Quite how lovely it is to be mentally ill is difficult to describe.
It has all the enjoyment factor of swimming in a tar pit, window shopping with a weightlifter – complete with weights – sitting on your shoulders, eating at a Michelin-star restaurant without taste buds or sight.
No, I have to admit, it’s none of these things. Because whatever epithets, allegories, metaphors (extended or not) one applies to the term ‘mental illness’ simply fail to give a true idea about the depth of pain and despair it can engender in a sufferer. Words simply don’t hack it. Art can sometimes come close. Yet even that creative spectrum is limited (usually) to a two- or three-dimensional representation; this illness of the self, caused by God (cf., psychiatry) knows what, defies the available number of dimensions available to the artist.
It’s a conundrum for the sufferer to explain to even the most dedicated of listeners the nature and scope of the devastation, while still using words, pictures or other creative forms.
But that’s what the mentally ill artist – of whatever artistic discipline – has to try to do.
To what extent they are successful is down to their abilities, insight and dogged persistence, as much as it is to the viewer, listener, reader. If they are connected and have a good awareness – not to mention acceptance – of their self, and how this illness impacts upon it, they may impress; if they have the ability to express, represent, signpost their disorder, they may inform; but in order to communicate, they must be prepared to bare their emotions, thoughts, selves.
Which is where the conundrum comes in, since many sufferers are bound into themselves, aware of the dangers of self-revelation, unwilling to take risks which may expose truths that lie hidden, dormant, or safely quarantined.
However, all is not lost.
Art – in its many forms – can help to liberate the most imprisoned mind. It cannot truly cure, but it can enable the sufferer to experience a larger world which remains safe; it can reduce fear, self-loathing, introversion. It can relieve the pain of anxiety, the constraint of learnt behaviours, the depths of despair. It can give back to the ill their self-respect, their confidence, their humanity.
And, as a happy consequence, it can help to educate, communicate, and give understanding. Not just to self, but also to the wider audience, those that have not suffered such privations as this illness gives, those who need to see, to grasp, part of the whole truth of despair; either to understand a friend or relative, or for themselves.
In giving, the mentally ill artist receives. Receives understanding, empathy, and – to a great extent – peace. The peace of knowing that they can create art that gives.
And hope that they, too, may experience the hope of wholeness.
The author is involved with a community art group called Towers Above, and has participated at Wyldwoods Centre. Pictures ©2010-11 R.Wright
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