Working across different life areas the way I do is really interesting and somewhat head-bending. Peer work is already something I consider to have a ‘foot in both worlds’ of mental health ‘consumer’ and ‘staff’. The first time I sat down at a lunch table and heard staff members bitterly complaining about consumers with frustration because they wouldn’t attend a program they’d designed, I was shocked. The first time I sat with consumers who attacked not the practices but the character of all doctors, psychiatrists, staff, I felt my innards knot. Both consumers and staff often distrust me as having a primary loyalty to the other side. Sometimes having a foot in both worlds is painful and lonely, but I’m damn well determined to do it, because I see that as the heart of peer work, to unite what has been divided.
Then we add the creative world I also inhabit where I’m working with artists, poets, and writers. What a different world that is! It’s always funny to me how we build credibility in different areas.
As a peer worker, credibility is everything, it’s the platform on which I stand to have a voice. The usual way you establish credibility in the mental health world is through credentials. “Psychiatrist Gregory Brown says such-and-such.” I don’t have that (yet) so my credibility is based on lived experience, wide reading, and experience as a peer worker. I have to be conscious that my arty tendencies can play against me, that if I look like a hippy when talking to mainstream psychiatrists I quickly reduce my credibility. As a peer worker the message I have to give out to be accepted is that I’m normal, safe, trustworthy, reliable, and informed. Each audience I speak to is most comfortable with me if I appear to be one of them, if I speak to them with respect, use their language, dress like them, understand their values. This is a world dominated by the tenants of psychiatry and social work, it is about systems and hierarchies, and about moderation and restraint. This is not a world comfortable with passion, excess, or madness.
The opposite applies in the art world. There is nothing so suspicious as someone who appears academic, mainstream, and normal. As an artist the message I have to give out to be accepted is that I’m brilliantly creative, unpredictable, talented, and utterly mad! It’s probably best if I haven’t slept in a fortnight and mainline cocaine. That’s what real artists do. It’s not just acceptable to have weird coloured hair, it’s concerning if you bother to brush it before leaving the house. Turning up on time or at all is problematic, being able to handle money or make any kind of sense in an interview might have your work dismissed as ‘too commercial’. Artists are supposed to be broke lunatics no one else understands.
Sometimes I wonder at the wisdom of trying to work in both of these areas. I have a sneaking suspicion that recognition in one actually plays against me in the other field. I’m trying to show the world of mental health that I’m sane and reliable, and the world of art that I’m mad and talented. Some days I feel like a magician with a sleight of hand trick going on – ‘don’t look here, look there!’ so no one notices this. It is also a source of endless amusement to me, particularly in busy weeks where art and mental health gigs pile on top of one another. I go from mad to sane and back again in the space of hours, like changing my shoes. I get to harangue one audience intellectually, connect deeply with the next, make the next laugh, or think, or see things differently…
This is where it all comes together. Everything I do is about mental health. I can’t help it, I can’t help but think, speak, write, and paint about life, about what it is to be alive, and that is about mental health. And everything I do is about art, about freedom, creativity, expression, connection, communication, about being one of the makers rather than one of the destroyers, about hope, voice, truth. They’re two sides of the same coin, two parts of a whole. I’m not happy in arts alone. I’m restless and discontent when I’m writing and painting alone. I crave the world of mental health, the intellectual stimulation of restructuring the DSM, researching the history of psychiatry, investigating alternative mental health movements. There’s also a passion in me to connect with hurting people, and my personal history has left me fragile, but it’s also left me with a lot of the skills to connect. I sit in my studio and the restlessness is like fire under my skin. I can feel the tides out there, the wave of humans in pain, in need, alone, and afraid, like I have been. I have to be on the front lines. I have to reach out. And I have to be an artist, a poet, a creator. It’s not what I do, it’s who I am, it’s my voice, my name, my identity, my way of speaking and listening, my joy. It’s what stitches my wounds.
I’m so sad sometimes at what straddling these worlds costs me. I doubt, I re-evaluate, I try to find a solution to the problem that I want to do, feel, learn, everything. My voracious appetite for life has only been enhanced by years of sickness and grief. Sometimes I come home from very hard days in mental health and I hate my job. I hate the pain I witness, the secrets I carry, the suffering and the lack of resources and grinding endlessness of it, the poverty and cruelty and savagery of the world. I hate it and I hate my choices, and I cry, and I think of all the books I could be writing, the canvases I could have painted, the films I could have worked on in that time. They are like unborn children. I could have gone entirely into a creative field, given myself up to huge passions and projects that are about life but do not wipe my face daily in the grit and filth of life. Some days I come home spent, empty, lost, burdened by people’s trust, by their pain, by finding in myself what it takes to really look at someone who is suffering, to sit with them. Some days I wish I could be just one thing or the other.
But then, that’s also what it is to be an artist. You are swept up in mad passions, you give yourself to them utterly, you are spent. You sleep, you hide, you grieve bewildered, and a new dream seeds in your heart. This is the nature of creativity and the cycle of life energy. You can hate it, fight it, deny it, but this is where the great work happens. The cost is high but so is the joy. Beneath doubt and frustration and impatience is passion and a profound certainty that I am following a path for myself that is right. I have found my calling. And however much it may confuse people at times, everything that makes me a good fit for the creative world is everything that makes me a good fit for the world of mental health, and vice versa. They just don’t always know it yet. 😉