On Thursday I did something I have never done before. I did a presentation to a bunch people in London via the internet. During the darkness winter days of lock down I have sat at my computer and listened to quite a few people give presentations on subjects as diverse as Art (Jennifer Pockinski, Elizabeth O’Reilly), Irish Language (Manchán Mangan), Irish Bogs (Creative Rathangan Meithea), Irish Cottages (Ulster Architectuaral Society) and Literature (Gabriel Byrne) and thoroughly enjoyed them.
This Thursday, I got my chance to see behind the scenes of these sorts of events and talk about my experiences for Mental Health Awareness Week with the team behind the online gallery, Artfinder (www.artfinder.com). I was also featured in a news blog on their website. During the pandemic many people are probably used using Zoom or Teams for their work meetings but I have never had this experience before. I think this is why I suggested a quick trial hook up the day the before. I had also seen things go slightly awry during those webinmars. My personal favourite was when the speaker’s laptop battery suddenly died and he had to rush off to find another laptop and the chair had to fill in for ten minutes whilst he did this!
I am so glad that we did a practice run with Jane and Kirsty. We started with Zoom. The sound on my laptop was dreadful and everything sounded like it was underwater. Jane and Kirsy sounded like a couple of unintelligable dolphins! Between my old Laptop and a ropey internet connection (Now TV, or “Not, Now TV” as we like to call it in this house), it wasn’t working. I wanted the throw the laptop across the room, cry and/or swear a lot. Obviously, I did neither.
Eventually, Kirsty, the tech genius, came up with the idea of doing the meeting with Google Meet. “It is very low tech”, she said. “That’ll suit me just fine, I am low tech”, I said! The rest of the test worked well and we had a chat about what it was like working remotely.
On the afternoon of the presentation I waited nervously for the meeting to start and even said a prayer beforehand. Then all these youthful faces pinged onto the screen. More and more until it was full with 9 boxes and more names listed along the top of the screen of people I could not see. I am not sure if the prayer helped because I still had problems getting my screen to share my powerpoint. Thankfully Michal (the CEO) talked me through which buttons to press , in which order and we were finally in business.
I then had that wierd moment before you start speaking that seemed to stretch on for ever. I looked at my screen. All I could see was my presentation, no faces now, which was odd too. I took a big breath and began.
OK – I am just going to give you the highlights.
- In 2006 I started having panic attacks on the motorway – I saw a couple of (not very good) therapist/hypnotherapists and bought a lot of books on panic attacks. It did not solve my problem. I avoided motorways.
- 2012 Minor Car Accident – which led to me developing PTSD & Burn Out (also known as a “Breakdown”). This resulted in hypervigilance/nightmares/flashbacks/inability to concentrate/exhaustion. I found a very good therapist and had EMDR therapy (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) and during the course of this therapy started painting every day. It was a very slow recovery and it took a year to return to work part time
- How art has helped me with my recovery / mental health over the years: – I find it calming, restorative, meditative and it boosts my fragile self-esteem. It also improves my concentration & energy levels. It provides a positive focus to my life, I find the colours therapeutic and painting also provides an intellectual challenge as there is a lot of problem-solving in painting. It also provides social connections through blogging & social media
As this was a presentation to Artfinder staff I talked about how important Artfinder has been in my journey into becoming a professional artist.
- My husband, Séamas, joined the Artfinder site on my behalf in April 2013. He also set up a website a blog for me.
- My first sale on Artfinder was in June 2013. It was a giclée print of “A Tenby Reflection” for £39
- I sold my first painting via Artfinder July 2013
- In the last 8 years I have sold over 800 works via Artfinder and gained over 6000 followers, which makes me the most followed artist on the site!
- I left teaching in 2017 and became a full-time artist – I put a lot more time and energy into my painting, my website, blogging and social media sites
Mental Health, the Covid-19 pandemic and other emergencies
- PTSD – I tend to think of the worse possible outcome to most things at the best of times. I usually have to talk myself down from my initial extreme reaction, but for once in early 2020 I was RIGHT! This new virus was an end-of-the-world scenario!
- I kept a diary to help cope with the sense of panic and anxiety I was experiencing and then. I took my dogs for a walk in the woods on my own (Séamas was in Ireland)
- I tripped and broke my leg and had to wait 5 hours for the emergency services to rescue me. You can read that long story here.
- I spent 9 days in hospital waiting for an operation to pin my leg.
During my long recovery from this experience, I reflected on the differences between how we all, myself included, treat physical and mental health issues. With physical health issues there is the physical pain (there was certainly lots of that), the practical difficulties of getting around, frustration at the loss of independence and the physical exhaustion as your body heals. I also discovered that this sort of trauma was easy to talk about. There was a lot of public sympathy & concern from people.
It was a lot easier to deal with than mental health issues. I was delighted to realise that I dealt with the trauma and pain with (mostly) good humour and fortitude – although that wore off a bit when my rehab took a whole lot longer than I was expecting. I felt mentally sound even if my body wasn’t.
In contrast, when I experienced my mental breakdown, there was a lot of isolation, shame, fear, embarrassment on my part as well as physical exhaustion. I had always been a tough, independent and reliable person and I hated that my breakdown changed that. I still struggle with accepting my limitations. It was clear that a lot of other people felt sorry for me. That was not easy to bear either.
One of the few positives of the pandemic is that people have been more open about how they have struggled with their mental health. I think that it has shown people that a lot of mental health issues are related to having to bear “unbearable” situations. My huband, Séamas, says I didn’t have a breakdown down but a break through. My life, as it was, was making me ill and it had to change. During the pandemic that unbearable situation was universal. Everyone had to deal with having our freedoms curtailed, especially the freedom to see our family and friends. Many people people discovered that the joy of doing things with your hands/body such as gardening, yoga, painting, baking saved their sanity. I know that in my darkest hour I was making scones with Séamas! Art continues to keep me sane.
I answered a number of questions from Michal and staff at Artfinder. What came up: Had I painted before the 2012 accident? What can Artfinder do to help people with Mental Health Issues? How do you help someone with mental health issues? Different therapies and medications and how they might work for person and not for another.
The presentation wasn’t recorded, and in a way I am glad about that. I don’t think I would have been so open about my experiences if I thought what I said could be picked over and examined by people who weren’t present at the time. It was a strange situation to give a talk to a group of people I couldn’t really see. When I have given talks before I have had people’s faces and body language to help gauge their reactions to what I was saying. This time I didn’t. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the whole thing afterwards because of this although the staff were all very positive. I hope that my audience got something out of the experience!
I will finish with a quote from “Anthem” by the Canadian singer and poet, Leonard Cohen.
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
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