In Joan Didion’s memoir ‘The Year of Magical Thinking,’ she talks about the process of denial of the truth of things that the brain goes through, as part of the grieving process. As Knitting Time evolves into a collection of poems and artworks reflecting on the impact on mental health of unacknowledged ‘loss’ so I find myself slowly opening up to what an amazing thing it is that I am still alive!
Loss can impact on us in many ways. It can create a subtext for our lives that we have little or no control over. A natural impulse is to run away and hide, hoping the emotions will simply go away of their own accord, or if not that we can submerge them by other means, through one distraction or another. Often, the further we run, the more our unconscious thoughts and feelings take over, leading us deeper into distress.
From a young age I lost my mum to a host of demonic characters who inhabited her belief systems and understanding of the world. I went through a form of bereavement after she had been sectioned and given large doses of ECT. It affected her memory and when we went in to visit her in hospital she couldn’t remember who her children were. I was 10 years old and went through an agonizing sense of guilt. I had a physical sensation of falling down a bottomless well, that haunted me for years afterwards. It spelt the end of the person I had known and the introduction of someone new who bore little relation to the mum I had known previously.
I struggled to come to terms with life; with being alive. I had been taught from early childhood that the world would end, literally in 1975 as a result of Gods will. Continuing to be alive wasn’t something I expected to happen. At the age of 12 I became withdrawn and believed I was invisible. In company I was certain I could not be seen and became phased by any partial recognition that I was real. I began drawing and painting what this felt like, making abstract images of what it felt like, a few of which I have to this day. In many ways this was the saving of me. Quietly on my own I learnt to manage a host of emotional difficulties. The headmaster wanted me to see a psychiatrist and I was given a letter to take home to my parents. I had an idea of what was in the letter and tore it up, determined that I wasn’t going to let the bogeyman (in the form of the psychiatrist) get me.
I continued making art, which derived from the sense of loss. It didn’t take it away but it gave me a lexicon for understanding and dealing with those difficult emotions. I continued painting and broke through a barrier, finding a reason for living and a way of communicating that astounded and amazed people – and so gave me a sense of worth. My form teacher, who was a reserved man at the best of times, told me how relieved he was; that I was still alive. He hadn’t expected me to survive. My headmaster gave me a lecture on being a young person and how I should be enjoying the best years… They didn’t know how to respond or communicate. The grief I was feeling was largely locked with little room for understanding. 40 years later I am still finding ways of processing that grief.
It was amazing that I survived; that I found a way of relating to the person I’d become. My illustrated poetry collection 100 Houses is inspired by the stories and imagery of a fertile imagination, which beat me up and carried me through in equal measure. Knitting Time: a journey through loss continues the themes that I’ve been exploring in the poetry and artwork.