. As such it becomes a weapon of the State in disabling any person deemed as a threat – very often within a family context.

Artwork that attempts to frame ‘mental health’ from a personal political standpoint is by its nature subject to patronisation as a framework for allowing audiences to feel better about themselves for appreciating how difficult others lives can be. The response unwittingly and unconsciously denies the emphasis on the complexities of a relationship that Psychiatry plays in all our lives in defining ‘normalcy’.

But then, it’s also all about context. How you frame the context for telling the narrative of your life will shape the reading of the work?

Fools’ Gold is my attempt to frame the telling and the context through a 45 minute performance reflecting on my experience of working within the Survivor and Disability Arts Movements and telling the story of the search for connection and change within a framework that reduces the pearls being offered to scraps for swine.

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Fools’ Gold – another pointless exercise in challenging oppression

I’ve embarked on Fools’ Gold named thus, because I’ve been making artwork and poetry for a very long time about abuses of the psychiatric system with zilch impact anywhere. The rare occasion I have an exhibition people give me pat on the back and say well done but then it occurs to me that what they’ve understood is me making the work to cope better with ‘mental illness’ rather than me making work about oppression and the way it’s not only accepted by society, but lauded. The praise I get is fools’ gold – a supportive nod that actually works to undermine the messages behind the work. I mostly just stop making work for ten years or more, till I am compelled to go back to it for another dose of pointless scratching at the edifice of the gatekeepers and apologists for oppression.

I’ve been stirred up recently by a project that’s come out of Hearing the Voice – a large interdisciplinary study of voice-hearing, based at Durham University and funded by the Wellcome Trust.

The artist sean burn alerted me to his attempts to encourage more direct participation from people at grassroots, but clearly Hearing the Voice are not interested in the wider and deeper implications of what they’re producing. sean published a blog titled ‘is hearing the voice durhams uncritical promoting ov eugenicist awarded medal by göring cooool?’ – referring to famous aviator and Nazi-sympathiser Charles Lindbergh in a section of the Hearing the Voice exhibition exhibited to “explore the different situations and circumstances in which everyday people hear voices.”

But surely Lindbergh isn’t an ‘everyday person’. Without context his inclusion in the exhibition had other layers of meaning… surely!? Horrified I wrote to Dr Angela Woods, Co-Director, Hearing the Voice and Senior Lecturer in Medical Humanities & Deputy Director, Centre for Medical Humanities.

Dear Dr Angela Woods,

I am writing as someone with a longstanding history of ‘voice-hearing’ and interested in discussions around mental health and the narratives that surround our understanding of how mental distress is misunderstood and misinterpreted. How can we challenge the ways in which experience of ‘symptoms’ such as ‘voice-hearing’ are always viewed in a negative light? My own experience has been that it is more often the reactions that are distressing and that the experiences in and of themselves can be interesting if challenging – or even pleasurable.

I was concerned when sean burn sent me his piece questioning the use of Charles Lindbergh and the response of Hearing the Voice that the inclusion of Lindbergh’s monologue was no endorsement of opinion. Without context though, it is not unreasonable to read inclusion of such a man in a public exhibition illustrating the kinds of people who hear voices as at the very least a validation of that individuals standpoint.

Lindbergh was not simply a man on the sidelines of the history of the Nazis eugenics policies and the Aktion T4 Program. The plane he flew in the first transatlantic flight was fuelled by John D. Rockefeller’s United States-based Standard Oil Co. who were engaged in a “marriage” cartel with I.G. Farben, the producers of Zyklon B, until 1941.

I.G. Farben sold by-products of the process of making Zyklon B, notably pesticide and rubber directly to US companies right up until Pearl Harbour. After the war 24 directors of IG Farben were put on trial by the US military but only half were imprisoned and the rest were given nominal sentences. Too much money had been made and too many backs needed scratching.

The popularity of eugenics principles in the US during the late 30s is well-documented as is the support extended to instigators of ‘mercy death’ [Gnadentod]. As well as documentation of Charles Lindbergh professing why the Jews should be blamed, he was a direct benefactor from the US-German political relationship and his power and status as an aviator were tied up with popular opinion at that moment in time in the US. (Indeed the The British establishment also clearly supported Hitler in the years before the attack on Czechoslokia.)

I would argue that inclusion of supporters of those responsible with the mass killing of millions of psychiatric patients, disabled people and Jewish people, is, if not an endorsement of the opinions and actions of the individuals themselves is – without context – at the very least an endorsement of an ‘othering’ process and the idea of those who hear voices as being outside of the everyday and distinctly different from ‘normal’ people.

Since 2010 with the eradication of the Welfare State in UK and the deaths of 100,000 people within less than a year of being declared ‘fit for work’ – the notion that we are “unworthy of life” [as Hitler phrased it], has become ever prescient in the UK. A large percentage of those individuals were under a psychiatric diagnosis.

The value of understanding our lives in the wider context of our lived experience should I hope be of extreme importance to Hearing the Voice and to Durham University.

I would hope that in the development of this project you would consider taking on board and including the reflections and experiences of individuals who identify as ‘voice-hearers’?

Understanding the occurrence as a common aspect of human experience is vital to the process of breaking down the demonisation of people who identify as having ‘mental health issues’ that is accepted and the reason why there has been no exposure in the press of how we as a society have contributed to the deaths of so many. I would bargain – in fact I know for certain – that if the same thing were being done to our pets as is being done now by the British government, then there would be a hue and cry, a witch hunt for those responsible and a National Campaign to protect life. Human life, it seems, is not regarded as having value, still unless it is seen as having an economic contribution.

She wrote back “Thank you for taking the time to email me and to share your concerns. As I said in our response to sean, Hearing the Voice and Durham University does not believe that the inclusion of an excerpt about Lindbergh’s experience of ‘ghostly presences’ while flying constitutes an endorsement of him, his support for eugenics or Nazism, or of the horrors perpetrated in the second World War.”

But I wasn’t talking about the Second World War. I was talking about the unseeing eye turned to challenges to status quo and centuries upon centuries of oppression – and Dr Woods wasn’t interested… and I revisited ‘The Nightmare’ – a six foot high canvas I painted nearly 30 years ago.

I’d been channeling the voices of the 180,000 psychiatric patients murdered under Hitler’s regime — (a policy ironically begun by Dr Franz Josef Kallmann who escaped Germany when his Jewish background became apparent and became the leading eugenicist in the US) – and specifically the voices of those inmates at Kaufbeuren. They came to me repeatedly in a vivid recurring nightmare that I recorded in the painting.

The text painted into the canvas (now in tatters) was part of what i heard.

Who put us here? Who locked us up and left us to rot – to die anonymous claustrophobic deaths. We say we are your scapegoats – we the projected and denied are boxed in by you – surrounded by your cage silences, with euphemism, with hyperbole, deceit and lies. How many steps are there down, down into our pit? Gently now, no messing. We are your statistic – your political weapon. Push the button, stick the needle. We are your normalising machine, your dissent containment function. We are your ‘mad’ yet you are our victims. The centuries are lined with our blood. We trace our descent through the alienists armetorium to the noose and the stake. You saw us at Kaufbeuren and cried your guilt-edged tears. As pool of flesh we are your power, your emotional charge: – the fearful essence of your paradigm and we are your impossible. You always say you did all that you could. You always know what is for the best. Our screams are your proof, your justification and your vacuum…

Yet who are you? As much as we are your fiction so you are ours and in my nightmare those of us who were left were freed to tell our tales. I was unable to move. The warder had to pull us free – those of us who were still alive. The tears came once I woke up. It was just a dream – like the stories of extermination The question remains as to how and why the victim gets blamed? And the witch finder general, the alienist and the psychiatrist get seen to be simply doing their job. Psychiatry bears a large responsibility for the programmes of mass sterilisation and mass murder within Nazi Germany – programmes which were considered justified by sections of American Psychiatry which instituted similar programmes in Alaska and South Africa sponsored by Rockefeller. My mother was killed by psychiatric drugs and I am left to ponder the small steps which exist between outright torture, social control and genuine help.

IMGP5287

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Is diagnosis as meaningless as the idea of ‘zombieism’?

Blind Light illustration from Knitting Time

Blind Light illustration from Knitting Time

Back in 2015 I went to a lecture by Dr David Harper who is Programme Director for the PhD in Clinical Psychology at University of East London. It was one of the events produced by the Soteria network – an organisation attempting to look for ways of creating wider choice in what’s available to support people with mental health issues beyond the usual route of just prescribing medication.

David Harper is one of an emerging wave of mental health professionals / academics who are beginning to raise their heads above the parapet to offer a critical analysis of what Psychiatry has to offer.

During his talk he said: “Diagnosis has a social function; but from a therapeutic point of view the narrative is far more important than the diagnosis. Diagnoses are generic terms for human experience that are largely unhelpful in understanding real experience. It’s about understanding peoples’ problems on their own terms, rather than as separated disorders that become as meaningless a construct as absurd as the idea of ‘Zombieism.’”

He touched on the dilemma of how limited Psychiatry is in its scientific understanding of brain chemistry. Ten different psychiatrists assessing the same person for a mental health condition will – according to research – invariably give a different diagnoses for the individual, dependent on their own experience as practitioners.

The important thing with mental health – as investigated by R.D. Laing – is the story behind the distress. Diagnoses averts attention from the person’s actual experience and can become a trigger for stigma, which in turn can simply compound the problems.

I have a poem – Blind Light – that encapsulates some of my own narrative around experience of psychosis. The intention here is to try to describe something of the fish-eye lens view of the world a psychotic episode can give you. It’s not meant to sound mystical but rather explain something of how meaning itself can become distorted. I’d say the fear associated with psychosis comes largely from believing to be true whatever it is your mind is telling you. Stress is a key trigger, but it was a serious head injury when I was a teenager that led to ongoing psychotic episodes. I learnt to counteract the voices by telling myself what was going on in my mind simply wasn’t true.

Blind Light
Reaching into that forever place
further than magnetic north
or somewhere below
gestating with the worms and burrowing things
it’s as if the cap on this moment
were released and everything
millennia on millennia and all the singular
distances across outer space
were to all come rushing into grasp, pulsating
beyond shadow
and the whole act of seeing
were as treacle dark as the furthest
reaches of the solar system,
or seven miles down
surfing the faithless bed of the ocean floor.

And being made of atoms
old as dawn
bending into that curve of blind light
exploding the culpable ego
like a tree threatening
to swallow the daily round
turns the trajectory
of the self-reflective glass
in on itself
calling a false pattern into play;
molecules sticking one to another,
cells listening to the heart,
sticking to their own truths
in the ridiculous struggle to evolve.

The problem with diagnoses – and especially the diagnosis of schizophrenia – is that it just further mystifies what can already be a sharply difficult experience. [It can also be pleasurable.] It is that mystery evoking fear that is at the foundation of stigma associated with mental health issues. After all, it is only human to respond with fear to something that is cloaked in mystery.

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Elaine Showalter and ‘the feminisation of madness’

As part of researching literary references to lived experience of psychiatric hospital I recently re-read Elaine Showalter’s The Female Malady. My research is chiefly concerned with looking at the social construct of ‘madness’ through the eyes of writers giving accounts of just how society defines sanity and insanity. We have this idea that mental illness is a scientific given, when the reality is that Psychiatry is as much a Science as Humoral Theory – originally associated with Hippocrates – could be regarded a Science.

Both Psychiatric diagnoses and medicine based on the four humours rely on subjective categorisations of an individuals temperament. And it is the context within which an individual is observed and judged that determines whether or not a person is deemed sane or insane. Yet habitually we talk about someone being clinically ’mentally ill’ as if the Science that determines insanity is a given.

Compulsive Steps: Dream of Life

Compulsive Steps: Dream of Life

Showalter gives a rigorous account of how through the medicalisation of madness in the 19th century ‘mental illness’ came to be deemed as chiefly a woman’s prognosis, primarily used as a form of social control – a way for men to keep women in their place. She gives a detailed account of how with the advent of the First World War – when so many men were returning from the Front in states of distress – that males were first associated with ‘mental illness’. Even then, the ‘illness’ was categorised as ‘shell shock’ rather than ‘hysteria’ or labels associated with the feminine:

“Built on an ideology of absolute and natural differences between women and men, English psychiatry found its categories undermined by the evidence of male war neurosis.”

The names for psychiatric diagnoses are as much in flux as the pre-determinants. According to Charles Myers an English physician who wrote the first paper on shell shock in 1915: “‘shellshock’ won out over ‘anxiety neurosis’, ‘war strain’ or ‘soldier’s heart’.” [Female Malady p.167]

The fickle world of the alienist has always been in a state of reinvention. Myers had inherited his definitions from the attitudes of Victorian psychiatrists who more clearly defined insanity as a moral issue – and, as such, saw ‘madness’ as a female malady… with female sexuality at its’ root.

Showalter writes: “The regulation of Women’s Cycles in Victorian psychiatry often seems like an effort to postpone or extirpate female sexuality. Dr Edward Tilt argued menstruation was so destructive to the female brain that it should not be hastened but rather be retarded as long as possible and he advised mothers to prevent menarche by ensuring that their teenage daughter’s remained in the nursery, took cold shower baths, avoided feather beds and novels, eliminated meat from their diets and wore drawers. Delayed menstruation he insisted was “the principal cause of the pre-eminence of English women, in vigour of constitution, soundness of judgement, and rectitude of moral principle.” On the Preservation of the Health of Women at the Critical Periods of Life. p. 31” [The Female Malady p. 75]

Showalter goes on to describe the treatments invented by male psychiatrists for their female patients: “W. Tyler Smith for example recommended injections of ice water into the rectum, the introduction of ice inside vagina and leeching of the labia and the cervix. “The suddenness with which leeches applied to this part, fill themselves,” he wrote admiringly “considerably increases the good effects of their application and for some hours after their removal there is an oozing of blood from the leech bites.”

The most extreme and nightmarish effort to manage women’s minds by regulating their bodies evolved out of beliefs expounded by the Obstetrical Society of London that masturbation was the singular cause of madness and led to Dr Isaac Baker Brown’s surgical practice of clitoridectomy as a cure for female insanity…

Brown carried out his sexual surgery in his private clinic in London for 7 years between 1859 and 1866. In the 1860s he went beyond clitoridectomy to the removal of the labia as he became more confident he operated on patients as young as 10, and even on women with eye problems. He operated on women whose madness consisted of their wish to take advantage of the New Divorce Act of 1857 and found in each case that his patient returned humbly to her husband.

In 1867 Brown was expelled from the Obstetrical Society not so much because his colleagues disagreed with his methods, but because patients had complained of being tricked and coerced into the treatment. Some had been threatened that if they refused to have surgery their condition would worsen and they would become hopelessly insane.

The decision for expulsion came after a speech by Dr Seymour Haden, secretary of the society giving a forceful if intentional description of the sexual power relationships in Victorian medicine.

We have constituted ourselves as it were the Guardians of their [women’s] interests and in many cases… the custodians of their honour. We are in fact the stronger and they the weaker. They are obliged to believe all that we tell them. They are not in a position to dispute anything we say to them, and we therefore may be said to have them at our mercy… Under these circumstances if we should depart from the strictest principles of honour, if we should cheat or victimize them in any shape or way we would be unworthy of the profession of which we are members.” Obstetrical Society Meeting, British Medical Journal 1867, p.396.

[The Female Malady p.75-p.78]

Psychiatric practices have changed enormously since those dark days of torture and meticulously argued subjugation of women, body and soul. Showalter remarks on the changes in power relations that began to emerge towards the end of the 19th century:

“At the same time that new opportunities for self-cultivation and self fulfilment in education and work were offered to women, doctors warned them that pursuit of such opportunities would lead to sickness, sterility and race suicide. They explicitly linked the epidemic of nervous disorders – anorexia nervosa, hysteria and neurasthenia – which marked the fin de siecle to women’s ambition.” [The Female Malady p.121]

Providing a detailed feminist critique of a range of novels from the mid-1800s onwards, reflecting understanding of the ‘mad’, Showalter alights on Janet Frame’s autobiographical novel Faces in the Water, citing it as one of three novels, published at the beginning of the 1960’s, which marked a new precedent in attitude: “While earlier novels did not question the idea that madness was the woman’s own fault, these novels [including Jennifer Dawson’s The HaHaHa and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar] place the blame for women’s schizophrenic breakdowns on the limited and oppressive roles offered to women in modern society, and deal very specifically with institutionalisation and shock treatment as metaphors for the social control of women. [The Female Malady p.213]

The parallel between schizophrenia as a social construct and female identity runs through Faces in the Water. It is intrinsic to Frame’s poetic evocation of the rites of passage endured by a teenager at the hands of psychiatry, located in a mental hospital in Christchurch, New Zealand in the 1950’s.

Electric Shock Treatment is at its height, deemed the new wonder cure at the forefront of what Frame jokingly calls ‘The New Attitude’. Frame knows she is caught in a spiders web of cruel judgements and desperately at every twist and turn seeks resolution and an attempt to hold on to her sanity, in the face of punishment dressed up as cure. Written with a razor-sharp sense of irony Faces in the Water conveys the atmosphere, the smell of urine and defeat, the taste and feel of the 1950s asylum. Her Cliffhaven and Treecroft could be located in the UK or the US. With the advent of Chlorpromazine – the first of the chemical interventions introduced globally in 1951, Electro Convulsive Therapy and leucotomy – there was a new optimism about the treatment of the ‘mad’.

The Victorian asylums were being modernised bringing in clean showcase wards that contrasted distinctly with the long stay ward and the secure unit. My memories of Banstead, Belmont and Netherne where I volunteered briefly were of oppressive institutions dedicated to disabling people ‘for their own good’ – another theme repeated in Frame’s recollections. Decisions were made about peoples’ lives – transferred from ward to ward and from hospital to hospital, without any sense of responsibility for letting the person know what the consequences of a transfer was likely to be.

It seems everything was done to ensure any transition was done to produce as much anxiety as possible. Frame recalls her anxieties over threats of ECT and leucotomy… she recalls promises of release and steps towards release from hospital that disappeared into thin air. In my own experience I was taken alone into my bedroom by my mum’s psychiatrist aged ten and was guilt-tripped into telling him a long list of things she had been saying and to whom, so that he could get his ‘proof’ of her insanity. I was taken in to see her after she’d been given large doses of ECT and she couldn’t remember who her children were. The impact of what I’d done felt like falling through the centre of the earth. And yet I was meant to believe that her memory-loss was the result of her ‘mental illness’ not systematic torture.

The history of Psychiatry reveals a history of reinvention with new labels, and new freedoms at every turn of the wheel. It is only with hindsight that we look back at these developments as new forms of oppression. Frame recalls this in Faces in the Water through bitter experience.

We are currently in the throes of yet another ‘new attitude’ towards mental distress, but we’ve heard that one before…

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Bedlam, chaos and the fight to make Psychiatry truthful…

black and white image of a male psychiatrist administering electric shock treatment via an old fashioned box with valves

Electro-shock. Woodcut © Colin Hambrook

The ‘Bedlam: The Asylum and Beyond’ exhibition at Wellcome Collection in London contains an assortment of historical documentation, ideas and artwork. Highlights from the archives are an incredible photographic portrait by Henry Hering of Richard Dadd at his easel in1857. What’s so fascinating is not the contrived ‘out to lunch’ expression on the artists’ face but the detail of the painting Contradiction: Oberon and Titania that he’s working on in the photo. It gives an insight into Dadd’s working process, planning and building up the canvas, contriving detail from the bottom left-hand upwards in an incredibly methodical fashion. Adolf Wolfli’s ‘Mental Asylum Band-Copse, 1910’ is also worth seeing close at hand for it’s stylized perspective and intense colour-range.

Bedlam is a text-heavy exhibition, which tries to do too much, and becomes somewhat overbearing as a result. In giving a flavor of the history of mental hospitals, the attitudes and the treatment of people both within the asylums of old and within contemporary mental health service provision the curation attempts too broad a remit – as John O’Donoghue mentioned in his review on DAO.

However it contains some gems. I loved the Madlove Designer Asylum exhibit, having followed the project since the vacuum cleaner’s inception of an idea to re-imagine what good mental health looks, feels and tastes like in the series of workshops he’s undertaken with Hannah Hull. First experienced at Unlimited Festival in 2014, it’s remarkable to see how the project has developed, giving people the opportunity to imaginatively explore responses to how we would want to be treated and what we would need in order to cope during times of distress.

The brightly coloured Madlove 3D architectural installation imagines a dream-like place incorporating key elements from 2 years of research. The little touch of providing pencil and paper for people to make a record of their own responses to positive mental health was a nice reminder of how good mental health is everyone’s responsibility.

I would also recommend Core Arts ‘Our Voices’ contribution – a series of audio testimonies – easy to miss in the exhibition space itself as there is so much to see, read and listen to. But the pieces give mental health system survivors the opportunity to tell their stories and add a touch of humour and pathos to the exhibition. Frank Bangay’s poem ‘Those Shuffling Feet From The Past’ imagines the ghosts of incarcerated people haunting the blocks of luxury flats that many Victorian asylums have been converted into. It’s a very powerful recording…

The exhibition contained an important reminder from the past for me personally. Abandoned Goods recalls the art studio at Netherne Hospital in Surrey where I volunteered on a few occasions as a disturbed teenager looking for answers as to the veracity of Psychiatry back in the 1970s. I’d experienced – albeit second hand – some of the worst excesses of psychiatric torture (otherwise known as treatment) and I wanted proof of how to refute the science of psychiatry and the reasoning behind using punishment as ‘cure’.

One of the installations: Pia Borg & Edward Lawrenson’s ‘Abandoned Goods’ is a 35 minute film, which blends archive footage and includes first hand testimony from several artist/ patients during the 1970s. Edward Adamson set the studio up in1946 when art replaced photography as a diagnostic tool. When the chief psychiatrist Eric Cunningham Dax left the institution in 1951, Adamson upped his commitment increasing the number of art studios and providing the opportunity to be creative without pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo to underpin or to qualify the budget for art materials. Something in the region of 200,000 artworks were created up until Adamson retired in1981. The film documents the struggle to preserve and archive the artworks left to dereliction after the institution closed in 1994. Today around 5,500 pieces survive.

As far as my memory of the art studio serves, during the few visits I made as a volunteer, I don’t recall anyone who saw themselves as an artist. There is incredible footage of Maria Popova speaking eloquently about her exquisite paintings on stone and flint from the hospital grounds. She talks about herself as an artist – but one who ‘could do better’. It’s heart-wrenching stuff that speaks volumes about a psychological struggle to gain self-esteem in an environment that denies it.

I helped out with tidying and chatting to people – but what left the biggest impression was the terrible health conditions of the longstay patients having been subjected to decades of abusive treatments. (Only psychiatry could turn the two words ‘long’, ‘stay’ into one word, ‘longstay’.)

Abandoned Goods documents psychiatry’s obsession with disabling people. The film recalls American psychiatrist Henry Cotton’s introduction of ‘treatments’ given to inmates during the 1930s – 50s. Based on the idea of ‘sepsis’ as a cause of psychosis, hospital staff set about removing as many bits of the human body that it could whilst still keeping people alive. Teeth, tonsils, kidneys everything… even spleens, colons, ovaries, anything that could be removed was removed in the delusion that to do so would ‘cure’!

I recall the toothless, wrecks of human beings that were the dregs of the aftermath of Victorian ‘charity’. The lie that their physical deterioration was the result of ‘mental illness’ not the torture they’d been subjected to fuels my anger at Psychiatry to this day.

My day at Bedlam ended with a powerful evening event hosted by Wellcome. Mental Fight Club founded in East London by Sarah Wheeler in 2007 has given birth to RE:Create Psychiatry – a well-choreographed series of provocations by artists and health professionals. Seth Hunter and Dr Khaldoon Ahmed invited a series of 5 minute testimonies, which were then discussed by service-users, carers and care professionals.

The process allows contentious and divisive debate between psychiatrist and service-user to happen in a way that is productive for both parties. Artist/ performer Ellie Stamp introducing the idea of ‘psychiatry: an ethos of ‘being with’, but a practice of ‘doing to’’. She talked about her experience of the incredible power imbalance that exists and the binary mindset of the medical profession. She talked about wanting to live in a world where “neuro-diversity is accepted and valued as necessary.”

Ellie’s presentation then gave room for a response from Dr Lauren Gavaghan, talking about how as doctors ‘doing to’ is a necessary and important part of medical training. If you have a cancerous growth that needs removing or a broken bone that needs mending, you don’t want your doctor asking how it feels or what your experience of being a patient is. You want them to act and to be able to make decisions with confidence built up through years of accumulating knowledge.

Doctors specialise in Psychiatric practice, having already completed their medical training. Lauren spoke about how the move from clinical practice doesn’t involve training on ‘being with’… of listening to the actual experience of the patient or responding human to human.

So, it struck me there is a disconnect there – a point early on in training at which the medical model over-rides any impulse to value the patient as the person who possibly has the expert knowledge of the condition they are living with. Often, instant life or death decisions are demanded of the mental health worker / psychiatrist, which involve taking action, sometimes against the individual’s immediate wishes. There are no easy solutions as to how to support someone through their mental health issues, but the medical profession is based on principles of observation and documentation, not listening or certainly, within psychiatry, of believing what the patient has to say, at all.

What was especially brilliant here was how well thought through and considered was the template for provocations between mental health professionals and service-users.

Psychiatry needs some ‘re-creation’. The dependence on disabling medications just makes more people… more, well… dependent. These are the kinds of conversations that need to happen more…

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Growing up with god

My daughter is fast moving towards that teenage state of being. The world shrinks and expands through different cycles in life. One moment what seemed so vast, suddenly refracts through a different lens by dint of being alive.

I guess it’s the universality of that experience that has kept Jonathan Swift’s novel Gulliver’s Travels as popular as it is even now, after nearly 300 years since its publication.

Growing up with god

Recalling your fearlessness
at that age just beyond crawling,
diving down a fifty foot slide
backwards, head first; the buzz
of danger and sheer aliveness.

And now older, revisiting the play park
watching you at home with your world;
and everything looking so much smaller
as if god had shrunk
to the size of an ant;

especially the swinging basket
that once resembled a titan;
the children desperate to get the thing
to roll all the way over its axis,
instilling fear into every parent.

So what is it with the furniture of life?
this patch of grass that was once an acre,
this square mile that held everything,
all expanding and contracting
as if the earth itself had a will of it’s own.

(c) Colin Hambrook

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For the man who buries beds

Here is a poem in draft. I seem to be very preoccupied with death and dying just now… This is a poem for my father who is ageing fast.

Much of this year has been taken up with seeing him through hospital visits… he is a natural eccentric, as I imagine the title might explain.

For the man who buries beds

Strange it is, watching you shrink
like mud man left out to dry
under a hot sun.
Preparing for birth,
at the dawn of your closure.
I wonder who will emerge
when the cracks run deep
and the edifice crumbles.

And if I could water
a life at sunset
prolong its fierce aching
who would it serve?
No, at best I hope
to watch you walk
through that door
with a head held high.

After all, I’ve already watched
you, aged 84, take up a shovel
to cut the rough ground
and make a hole
large enough for a double mattress.
There’s nothing new
to your pragmatism
or your fearlessness.

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