A space to level out
Posted Monday 19 September 2011
I believe firmly in the difference creativity can make anyone who experiences mental heath problems, so I’ve started working with Mind to make that a reality. This week I’m curating an exhibition at the Old Vic Tunnels and rallied the support of some pretty big name artists. We’ll have a private view (thanks to my friends at the Aloysius Society) and I hope we’ll sell as much art as possible and raise funds for these hugely beneficial creative therapies.
Over the years my art has been there for me at my lowest points and provided me with a powerful place for catharsis.
I prefer my own space to that of others and in my drawings I found a voice, a way to say what I was going through and who I was without having to open my mouth, fit in or look right. Throughout my teenage years, I could be a gawky acne-ridden loser, but I could shrug off my geekiness because I could draw. It was a sort of secret treasure that I loved and it was all that really mattered. Whilst others fell in and out with the hit cartoon or last night’s Top of the Pops, my gods were Van Gogh, Bacon and Picasso … the turbulence they describe and the way their work made me feel proved to me, no matter how bullied I got or how awkward I felt, that there was hope—something beautiful could emerge.
One night as a straggly art student I flopped on my mother’s doorstep, my lips like balloons. I was hardly breathing, I was weak and I was terrified. I’d suffered a totally out of the blue allergic reaction.
I’m Stuart Semple and I look like a puffer fish.
At hospital, the chances weren’t looking good; the normal drugs weren’t working. Quietly one night I whispered my goodbyes to my family. As I felt myself slip away I had a wakeup call. I felt for the first time what being alive really feels like, well, what the last thread of that feels like. I remember it so clearly, lying there praying, praying as hard as someone with no belief in a creator can. Then my mind flicked to my art. If I made it, that’s what I wanted to do with my life. Art! My life is for art. The clarity… and the irony. Why couldn’t I have had this revelation years ago?
The next day was a like a miracle, somehow I’d made it through, but the world wasn’t friendly. From here on in it was a threat. In fact, being alive to me was a hazard. The basic functions of day-to-day life became a terrifying battle to deal with. A day without a panic attack (or eight!), a day when I didn’t feel like I was dying was a godsend. A week without calling out the ambulance thinking I was dying was a good week. It got almost comedic, with the hospital staff in on the joke. They were convinced I was neurotic; I was convinced I was dying.
I’m Stuart Semple and I’m here because I’m dying again.
It’s not irrational to be phobic of food after a near death allergic experience, what is irrational is the way those sets of fears can merge with things that aren’t threatening. Like a pneumatic drill in my nana’s best china cup that phobia spread throughout my life. It seemed everywhere I looked death was ready to take me. Soon this sense, this lack of control, had coloured everything. What if it happened again right now…?
Yet nobody had a straight answer for me. What was it that caused this reaction? What could I eat? What couldn’t I eat? Terrified I was allergic to everything I was unable to put anything in my mouth; I was becoming phobic of everything. Even a glass of water was a nightmare. I couldn’t leave my flat and I couldn’t be alone. I can’t imagine how odd I must have looked; my chain of “behaviours” was getting more bizarre, from clutching my collarbone when agitated, to doing a weird chicken-like dance between doorways, bins and lampposts as I navigated the streets. Grasping for points and structures of stability, something to ground me where I really was. The usual cocktail of hit and miss drugs were offered, but in my state the thought of putting anything foreign in my mouth was a definite no go. (I’m not saying medication wouldn’t have helped me; maybe it would have.)
I’m Stuart Semple and I’m exercising my right to nil-by-mouth.
I held firm, “I want the best psychologist you’ve got and I’m willing to wait.” A few hoops later, including a weekly ‘Coping with fear’ group that became an ongoing joke for me. ‘Coping’ with the fear group itself became its own problem. Getting down there along was so traumatic that far from making things better, it made them worse. Much worse.
I’m Stuart Semple and I’m fearful that I’m allergic to life.
Then I happened to start doodling again, pen and sketchbook were the coping tool. I started writing or drawing what I felt, soon I was transported. It wasn’t an escape hatch as much as a way of facing up to the reality of where I was. It turned out a lot less frightening than I thought. Drawing gave me a different perspective on it. I could pour my heart out on paper.
I started sharing those on eBay and to my total surprise people wanted to buy them. Not only was it ok to feel this way, others could obviously identify with it. That was it! The art was the thing I could lean on. Paint is tactile, it position you here and now, it connects you with your body and with your environment, it focuses you. They say a picture can speak a thousand words, and certainly for me while I couldn’t describe what I was going through with my mouth, I could with my paintbrush.
I’m Stuart Semple and my art makes me better.
Art will always be there for me and I’m hoping that with the help of Mind soon it will be there for a lot more people too.
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