Personal stories of reclaiming life from mental ill health

Kim: Design for living

That’s my catch phrase, organised chaos.

An interesting fact about myself? That’s a hard one… how about recovering from burnout and feeling better than ever? I’m the worst person to ask because a lot of the time I think I’m incredibly boring. Interesting…God.

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Burnout for me was reaching the very, very, end of my tether. I got to a point where I just couldn’t function. I couldn’t think. Obviously it had been going on for a very, long time and I just ignored it. There were numerous indicators: sleeplessness, the obsession with doing more and more work, having to take in alcohol just to keep going. Just constantly on the go and then, all of a sudden, bang. I couldn’t do anything. That was 25th Jan 2011.

I grew up in Statford-upon-Avon and I started going to Shakespeare at about six. I absolutely adored it. The colour, the light, the excitement, all of that. I studied stage design at Birmingham and, after that, I was going to do History of Art but I couldn’t get a grant to do it, so I had a year out and then decided I’d go into teaching. I got what I thought was the perfect job. It was at a school for the performing arts; I could teach art, which I’ve always loved, and I could also do some design work. A lot of people who’ve been in teaching for a long time just end up going through the motions. But the more I taught, I got better at it. I got more out of it. Teaching kids and helping them to achieve things to the best of their ability – I got such a kick out of that. There was a dear girl, the family had struggled. It was a great achievement for her to come to [my school]. I remember her saying ‘Miss Kim, when I came here, I couldn’t even draw a stick man and now I’m doing A-level art.’

Swan Boat. Copyright K. Philpotts

Swan Boat. Copyright K. Philpotts

I worked with a guy called Mark, the pottery teacher … He had rheumatoid arthritis and I helped him retire, as I knew he was struggling so badly. There was a lady, Carol, and she just got completely fed up so she left too. From a thriving art department with three people in it, I was the last one standing. I was getting so worn out… I think it was the sheer amount of work I was doing… I did an all-night duty once a week. If somebody asked me to do something, I would do it, if they said, ‘Oh, we can’t fit this A-level student into the timetable, will you use your frees to teach them?’ Yes I will. ‘If this child wants to do film studies in a year, can you teach them privately? In an evening?’ Oh yes, I’ll do that. In the end, all I did was work. The beginning of [one] particular term, we had a staff meeting. One wall was covered in mirrors, and I looked over at my reflection and thought, ‘I don’t even know that person.’ I looked terrible. I can remember standing there thinking, ‘I don’t even know why I’m here. I haven’t got a clue what I’m doing any more.’

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I’d had insomnia for three months. I was existing on less than four hours’ sleep a night. I know that it was  a Tuesday night, I’d taught somebody, I’d prepared them for their film studies exam and I’d done the duty in the evening and I didn’t sleep that night, and I thought, ‘This is it.’ I was in absolute floods of tears. It suddenly dawned on me, this can’t go on I am not well at all.

I went to the art room and I thought, I can’t go to the staff room, I can’t speak to anybody, I’ve just got to get help, I’ve got to get home to Stratford. In my innocence I thought, ‘They’ll see how ill I am and give me a lift home. I caught the Director of Academic Studies and her deputy as they were coming past the art room. I was fighting back the tears and saying, ‘I just can’t take it anymore, I have to go home.’ They said, ‘Yes, all right. Have a good rest, goodbye.’ I watched them as their backs went off, into the distance.

My little car was sat under the trees. It was a beautiful morning, I remember it as if it was yesterday, it was in brilliant sunshine, and I got in the car and I thought. ‘You’ve got to keep yourself together, you’ve got to concentrate. Don’t drive too quickly, just concentrate. That little bit that you’ve got left, just keep going.’ I’d made an appointment with the doctors while I was sitting in the art room and I said, ‘I’ve got to see somebody, I have to see somebody.’

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I don’t know how I drove 75 miles in that state, I have absolutely no idea. I think the car just took me.

When I was getting quite a bit better – I’d been off for over a year – I came here [to Compton Verney] to do some workshops. There was a series of three Saturdays and there were dry-point etchings. I thought, ‘I don’t know really what this is but I’ll have a go.’ All of a sudden, I started making these little drawings and it was all starting to come out. I wanted to do something arty but not related to my condition, I wanted to keep it separate. That was like art therapy. I haven’t looked back since.

I quite like the etching process because it’s so complicated, it’s so fussy and fiddly, you really get engrossed. You’ve got acid in little baths and you’ve got this resin that you sprinkle, there’s countless things in the process and I love all that.  Once I’m in that mode, the world around doesn’t exist, it’s superb. I do a lot of preparation. I’ll have an initial idea. Something might trigger my imagination, it might be something at the back of a painting or it might be one of the objects in the British Folk Art collection, and I’ll jot and I’ll do a little scribble and then I start to do the research. I’ll draw on different things. It’s a bit like a cake, I’ll take all the different ingredients together to create a design.

There’s an exhibition somewhere in London that’s coming up, it’s Joseph Cornell and his boxes, and I said, ‘Oooh I love boxes.!’ *laughter* and my mum said, ‘I don’t get this. Why do you love boxes?’  I said, ‘It’s all containment. It’s order, I love it.’ I think it’s because I was working in chaos for so long that I love this sort of order. Organised chaos. That’s my catch phrase, organised chaos.

I’ve still got the guilt thing. I have to be so self disciplined about that. This feeling that I should or I must or I ought to do something. Not anymore. That was a thing of the past.  I’m happier than I’ve been in, I can’t remember when.


Kim: Design for living