by Laura Greenway
CN: OCD, intrusive thoughts, anxiety, depression,
Behcet’s Syndrome, Scoliosis, Spina Bifida, stigma
When it comes to my health, I’m very honest. I’m usually very happy to talk in detail about my mental health issues – OCD, anxiety and depression, and how they affect my life, as the whole point of my work is to raise awareness of mental health problems and challenge stigma. However, there are times when I fall victim to this stigma myself and I end up bending the truth.
Once, a taxi driver asked me why I was entitled to Disabled Student Allowance. While I am usually don’t mind questions like this at all, as I know I look physically healthy and so can understand people’s curiosity surrounding my disabilities, what confused me was my own response. I found myself listing the physical disabilities I also have – Behcet’s Syndrome, Scoliosis and Spina Bifida – and completely avoided mentioning my mental health problems. It’s almost as if I felt ashamed. For some reason, I didn’t want this person to judge me and think I was ‘weird’ or ‘crazy’, and so I felt more comfortable telling them about the ways in which I suffer from fatigue and joint pains than about my OCD and depression.
“While honesty is important, it can be difficult to openly talk about mental illness due to the stigma that can surround it”
I left the conversation feeling ashamed because as a mental health rights campaigner, I had just shied away from an opportunity to help educate someone on how mental illness can affect people, and I believe that talking about mental health is a great way to help reduce misconceptions about mental illness. This interaction was important reminder that while honesty is important, it can be difficult to openly talk about mental illness due to the stigma that can surround it. In 2018, stigma still often surrounds (or is perceived to surround) mental health, but surely we should treat mental health problems in the same way we treat physical health problems – with the same kind of validation and sympathy and understanding. After all, no one should ever have to feel like they can’t talk about mental health for fear of being judged.
It is through my art that I have found the confidence to speak freely about my illnesses without worrying what people may think. A predominantly performance-based artist, I create work that is based around my own experiences of mental illness with the goal of enabling my audience to gain an understanding of what it’s like to suffer from mental health problems. Whilst all of my work is biographical and discusses these issues, it is my most recent body of work that has been my most candid when it comes to my anxiety, the theme of these works being ‘intrusive thoughts’.
“I create work that is based around my own experiences of mental illness with the goal of enabling my audience to gain an understanding of what it’s like to suffer from mental health problems”
This body of work began with a live piece I created last year at THAT Gallery in Basingstoke called ‘Intrusion’. The durational piece saw me sitting on a circular piece of paper, writing onto it the intrusive thoughts that came into my head until they completely surrounded me. Similarly, my 2017 piece ‘The Gaze’ saw me frantically cleaning painted boxes as a metaphor for the panic and stress I feel when I complete my OCD cleaning rituals, but ‘Intrusion’ was so much more transparent.
I was literally allowing the people around me a glimpse into my mind, to have full access to my thoughts at the time of making the piece. It was a very anxiety-inducing experience, but one that was also very liberating, and a piece that I would later find to be incredibly effective in helping to break down mental health stigma because of it’s honesty.
After the performance, I had a number of audience members approach me with comments on the piece. What surprised me most was the number of people who said the piece had made them feel less alone. By being able to directly read my thoughts, it allowed people to really understand how I was feeling and it enabled them to empathise with me, often recognising their own thoughts amongst my own. The fact I had been completely honest with this piece empowered others to come forward to talk about their own intrusive thoughts and anxieties, and in doing so, it helped to start a dialogue about the ways in which anxiety can affect us. I strongly believe that talking about mental health is one of the best ways to challenge preconceptions people may have about it, and this piece was particularly successful in allowing people to open up.
“By being able to directly read my thoughts, it allowed people to really understand how I was feeling and it enabled them to empathise with me, often recognising their own thoughts amongst my own”
I am incredibly lucky to have found a space to be honest about my mental health problems and I would love if everyone could have a space in which they feel they can be totally open too. For me, art has been that space, and I would encourage anyone to use being creative as a way of expressing themselves – you may not even chose to show anyone what you have made, but getting your thoughts down in front of you is a great way of helping us to deal with them. I will keep making work that describes my experiences and most importantly, I will keep sharing the meaning behind my work, because the more we talk about mental illness, the more we help to end the stigma that surrounds it.
The piece was first published on the Outside In blog, a platform for artists who experience barriers to the art world, and has been republished with permission. To see more of Laura’s artwork, visit her Outside In online gallery here.