Recovery heroes – a profile of Dolly Sen
by Dolly Sen, Sarah Morgan and Jerome Carson
The development of the recovery approach must mean a fundamental change in how mental health services see service users, for as the Social Perspectives Network paper rhetorically asks, ‘Whose Recovery is it?’, it is, of course, the service users’ (Social Perspectives Network, 2007). The recent influential Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health report, suggests that professionals need to move from a position of ‘being on top, to being on tap’ (Shepherd et al, 2008).
Service users need to take a more central role in the whole recovery debate. One of the ways that this aim can be realised is by looking at ‘recovery heroes’. These are individuals whose journey of recovery can inspire both other service users and professionals alike.
Dolly Sen: a brief biography in her own words
Dolly Sen was born in 1970 in London, the oldest of five children. She is from a mixed heritage. Her father is Indian and her mother is Scots-Irish. Her childhood was not a happy one, with physical, emotional, mental and sexual abuse, racism, poverty, neglect and bullying. Despite this, she excelled academically and had very close bonds with her siblings.
When Dolly was 14, she had her first psychotic episode and had to drop out of school. She was under the care of child psychiatry and social services, but felt that they exacerbated her problems by trying to force her back into the school system without addressing either the volatile home situation or the psychosis.
Dolly attempted to work but was unable to, lost in a world of psychosis, self-harm and suicide attempts until her 30s. Dolly has been in hospital four times: in 2000, 2001, 2005 and 2006. She is currently diagnosed as suffering with bipolar affective disorder, but has in the past been diagnosed with schizophrenia and psychotic depression. Three things changed this darkness into light. These were: her decision to recover and take personal responsibility; her creativity; and a course of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) in the Psychological Interventions Clinic for Outpatients with Psychosis (PICuP) at Maudsley Hospital. This enabled her to dream and make up for three decades of painful sleep. Dolly is now an accomplished and published writer and her works include, The World is Full of Laughter (Sen, 2002) and Am I Still Laughing? (Sen, 2006), which have both been published by Chipmunka Press.
Dolly’s dreams keep coming and keep being lived. She is a writer, director, artist, filmmaker, poet, performer, raconteur, playwright, mental health consultant, musician and public speaker. These include a succession of performance roles around Europe and at places like The Young Vic, Trafalgar Square and The Royal Festival Hall. She has undertaken a poetry tour and won a poetry award from Andrew Motion. She has directed two plays and several films, appeared on TV, and has given presentations at London City Hall and Oxford University. She has appeared over 20 times on TV and radio talking about mental health issues.
This is quite staggering, because in the past she was told that she would never amount to anything and would end up in jail or Broadmoor. She believed this, and was on her way there until she changed her belief into one of believing she could do anything she wanted to do. To Dolly, this proves that the mind is an amazing thing; it can drive you mad and inspire you in the same breath. And that you can do anything if you believe that you can do it.
Dolly Sen – interviewed by Sarah Morgan
Dolly Sen spent years in a delusional state. She published her book The World is Full of Laughter in 2002, to much acclaim. Most recently she performed at Bonkersfest, a festival by and for the mentally ill. In the programme she calls herself a professional mad person. She tells me that since she’s been creative professionally she writes, talks and creates artwork around the subject of being ill. ‘I just find I’m being paid for being mad’, she laughs.
She describes how she first got ill: ‘I was listening to the top 40 on the radio, when … the DJ’s voice kind of disappeared and instead this kind of deep gravely male voice began talking to me and saying “You know I’m watching you”, and “I know what you want”. Those two sentences were the very first sentences of me hearing voices.’
She experienced one long period of psychosis from that point. ‘That block of time was from a little bit of my late teenage years and my 20s. I wasn’t Dolly Sen, I was this thing taken over by psychosis. Paranoid and depressed and angry and negative … the only kind of light I had in those days was my writing … it stopped me going too into myself. But then again, having said that, when you’re really ill, you can’t write.’
She was very embarrassed about her illness and didn’t talk to her family about it. Talking about her family in her first mental health memoir forced her family to talk about it. ‘You know after that I felt really supported by my family.’ Once her illness was more public, she had both positive and negative reactions to it. She used to have a neighbour, who reported her to the Department for Social Security (DSS). The neighbour wrote threatening notes and Dolly even had faeces put through her letter box. That was the worst example, but usually reactions are less extreme. She also gets people saying: ‘I’m going to make something of my life after reading your story’.
When Dolly first saw a psychiatrist at 14 because the paranoia stopped her going to school, she didn’t admit to hearing voices or having hallucinations, so she was just treated for depression and didn’t take her medication. She says it was only in her 20s when she ‘just wanted help’, so she went to her GP and was transferred to the mental health centre. It was only after six weeks of taking antidepressants and seeing a key worker that she admitted to seeing and hearing things and was put on antipsychotics.
She has been hospitalised several times: ‘there were a lot of women who were really vulnerable because there were men that would pester them. I was big and crazy enough to tell them to go away and leave me alone’. As a result, she feels that hospitalisation wasn’t good for her recovery: ‘Let me put it this way, they said: “Dolly are you hearing voices or do you think that people are coming to get you?” and I said no, even though I believed it. I just wanted to get out as quickly as possible’. She was back in the hospital two weeks later.
Dolly was first in hospital for three months, then six weeks, then a month and finally three weeks. ‘I don’t plan to go back in, so I’m not going to say [the length of her hospital stays] are going to get better each time.’ She says: ‘I’ve had a lot [of antipsychotics], because they weren’t working. It was eight years until they found the right one. That’s a lot of time to wait, actually.’
She had to fight for non-drug therapies. In her 20s, she asked eight different psychiatrists for cognitive behavioural therapy and was told by all of them that it was only for people with depression and it couldn’t help her. They said the same about psychotherapy. It was only when she had a ‘good’ psychiatrist, that she was put on the waiting list for CBT at the clinic at the Maudsley hospital. She was on the waiting list for a year. She says: ‘CBT was the first thing that made me see that my psychotic thinking was actually quite logical and it always followed the same pattern. What CBT does is to see how one thought affects another and affects another until you end up in the middle of paranoia or kind of depression. What the service did was break down this thinking process, but with alternatives.’
She felt that a lot of people outside the mental health service helped her recovery, like her publisher, Jason Pegler: ‘He was the first person to really truly believe, not just the fact that I could be a good writer. He believed that I could recover – nobody else had that belief about me, not even me.’
He persuaded her to write her life story for Chipmunka Publishing, which concerned her at first, because her life had been so difficult. But once started, she finished the book in six weeks. ‘That’s how much it needed to get out.’ There is a note of laughter in her voice as she says ‘it was a cathartic experience’.
At the same time, Dolly became one of the founding members of Creative Routes, which started at the end of 2002, and which organise Bonkersfest. Their original membership of six is now around 500. She feels that the artists she has met have helped her. ‘I had social phobia for the longest time and I met a poet who kind of literally forced me onto the stage [laughs] to do some of my poetry reading’. They helped by giving her confidence. For her, the artists who she has met have been the biggest influence on her, as unlike mental health professionals ‘they do see my heart and they do see I’m a human being and that I’ve got good things inside me.
They don’t see something that’s broken, they see someone who can make poetry andmusic and write. I call them my angels, actually’.
She says with some mental health professionals, ‘it’s like you’re being served at Woolworths. Sometimes what you just need is a hug from these people’. She had a more positive relationship with the woman who gave her CBT. ‘That was Sarah “CBT was the first thing that made me see that my psychotic thinking was actually quite logical”
Shortly after I moved from the Norwood Team to work in the Streatham Service in south London, I began to hear about Dolly Sen. Colleagues would tell me in almost reverential tones how ‘she had written a book’. The opportunity to meet Dolly came when I invited her to give a talk at our local recovery group (Morgan & Carson, 2008). She spoke to a group of our service users and answered a whole range of questions from how she coped with suicidal thoughts, to the importance of having dreams for your life. ‘Have big dreams, take small steps’, she advised.
Our service users were hugely inspired by her presence and personal witness. The story of Dolly’s life and illness as revealed in her two books is a remarkable account of recovery, not just from mental illness, but extreme social adversity. Her story is an example of what the journalist India Knight has referred to as Mislit (Misery Literature), which I note Waterstones places in a section called, ‘Painful Lives’. Her life was as painful a story as I had ever heard in my years as a clinical psychologist. This woman happened to be a service user in the new community mental health team I was working in, and was our own local recovery hero. One of the training initiatives within our own service was the Retrain Project, developed by Professor Tom Craig and Doctor Mike Slade. This project aimed to train mental health professionals in two inner-city boroughs about recovery over four and a half days. On day one of the training, Premila Trivedi, herself a service user, talked about four recovery heroes. These were Patricia Deegan and Mary Ellen Copeland from the US (readers can see and listen to both women on YouTube) and Rachel Perkins and Peter Chadwick from the UK.
Another service user, Michelle McNary, has made a film about recovery, which features Dolly and three other local service users. In the booklet that accompanies the film (Carson et al, 2008), Dolly describes what helped her recover: ‘In the fabric of hell that enclosed me like a straitjacket, there was an infinitesimal tear, a hole which unravelled my hell, thread by thread, until the constraints became more hole than limitation.
Recovery is a letter of hopes, dreams, songs, peace, hurt, chaos, transcendence, night and light. Recovery is to be able to dream and live those dreams. To shine my brightest and live my fullest. To seize the day without the weight of the past. To lose any negativity in my life. To find the Dollyness of Dolly.’ (Sen, 2008, p11)
The four key elements of recovery, according to Andresen et al (2003), are having hope, finding meaning in life, developing a sense of identity separate from an illness, and taking personal responsibility for your life. These are complex processes. To my mind, Dolly epitomises all four, summed up in her wonderful phrase, ‘to find the Dollyness of Dolly’. Patricia Deegan also reminds us that the most important goal is ‘to become the unique, awesome, never to be repeated, human being that we are called to be’ (Deegan, 1996). The challenge for all of us is to help our service users value their own uniqueness and help them move towards their own personal dreams and goals.
Dolly Sen is a remarkable woman. To my mind, she is a true recovery hero.
Andresen R, Caputi P & Oades L (2003) The experience of recovery from schizophrenia: towards an empirically validated stage model. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry 37 (5) 586–594.
Carson J, Holloway F, Wolfson P & McNary M (Eds) (2008)
Recovery Journeys: Stories of Coping with Mental Health Problems.
London: South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust.
Deegan P (1996) Recovery as a journey of the heart. Psychiatric
Rehabilitation Journal 11 (4) 11–19.
Morgan S & Carson J (2008) The recovery group: A service user and professional perspective. Groupwork 18 (3).
Sen D (2002) The World is Full of Laughter. Brentwood: Chipmunka Press.
Sen D (2006) Am I Still Laughing? Brentwood: Chipmunka Press.
Sen D (2008) Dolly’s story. In: J Carson, F Holloway, P Wolfson & M McNary (Eds) (2008) Recovery Journeys: Stories of coping with mental health problems. London: South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust.
Shepherd G, Boardman G & Slade M (2008) Making Recovery a Reality. London: Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health.
Social Perspectives Network (2007) Whose Recovery is it Anyway? London: Social Perspectives Network.
For more information about Dolly Sen, visit her website at www.dollysen.com.
Sarah Morgan is a service user who has recently completed a masters degree in journalism.
Jerome Carson is a consultant clinical psychologist, who works within the Lambeth Directorate of the South London NHS Foundation Trust. He can be contacted at Jerome.Carson@slam.nhs.uk.
World Mental Health Day Protest: Demanding Alternatives to ‘Chemical Cosh’ Psychiatric Treatment
WHEN: 1pm, Friday 10th October 2008 WHERE: St Ann’s Hospital, Tottenham N15 3rd
WHY: On the 10th of October 2008, World Mental Health Day, a group of campaigners will symbolically escape St Ann’s Psychiatric Hospital in Tottenham. Dressed in pyjamas we will go ‘on the run’ and push a psychiatric bed across North London to Parliament Hill.
The Crazy Bed Pushers will give out wanted posters and pills to members of the public and shout ‘Psychiatry is off its trolley!’ At various points in their journey they will be chased by ‘normality testing’ researchers and a giant syringe to symbolise the narrow-minded drug focused approaches that still dominate NHS mental health treatment.
Many present will be former in-patients who have experienced the use of forced drug treatment as well carers, mental health professionals and others concerned by the emphasis on control in psychiatry and the lack of holistic alternatives offered (i.e. talking therapies, creative activities).
At the summit of Parliament Hill from 4pm - 6pm we will have a “Mad Hatters Tea Party” to celebrate alternative approaches to madness and recovery. Why not join us - Come along in fancy dress or as yourself!
This Great Escape Bed Push aims to honour the life of Daniel Galvin 1979 –2008. In August this year, aged just 29, Daniel died of a heart attack, a problem known to be associated with the drug Olanzapine (a commonly used anti-psychotic drug) that he was given, at times on a compulsory basis for the last 5 years.
Daniel was a bright, gentle young man whose life changed irrevocably when he was given powerful psychiatric drugs at the age of 15 after experiencing ‘unusual thoughts ‘ and sleep problems. Reacting severely to the medication – in Daniel’s own words he was left feeling ‘totally deadened and zombified’ - he was hospitalised in St Ann’s at the age of 16, never recovering from the devastating fallout of his treatment.
We want the Daniels of the future to get real choices about their treatments so that the chemical cosh approach to mental health becomes a thing of the past.
See also: www.bedpush.com
Register your interest on Facebook
Further Information: The principal organisers of the event, Rufus May (seen recently on Channel 4’s ‘The Doctor Who Hears Voices’ – see www.rufusmay.com) plus sister of Daniel, Ana Galvin are available for interview. Rufus May: email@example.com/ 07984480224 Ana Galvin: firstname.lastname@example.org/ 07908 246 575
So Mr Fry, where is the trigger warning for you being a twat?
I used to have respect for you. After your first BBC programme on bipolar, I noticed a sea change in that people were more open about talking about mental health. But from there things steadily deteriorated.
You became a self-appointed spokesperson regarding mental health, despite not experiencing poverty, bad or no housing, benefit cuts, psychiatric abuse or trauma, which more recent studies show contribute to mental ill health and keep people there.
You do not speak for those people and the fact you don’t talk or tackle those things in your mental health work, means in some ways you are doing more harm than good. Not all of us have had the privileged life you have had.
I have been raped as a small child, strangled, shot at, discriminated against because of my colour, sexuality and disability, and I have a serious mental health condition, and I haven’t whinged as much as you, because that’s what you are doing now, isn’t it? You like to think mental ill health is to do with a broken brain, but I think it's more to do with a broken heart. Why break people's hearts further, Mr Fry?
To those people who have had their hearts broken by things in their lives, such as child sexual abuse, I respect your strength in having survived those experiences, being in a society that doesn’t give a shit, and having to deal with idiots like Stephen Fry. You are my heroes, not a privileged twat who likes publicly expressing the ugliest emotion in humanity.
Although I am part of Mad Pride in response to the shaming by the sanatised, I do sometimes feel that madness is a terrible impersonator of the self. I think there is something to the fact that sometimes the self needs to be played badly, an existential tribute act, in order to maintain dignity.
One problem is being ridiculed for not surrendering the dignity. One tragedy is that the self and its inadequate impersonation are both unpleasant acts on a mediocre bill.
I am not talking about semantics of what normality and madness is, and whether they are socially constructed terms or ideas. I am talking about the existence of these inexpressible but knowable experiences in the human world.
Some people tell me that there is no such thing as normal and jokingly say that they are not, but they haven't stepped outside normal long enough to know if you are not normal, you would know about it quickly and heartbreakingly. You wouldn't be incautious enough to say that it doesn't exist.
Those who say 'there is no such thing as normal' don't bring down psychiatric instutions (why do we need them if no-one is normal), they still laugh and avoid those dragged into them.
Madness reacts to the normal world of abuse, trauma and unfulfilled dreams, but madness is mediocre too. I am tired of its show. Its dance seeks grace but just steps on feet. Its orchestra plays on tortured animals.
I laugh at both. I cry at both.
I don't know how the show goes on.
I created this collage recently in response to the idea of comfort zones.
Part of mental health recovery rhetoric is being told by some psychiatric professionals we need to step out of our comfort zones. What comfort zones? Comfort zones are a middle class idea for people who haven't been brutualised, abused, humiliated, or deeply hurt in life.
I have no comfort zones. My hell might have cushions but it is still hell. I have a memory foam mattress on top of my bed of nails. My dreams haunt me rather than entertain.
So what can society offer me if I step out of my so called comfort zone? The soul-numbing, exploitative 9-5? A world where we get angry at people escaping war but not at the people who profit from war? The amount of people who have a seething hate towards refugees that I have directed to the arms fair in London to point the hate in the right direction but won't do a thing about it makes me want to return to my hell.
There is so much pain in the world and I try to change it for the better but I feel like I am pouring thimblefuls of water on an apocalypse. There is no comfort zone inside or outside me, there is just choices in torture, with love and laughter dancing with the horror. Yet I accept life is beautiful.
I remember 7/7 very well. I was an inpatient on a psych ward at St Thomas Hospital, and out of nowhere there were convoys of ambulances streaming in the A&E dept of the hospital. There were no more red double decker buses going over the bridge.
My mum texted me that there were a series of bombs on london transport. I went into a ward round and maintained the belief the world was too painful to live in. It was an inappropriate response apparently.
They didn't show me humanity. That came later that day when a woman most of the staff thought was a lost cause with no life behind her eyes (I knew differently) made every staff member who couldn't go home a cup of tea or coffee and gave them a reassuring pat on their backs. Her kindness saved me that day.
The world outside the ward had the most screams that day. We didn't seem so mad. New madnesses were created by the trauma of that day. A new bloom of nightmares and pain.
I was locked away. What could I do but seek light on the ward.
Reading Jane McCormick's blog 'Give us our Daily Meds' inspired me to re-write the Lord's Prayer. I don't have delusions of grandeur, but psychiatry does:
Who would section heaven
Hallowed by thy name
My freedom gone
Thy will be done
Force and restraint, let's forget compassion
Give us this day our daily meds
And forgive not our differences
As we submit to those who trespass against us
Lead us into painful sensation and mental castration
Forever and ever
Do you need an assessment form to ascertain risk from being in mental heath services? Do the T.I.A.R.A. (The Institution Attendence Risk Assessment)
Are you at risk from neglect from services?
Is there a previous history of neglect and inadequate care from services?
Is there a risk of exploitation? Are they going to gain financially from your vulnerability?
VIOLENCE & AGGRESSION
Is there a history of violence and aggression from staff/system?
Have you been physically restrained? Forcibly medicated? Forcibly ECTed? Has it caused you physical pain? Has it caused you trauma?
Have you previously been sexually assaulted in a psychiatric unit, by either other patients or staff? Did you report it and no action taken?
Have you been forced to take drugs that have known negative health implications, including death?
Does the mental health system have insight into its abusive nature?
Maybe non-compliance is an act of sanity, eh?
I remember one of my amazing interviewees of my documentary 'Greenhouse of Hearts' saying something along the lines of that the language of art is truer to humans, to madness than psychiatric language would ever be.
This got me thinking: how would psychiatry view or cause some experiences in art. Here is what I came up with.
What is Mad Culture?
It is a celebration of the creativity of mad people, and pride in our unique way of looking at life, our internal world externalised and shared with others without shame, as a valid way of life.
It is an acknowledgement that we are reacting to a society that is scared of us and will hijack our art and literature once our artists and writers are dead and therefore deemed safe and easy to control, corrupt and capitalise.
Our culture is that we have control of our lives without being brutalised by a psychiatric system that wants us to conform to an ideal of normality that doesn’t exist anyway. It is challenging the idea that madness is something to be hidden; it realises that visibility counts in order to break the stigma that has a stranglehold over every single mad person alive today. Mad Culture is saying, ‘Yes, yes!” to life even if embarrasses the ‘normals’.
Mad Culture is saying: I won’t hold your sanity against you. My reality is good enough. Is yours? Not all mad people are artistic, some are quite happy to be accountants, and I don’t think mad accountants should be discriminated against.
We are already an alienated sector of society, in fact the most alienated sector of society. We are not full members of this society or culture and that is not going to change without us changing it. Because why is it in their interest to change what makes them feel comfortable and superior. So in that sense we need to create our own culture in which we feel comfortable in. Some would argue that leads to separation, but we are separate. Where does madness fit in ‘normal culture’?
We are the untouchables. Only fit enough to work in sheltered workshops, to be cleaners, media scapegoats and to paint multi-million pound masterpieces. Put simply, in this present culture we have victim status; in our culture, we are just ourselves. WE want a culture that doesn’t produce a suicide every 40 seconds.
Why have pride about suffering distress, some may say? It’s not about that. It is pride in our strength to survive that distress and what it teaches us, and not to feel like lesser beings because of it, and to question why we feel lesser beings because of it, to question that madness is an illness and not a human response to a sick society, a sick upbringing.
Can you imagine a world without music, art, dance and drama? It would be an empty, bland place. So why is the world without your music, art, dance and drama? If life is a stage, is yours worth watching? What would make the show better? Can we change the ending? Or make it a better story? Culture is letting us tell the story not them – it is as simple as that.
Survivor's poetry and music - Mad Chicks and the Bath Mad Hatters
Budding Hub Gallery, Fri 28th August 2009 6:00pm - 8:00pm
A multi-faceted cornucopia of readings, talks and sound performances around the works of those who have suffered from mental illness from Mad Chicks and the Bath Mad Hatters. Mad Chicks is about women psychiatric patients and survivors of the psychiatric system. The movement developed from within Mad Pride, a user-led mental health civil rights movement, committed to ending discrimination against psychiatric patients, challenging misinformation in relation to mental health and celebrating mad culture. Clare Crestani of the Mad Hatters of Bath will tell real life stories of lands beyond time and space, where fairies and demons dwell. Followed by a discussion of whether the psychotic experience is a valid way to discover Universal truths or merely a mental illness to be druggged, pitied and patronised.
I will reading from my book in a tree, I always knew I'd one day do that. Told you Doc, it wasn't a delusion!
For more info about the treehouse gallery go to http://www.thetreehousegallery.org
I have met many angels along the way who have elevated my life. One of them is Barry Fitton, an English poet based now in Amsterdam. He gave me my first poetry gig. I was horribly shy before I flew to Amsterdam to do my first gig, but I came back to England a changed woman. I was still shy, but now I believed I could do anything I wanted to do. This was all down to Barry.
He is not well at the moment, he has cancer. It is being treated. And I wish my wonderful crazy angel good health and a speedy recovery.
I have written about our first meeting in my book 'I am Still Laughing?' Below is an excerpt.
Barry Fitton is quite a remarkable person, and an unconventional character. He left school at fifteen and worked in a factory for a little while. He realised, like me, that you are not born to work in a factory for shitty wages, but to see the beauty and poetry of life, and point out where the world is going wrong. Most of civilized humanity is in huge denial about what life is really about. Barry understands this and he absolutely screams his poetry to a world that doesn't want to listen. His motto is: 'Have poems, will travel' and he has done the overland route to India, Greece and Ibiza. He also has done things like run a cat rescue and lived in squats. A man with a big heart to go along with his big mouth.
I booked my ticket and flew over. Barry gave me instructions on how to reach The Kirk, a derelict Catholic Church that was now a squat and arts centre. I found my way there easily.
The Kirk was a deserted catholic church on a corner of a street lined with shops and supermarkets - a towering presence. On the notice board out front instead of advertising services and absolutions and the opportunity to confess there were posters for the squatter meets, poetry readings, and anarchy demonstrations. It also had its fair share of graffiti. The one I remember is SAVE THE KIRK. Its current residents were battling the authorities who wanted to demolish it to put up a supermarket. It didn't matter there were 2 supermarkets less than 100 metres away. Barry suggested the church was best served as a community arts centre and was therefore of much more benefit than a 3rd supermarket on the road. The city disagreed and they eventually knocked it down. Art always loses out. Artists are too poor to give the decision makers backhanders.
Inside it was as dusty as an old church and endless progression of congregations - both religious and secular - could give to the air - dead skin lasting longer than any good intention of its owners. Ask the dust anything.
As I entered the church the first thing I saw was the stained glass. A mute light was shining through them, casting beautiful hues on emptiness. Some of the glass was broken. There were no pews, but a ragged collection of chairs and scruffy sofas salvaged from skips. It was a strong visual image, creating a memory that would elicit a calm happiness.
Barry was rushing about, getting everything ready for the event, but he stopped in his tracks to welcome me and make me feel more at home. He showed me to my bed, which was a tatty sofa. I knew it would be crawling with dust mites but I didn't care. After I had a short nap on it, I went back downstairs to the main church to help out, mainly with clearing up and in the kitchen.
The walls of the main church were lined with strange junk (such as a doll's head in a jar of vinegar) and paintings of the artists who used the church as a studio. I spent an hour watching two painters working on their pieces. One of them knew I was watching him and he gave me a good show, by not standing directly in front of his painting and giving me a fair showing of smiles and ass. There was one painter there, a Spanish guy moping because he couldn't sell his paintings, and washed his art in the wrong kind of spirits. Whilst I was there he sold one painting. He dashed out and came back with a bag full of beers. His masterpiece deferred for what reason, I don't know. We artists are a sensitive bunch. But not as sensitive as street cleaners with higher IQs than doctors, as one report found there is such a thing.
There were a bunch of Spanish anarchists there who did nothing but smoke dope on ragged sofas and eat all the food of others. I thought, these kids have a fucked up understanding of anarchy. Most of the other residents of the church were anarchists as I was, but that meant fair share of everything, including work and food. Barry would shake his head every time he passed the group. On the night of the reading he told them off for chucking litter and cigarette butts on a floor that had just been cleaned. There was always music playing in the background, punk, jazz, classical, blues and Jimi Hendrix.
There was nothing left for me to do at the church until the radio show that night so I walked around the city in broken shoes. I'm one of those people who wear clothes and shoes until they have fallen apart. I get especially attached to my shoes and do feel sad when I have to get rid of them. Eventually it was evening and I was heading back to the Kirk. About to cross the road towards the church, I heard Barry call my name. He was sitting at a pavement café nearby, eating pizza. He had finally got the poetry reading program together and it was looking pretty good. He introduced me to a poet from Liverpool called Roger Cliffe-Thompson, a protégé of the great Liverpool poet Jim Bennett. I spent a lot of the next few days with him; he was a great one for anecdotes about the poetry scene. One my favourite stories of his is about this old lady who looked very prim and proper with her hair in a bun who got on the stage and said something like: "If life is treating you badly, all you have to do is this." And she gave life - and the audience- the two-fingered swear sign. What a cool woman. Both Roger and I had a soft spot of for that crazy Barry. Roger told me when Barry stayed at his house in Liverpool Barry didn't close the windows of his room because he thought it disturb the pottery on the window sills. His compassion and kindness is palpable. Roger went back to the church, whilst Barry and I headed for the radio station.
Our stop before the radio station was some relaxation at a pavement café, drinking beers and coffee and hot chocolate. It felt good and right and magical. Barry ordered a special kind of coffee - can't remember the name - the Dutch waiters couldn't understand his Rochdale accent. He was telling anecdotes of the poetry reading: one time he coaxed a shy performer to get on stage to do his kinetic art, but once there someone in the audience was screaming like a banshee, putting the poor fella off. Barry demonstrated the scream to the horror of some of the patrons of the café. We were too weird for even Amsterdam's laid back residents. I loved that Barry. As the evening wore on, more of Barry friends and confederates joined us and crowded around the table. Jennifer Arcuni, an American poet living and working in Amsterdam, asked me how I liked Amsterdam. I told her I loved it. "You might be like me and not be able to leave." Then I met my first bluesman, T-bone Fisher, and he didn't disappoint the perception I had of them as cool. Raspy-voiced, red-eyed, taciturn, drinking, smoking, projecting a rawness and a coolness that he needed for his music. Then I saw a man talking to his bicycle. The Dutch love their bicycles.T
Then another bluesman turned up, a harmonica player who spoke more into his mobile phone than to us. He was also a promoter and was haggling with someone in Belgium. Barry asked him to tell me the story of his time on a psychiatric ward. "Yeah, I was sleeping. When I work up, my shoes were gone. The police found me walking about with no shoes and took me to the local mental ward. I tried to tell them I was a well-known blues harmonica player, that I played with B. B. King. And they were like, of course, you are, like they didn't believe me. So I had to spend the weekend on the ward. I couldn't see the doctor till Monday. When I saw the doc, I told him to please look at my website to see I was who I actually was, and he did and so set me free... without any shoes."
Barry invited him to play on his radio show, but he begged off and wandered down the street, trying to contact someone on his mobile.
We were waiting for the radio show technician, the male-to-female-and-back to male again transsexual. I kind of had an idea of a transvestite shimmying down the road in a sequined dress, so was disappointed to see a long-haired young lad in a t-shirt and jeans with his bicycle. He sat with us at the café but was anxious to get started with the programme.
He took us to a doorway in building that lead up to stairs and more stairs. The actual radio station was in a loft-like area, where the only access to it was a ladder that looked like it belonged to a bunk bed. It was a dingy little set-up, dusty and badly decorated, with underground party posters hanging limply from a wall with begrimed cello tape. All the equipment was stacked into cramped corners and were dusted with cigarette and spliff ash.
There was just the one microphone on a table for the guest speakers so we sat at the table and took turns on the hot seat and kept banging knees on the table legs when we swapped positions, so our first words on the radio programmes were 'shit' and 'fuck'. Barry was hilarious in that he kept looking at the radio man's small tits. Obviously whatever hormone he was taking wasn't totally out of his system. The small-titted radio technician warned us that the air extractor had to be switched off while we were on air otherwise there would be too much interference. But Barry was smoking so much weed, the place was too fogged and crazed, so we had to keep it on for the most part and quickly switch off when on air. Because Barry was so stoned he keep motioning at me to switch it on when we were on the air, and switch it off when we were off air. I didn't know what I was doing any more but enjoyed doing it nonetheless.
I read some of my poems. T'bone played some Blues, and Jennifer read some of her stuff. Barry sat in his seat, very stoned with a silly smile on his face. At least he stopped looking at the radio man's tits.
I crawled into bed back at the squat in the early hours of the morning to the sound of rats scuttling in the attic.
The next morning I explored the city and searched for some furry clogs for a friend. I couldn't believe that it took me hours to find furry clogs. It was like searching for the Holy Grail that is nice to touch and tickles your nose when you try to smell it to see if somebody else has worn them.
When I got back to the squat, it was early afternoon and the Norfolk contingent had arrived, well, most of them. This was a group of Norwich poets that went under the name of The Poetry Cubicle. They had all piled into a tram. The trams in Amsterdam are very long and as they boarded the group got split up. Most of them got off at the right stop, but two of them missed their stop and didn't arrive at the church until the performance began in the evening. The poor things didn't even know the name of the church so it took them hours to find us.
I helped prepare for the gig. Barry wanted to screen a film he collaborated on. But we didn't know how to work the projector, not being very technical. Embarrassingly we discovered hat the problem was - we had forgotten to switch the thing on. I was a bit disappointed the problem had been solved because that meant I had nothing really to distract me until the actual performance. I didn't want to think about performing until I actually had to do it.
The night kicked off with this weird poet called Julius Joker whose act comprised of jumping around and off things. I don't remember a word of his poetry and his madness was too forced, too artificial. A few other forgettable acts came on and then Roger from Liverpool came on. His poetry is fresh, funny, political and personal. One of his poems poked fun of the uniformity of youth's choice of clothing, called "I've Got a Tick on me Head" inspired by the tick logo of Nike. Roger has a strong Liverpudlian accent, and a lot of the Dutch couldn't understand him. One confused Dutch person said, "What, he's English!"
There were a few more poets before it was my turn. Barry became poetry avenger, making sure the audience was quiet enough to be receptive to the poetry.
My time to perform was coming nearer and nearer. How is it possible to perform without sitting on a toilet at the same time? I asked myself. My churning stomach was stealing the sound of my voice, the weight of my inflection. Would I perform the poetry of the catatonic, lips moving but poetry going awol. "I don't think I can do this," I said to Barry. "Of course you can," and he pushed me onto the stage. I read from my book 'Eloquent Catatonia'. I was supposed to do a fifteen minute set but only did ten. I wanted to get off the stage as soon as possible. But once I got off, I wanted to get back on again. Something had been triggered in me, I was getting the early symptoms of the performing bug. I had that slightly feverish high that my bones were made of bubbles. When I flew home to England, I am sure the plane flew just a bit higher because I was in it.
Hey Michelle, that is a great idea to ask people for their meds, I am sure lots of people would be happy to donate their meds!
My idea for the sculpture was to make it lifesize but have a hole where the brain should be and have a hole where the heart should be, because I know a lot of us feel that's what meds do to us sometimes. I was going to then take the sculpture out into the rain and watch it melt away, leaving the real me behind.
People, how many psychiatric meds do you think it will take!
Hello people, last week I was thinking how I miss the campaigning part of being a mad person, and an idea popped into my head. Why not organise a march to challenge stigma and discrimination, where the marchers wear 'Hug a Schizophrenic' or ‘Hug a Mad Person’ 'Hug a Manic Depressive' t-shirts and invite the public to do just that. The march would stop at some psychiatric hospitals to invite the psychiatric staff to hug the marchers. We have already some good media interest in the idea. The idea is to make it colourful, fun, celebratory of everyone’s ability to love, and not hidden and shameful. It will be warm and in no way accusatory or confrontational. Hug a Mad Person Day will be on Valentines Day, 14th Feb 2009.
So that is what I am going to do. Anyone wanna be on board as one of the planners, to be part of one of the organisations taking part, or to sponsor. I'd love as many people to be involved with this as possible.
If you are interested, drop me an email at email@example.com
I am very pissed off at the moment. I do voluntary work for allsorts of mental health campaigning organisations such as the infamous Southwark Mind. I went to a meeting there yesterday and we talked about the closure of the Amardeep Project in my home borough of Lambeth, south London. Amardeep is a drop in centre for people of SE Asia origin. Amardeep is cultrally specific and supportive, run by staff of the same cultural background. It proved to be really popular to a cultural group who feel very alienated in the community.
After the inquest into Rocky Bennett and why too many Black men die in psychiatric care, it was found out that the mental health system is racist. Report after report said one of the ways forward is to provide culturally specific projects. There are other reasons to provide these. People from ethnic backgrounds don't engage well with mental health services. And young Asian women have the highest rate of suicide in this country.
What especially pisses me off is that they didn't just shut it just like that. They put a person who didn't speak any SE Asian languages in charge of the Amardeep Project, so people stopped going to the drop-in, and then said there was no demand for the service, and no point in it carrying on.
So actually maybe mental health services are not stupid but manipulative and cowardly, which unfortunately is nothing new. It is psychiatry's essential character. But it makes me mad!