Personal stories of reclaiming life from mental ill health

Rob: Freedom to be

If it’s all ruined, then I can do anything.

You have to be taught to see, I really think that. I think that art teaches us to see. Artists teach us by insisting on something. They insist on a certain point or a certain type of detail. If artists had never insisted on perspective then we would have kept seeing the world as flat, I truly believe that. There are things that we’re not seeing now that artists will discover and show us in the years to come. When I go to a gallery I think, ‘Yeah there they are, the teachers.’ You are learning science from these people but it’s the science of human experience. Ansel Keiffer [the artist] got me drawing again, he’s obviously a troubled guy, they are really dark pieces but he’s not ashamed. he’s not putting on a show he’s just like ‘this is me.’ He is owning his troubles.


When people say, ‘I can’t draw’ what they mean is, ‘I made a mistake.’ They think there is a mistake they can make that will prevent the image but actually, what I realised early on,  is that the most interesting part of the image might be the thing that goes wrong. There’s always this neurotic desire to create something perfect. That’s normal. All a working artist is asking themselves is the same question over and over, ‘Does this work?’ We think our lives have to work. Someone with anxiety feels like their life isn’t working. Someone having an anxiety attack feels like everything they’ve worked for in their life has been a waste of time, that they are worthless, that their achievements are nothing, their life is going nowhere. They feel like they are circling a drain.  The way my anxiety works is just this feeling of not being good enough. Of wanting to be better of… nothing ever being right. It’s like you’re trying to shrug something off. That’s how it is for me. I’m trying to get away from the inadequacy. Get away from the feeling but everywhere I go, it’s still there because it’s me, right? It’s sort of the unbearableness of my own reality. I want it to be as easy as it looks for everyone else.


I remember very clearly this moment where I realised I could kind of do this. This art thing. I was sat on a bench. Feeling like shit. and I was just like, I’ll try and make the most real representation of what I can see and I don’t care if it’s good, I don’t care about technique, I just want to make it real. I just twitched and there was some ink spilt there, [it was]  all ruined.  I was like, ‘If it’s all ruined, then I can do anything. I’m finally free because if I’ve ruined it all anyway, whatever I do now isn’t right or wrong.’

This whole process that people respect of ‘Yeah, his art’s realistic, his art looks like stuff.’ I don’t respect that. That’s not interesting *laughter.* What’s interesting is can that person, when, everything goes wrong, move in that moment and be free. My favourite English teacher at school used to say, ‘A breakdown can also be a break through’ and so, in a way, what I’m trying to repeat the moment of breakdown, again and again.



When Kayleigh used to go away, I used to binge-watch horror movies for two days straight, just cramming in the gore. It took me ages to realise that the reason I like the old horror movies more -like Evil Dead, the original not the remake- is because of these big red stains in them. I used to find it really cheerful because I’d go, ‘Oh good, everything’s gone wrong now.’ Going back to that feeling of everything going wrong, the only safety I can have is knowing that I tried my hardest and failed. That’s a relief, that’s freedom. Once I’m there it’s totally free. I see freedom as deciding a structure for yourself and deciding when you’re done with it.

You lie to yourself don’t you? You tell yourself you’re in a better place mentally than you are. There was a time when I was having anxiety attacks every week, sometimes twice a week. There were times when I’d wake up and be physically unable to go into [work]. Education in general doesn’t know how to address mental problems. I’d been physically assaulted at work by pupils a couple of times, there was just a really poisonous culture that really wasn’t addressed. People don’t know how to cope with violent young people. My anxiety exacerbated it. If I couldn’t feel safe then how could I make the young people feel safe?

When I broke, I went to the GP. I told her, ‘I need a sick note’ she said, ‘ This isn’t a mental health issue, you just can’t do your job properly.’ Then I just listed what my job was like and her face completely changed and she was like, ‘How long do you need a sick note for?’ *laughter*   In the end I only took 2 weeks off and then I handed in my notice and felt immediately better. You can control it with drugs. I looked into it but I realised that wasn’t going to resolve what was wrong.


I did 2 things. I married [Kayleigh] and I quit my job.  I immediately told them at my new job, ‘I have problems with anxiety. I have had in the past and may have again, frequent anxiety attacks.’ I felt safe with my boss. I felt safe to do it. It was exactly the right thing.

When I arrive at a concept or a word, I’ll rest on it for a while and artwork will come from that.Light, I love that word. It’s like a synonym for freedom, if I’m noticing the quality of light then I’m safe, I’m free. Sometimes I stop seeing the things and I can just see the radiance. It’s spiritual. I went to Quaker worship for 2 years. It’s the Christian tradition I most relate to because it’s reflective, therapeutic, silent. The Quakers talk about The Light.  Light really does describe everything. It shapes and transforms everything. Get me started on a single word and I’ll go off…

If we are talking about owning our shit then at the moment I’ve had the mortgage a little bit, I’ve paid off 5 years you know? In the end, the structures of our lives, these things we build up over 20 or 30 years, career, family, real things, important things, are only there so that we can do one meaningful thing, or say the right thing. Someone’s whole life might add up to one action, one ethical thing, one truly free decision. We don’t get to know, history knows.


Rob: Freedom to be