Facing the Demons

drawing of a knitted boat, with two full moons in the top-left hand part of the drawing

Knitting Time cover drawing [C] Colin Hambrook 2013

It’s been hard-going, but enjoyable bringing Knitting Time into being. Ultimately, it feels like the right thing to do – to finally face the demons. I’ve been blessed in the way the project has opened up discussions within my family – having written a short memoir about my formative years and expressing something of the grief that has been locked up inside driving me into madness all these years.

I’m happy with a cover drawing I’ve done for the book. I’ve got 24 drawings so far that I think are fit for the publication which is in the process of coming together over the coming week or so. I’ve uploaded the drawings into a gallery at http://www.outsidein.org.uk/colin-Hambrook

My project Knitting Time is my attempt to tell something of my life story through artwork and poetry. I want to use the project to open up a wider discussion about grief and loss and the way it impacts on mental health. Societies taboos on talking about the difficult or impossible situations that life presents ends up with the victimization of individuals by the mental health system with coercion into taking dangerous medication, which bring on a whole host of other health problems in the name of ‘helping’.

The statistics on what constitutes a mental illness are getting alarmingly wider. In the USA the number of people officially diagnosed with a mental illness – as recorded by journalist Robert Whitaker – has gone from 1 in 300 of the population to 1 in 72 over a period of 20 years. It won’t be long before every thought process will have a clinical diagnosis, based on the Bible of Psychiatry – the DSM-5. In the latest version that’s been released this month, bereavement is now officially a mental illness as the previous Bereavement Exclusion clause has now been removed.

I would welcome any comments and feedback as the project develops.

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Release The Pressure

drawing of a knitted sailing boat

Knitting Time: pen and ink drawing [C] Colin Hambrook 2013

I had the first introductory Knitting Time session at Pallant House on Tuesday 7 May. Big thanks to all who attended and especially to Step Up Arts Coordinator, Mandie Saw for holding the space. And to Pallant House for allowing it to happen.

The relationship to the theme of ‘loss’ from Aradne the textile artist, Joseph Young, the sound artist and Mandie Saw – who are all taking a part in facilitating the workshops – are from very different places. That’s the point, really. I’m really looking to use the workshops running from July to August to open up concerns around ‘loss’ out as a theme in a general sense, rather than limit our starting point for creating artwork to specific agendas. I’m not looking for neat boxes. Knitting Time is about how the difficulties we face as a part of life can be the most inspirational places for creative expression.

Loss is a sensitive area and not easy to face head-on. My motivation in producing Knitting Time is to challenge the taboos which keep ‘loss’ locked up inside. I feel it’s the act of hanging on to our stiff upper lips and telling ourselves we are strong enough to cope which can so easily unbalance our souls and lead to further difficulties in our lives.

The group last week had a supportive atmosphere. The workshop was energising. I was blown away by peoples’ trust, openness and general responses to the themes. I’m feeling optimistic about the coming workshops this July – August, and am planning to keep the blog updated with ideas as the project develops.

Aradne shared her beautiful webs. She brought along a spider-web of a blue dress handed around for trying on. And she shared the story behind her textile hanging Freedom From, Freedom To, which she exhibited in the Outside In exhibition at Pallant House Gallery, 2012-13.

Aradne works in an intuitive manner allowing her textile work to evolve throughout the making process. She uses hand and machine embroidery techniques to create fantastic tactile web-like structures. She explained how the textile hanging was a starting point for a new way of working that emerged from embracing emotional difficulties. Freedom From, Freedom To connects a host of figures in relationship; some in conversation; some solitary. I was immediately drawn to her work. Much of it mirrors my own approach to drawing figures, evoking a sense of being supported and contained by the web-like forms. You can see images of this delicate tactile work at http://www.outsidein.org.uk/Aradne She is also exhibiting her webs soon in an exhibition titled Mindscapes at http://merstongallery.co.uk in West Sussex.

Joseph Young came to the workshop with his grandparents family photo album. He explained how the photos in the album had been rearranged by his mum, giving a snapshot across several generations of his family. He used the album as the inspiration for a binaural sound installation produced for his MA graduation show at the University of Brighton in 2005. Joseph played the first few minutes of the piece in which he talks about the loss reflected in the silence in his childhood; and his fervour for collecting things, leading to the collection of sounds on a cassette recorder. You can hear the piece, streamed on his website http://artofnoises.com/the-family-album/ It’s a beautiful piece, offering a snapshot of a childhood, a memoir written in sound and word; a shifting reflection on that sense of loss that comes with the unstoppable growth into adulthood.

Mandie Saw played us a track by Leftfield, ‘Release The Pressure’ sharing the time the song played an important part in freeing her from a difficult and isolated place. She talked about how that emotional connection that gets you through difficult times can be an unconscious thing. The time she told us about was several years ago, yet she’d only listened to the words recently: “I’ve got to stand and fight/ In this creation/ Vanity I know/ Can’t guide I alone/ I’m searching to find/ A love that lasts all time/ I’ve just got to find/ Peace and unity”

My starting point is my story, which involves psychosis [I veer away from the narrow definition of psychosis as an ‘illness’] In Greek psykhosis meant “a giving of life; animation; principle of life.” To me the meaning of the word is about balancing the soul. Essentially Knitting Time is about using the power of the imagination to transcend impossible life situations. In my case it was growing up with the end of the world, literally and metaphorically as the Cold War loomed over us and the Jehovah’s Witnesses preached an interpretation of The Revelations, giving the End a specific date during my 17th year.

I’m nearing the deadline for getting the draft material for the Knitting Time book ready to send to the publisher, so I’ll post another blog another blog in a couple of weeks to let you know how that’s gone.

Posted in art, mental health, psychosis, sound art, textile art | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Learning to Be

knitting-time-smallI am fortunate enough to be having weekly counselling sessions with a psychologist through the NHS at the moment. We’ve been looking at my lack of an ability to assert a right to be. Living with M.E. and the threat of invasive thought patterns makes life a difficult trial of juggling balls. I had asked the psychologist for a letter explaining how I needed to pace myself with times in the day for doing nothing in order to maintain a calm presence in the world so I could show it to my partner. The question she asked was why I needed confirmation from an authority to justify talking about why the family need to work together in helping me through the day to day chaos?

Having a brain that is vulnerable to psychosis and the uncomfortable and loud thoughts that come with it occurs, I believe, because of an erosion of ego boundaries. It’s like looking at the world through a fish-eye lens. All the demands, needs, situations of the encroaching world serve to disintegrate a sense of self. As a child I learnt to put myself aside so much it’s as if the world and all the people who inhabit it take centre stage and I am somewhere floating on the periphery. Bringing myself back to reality is a constant game of hide and seek.

A letter from an outside agent confirming that I am at the centre of my own life is difficult to grasp when I don’t feel myself to be anywhere but outside looking in. I developed a powerful reflective capacity as a child as a survival mechanism to contend with all the delusionary thought patterns eg a belief that I was literally invisible. I learnt to understand that I couldn’t trust my mind or what it was telling me and that gave me an opportunity to be able to gain insight into my emotional make-up. A lot of that sense of disconnection can be seen in my drawings inhabited as they are by vague, half figures; forms like cloud-shapes that can be interpreted as one thing or another. The drawings mirror that fish-eye sense of feeling the world all at once in a chaotic whirl of thoughts and emotions.

I wonder if you, dear reader, can relate to this sense of what the psyche means to you? It’s a blessing to be able to empathise and to feel the world from a myriad of viewpoints; to be able to put yourself in another’s shoes, to coin a cliche. Where it becomes a problem is when you can’t put your own base level needs in focus. We all need a sense of ourselves to function in the world. But when the ego gets blurred there is a flip-side. Emotions like guilt and blame can easily become distorted, imposing irrational thoughts through the process of displacement of the ego. I never quite recovered from growing up with a belief in Armageddon imposed on me. All kinds of doom-laden news stories trigger a sense that the world is coming to an end. Intellectually I can tell myself that my thoughts are rubbish, but emotionally dealing with that level of distress is draining, to say the least.

I am glad to have this opportunity to put something of myself out into the world. It’s all a conundrum and I learnt long ago not to expect answers. I guess what I’m looking for is some reflection on how others relate to and experience their own minds.

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Some reflections on one of major characters in Knitting Time – Crow

Crow_Drawing-smallIn the early 1980s I developed a fear of crows. I could hear them listening to my inner thoughts. Their ugly call resounded like words of doom, pouring scorn and judgement on everything. Out walking across Finsbury Park and Alexandra Park in Haringey, I’d frequently come across the birds. Just the sight of a crow would induce a tightness with a physical sensation of foreboding in my stomach. I’d walk on quickly, doing my best to remain unseen. Their dark intelligence played on deep-seated fears.

Symbolic of deception, bad omen, death and decay, the Crow represented the perfect allegory for what was happening around me. In my mind, the seemingly massive increase in the numbers of crows in North London had a direct correlation with the significant decrease in the population of sparrows and other smaller, garden birds. The change in demographic mirrored the sense that an age of innocence was being replaced by much harsher, more demanding strictures.

There is no such thing as society, was Margaret Thatcher’s war cry. Somehow Crow seemed to be around and about the streets policing the malevolent forces that were at work. Strangers no longer spoke at bus stops, for being heard by Crow. I read the voice of Crow in stories about corrupt landlords cashing in illegally on the PMs great council-house sell-off, which made thousands of young people homeless, myself amongst them.

In the drawing attached to the poem the crows are surrounded by bricks. The red brick once again became a fashionable building material in the 1980s. We were in a regressive cycle, politically, in which the brick seemed to evoke the call for more severe structures, generally.

My one place of refuge was under the arbours of a 400 year old oak tree in Bruce Castle park. There was a bond between myself and the tree. It offered an air of protection, transporting me to a place where time didn’t exist and no matter about all the mad things happening around me. The tree gave peace in a time when no-one and nothing made sense.

The short-life coop house I lived in was alive with trickster spirits that literally brought it crashing down around us. I remember an incident in which a friend flushed the loo and the ceiling came down just about leaving the cistern in tact. For ever after there was no privacy in the privy. On another occasion a total stranger arrived at the house proclaiming me to be the messiah. She chased me down the street to my total bemusement.

I discovered a skull covered in green mildew in the cupboard under the stairs. An overwhelming malevolent presence literally shook the house after I promptly buried the bone in the garden – along with a library of books about Hitler and the nazis. I shared the house with another equally paranoid resident called June who would lock herself in her room for days; with her friend a six foot six skinhead with a heart of gold who’d come to the house bearing a huge metal chest full of dungeons and dragons figures.

The early eighties were difficult times. I couldn’t walk out of my front door without being stopped and searched by the police under the suss laws Thatcher brought in. Riots were in the air. And indeed this wasn’t long before the killing of PC Blakelock and the looting of shops and burning of cars in Mount Pleasant Road where I lived. 

Madness seemed to be the only option, tense and fraught with the cries of Crow, yet also offering succour in the language of trees. My Oak talked about impermanence. It reminded me that everything is subject to change and that all things will pass.

Below is a draft – my attempt at writing a rhyming poem with a strict rhythm. It’s not quite there yet!


In a fledglings quest to leave the nest

I heard the meaty, black call of Crow;

a caw, caw, rising above the chill breeze of adrenalin.

Immersed in a pit, lost in foul spit

his ghostly wings gathering the chill

a caw, caw, embracing a denial of humanity.

Policing the streets, crying deceipt

a refrain bending the stars to grey

a caw, caw, demanding subservience to the tricksters will.

And as my fear grew, so down I flew

to refuge in the arms of an Oak.

a caw, caw, refusing the smell of its gone-by centuries.

The years etched in bark, urged a remark

that all is one to love’s leafy touch

a caw, caw, laughing down the grainy texture of knotty wood.

Crow settled on clouds of an undone shroud;

sent Sparrow packing, wings clipped in shame

a caw, caw, impervious to any vision but his own.

Yet still in safety, I slipped gently

inside the flat earth smell of tannin

a caw, caw, turning with a twist even Crow could not murder

Posted in mythology, Poetry, psychosis | 4 Comments

Latest drawing

I’ve begun a draft of the introduction to the poems and illustrations in a poetry collection I am working towards, which will be published by Waterloo Press. It would be great to have your comments and responses to the following reflections on the themes within this work.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how families ‘create schizophrenia’; or create the conditions in which the display of behaviour defined as ‘mad’ becomes the only seeming way out. Examining how madness has passed down the generations, I came up with the stanza below for a poem on fatherhood.

We look into the shady darkness of each others’ failings
like penguins sidling up to each other, sharing mirrors;
clipped wings bristling, wondering who we are
when the morning rain comes to drench our genes.

The accompanying image is a mix of the absurd and something more distressing, perhaps. A mouth-less man’s face appears, one eye crossed out; below him two Emperor penguins perched between an amoeba. A distorted sun is setting below the fatherhood horizon. More faces emerge to witness this strange confrontation.


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Knitting Time: a draft introduction

I’ve begun a draft of the introduction to the poems and illustrations in a poetry collection I am working towards, which will be published by Waterloo Press. It would be great to have your comments and responses to the following reflections on the themes within this work.

Tree_Drawing-smallKnitting Time draws on personal experience of psychosis, in all its magic and chaos. Within my family history there has been an impressive display of so-called ‘mental illness’. I don’t think we’re especially unique. However, I do know that there has been and still exists an enormous difficulty to talk about the part our propensity for psychotic experience has played in the immediate and wider family.

My sense is that so long as there remains a tight wall around our ability to talk individually and collectively about our experience the more vulnerable the younger members of the family are to falling foul of the psychiatric system. I don’t believe that the cause is simply a matter of saying that it’s a chemical component within the gene pool of our family. Although I do believe that there is a sensitivity that has been passed down. But that vulnerability is much more about feeling sensations and a way of making emotional connections that have been passed on, than it is about chemical imbalances in the brain, as the medical profession would have us believe, with its dominant emphasis on the illusive chemical cure.

This collection has arisen out a need to talk about what it seems impossible to talk about. I’ve been lucky in many respects. Having grown up with and lived through the exigencies of the ridiculous things done to my mother in the name of psychiatric treatment through the 1970s and 80s I made a pact that I would find ways of coping with my own nuttiness without being ‘cared’ for with electric shock treatment and major tranquilizors. And by the grace of god I’ve managed that so far. It’s got easier as I’ve got older, having found strategies of coping with having an extraordinary brain.

I write partly as a way of coping and partly as a way of linking my experience with a more universal experience. The motive behind this collection has been about exploring emotions around what has been a major aspect of my life, but more importantly it has been about a bid to open up conversations about madness as a cultural phenomenon with others who’ve crossed that rubicon.

Knitting Time explores themes of how psychotic experiences arise out of loss, but the writing is also about what is gained from the understandings that come about through those experiences. The poetry takes images from specific hallucinatory experience and gives those moments a metaphoric sensibility.

Knitting Time also draws on memories of the old ‘asylums’ that were closed down in the 1980s and puts them in the context of survival of those institutions and the prejudices which corner us within narrow frames of reference as ‘survivors’.

This collection follows on from my first illustrated poetry collection ‘100 Houses’, which was published by Dada-South in May 2011.

Posted in Poetry, psychosis | 4 Comments

John Clare: ‘An Invite, to Eternity’

I’ve been reading a fair bit of John Clare lately. I keep coming back to ‘An Invite to Eternity’. It’s a poem I identify with greatly, remembering experiences of going through a complete dissolution of any sense of identity, where even recalling your own name is impossible.

Alongside Clare’s description of the loss of identity is a yearning for a soulmate to share life’s journey. The persistent refrain is perhaps a calling to a gentler, feminine side of the poets’ own nature to join him on the journey. He is absorbed, taken over by the wonder, the magic and the beauty of being lost in every sense, yet still there is a part of him that is looking for comfort.

It is a poem about the fragmenting of the mind that comes with loss; but also contains some bigger ideas of the extraordinary power of the imagination to transform the natural world and create grandeur from the smallest thing.

I’ve read commentaries on this poem which interpret it as a reflection on torment, hell and the pain of an unrequited love. But I don’t read it as a pessimistic poem in the sense that he is describing, with great beauty, what we all pass through moving from life to death. Whilst identity fades with its loss comes something magnificent and mysterious that Clare is embracing. The power of that beauty and the sense in which it is something he has chosen, is expressed in the rigid, perfect structure of eight line stanzas made of rhyming couplets, that hold the poem together.

There is something very liberating about being able “to be and not to be”; a recognition of the fragility of the ego, which can change so suddenly and dramatically in the face of the circumstances of life.

An Invite, to Eternity

Wilt thou go with me, sweet maid,
Say, maiden, wilt thou go with me
Through the valley-depths of shade,
Of night and dark obscurity;
Where the path has lost its way,
Where the sun forgets the day,
Where there’s nor life nor light to see,
Sweet maiden, wilt thou go with me!

Where stones will turn to flooding streams,
Where plains will rise like ocean waves,
Where life will fade like visioned dreams
And mountains darken into caves,
Say, maiden, wilt thou go with me
Through this sad non-identity,
Where parents live and are forgot,
And sisters live and know us not!

Say, maiden; wilt thou go with me
In this strange death of life to be,
To live in death and be the same,
Without this life or home or name,
At once to be and not to be –
That was and is not – yet to see
Things pass like shadows, and the sky
Above, below, around us lie?

John Clare

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Opening up: a bit more about my life story

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.

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On Kurt Vonnegut: ‘Armageddon in Retrospect’

I’m preparing for my first reading from the illustrated collection I produced last year: ‘100 Houses’. The poetry is unashamedly personal, although that’s also the reason why i’ve found it so hard to actually tell anybody that it exists, despite the fact it was published over a year ago.

All of the poems relate to my experience of psychosis. I feel driven, somehow, somewhere, to have a conversation about psychosis; about what it means for individuals in their daily lives; about how you cope during those times you can’t believe what is going on in your head, because everything is so unimaginably out of control.

And somehow I want to have a conversation about the the causes of psychosis. My mother, myself and now my son, have all displayed a propensity for psychotic experience. I don’t believe that the cause is simply a matter of saying that it’s a chemical component within the gene pool of our family. Although I do believe that there is a sensitivity that has been passed down. But that vulnerability is much more about feeling sensations and a way of making emotional connections that has been passed on, than it is about chemical imbalances in the brain, as the medical profession would have us believe, with its dominant emphasis on the illusive chemical cure.

I have an intangible sense from my own family of something accrued through our collective experience of war. Although it has been almost impossible to talk about, my life has largely been dominated by an over-riding immanent, but absurd sense of threat. I’ve been struggling for some months to write a poem about how the shadows of the family experience of war has been passed down.

Recently I came across a short story by an author whose work I admire – Kurt Vonnegut. ‘Armageddon in Retrospect’ is a posthumously published collection of essays and short stories by the author, all related to the theme of war. ‘The Commandant’s Desk’ is a short story about a Czech carpenter and his daughter. They have bitterly endured Nazi and Soviet occupation during the long years of World War II. The father looks forward to his country’s salvation when American forces move in…

The father says: “It’s over, the killing is over… and we’re alive. Did you think that was possible? Did anyone in his right mind expect to be alive when it was over?”
His daughter Marta responds: “I feel almost as though being alive were something to be shamed of.”

Both father and daughter endure three equally oppressive armies who come to invade and / or liberate.  And there is nowhere they can hide but in shame. In the story the father’s pacifism is overrun by hopelessness and leads to terrible consequences.

But in that short quote is the nub of the feeling I’ve been trying, unsuccessfully so far, to explore in my writing; that somehow surviving were something to be ashamed of. It isn’t something that’s easy to talk about, but there is a sense of guilt at being alive expressed in the story, that I can relate to strongly, instinctively.

The form of capitalism that has been developed since the industrial revolution, has been dependent on war; on producing mechanisms for war and for breeding the circumstances in which war occurs. Humans endure, life carries on after war, but individuals, their families and their offspring are never the same.

100 Houses is available from Amazon – price £5

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We are all one!

In throwing myself into an exploration of psychosis I am challenging demons that persist to hang over me. I am searching for an illusive key. My sense of picking up this baton feels heavy and formidable, but I  have a sense that if I don’t begin to travel this road it will simply continue in a cycle that will carry on driving me mad.

We are all one! In certain frames of mind this spiritual observation, which permeates a myriad of beliefs from across the ages, seems incontrovertible. Yet to take it on board as a principle guiding force in life, is without doubt, potentially dangerous and damaging. It can lead to a frame of mind where the ego finds it impossible to discriminate. In a very real sense the dissolving of the ego leads to an inability to determine where the subject ends and the other begins.

In contemplating my experience of that place I feel a dichotomy between a sense of an extreme peace and an extreme fear that leads to psychosis. To enter that frame is to go beyond time and the linear sense of day-to-day life and to find a point in which the cyclical nature of everything is within grasp. But with that comes a sensitivity and a vulnerability that strikes at the core of the self.

The following poem refers to an experience of being ‘saved’ by an ancient Oak tree in a park in London N17 in the 1980s. Trees can seem to know so much more than people. Sometimes it’s easier to feel ‘one’, to feel ‘connected’ with a tree than it is to be able to communicate with another human being – especially in that fragile space of dissolution.

The Meaning of Psychosis
© First published in ‘100 Houses’ May 2011

Falling into that hill;
where earth, sun,
moon and stars connect.
Rhyming Thomas calls
and you want to go there
where eyes that don’t see
peep through shadows
of ancient markings
spelling traces of
a memory of a House
older than God’s.

Falling into that time before
dog-bound and
you imagine a knowledge
intuitive and broad; hear
ancestors reading
the flight of Herring Gulls
the mood of Crows or the
alighting of a Robin
on midnight’s tree.

Falling into that yearning
to see again
the first splitting cell
re-enacting its magic
below the surface
of a living landscape.
Oaks that speak
as family when
the human machine
binds our soul-laces to
the gate of the relentless

Falling once more
beyond the filter
that holds one moment
to the next. We become
as fish in the grass,
seeking to forgive
moon its monstrous
children; whispers
louder than dust when
thought and fact collide

100 Houses is available from Amazon – price £5

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