Art at a mental health conference

The conference is over, and I’ve done what I came to do. And we did it!

Calmer on the second day, more prepared, more sleep, all the incredible goodwill of my tribe behind me… I was having hysterics on Facebook, so distressed, and also had to be bold enough to ask for money as the fuel costs were higher than I thought they would be and I didn’t have enough money to get home, also unless I paid my phone bill my mobile was going to get cut off within a few days. People responded to my cry for help with messages of support and encouragement and a bunch of deposits pending into my account.

I cried with gratitude. We chose our clothes carefully: the silver velvet dress, not corporate culture, not trying to blend in. But also feminine and non threatening. And not the slip on shoes but the boots, because we are far from home and need to be strong. The dress belongs to one of us, the boots to another. They are a powerful combination, one gentle and thoughtful and the other strong and grounded. Thus, we went to the second day of the conference.

This conference had an artist in residence, who was painting at one end of the foyer, next a table with crafts for a collage mandala set up. We quickly made friends and this was my home for the second day. It had everything I needed, close to a charger for my phone, toilets, drinks, and next to a door where the main talks were happening.

The speakers voices were broadcast into the foyer, so we could hear them clearly, and if I sat in a particular seat I could also see them or their PowerPoint through the little window in the door. Perfect. I sat in two sessions directly at the start of the day and very much loved both of them, but once I found that seat I was much more comfortable. The protocols around listening are hard on me, I often need to fidget, split stream (one of us might be writing a blog post while another one listens), get up and move about – fibro pain has been very bad this trip dur to the cold weather and so much sitting, or in the case of a speaker who is distressing me, leave. All that is horribly rude and distracting for a speaker and in most cases they’d assume I’m bored which is far from the case usually considering the effort in making to be there.

Out in the foyer I could do all of those things as I needed and they were none the wiser. In many cases too, speakers who were already confident voice projectors were being given microphones linked to speakers at high volume, I was literally being shouted at and found it unbearable. Out on the fringes I took what I could and stayed out of the middle where the fire burned too bright and too hot.

Funny for someone who’s usually in the middle doing the talking. I’m reconsidering everything I do and all the ways I do it.

My goal was to be present, to remain calm enough to be able to see the rest of the people as human. At first I struggled. The first speakers were both incredible and I related a lot to them both, in the sense of their wildness – they were not the obedient and conforming ‘recovered’ peer workers in used to seeing at these events but people with raw, rich, complex stories to tell and a fierce, gentle kind of pride. Hearing people speak my truths from the stage calmed the anguish in me. I didn’t need to find a voice in this space anymore. Once again I was struck by the folly of my own ego, my sense of urgency that I must speak the burning truths I know! Other people know these truths too, and are speaking them. I am not a lone saviour, but part of a rich, complex community, and not an essential part at that. I let go.

Over the day, I sat at the art table and people came and went as they wished. At first, I hated the mandalas, they seemed so tame and empty. Art for people who don’t understand art! And all the usual conversations awed, and disconnected “I could never do that, I’m not an artist, I can’t draw”, the same distancing and stereotyping I’m used to and hate…

But each person who came by said something that resonated. One came through and mentioned how they had torn the little coloured papers, instead of cutting, so they would have more interesting shapes. Another proudly showed me how they had glued the feathers into the work, to give it texture. One came back pleased to find that a colourful pattern they’d started – to disrupt the existing block colours, had been continued by other hands. One sat and talked a while and created complex zentangle type patterns within the shapes. One mentioned to me how someone had told them they must not go outside of the lines, and how they’d obeyed them and then later felt annoyed with themselves for not pushing back – but they were happy to return and find that someone had taken the mandala outside of the lines for them.

I started the day with my own stupid, quiet sneering that these people were so domesticated they could not even colour outside the lines and merely continued the patterns left for them by others. By the end of the day, I felt so much compassion for the complex choices they faced every day, working in dehumanising systems and being forced to obey, conform, adapt, over and over again, a thousand tiny cuts, tiny insults to dignity, tiny losses of their humanity. And yet. Every single one of them found a way to contribute something meaningful to them, within the constrains of the pattern. Pushing the limits but not destroying the whole. Working collaboratively. Each showed me their work, sometimes almost conspiratorially, or with sadness – “They never let us have any colour. Not in our clothes, our buildings, our paperwork.” There was a sense of deep loss, the subtle wordless grief of a people who have been quietly bled to the point of numbness.

But they were here. Showing up. Being present, like I was. Still, despite their numbness, determined to be part of change, to bring good into the world. It was honourable and piteable and so terribly human in its own bitter-sweet way. I saw them, and they saw me. I had amazing moments of connection, over and over again. A new friend sat by me and told me “they are all so afraid. Their body language is anxious. Even the important speakers as unsure what to do, who to talk to.” I was astonished. I saw only the armour of professional competence. I sat with her and shared her eyes and began to notice what she saw. The little tells of stress and fatigue. I’m outside that culture. That means I see some things more clearly, but others I miss. My friend works in that culture. To her it was obvious. I saw and I felt compassion and kindredness.

Everything everyone said to me had a profound ring to it. It was like I was hearing people for the first time, really hearing. Everything they said and did, spoke to me, and rang with deep wisdom. I felt like cataracts had dropped from my eyes and the world was shining so brightly it was almost too much to bear. People were connecting with me, sharing with me, and offering me help, and asking for support, in little, quiet conversations that I was glad to be part of, all day. This was more my language, my style.

At the very end, after most of the people left, there was a world Cafe, kind of speed dating with ideas. Arana was curious and snuck over to join in partway through and invited me gently in his subtle way. Helen Glover was pouring out the last of her energy into it, trying to make something happen, trying to make something new and enduring. She burned almost too brightly to look at, but she put down her microphone so I could bear to come to the edges and look.

I shared what I do – networks, community, service design, policy. I offered to host their new network, help them find an online home and nest their ideas. They were deeply interested and uncertain about such a different structure to the ones they work in, asking intelligent questions and spinning off my ideas into rich and detailed ideas of their own. This is what a community is. I spoke and then I was silent. Arana sat next to me and made little jokes and fed me jelly beans. I ate the black ones. I trembled with exhaustion but I was there. We all formed a plan and made a time to speak again. And then we broke apart and left.

Some of us went to dinner together and I invited myself. People were tremendously kind, they gave me money for fuel, paid for my meal, bought me supplies. They are part of my tribe now too. We see other. I was able in the quiet spaces over our shared food, to ask a few questions and I gleaned some important information.

Actually I learned a lot about the speaking role from many of the speakers – Heath Black, who was amazing and insightful, gave me a gem – that he copes with the stress of the speaking by having someone available 24/7 for phone debriefing, and that he rarely speaks to hostile audiences anymore because it’s too hard to recover from. He also gave me a copy of his book for my library.

Nicole, who is behind http:// , and who spoke eloquently of love and friendship as essential responses to suffering, alienation, and abuse – she tells me, kindly, how she turns off her energy when she isn’t in the right place to be present and connect. I watch her wake and dissociate through the evening, the moment its too loud she is gone, present in body only. And it’s such an elegant use of dissociation, so nuanced and practiced and clearly valuable that I feel like a child who has been thrilled with finger painting, stumbling into an art gallery of masters. We know so very, very little in mental health, really.

If we want better answers, we must learn to ask better questions. And if we want new answers, we must learn to ask them in different languages, invite new voices.

At midnight the last connection was broken, for a time, the last exchange, the final parting in the parking lot. And I decided to leave the city and find a quiet place.

The hotel were superb, they clearly could teach us something about organisational culture, every person I spoke to was professional but personal, kind and friendly. They let me sit in the foyer to recharge my phone, and the woman at the bar made me a take away hot chocolate and filled both my hot water bottles.


I drove out to the nearby conservation park and found a spot near the water, it’s stunningly beautiful. As soon as I leave the city lights behind me I feel something unknot within me and I know I’ve made the right call. I curl up in bed utterly content and go to sleep.

Two hours later I wake, at the conference one of the people had asked me to please write my ideas about mental health system reform. Apparently I was listening, because I wake with a book in my brain. This is getting tiresome! I don’t have hours in my day to write everything, think everything, feel everything. Life is almost overwhelmingly alive for me, even in the quiet moments I’m rocked by profound epiphanies and even in the times I’m getting away from it all, my mind is overflowing with inspiration and my heart with deep feelings.


I write about 20 pages of policy development and try to go back to sleep but it’s too cold. Even after I put on all my warm clothes, it’s too cold to sleep. I rest anyway, hopeful I might drift off. At dawn I cast a glance beneath my curtain and literally catch my breath. The sky is on fire. Out the other window, the bay is covered in a thick mist. As I watch, a dolphin swims past, regal and relaxed, very close.


I set up my chair by the edge of the water, wrap myself in a blanket and watch. The dolphin is swimming with a young calf. I think of my beloved Rose at home, and how hard this trip has been on her, how much she believes in what I’m doing and the sacrifices she makes behind the scenes, and I weep with joy. She is a mother, and she is here with me.

My tribe is here with me, and my new tribe is here also. It’s been imperfect and exhausting and bewildering and painful. But it’s also been exactly what I hoped and more, the meeting of tribes, the sharing of knowledge, new skills in the art of being human.

Back home Rose is being loved too, and in so grateful I cry again. We’re not alone.

I think of the rest of the delegates asleep in the hotel and, beautiful as it was, I feel sorry for them. I wonder what a conference would be like if we sat here at the end of it, together, around a fire, watching the dolphins. Life is beautiful and I’m exactly where I need to be.

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