Our Recent Posts

Archive

Tags

“Mind Maps”: What it meant then. What it means now.

It was 2012 and I was in my final year of Visual Art at University. Easily the most stimulating and engrossing the time of my life- I lived and breathed ideas. I worked into the night, enjoying the peace of the world during those dark hours. I felt utterly creatively saturated and it was wonderful. I felt like I had endless reams of ideas falling out onto the pages of my sketchbook and each week was a journey.

It’s still 2012. I’m still studying Visual Art. I’m not happy though. I feel deeply petrified; I’m unexpectedly pregnant. I complete my degree but it is a time of despair and panic, sickness and guilt. My mind is already suffering. I feel like people are looking at me differently already. I didn’t know how much worse things were about to become.

It’s 2013. Here she is. My child. A little girl in perfect health! She sleeps through. She feeds like a dream. People tell me she is clever but I look at her and wonder why she doesn’t seem to be developing. Every day is a struggle. I feel alone. I am alone. We live in the woods in a suburb, and although it sounds idyllic, it is damp and cold and ironically we get no daylight through the windows because of the beautifully dense canopy.

People say thing like “She is all eyes for Mummy.” I look at her and I think cynical thoughts about whether she even knows who I am. I’m certain she doesn’t. I believe I could walk out now and she wouldn’t miss me.

These thoughts progress. I’m hiding it well though- wouldn’t want anyone to know that I haven’t felt a solid emotion in months. I love her, though. It’s difficult to convey loving without feeling, but I dote on her and care for her like my life depends on it. Somehow though there is this hidden side to my thoughts, the word cynical again seems apt. Her cries make my brain rattle and I stop showering because I know she will cry. I don’t have energy to make any art anymore. My degree was a waste. I look pathetic. I have no friends in this new place, and no family. I stop going out because I am aware of the glances of strangers. They think I can’t look after her, I’m sure. They think I’m inept. I am. I’m useless. She doesn’t love me. Nobody loves me. She doesn’t even know who I am and the people who do, stopped finding me interesting a long time ago. I’m nobody. I’m nothing. If I was hit by a bus, nobody would even care.

It was those last eleven words there that changed everything. I said it to the wrong person. Or perhaps, looking back on it, the exact right person: my health visitor. Cue battering thuds at my woodland cottage. She has received my text! …It didn’t take long to persuade her I wasn’t going to harm my baby, that was the truth. I’m an uncomfortable liar though, so convincing her I didn’t want to harm myself was less easy. I never had though- so I kept that in mind and explained that I had been overcome with panic (true) and did believe nobody cared (also true) but that I wasn’t toying with finding a main road with a busy bus route. I’m not so sure now.

She insisted I go straight to the GP. I thought she was going to take my child away if I didn’t go so I complied. The GP was sweet and spoke in a very gentle voice. She listened then prescribed me sertraline. I went home and cried for a long time. I had told someone. I could start getting better. I opened the box of drugs, I read through the literature inside. I put the pills back into a box, and into a cupboard. I still have them. Not one pill gone. The act of simply letting it out had already altered my perception. My child was still in the house and I hadn’t been locked away, and that, was progress.

Soon after, my health visitor came to see me. She asked if I had taken the drugs. I confessed. She didn’t look surprised. She whipped out a leaflet for a course: Arts on prescription. She must have known I would want to find another way. She was right. The course was the catalyst. I sat there for 12 weeks and never told anyone I had an art degree. I couldn’t face the raised expectations and I needed to be in a place where I had no demands on me. They made us cups of tea and there was a creche. The little things counted and by the end of the course I was thinking about my practice again.

Those weeks of pressure-free creativity resulted in making me think about where I had come from and what had changed in my life- from pre-degree to degree to post, pre-pregnancy to post, pre-parenthood to post. I wanted to face up to these huge shifts; Hiding hadn’t worked, talking wasn’t my style. Painting and sketching had been great for the Arts on Prescription but I was never a painter or a sketcher before, I was a mixed media conceptual artist working with anything but. I had an arsenal of skills and ideas and I just needed to hone them and find a way at home of getting around obstacles: I had no money, no childcare, no confidence. What I did have, though, was one little 1970s German typewriter, a stack of paper, and my old friend, the night time.

Slowly but surely a plan began to emerge: A study of environmental and emotional experiences to somehow quantify the well-being level of living in a place and experiencing certain events. Did circumstance and lifestyle tie in with environment to illustrate state of mind? Certainly. I knew that as a result of living in the woods with no company or daylight. (Self-imposed nocturnalism has never really impacted badly on my well-being but having no light when attempting to sleep train a baby was a whole other issue, paired up with an academically unstimulating lifestyle and “baby brain” I had no chance.)

A brief outline of experiences and a tally system seemed like a powerfully impassive way to express myself whilst still maintaining honesty and some sort of privacy - key personal aspects needed to be included. The self-imposed brief needed to include a setting free of my secret. It needed to be quick, like removing a plaster or removing a bandage. I opted for “mental health breakdowns” for this category. It was matched in weight with “pregnancies”, “births”, and “deaths”; I wanted to give an honest overview of my circumstances. I never made the body of work considering it might be seen in any context other than by myself at home- but given my art school training, audience interaction was embedded in my process. It was a fortunate choice that for a viewer participating in the narrative that there was the possibility of investigating me and forming conclusions or finding little clues and links along the way- to uncover, relate to and hopefully feel a sense of kinship with the author.

To balance out these deeply personal experiences, I wanted to shift the weight and include some other subjects: the mundane, the everyday, the relatable. Mundane and relatable can also be telling though. Postcodes were included, but no towns; dates were included in a “From___ - Until___” system. There would be a map to partner each varied tally. Looking at the map, the viewer would be able to study the complexity and forms of streets, as well as the quantity of streets. This would be another clue: densely populated urban areas have frequent instances of crime, as well as vermin issues. Instances of “mouse infestations” and “burglaries” are telling indicators of an environment. “Sexual assaults” are also commonplace, and as a recipient of some of those, it was also a strong hint at the state of my well-being. I wasn’t lonely in the city, and mouse infestations didn’t lead to mental health breakdowns, nor did sexual assaults, but those environmental factors aren’t deductive of a particularly contented life. But I was still sane. All in good time.

Now for the maps. These were to be the most challenging aspect. I was against an influx of information. The tally system needed to be the main source of written clues. Street names were irrelevant and besides, I wasn’t confident in my competency to know how I could even achieve such a feat. I was mentally feeling better for some guided creativity, but I still needed to make time and solidify my concepts against a backdrop of endless negative thoughts. I was still struggling significantly with my mental health and those pavements I had pounded as a free, and sound-of mind person seemed like long lost roads. I didn’t think I was ever going to recover so I decided to use a single symbol. The ellipsis. It made perfect sense. At that point I didn’t perceive a future (cue “. . .”) but I needed an end to the mental turmoil and to feel ok again on a long term basis (cue “.” ) Thus meandering lines of ellipses and full-stops were born, with no tangible beginning or end. Much like a metaphor for mental illness.

noun

  1. the omission from speech or writing of a word or words that are superfluous or able to be understood from contextual clues.

"it is very rare for an ellipsis to occur without a linguistic antecedent"

  • a set of dots (…) indicating an ellipsis.

The ellipsis stood for more than a convenient conceptual and contextual grammatical tool. As I hammered that key I felt like I was using my hands and my mind to pace those streets. I would fall into a trance, in a state of such calm that that one symbol became footsteps, memories and emotional obstacles. I didn’t know it, but I was therapizing myself. Those trails of full stops were like balls coming at me that I was batting away. Each ball was a small demon or a negative thought. With each stroke on my typewriter, each distinctive crash on my machine felt like progress. I was travelling. I was travelling in my own mind, putting to bed issues and unhelpful comparisons. The rose tinted lens fell away and I saw those streets in the past and present and future as a place of freedom once more. They were part of one long journey that was my personal existence. The maps had no beginning and no end- they were a series of experiences each contributing to my personal set of experiences.

I began going out again, feeling my feet contact the ground and I was suddenly a part of the environment again. I was lifting my head and looking at the world. Then each night I would go back to my machine for a fresh meditation, albeit a loud one. I was becoming increasingly dextrous on the typewriter and I felt ownership over a skill I had taught myself, over an idea that was mine and mine alone. My life, my ups and my downs- my terrible depression, and they had inadvertently led me to this incredible form of self-healing. I felt in control again. It felt amazing. I was an artist. I could be a mum and be sane and be an artist and it was all possible from the comfort of my studio (a.k.a my bedroom). It was a revelation, and an empowering one.

Taking the individual maps and putting them into book form hadn’t initially been my objective, but in looking at them as fragments of one long continuum I decided that (as a narrative) what better way of presenting them was as a book. They defined my life. Country upbringing to formative years as an independent 18 year old in an urban landscape, to parenthood followed swiftly by illness and the vicissitudes that brings- the maps illustrate my lifetime subtly and are a reflection of my personality in their delivery. A quick glance of the piece, and its initial scientific style don’t give away the honesty and significance of the information revealed. The meandering ellipses don’t immediately convey recovery and self-healing. Those creative choices are mine and are profound to me but as an artist I invite and confront you gently to lean in and take a look at my soul. I am open and laid bare but the book doesn’t spell it out easily- although the decisions made such as the tally system and choice of experiences couldn’t be made any clearer. I felt comfortable that my secret would still be discreet- after all, how many people really look and listen these days? It wasn’t in my nature then to shout about my mental health, and nor Is it now. But choose to look and it’s all there. Have I ever had an abortion? Have I ever been mugged, burgled, raped? How is my mental health? It’s an open book.

Who is really looking at other people? Was anyone ever looking at me thinking I was an incompetent mother? Are we all inward and all battling our own demons? Certainly. Are we doing ourselves any favours by worrying? Certainly not.

So, “Mind Maps”, then and now. The book led to me gaining the confidence to be a proud mother with a thicker skin and more courage than ever before in my life. My ideas are stronger than ever, they mean something to me and accepting my post-natal depression gave me the ability to look at my life through fresh eyes. “Mind Maps” saved me from prescription drugs and it demonstrated to me the power of creativity in keeping healthy in the mind. Since making “Mind Maps” I have had a second child, and incredibly, I didn’t experience any depression or mental health issues. None whatsoever! I think because I knew there is always a way out of that awful dark place I didn’t feel despair like first time; I found my medicine. If I feel down I know I always have my therapist upstairs. Her name is Erika. She is German, in her late forties and she is a wonderful listener.

Follow

  • Instagram
  • Facebook

©2017 by Penny Alexander Visual Artist. Proudly created with Wix.com