Identity and Mental Illness and Confessional Art


I get to the art and confessional art bit eventually, but this deserves a back story.

I have a friend, who I will call R. who has recently been diagnosed as having Borderline Personality Disorder. Much of my interactions with R. become repetitive of my 'don't become your illness' spiel. BPD as well as many other mental illness' and personality disorders includes an unstable sense of self.

disturbances in and uncertainty about self-image, aims, and internal preferences;

In periods of un-wellness those beset by this symptom have a propensity to relate to their diagnosis as 'I am borderline personality disorder. I am a borderline' (I've been there, and it's not pretty).

Although I am currently relatively stable, identity is something I do still struggle with, and it's only through sheer obstinacy that I refuse to believe 'I am borderline' and instead prefer to engage with the less damaging 'I have borderline personality disorder'. While reading 'The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat' by Oliver Sacks I stumbled across this:

In disorders of excess there may be a sort of collusion, in which the self is more and more aligned and identified with its sickness, so that finally it seems to lose all independent existence, and be nothing but a product of sickness.

Sacks goes on to discuss a case of which a man was concerned he consisted of only his tics caused by his Tourettes, and that his 'self' could not exist without these tics or diagnosis. Sacks, (rightly or wrongly) attributes these fears to those with 'weak or undeveloped egos, coupled with overwhelming strong disease'.

I have never believed myself to have a strong ego or feeling secure in an identity; quite often believing myself to be a shapeshifter of sorts (Who shall I be today?). If you were to ask me to describe myself I may call myself an artist, but this would be with embarrassment at my perceived lack of skill. I may also say that I work in care. These days (especially) unless prompted I will rarely divulge that I have a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder. (Worth noting is that I rarely meet anyone completely 'new' these days, so even if I don't tell them, someone else may of).

In reading Sacks and analysing my conversations with R. and also thinking about myself I cannot see a trajectory of how I became so rejecting of the BPD label. I can offer no advice to others on how I managed to reduce the diagnosis to being only a small part of my life other than "I am a stubborn cow". The refusal to align myself with the label of BPD has, in most cases, eased my symptoms; improving my life significantly. In recent months I have had an acceptance of myself, with no real understanding of where this acceptance has come from.

art of confessions

Previously I have worked as part of a group of artists with mental illness, The Lights; in which I and others in the group got to explore mental illness through art in a supportive and accepting environment. The success' of that project helped me to realise that I could create works that resonated with others, sell those works and to also exhibit in a fairly prestigious place.

Three days after leaving Woodlands Psychiatric Unit I had a solo exhibition in Watford, a very confessional art piece that documented my time in Eastbourne Department of Psychiatry. The feedback from this show was integral to my development and although it looked good on my CV, the whole project (titled: You Told Me You loved Me Then I Was Trapped, 'you' being Borderline Personality Disorder) worked better on instagram, where I originally posted the words and pictures. This June that artwork will be three years old, and I no longer relate to it. Many artists have embraced and made big success' of confessional art, with Louise Bourgeois, Tracey Emin, Mona Hatoum and many other strong women leading the way. In some ways I am jealous that these artists have managed to merge art and confessions in such a way that it is at once universally relatable but also personal.

There is, as always, an argument to be made that all art is confessional, and for many of us that is true, the artworks that I have mentioned above, I would believe to lay in the bounds of confessional art. I think that part of me will always create pieces that are confessional in part, yet I don't want to be a one trick pony. As much as there is something deeply touching about seeing such honesty in an artwork, it can be troubling. There is also stigma that surrounds the bpd diagnosis and that is difficult to shift, I discovered a long time ago that I do not like anything about myself when I am ill, and this hatred for myself stalls my recovery. This hatred stops me from creating anything I feel worthy. I do not feel eloquent enough to attempt to dispel the stigma and myths surround the BPD diagnosis, but I will support those that do. 

Confessional art involves accepting a mental health diagnosis in a way that I think I am unable to, and certainly for me, would not be healthy to. I no longer want my artworks or life to revolve around medication and psych appointments, I want it to revolve around friends, and art and having the extra drink occasionally. I want new experiences and I want to investigate how we're using the internet in art, and the possibilities that pinterest, instagram, twitter can provide, as well as a host of other apps and social media.

I have such a respect for those that can create artworks that are all about confessing and mental illness and those dark places in the world, and I continue to draw inspiration in my personal projects, but sometimes, sometimes we need to accept that our (my) path is not going to look like that, because I've got enough darkness inside of me, and I need the light.