January holds the highest rate of suicides over any other month of the year.
It is The Samaritans who keep track of the suicide statistics for the UK. January 16th, the most depressing day in the calendar, is apparently dubbed 'Blue Monday'.
My 'Blue Monday' arrived a week later.
It came in the form of an email which I took personally, sending my head into a spin... I found myself unable to stop thinking about it...
You know that letter you never meant to send, or the one you wish you'd never received? The one that lacks intonation and has you questioning its meaning. Or worse, you misread it and respond to it with almost irrational anger, then wishing you'd never sent it? - Yes, that one.
Thankfully, I didn't reply.
Only 7% of communication is made up of actual words. 93% is attributed to non-verbal factors (55% being made up of body language and 38% being accredited to tone of voice)1. This is one of reasons I dislike Facebook... and why I vowed never to write about myself. I am not a strong person and have notoriously low self-confidence. This isn't a mental health thing. It's just the way I am built.
Nor I am not a suicidal person.
That is not to say I have never felt suicidal. Far from it.
By my mid-thirties, my knowledge and experience of suicide has been both weird and varied. I had witnessed suicide attempts, been taught one of the major warning signs of suicide and told what the Samaritan's procedure is for someone contemplating such a decision. I didn't ask for this information. It often appeared randomly and unexpectedly, through a variety of unconnected events.
I would like to think that I was sometimes able to offer help and support; in the worst times, I was utterly powerless... clinging on to my own world with what little grip I had left... or watching from afar, as others struggled with their own dark battles.
During the times I felt suicidal I can remember, very distinctly, which pieces of artwork I was working on in Designs In Mind. I remember their colours, the materials used, almost everything... For some reason they tended to be solo pieces rather than collaborations with others. I do not know if these factors were significant or not. We are not an 'Art Therapy' group, in that respect, and nor am I an art therapist.
In one of the darkest times of my illness I was working on a three dimensional felt picture. We made the felt background from scratch, using traditional methods, and then added detail using felting needles. A felting needle has barbs along it to bind the felt together. Should you stab yourself accidentally with one of these tools it wouldn't hurt so much going in, as pulling it out: the barbs would pull out everything they came into contact with - it's how they work: how they bind felt to itself.
...Why on earth give such equipment to a person who's feeling suicidal? In truth, they may not have known, and I never once contemplated using it for anything other than its designed purpose. Instead I remembered focusing on a task. I had something to concentrate on. In spite of feeling suicidal, I was trusted with such equipment... this meant a lot. I also had a responsibility to treat it with respect, not just for myself, but for my fellow artists.
In my mind, self-harm and suicidal thoughts are not the same thing. I have no personal experience of the former. As for the latter, while I would say that I had suicidal thoughts, I could not honestly tell you if I had ever attempted suicide. I guess it would depend on your definition of such things. Unfortunately, if you get to that point in time... that horrible moment in your life, not much is going to stop you. Humans can take a lot, but the line 'what doesn't kill you makes you stronger' only goes so far... At some point, chances are, you're going to break.
In my case, I had broken... and I couldn't see a way to recover. I had been ill for over fifteen months at the time of making the felt piece. I couldn't have continued living as I was, but the last thing I wanted to do was make a failed suicide attempt and do myself further injury. Ideally, what I wanted to do was recover, but the mental health professionals weren't listening to me. I told them I was on the wrong medication, but was presented with two options 'take it willingly, or we'll administer it'. The result of this was that I was taking medication just to be released from hospital. I ended up spending a lot of time looking at the ground from great heights.
In fairness to psychiatrists, they are doing an impossible job. They are tasked with finding a way to cure a condition which affects a patient's personality when they do not know what the patient's personality is normally like. Nor do they have much time with their patients, relying on reports from a variety of nursing staff, whose time with their patients is also thinly stretched.
I can name most of the active members at Designs In Mind. Members, staff, volunteers, artists, - the lot. You get to know people here at the studio, and they get to know you. Not as patients, but as people, work colleagues and artists.
I think Designs In Mind knew I was not going to attempt anything. Certainly not under their watch, and not using their equipment. I might have been feeling a crazy sort of low of which is difficult to comprehend or even identify2 but instead of denying me access to the equipment they allowed me to take the work home to complete. It gave me something to do, and because it was made for the group, rather than for myself, I felt there was much more purpose in doing it. The slight risk of stabbing my fingers ensured that I had to concentrate, as well as think creatively. In creating three dimensional fish swimming through an underwater scene I was able to stop fixating on time, blocking out the dark intrusive thoughts almost entirely.
My thoughts are never this dark now. I am much further down the road to recovery. But I often find this time of year difficult. The short days, the long nights, the cold weather. It gets to me. It's like I notice a tinge of Seasonal Affective Disorder within myself, and while I wouldn't call myself a sufferer of this condition, I wouldn't be surprised if the lack of daylight accentuates pre-existing mental health illnesses. A friend of mine who does suffer told me that he curbs it by socialising more. I wish I had his courage. I have once again found myself avoiding social contact, even from the studio itself, and consequently find myself more isolated, more low.
When you find yourself out of work through illness, you end up with time on your hands. Moments of socialising become gold dust: they are often the only times you have human contact. At work, you experience a whole spectrum of emotions because you are expected to be there regardless of your mood.
When you have no work, trivial things become amplified: that look the checkout girl gave you; the social awkwardness you feel when you make a rookie mistake at a new meeting; that status on Facebook which could be taken two ways; a throwaway comment by a friend who may or may not be referring to you; that email you just got sent...
I believe human beings are social animals, who need to see and be seen by others regardless of the weather.
Socialising is our free time, to do with what we want... To an extent we try to put our best foot forward... You really don't feel up for a social call? No worries, you can always reschedule. For those out of work, this could be one of those gold-dust moments...
Designs In Mind is a mid-week whirlwind, open on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. It has a range of functions and facilitates a variety of needs. Its opening hours are guaranteed. All you need to do is turn up. You don't need to be firing on all cylinders. I am always amazed at the number of members who say they feel so much better having come in and spent the day doing art.
We would love to open our doors on other days, to offer our services to more people for longer. My personal hope is that we prioritise Blue Monday and the winter months that immediately proceed Christmas, to keep the cold out and a warm feeling within.
1 Professor Albert Mehrabian, Silent Messages, 1971.
2 I lost count of the number of times I seemed better by those who knew me best, when I was emotionally extremely low.
This is the third blog in a series of blogs by Lorraine Knight.
To read the first blog please click here
To read the second blog please click here