Book Review - Diary Drawings: Mental Illness and Me
Posted Friday 26 August 2011
This is a guest post by Sharon and part of our series on the shortlist for Mind’s 2011 Book of the year awards.
I have been reading a few books, biographies and reference books, related to borderline personality disorder in order to better understand my own diagnosis. This is the first book I have read that isn’t ‘word’ heavy.
Throughout her 11-year-journey in the mental health system she recorded diary entries in the form of drawings (hence the title ‘diary drawings’). The collection was exhibited at the Wellcome Collection in 2009.
Through 158 drawings and 17 stages we follow BB as she battles, not only with her mental health, but later with cancer as well.
Marina Warner (author, lecturer and curator) gives an introduction to BB’s incredible journey to recovery, drawing parallels between her work and that of other artists whose work charts the workings of their minds.
The earliest stages are filled with images of despair, harmful intent, blood and provoking self-portraits. Her desire to ‘keep going’ despite her problems and that letting go of the ‘good things in my life would be the beginning of the end’ are sentiments I share.
As she moves on, other people - professionals and friends - feature strongly along with images that express her inner and external turmoil. Throwing herself into her work and home life is a survival tactic that resonates strongly with me. You can see her progress is tainted by change as her sessions at the day centre and drawings reduce in frequency and responsibilities become overwhelming. Paranoia kicks in.
As I reached the halfway point of the book I almost felt cheated by the lack of words. Pictures give an insight into what is BB thinking and feeling but I wanted to know more. Other than a few lines with some images and a brief intro to each stage, there is little commentary to give me the answers to the questions that I had. They say a picture can convey a thousand words, but we are interpreting her feelings and emotions without her input to explain them; I would have liked to see more commentary - being a ‘wordy’ person myself...
Stage 10 was the most moving stage for me; the first image made me freeze with fear (Picture 518). The commentary on the high level of fatalities during the recovery process really scared me. I am just starting on my own treatment journey and I had a sudden urge to not want to face this... meanwhile BB was flicking from submersion to elation and back again.
Dissociation and paranoia are show as people dressed in purple fleeces spying on BB. They are an interesting set of images and have reflections of the self ‘diving in’, drowning or under attack. I laughed at the image of an occupational health professional represented as a ‘Hitler’ figure (Day 560) – during my last visit to occupational health I felt like I was being interrogated by a Nazi!
As BB’s mum approaches death, and she herself is diagnosed with breast cancer, hospitals feature heavily along with a vision of her father looking after them (Day 668, he died in 1966). Despite losing her mother, Stage 17 leaves us with a ‘happy ending’ as BB moves on to a new era of her life - beyond the mental health system.
The final image ‘Beyond the Stages’ (Day 711) is my favourite image. It illustrates a daily stream of consciousness. People stroll across a bridge over a river, which runs from the head down the nose, mouth, chin, and neck to the chest. With grass shoulders, the bridge is like hair. It is a very positive and warming image.
In BB’s essay ‘For the Record’, a postscript to the drawings, she attempts to address some of the questions asked by visitors to exhibition of the drawings at the Welcome Trust. She describes how keeping busy, a trait I share, helps maintain the ‘facade of normal life’.
She talks about how she wasn’t judged for having cancer, which made it easier to be open about having the condition. In contrast she feels she was judged much more for her mental health issues. She gives suggests areas where mental health care can be improved, such as changes to diagnostic systems and communication between NHS teams. Finally she leaves us with some questions of her own...
Finally BB’s daughter Dora explains how she saw the drawings as a child, how they communicated what they weren’t always told. She also describes her emotional journey during the production of the exhibition.
Overall, ‘Diary Drawings’ is an interesting insight into one woman’s experiences in a form that is easy to follow, although it leaves you wanting to know more. The drawings have a simple childlike quality, if people without mental illness were to draw their ‘inner selves’ I feel we would see much of the same – these are images of thoughts, feelings, emotions that are not isolated to being mentally ill. This book would speak to people from all experiences and backgrounds not just those who have experienced mental illness.
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