To mark Bipolar Awareness Day we asked Outside In artist Calileo Fandango to write about how mental health issues have effected her life and how she uses art to express herself.
What is your own experience of Bipolar Disorder?
My first encounter with any sort of mental ill-health was during childhood. My Gran “suffered with her nerves” and as I got older my parents told me she was “a manic depressive”. Neither of these terms were ever expanded upon, and I somehow knew that I shouldn’t ask. In my late teens I was aware that Gran had been admitted to hospital (again, “for her nerves”) and I was told that she was “in the Loony Bin”. Having never been allowed to visit Gran during previous hospital admissions I decided that (as I was now officially an adult) I would take myself off to visit. I arranged to pick my Aunt up on the way. This was a special area of the hospital, situated around the back and with security measures that I hadn’t seen in other areas of the hospital. I got a strong sense that the patients housed here were being kept out of the way – which added to the sense of shame I was gathering surrounding mental health. Out of sight, not spoken about, etc.
None of the staff at the hospital were wearing uniforms so (I’m aware now that it’s a bit of a cliché) I couldn’t really tell the staff from the patients. Although I had been a little nervous that she might look or act differently; my fears quickly subsided. Gran seemed the same to me as she usually did. She was still my Gran.
I remember feeling empty when I heard that she had tried to take her life. I was aware that this was something I was constantly plagued with. At the age of seven I had discovered suicide. A boy at school, who thought he was cool, educated us on a method of killing yourself. In reality his claims were ridiculous; but nevertheless this was the first time I had become aware that one’s mortality can be decided upon independently. My childhood had been riddled with unpleasant situations and incidents; and since this discovery I’d always considered that at the point when I could no longer cope with living – death would come on my own terms at a time of my choosing. I was devastated to learn that Gran had actually tried. My Granddad had passed away a couple of years earlier, so I assumed Gran’s actions must have been motivated by grief. (I later learned that she had tried to end her life several times previously, before my Granddad died, and that this was possibly part of something much bigger. But at this time I really had very little knowledge of mental health).
As I got older I learned more about mental health and the many complexities that sufferers, like my Gran, face. Manic Depression became Bipolar Disorder and I became aware of this and other conditions through my own research (I wanted to be able to help my Gran) and through the wider media.
In my twenties my GP referred me to a Psychologist for problems of my own. I was very quickly diagnosed with “severe depression” and put on my first anti-depressants. Until this point I had not been aware that I suffered with anything under the mental health bracket. I then remembered that I had been pulled out of lessons roughly once a term all the way through school to see a Child (or Educational) Psychologist. I still don’t know what the reasons were for that – there’s nothing in my GP or current Psych notes; and my parents don’t remember anything about it! I knew I had gone through more than my fair share of really rubbishy situations throughout my life; but I had never considered that they might have had any impact on my mind. I don’t know whether I have a genetic predisposition to mental health problems, or whether my past trauma is the biggest factor, or if I would have developed the same issues regardless of lived experience. Adding up the facts (as I saw them), the Psychologist at school + my new diagnosis + anti-depressant medication + the fact that I had always felt different and isolated for as long as I could remember = I evidently did need some sort of help.
It took a further fifteen years, many changes in medication, lots of different psychologists, psychiatrists, therapeutic approaches, counselling and soul searching to finally reach where I am now. I have the most amazing Counselling Psychologist in the world, an awesome Psychiatrist, the right type and dose of anti-depressants and a combination of anti-psychotic medications. And it works for me. I know I am extremely lucky to have the support that I have. So many individuals wait for years to receive the help that they need. Cuts to funding and services continue to mean that too many folk lose or never receive what they need. I’m also extremely fortunate to have a fantastic partner – who understands, supports and (I hesitate to say; but it’s true) tolerates my mental health needs in a far deeper and compassionate way than I could ever have hoped for.
In terms of formal diagnoses; I find that these days it’s often resisted. Mental health is so complex and diverse that pigeon holing someone with a label of a specific diagnosis can limit the treatment they receive; potentially being detrimental to their progression and recovery. As with everything in life, the boundaries are sketchy and individuals rarely fit neatly in to one box. I found this frustrating at first, wanting to know “what’s wrong with me?” I know that I have features of Bipolar Disorder, Schizo-Affective Disorder, Depression, Anxiety, OCD, Body Dysmorphic Disorder and others. It doesn’t matter what badges I could be wearing – I am being treated in a way that is appropriate to me; and that’s amazing.
You use art as a means of expressing what’s in your head. Please could you explain a little about this process and how it has helped you?
My head has always been a very busy place. I am constantly bombarded with very vivid images, sounds, sensations, textures – all at the same time and all combining to overwhelm me. At times of mental health crisis I have difficulty “seeing beyond” the stuff in my head. It’s almost like I can’t get past it until I put it on paper. “Talking” has never come easily to me. Not when it comes to expressing actual feelings, emotions, traumatic experiences, etc. It was my current Psychologist who unlocked my ability to translate the images from my head on to paper. Being able to produce something tangible provided the opportunity to show what’s going on in my head and act as a catalyst to opening up appropriate dialogue.
As the therapeutic benefits of extracting the contents of my head have increased, so has my ability to more accurately express myself; both visually and verbally. Through art I have been able to open up past traumas and address many issues that had been buried deep for many years. As well as encouraging me to explore and develop art as a therapy tool, my Psychologist is also incredibly supportive and unwaiveringly respectful of my work. She sees a purity and beauty in my art work and has always hoped that I would one day be able to exhibit my work in some form.
Until I discovered Outside In, my only audience had been my partner and my Psychologist. Being able to share some of my pieces through Outside In has felt extremely liberating. The work I produce has evolved and grown in ways that I couldn’t have predicted. My work can range from being reasonably self-explanatory, to quite horrific, occasionally cheerful and other times quite abstract. When I am working, I simply endeavour to replicate the images from my head as accurately as possible. I don’t consider any impact they could have on anyone else; as they are simply a direct representation of my psyche. However I would be truly honoured if, one day, I could use my art in some sort of advocacy way to benefit others.
How important do you think it is for campaigns like Bipolar Awareness Day to raise the profile of the condition and get people talking about mental health?
Even now, in 2016, I experience a significant amount of stigma surrounding mental health. Knowledge, research, public information, etc have come a long way since my parents and grandparents were growing up. However I feel there is still widespread ignorance on the subject. Statements like “1 in 4 of us will suffer a mental illness at some point in our life” are frequently used to signify that “all of us” will encounter mental ill-health on some level: whether personally or by someone we’re close to. However statistics like this seem to somehow become lost in translation and are more commonly perceived as “there’s a 3 out of 4 chance that I won’t go mad” – eg “it’s not my problem”.
When my head exploded (I had a reasonably significant psychological breakdown and could no longer care for myself, let alone work) I considered that I had a fairly strong support network. But I found that friends didn’t know how to approach me. At the beginning people were scared to contact me, worried I would flip out or that they might do or say “the wrong thing”. So most of them stayed away. As I embarked on a slow recovery process some started inviting me out again, but I was still a long way from being “ready for the public”. Eventually they tired of being turned down; and retreated again. Now I only have a few friends, I still can’t really “socialise” and feel pretty rejected, isolated and lonely.
If I was asked what I would have wanted over this time, I would say simply a message every now and again. Just a “Hi, how’re you doing?” or “Is there anything you need?” or even “Did you hear the one about the monkey and the moped?”. With text messaging, social media, etc you don’t even have to SPEAK to anyone. Just send a message. Surely THAT can’t be too awkward? I could have said “I’m not great, but thanks for asking” or “today’s ok” or even “I don’t really want to talk about me, but I appreciate the contact. How are you?”. But the point is: people are scared and I believe it mostly comes from ignorance. Maybe not directly on the part of the individual. Yes, folk could take it upon themselves (like I did with my Gran) to research, but if mental health was TALKED about more often; I think less people would be afraid of it.
If a friend has a lung infection, a shattered knee cap, a stomach complaint – it doesn’t change their personality. I think THAT is what people are scared of. The perception is that if someone suffers with depression, or has a diagnosis of something under mental health: they metamorphose into something socially unacceptable. A psychotic serial killer, the weird old lady at the end of the road with multiple personalities, the bloke on the bus who talks to himself and wears worn out shoes!
I hope that campaigns like Bipolar Awareness Day will help to start conversations. It does seem like there is a growing awareness of mental health among younger adults. I think it is being addressed in schools through PSHE and kids are growing up with a greater understanding of mental health issues than folk of my generation (I’m over 40). But there will always be an element of “unless it happens to me”. I think increasing the number of campaigns like this could broaden public awareness of mental health issues. The more it is talked about: the more “the general population” will comprehend. We need to be as comfortable talking about illnesses that cannot be seen as we are with those that can. Then when someone encounters a person with a mental illness they can treat them with the respect and compassion that they deserve – not shut them out.
You can find out more about Bipolar Awareness Day at Bipolar UK’s website.