Confessions of an art student: Part 6. Mental health awareness week
“We prepare a face to meet the faces that we meet.”
I thnk it was T.S. Elliot who stated this and I should know for certain since I quote it often to myself and sometimes drop it in conversations. I do that because I like to appear well-read and intelligent thinking this helps my self-esteem. I am happy when people think highly of me and I am often crushed, but not overwhelmed, by criticism. Fairly recently this was taken to the nth degree but I am not going to dwell on this because it is easier to keep it in. I often walk the path of least resistance because it is easier to do so.
When criticism is justified I aspire to be a better person by learning from my mistakes and resolving not to make them or exhibit similar failings. Sometimes that truth is easier to swallow because at least you can do something about it. Turn it into a joke. If we learn from our mistakes then I must be the smartest man on the planet. Lol. Pretend publicly it doesn’t hurt and then privately keep to your resolution for self-betterment.
When criticism is unjust then that is really harsh. Trust me I know because I have experienced much more than my fair share and it really stings because you can’t do anything about it. People will think what they will irrespective of your best efforts. Sometimes your face doesn’t fit so probably best to hide it behind some kind of mask- right? I have found myself rationalising to myself by saying “if you want to beat a dog you can always find a stick.” The key thing there is the desire to do so and some people just have their own agenda. It is the difference between being self-centred or person-centred in my opinion.
At times, when I am less buoyant than I am right now, I am my own worst critic and I beat myself up. I must learn to be kinder to myself- not just kind to others.
I recognise that Elliot’s quote is the very definition of a mask and that I have resorted to hiding behind a mask myself to my own detriment. I often hide my true feelings to present a more palatable version of my reality and glide more easily through my day. Confronting real reality is painful.
I am of course lying when I do so. I lie when people, largely outside my inner sanctum, ask me how I am and I say fine. We all do. I have M.E. I am often in pain or discomfort burnt out and exhausted. I face the choice of using my limited energy to work to pay the bills and use leisure time to recharge to go back to work. It is a limited and shrunken social world and at times it genuinely gets me down and do you really want to hear this?
I could go on and once made the mistake of saying too much one day. The colleague said; “I’m sorry I asked.” Perhaps they were dealing with their own issues.
So it is convenient to do so, to fake fine, as I don’t want to open up to just anyone because doing so makes me vulnerable. I am doing so now because I believe in the mental health cause. Soon I will be working in a mental health recovery unit and, because I am educated in these matters, I am not squeamish about talking about mental or any other health. Indeed, much of mental health awareness is getting individuals to be honest about their mental health and emotional state. It is necessary to do so to remove the stigma and solicit a more tolerant, person-centred and supportive society.
I do not want to grow a thick skin.
Isn’t that what wearing a mask is? An extra layer, a thickening of the skin in order to desensitise? Or at least maintain that illusion that we are okay to protect ego. While it remains manageable, I want to feel my physical and emotional pain. Denying a part of it is like removing one colour from the rainbow or painting without yellow. Intolerable, especially since creativity has been my salvation. Music and Art are good friends. They are patient. They wait for when you are ready and both in my experience have been intrinsically therapeutic. When my life has been turbulent and chaotic, music has soothed and art has helped order and make sense of my world.
My studies have gotten me through some hard times. I am lucky that when things get tough I resort to my OCA studies as a coping mechanism. I apply myself more fully. I read more intensely and attempt a higher output. Immerse myself. I know this does not work for everybody and it is trite to say just find what works for you. But you will find it.
Being goal directed, defining a purpose for yourself, being productive, being able to contribute something- like this confession- is validating and strengthens self-worth. Helping others to achieve it is even more so and for me that is route to self-actualisation, the almost mythical peak of Maslow’s hierarchy. It is also affirming to recognise the struggle in others and respect their courage. I see this in the work of John Bellany; specifically a series of three works all entitled Bonjour Professor Calne that marks its 30th anniversary in the same year OCA does, and is the focus of my BA (Hons) degree exhibition.
It is a self-portrait “in extremis”. John is having an existential crisis. Worse still, he doubts his ultimate end since he has betrayed the Calvinist faith he grew up in. He requires a new liver because of his alcoholism and he is guilt ridden because his problems are entirely his own making and someone has to die so that he might live. He does not know whether to cling to faith or superstition or the goodwill of family and friends or the skill of his medical team. His outlook is bleak.
What Bellany does is he talks about his mental health, the exigencies and contingencies of his life through his art. His mental health is embedded in the rhetoric of his brush strokes and he documents it unfailingly and unflinchingly.
He is flawed as I am. He is not the best role model but in articulating emotional state and mental health, he is.
He tells us it is okay not to be okay.