A detailed response from Q.S. Is to Colin Hambrook’s poems and drawings alongside an article about medication:

I read Colin’s blog on Disability Arts Online and found it very illuminating. I’m personally, not an advocate of medication either. Actually, I’ve been asked to write a book by an organisation called KAOS, based in Brussels, which will include essays detailing my own personal strategies and methodologies to deal with issues of the mind, along with accompanying artwork. I have no proof, but I think making art and writing helped me recover from psychosis and stopped a recurrence of episodes.

I think the main demon remains society, the people within it who judge you for having a ‘different sort of brain.’ I am working with an interesting psychiatrist, Dr Erik Thys, who is neither for nor against medication. He’s also a practicing artist and musician!

What I did notice, working with people diagnosed with ‘schizophrenia’, on my latest scroll project was that they seemed ‘changed’ on long term medication. They had a certain manner and way of talking and moving, the physiological effects were self-evident, but they remained wonderful open people. I would go as far to say that all of us who have experienced psychosis were ‘naked in the room’ not literally, but psychologically. Psychosis strips the mortal bare of everything. They also found working on the scroll to be immensely beneficial to them mentally.

(Detail from scroll created with patients labelled with schizophrenia, mixed media on paper, 10 metres, 2012 Sanchita Islam)

Interestingly, most people have no idea that I have ‘mental health’ issues. Oh how I hate that term. Nor do they have any inkling that I have experienced ‘multiple psychotic episodes’ – oh I how I loathe that expression too. The problem with both these terms is that they are extremely loaded with erroneous stereotypes and any admission of either is tantamount to professional or social suicide (tacit or overt), which is why people remain silent and then break down behind closed doors or end up exploding mentally and causing a wave of destruction personally or otherwise.

I would argue, in my case, that my brain is just fine, it’s a curious, probing mind, and society has slowly pricked it leaving tiny lacerations that have not properly healed and psychosis was probably one too many lacerations that created cracks tantamount to an earthquake. This is a better description of what has happened inside my head. How can we assume that pills can erase the devastation caused by a brain earthquake. It is ludicrous?

I really appreciate your drawings. Tracey Emin once referred to my drawings as Brain Drawings and I think yours fit that description too. I’ve been examining them very closely, studying the details and there are so many parallels with my own style of drawing, the maniacal attention to detail the recurrence of certain mark making. I found the same visual parallels with the work of the Japanese artist, Yayoi Kusama, which makes me wonder if psychosis unlocks certain creative doors in the mind that are closed off to others. It is the same with the poems; the visual motifs that recur within them are very familiar.

There is an intensity in your/our work that can only come from experiencing psychosis, and the mark making serves as an alternative form of medication, by distracting the mind, by using the hands, by creating something on a piece of blank whiteness and transferring the memories that continue to haunt and refuse to budge.

(The Meaning of Psychosis, A0 ink drawing on paper © Colin Hambrook)

ink and crayon drawing of a woodland landscape with fish

Coming through the other side of psychosis can be lonely, some people don’t come ‘back’ but if you do return to the ‘real world’ it can seem more hostile and unforgiving than before. Psychosis is traumatic and unless you have experienced it, no one can begin to fathom what you have been through, you try to explain it, but each person’s experience is unique because psychosis transports you to a parallel universe where you reign supreme and everything is heightened. I see those details in your poems, but the experience remains unique to you, just as mine is unique to me and it’s hard for other people to access such an alien world.

I think there are parallels in what we are both trying to do and there are not many people on the same page, not many people who want to go there. You are brave by putting your poems online, by putting your mind out there and not feeling ashamed of what you have been through. I hope one day to find the same courage.

It’s a relief though to know that ‘you are not alone.’

The problem is no one wants to talk about psychosis properly. In certain programmes I have listened to on the radio it’s dealt with superficially (my personal opinion) or as something novel/ intriguing/ freakish/ voyeuristic, perhaps it is just not possible to distill the experience without alienating the listener with all the immense detail and nuances.

Psychosis is tantamount to a complex painting that you can’t fathom in one sitting. It takes years to penetrate the layers and work out the very first brush stroke of a painting that has no form and yet encompasses the universe that all our minds are capable of being.

It was moving to read about your mother and the impact her mental health issues had on you as a child growing up.

Extract from ‘Dream of An Impossible Knitter’, Colin Hambrook
… And as she thought so she knitted,
But she wasn’t doing it very well.

Leaving a trail of family, vulnerable, proud
caught between gender, prone
to falling into dark rivers; a tree with stems shooting …

I think the poem ‘Dream of an impossible Knitter’ is about the futility of trying to knit a warm blanket to protect the family; her mental health lapses ripped big holes in the blanket, which left the family exposed and drowning in the ‘dark river.’ I related to this poem, and I thought of my own mother in a foreign country, widowed in her twenties with three children under the age of four and this big cloud of sorrow seemed to follow us, raining down on the family, leaving us drenched and there were storms that she couldn’t protect us from because the storms raged within her own broken soul and mind.

I think of my own mother and my sisters and this black cloud that seems to still follow us. We aspire to be good mothers/ human beings, battle to be calm and still and gentle when we’re flailing in a violent sea that consumes the head. Yoga helped my mother and the passage of time. It’s as if old age has given her the protective, wise rough bark of a noble tree that has helped her endure all that life has thrown at her. She swears by breathing and gardening, she can spend hours gazing at her plants, some of her plants are older than her children and refuse to die because of her ever attentive and nurturing fingers.

I have been assiduously writing a journal as a way of identifying patterns of behavior, which can be stopped in their tracks with the right intervention strategies. If I have a bad day, and there have been many, I hope that tomorrow will be better. You have to keep saying that your mind can mend the holes that seem gaping and if you find your voice is mutating into a rant, soften its edges by turning down the volume. Feed the flowers in your head, not the screaming weeds.

Of course there are times when we all lapse, but having a psychotic lapse is to be avoided at all costs. This is something I learnt the hard way, after my second episode. It’s been three years since I fell into the burning abyss of psychosis, and although I have recovered there are still wounds that refuse to heal.

In an attempt to find ‘a desperate closure’ I recently wrote a letter and sent it off in good faith to a rather ‘fancy establishment’ where they’d asked me to produce artwork for them. They’d been very amenable until I had a psychotic episode there for everyone to see. In my letter I explained what happened that night three years ago. It took a lot of courage to open up to them, but they did not respond and ironically, in the same establishment, they have a piece of art made by an artist who tragically committed suicide. The work depicts a glorious forest set against a fierce and defiant red reminiscent of Rothko’s reds and Van Gogh’s trees and when I think of this piece I’m reminded of all the artists I admire that took their own lives despite their searing talent.

People love the art and writing of the mad often ever more so posthumously, but not as much when they are alive it seems, and need the support – with the exception perhaps of artists like Kusama. Although she has said without her art she would most probably have killed herself. Perhaps her open decision to reside in an asylum, shut off from society and its poking fingers, makes her paradoxically ‘safe’ both inside and without protecting her from ‘cruel’ speculation about the state of her mind through the indirect admission of ‘insanity.’

To be so brave without the risk of slander.

After the psychosis – despite all the pains I took to building up a professional relationship, wearing a mask and behaving in a way that was expected – that night destroyed everything I had painstakingly constructed and I was told, via an email, to stop making the work, which people still comment and rave about. Perhaps the psychosis ‘freaked’ them out. It certainly traumatised me, but receiving the cursory email from people I mutually respected was more traumatic. The reprimanding tone was intolerable. I’ve seen people who are inebriated who are viler than a person who is involuntarily psychotic and clearly gravely unwell.

It was the pressure of making the work that made me ill in the first place. Is this what created the earthquake, the pressure, the people, the pretending to be normal, the trying to fit in the world and find a place to feel snug that clearly does not exist?

There was no empathy, no simple – ‘are you ok?’

It’s sick really and it’s this treatment that makes people sick. And this treatment will continue as long as people with sensitive minds have to pretend and wear masks to be accepted.

The sudden ostracism post psychosis has happened to others and I think it’s people’s lack of care that contributes to an inability to have proper closure, which can lead to repeat psychosis. People are both the triggers and the key. It’s not mentally possible to get closure and heal within on your own if it’s the memories that continually haunt you. It’s how people respond, react, accept, forgive and understand that the healing can properly begin.

On a final and more positive note, I understand your sentiments regarding TREES, I never tire of drawing them, sometimes I would like to live in the imaginary landscapes that I weave with my pen, I see your trees as part of my landscapes, our brains are carved from the same ancient wise tree in the sky.

drawing of a tree in the sky

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