The 1st painting is of my illness. The blind gorilla cannot see the beauty that surrounds it. The square sun, the icebergs next to the sand dunes (one of my diagnosis is bi polar) The dress on the grass because I often didn’t get dressed. The lamp covered by a wig. The black hole swirling in the background. Central to the painting is the butterfly that I have become. The colourful open and free butterfly.
The 2nd painting is my silver lining painting. I still have the illness that I live with. The rough turbulent sea and horrendous black clouds, but I focus on the light shining through the dark clouds.
Having had mental health issues from a very young age, it was part of my life. I was resigned to the fact that I would be on medication and have this illness forever. Even the ‘experts’ told me I would always be ill, medicated and never work again (I was medically retired from my last job because of mental health issues) I believed every word he said. He was a fully qualified psychiatrist, he had the answer to my mental health, he was going to make me better, or so I thought.
Nearly years ago, I had reached crisis point. I was living with a life sentence that I didn’t want to live with. I took an overdose. Frustratingly I woke up in hospital. I was in hospital and could not see any way forward. Part of being discharged from hospital I was referred to see a psychologist. It was while sat waiting to see the psychologist for the assessment I saw a leaflet. Creative minds ‘art for wellbeing’ course (part of the South West Yorkshire NHS Trust) I had never done art and wasn’t very artistic (my children even joked about how shocking my drawings were) I went along to a taster session. I was not expecting miracles. However that day was the start of the most incredible journey that I could ever imagine.
I was heavily medicated (21 tablets a day) bed bound quite a lot of the time and with my girls being my carers life didn’t hold out much hope. After the initial taster I began going regularly to the group. As my paintings improved my mind did too. I started to reduce medication and my confidence was growing along with my collection of work. I started doing talks to inspire service users that they too could have hope of getting better. Professionals started listening and started asking me questions on how they can help people like me. I felt I was contributing to life. I was making a difference to the world.
Nine years later I have been medication free for eight years. I do talks all over the country about the benefits of social prescribing, mental illness, suicide and how it affects people. How the cost of 2 years doing an art class was cheaper than 1 years medication alone (I had many more services/people involved too) so the costs speak for themselves. I am now working for the NHS in the same trust that psychiatrist works in. I am off benefits for the 1st time in 14.5 years. I work tirelessly in the community to improve services, to help make the system better for people.
I have many pieces of my work adorning peoples walls. I have had an art exhibition at Canary wharf in London. I went to Buckingham Palace after someone heard my story and was so inspired to nominate me. In May 2017 I was asked to speak at the kings fund in front of Prince Charles. I was a nominee for the Yorkshire woman of achievement 2017. Not bad for someone who was just known by my patient number all my life, who had no identity or future free from the illness I lived with. I have met with Matt Hancock (the current health secretary) several times to promote the use of arts and creativity in health (specifically mental health)
I want people to see that mental illness can be improved by being creative. I feel like I am finally living life. I am finally a part of what many take for granted. I try and use the analogy of when you go into a coffee shop, the coffee machine fires up and you hear it, but then you get used to it. The annoying sound suddenly fades into the background, well that’s what it is like living with a long term health condition (mental or physical) you get used to how it makes you feel. That is now the norm. But suddenly the machine shuts up, and you realise how annoying the noise was in the 1st place. Art allowed my illness to ‘shut up’ it allowed me to be aware of it, and by being aware of it I learn how to deal and control it. I wanted to keep getting the illness to ‘shut up’ I kept wanting to feel alive.
A simple art class has done this. I have had many treatments and services over the years, some more than once, but nothing gave me the confidence to believe that I was the key to managing my condition. I still live with the illness, it has not magically vanished but I have been taught ways and means to deal with it. I have worked out what helps and makes my illness better, and also what makes it work.
Art changed my life, something so simple as painting has given me a totally different outlook. I am no longer reliant on medication to live life; I have found skills that have equipped me to live my life. I never dreamt I would ever feel ‘normal’ let alone be an active campaigner in changing attitudes towards mental illness to service users and professionals alike. Last year I was announced as number 5 in the NHS70 Standout stars. I have won the trusts Excellence award for outstanding achievement. Not bad for an invisible service user is it?
Debs Teale (nee Taylor)