Art allowed me to express myself in a way I had never done before. I’ve come so far since my desperate suicide attempt
When I was growing up in the 1970s, mental health issues were not widely understood or discussed.
One morning when I was eight-years-old, I woke up in bed and felt funny, I was shaking. It had come out of the blue. I was terrified and didn’t know what was going on. I was diagnosed with a case of “bad nerves” and prescribed a few days off school. I now know this was my first panic attack, but I would not get a proper diagnosis of my mental health problems for more than 20 years.
When I was in my 30s I was diagnosed with bipolar, anxiety disorder and depressive disorder with paranoid tendencies. I went through some very traumatic life events and was at an all-time low and in a period of severe depression. At this point I was on 21 tablets a day, my children were my carers and I was often bed bound.
I made a desperate suicide attempt, overdosing on medication. Somehow I survived and was seen by a crisis team who referred me to psychological services. Eventually I got an appointment. While sat waiting for the assessment, I picked up a leaflet by chance titled Art for wellbeing. I had never done art before and do not know to this day why I picked it up. I rang the number on the leaflet and was told about a taster session: “Come along and have a go” the man said. I did and that’s the day my life began.
When I turned up for the first session I felt very anxious. I sat as close to the door as possible so I could run out if I needed to. Then a strange thing happened, I loved it! After a couple of taster sessions I started attending regular classes. Drawing and painting made a real difference to my wellbeing generally.
Drawing allowed me to express myself in a way that I had never done before. The drawings were releasing something that was difficult to articulate. With my depression there were no words, there were no answers, but art got the confusion out of my head. The fog felt like it was lifting slightly – something I had not experienced before.
Art was not judging, demanding and didn’t expect anything from me; it allowed me to be myself. I had been told and shown how to live my life, this was allowing me to express what I wanted and when I wanted it. I later found out this was “normal” to others, but normal to me as a service user for most of my life was being told what to do and being expected to conform to make the service run more smoothly. I had been labelled a troublemaker for commenting about the medication and the side effects once; I learned to sit and let others do things to and for me.
The first medication I thought I could maybe do without was the sleeping medication. Instead of reaching for that I got my drawing pad out. I sketched at all hours – sometimes they were very detailed and sometimes just scribbles. I then decided that maybe I could cut more medication out. I had to do it in a controlled way, one at a time, reducing it, then slowly stopping and waiting a few weeks, before starting to reduce the next lot. I’d been medicated for so long that my body was used to being numbed. I’d taken a cocktail of antidepressants and antipsychotics for so many years but I did it by reducing the doses gradually. I have now been medication free for over five years and have not been using services for two years.
Now I use my own experiences to help others with mental health problems through Creative Minds, a registered charity attached to South West Yorkshire partnership NHS trust that uses creative approaches and activities in healthcare to increase self-esteem and provide a sense of purpose.
I want to give our service users hope and help others see the positive side of mental illness. Millions of people live with it every day and have successful, fulfilling lives. We’re still a long way from achieving parity of esteem between physical and mental illness but we are moving forward and making progress. I will continue to do all I can to change views on mental health and suicide. I know lots of others are doing it too, and it is needed.
Of course like any chronic illness, bipolar, and my other mental health issues haven’t just gone away, but I’ve learn to live with and manage my condition.
Art has opened so many doors for me. In the last five years I’ve sold over 100 paintings, had an exhibition at Canary Wharf and given talks about my journey all over the UK. Through talking about mental health issues I’ve had tea at Buckingham Palace with the Queen. I’m involved with the local ambulance service, the Department of Health, the Department for Work and Pensions, NHS England and Public Health England. I am often asked to do talks at their events, be a patient/service user/carer voice, give advice and training to their staff. I’ve also been an integral part of the Nesta Realising the value project, which enables people to take an active role in their own health and care.
I spoke at a King’s Fund event on social prescribing and at the all-party parliamentary committee at the arts, health and wellbeing. I’ve been shortlisted in the Sue Ryder Yorkshire Women of Achievement Awards. Not bad for an “invisible service user”.
People can live well with mental illness; I am living proof of this.
You can see more of Debbie Taylor’s work at www.thedebseffect.co.uk
In Ireland and the UK, the Samaritans can be contacted free on 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14. Hotlines in other countries can be found here
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