A few weeks ago this lucky artist went back to the mental health ward he was five times a patient on (2002 – 2005) to begin a series of murals on the eyesore of a boundary wall.
My original enquiry was “would you like me to paint some pictures for the new ward?” – for the inside of the new acute mental health ward in construction at Parklands hospital. The people in charge there all said that when the time is right, absolutely, yes. But a priority would be doing something about the ugly metal wall, 12 foot high around the outside enclosure for the PICU (genuinely pronounced pee-queue), the Psychiatric Intensive Care Unit.
I’d painted a series of smaller murals before so had something to enable confidence that I could do it, but these would be my first as a paid artist. In theory the quality of the work should be high…the larger scale allowing for lots of detail (it turned out to be more economic and appropriate to limit detail, there was a pressure to do it quick so I could charge minimally, I was getting an hourly rate).
After the on-site maintenance man had provided the right paint, brushes, white spirit, trays, etc. it wasn’t long before I held the next step of my destiny as a professional artist in my hands and began.
The staff are very nice there, I know most of them from my recent spell as a peer support worker on this and the other wards. I wrote a post about my time as a patient on this ward recently, click menu in top right and visit the home page for that.
They plied me with tea and attention on my first day. It was fun to catch up with old colleagues, damn some of those female staff were attractive too. I’d grown as a person since the last time I was there, and as the wall began the taking on of a bit of colour, staff began commenting with “wow…that looks so much better” but honestly I couldn’t see it yet. That’s a problem I have with my work, I’m so close to it that I see every flaw and sometimes obsess over them. But once I put in a hovercraft, beach umbrella, rowing boat, a seal, I took a step back and I had to agree, it was turning beautiful, especially compared with what was before.
This is a double meaning for me. I’m the same with my mental health. I see troubles with who I am and how I work when I compare myself with other people quite often (which in itself creates a problem i.e. are these issues something to do with mental illness or just normal matters that we all think about), but any negatives I see in myself are completely gone when I remember where I was only a few years ago. Which leads to personality quirks. I don’t think it’s a diagnosable bipolar thing but I’m sort of simultaneously confident, happy, well, sharp – and feeling like I’m second to the people I meet when it comes to having my shit together, being social, having natural charm and succeeding in life’s challenges.
This is a reality common with people who have had a mental health journey. We have to prop ourselves up with rationality, give more time to balancing the things in our brains that normal people either don’t even think about or have natural abilities in. Let’s say we get unsure about something, a new work situation perhaps. No bother to normal people, no big deal, we’ll see how things play out, maybe prepare with a coffee and some reading. But for me it’s “Is this doubt part of my old patterns of thinking when I had mental illness? Am I overthinking? Is this an actual problem?”
“Maybe this is something that needs attention. Maybe I need to research how to make a good impression in a new career direction – but it could be that I need to stop thinking about it, I’ll be fine on the day.” Confidence in doing the right thing for myself is hard when it used to be that doing the right thing was believing in a psychosis involving a messiah complex. Sometimes that stuff tries to guide me in present day. Don’t laugh.
I have forcibly learned that I simply cannot make some decisions, my only choice being to leave things in the hands of the Universe. Having to constantly control everything is too much for one brain. My brain still thinks it has a mental illness sometimes when I let it work on it’s own. (Can you see how complicated it can be to have mental illness? I know I can!) So I have to control it because it screws up when left unsupervised, which is a real shame because one of the joys in life is using mental faculties and learning how to marry them up with inspiration, magic, knowledge, skill sets and channelling all that into a project, and letting the brain do it’s thing. That’s how great artists work. That’s how high achievers work.
Then there’s my meds, which dampen things in my brain. Should I accept that side effect of being slow? Or fight it?
There is light here though. When I am painting, none of this matters. I don’t need to know what’s going on, what’s going wrong, what’s going right, what do I need to let go of, what do I need to focus on…all I have to do is paint nice things. And for someone who doesn’t get the chance to think like this when tackling other problems, during a burgeoning career, when discussing personal growth, talking about how to get over life’s hurdles, it feels amazing when I’m finally at my easel or a boundary wall and painting and all that pent up and controlled energy that is just dying to be set free on a task, gets it’s day in the sun.
And it’s cool to be paid for the thing you love.
People look for something useful to take away from reading a blog. I hope you can extrapolate that having a project such as painting is a cliched but brilliant thing to do for mental health, whether you have the lightest of depression that everyone gets from time to time, or a serious psychosis. Art is and will always be good for mental health, I’m sure of it.