Against Confinement

  1. We confine birth. 

To a bed; a room. Women have historically been confined during labour and birth. But we urge to roam, pace about, before settling somewhere familiar, nest-like. There is pain involved, so hospitalisation and medication intervene, and the secure pleasures of home are sidelined.

Red = ‘Pain/Pleasure Variables 1, 2, 3 and 4’, Oil on velvet/furnishing fabric/leather/printed cotton each 25 x 30cm, 2022.

Let’s celebrate the boundless materiality and sensuality of giving birth, the pulsing wantonness, like velvet, crushed but silken, internal muscles red raw but yielding with time!

Recovery 

I came from a family of repairers. The spider is a repairer. 

If you bash into the web of a spider, she doesn’t get mad. 

She weaves and repairs it.

Louise Bourgeois

I thrifted comfort blankets 

Re-covered old cushions 

Reclaiming them

Their past became

The fabric of my dreams

In your final weeks of gestation

I almost burst with activity

Over a settee covering

Of striped velvet, a rich material

Given to me by a woman whose marriage had just ended

my mother’s enormous wooden chest

was full of the stories of fabrics

I loved her recollections over that part-sorted trove

From her fashion-designer sister, 

Her furniture-maker father,

Her own early motherhoods

I pressed down on them hard

Shocked by the pain I did not see as pain

Birthing through and onto materials

Heaps of threadbare towels collected

Making them sodden and marked

Like painty rags

Later, laundered and stored 

Like history

  1. We confine psychosis. 

Blue = ‘Bedside Manners 1, 2, 3 and 4’, Oil on canvas/denim/velvet/ linen, 30 x 40cm, 20 x 20cm, 25 x 30cm and 30 x 40cm, 2022.

lines on an undoing

I —-

Life-line ______

taking a line for a walk __________

_________pulling a thread

taking a sheet of paper _

_ sheeting a corpse 

____corpsing with laughter___

  • I

Psychiatric Ward

Doubled over on my bed

I reflect

Window panes twice my size

Double paned

Outside

The heat of summer

Pixellated sweet chestnut leaves rustle and sway

(Scintillating pattern is suspicious)

Medication and social disapprobation control and confine psychosis to quarters.

  • Do we really need to medicate it?
  • How can being ill be illegal?
  • – Is psychosis an illness as in  a ‘break with reality’ in the same way that birth is in a physical sense? 

For me, psychosis was the mind giving birth to itself over and over again. I had to break out of a secure psychiatric ward in which I felt I had done something wrong. I still feel anger about it. Wearing my baby sling intricately tied around me like armour (although actually leaving D in the hospital), I remember the force in my body as I broke through those wooden gates at the back of the building, undetected until half an hour later. Sometimes I felt like my collection of baby slings was my only protection against the stifling approach to babycare in hospital. At first the nurses refused to let me wear C in a sling. I delighted in lining up the tied, fastened and balled slings on my windowsill, like material grenades or resilient chrysalises. Mock babies. 

Why is the spirituality of the psychotic mind so subsumed by our sense of its abnormality? 

I still take the medication to dull the psychotic fight in me: but it’s less now but I greet the psychotic aesthetic in words and actions like a familiar face. It is part of who I am.

As an artist I court psychotic behaviours on a daily basis. Creativity seems defined by that hypervigilant but also hooded-eye zen zone of inspiration – frenzied and manic sometimes like a Hindu god with eight arms and legs.

Is psychosis the embodied cognition of the blast of birth? The mind becomes blasted too. Psychosis as a moral failing —- trying too hard, pushing too hard. There are few visual representations of postnatal psychosis, and the only literary one that is well known is The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. There are representations of mental dissolution, with a tendency towards coolness, detachment, a certain blue splintering. And birth and mental dissolution always seem separate in popular culture. For me they were in quick succession, if not overlapping. Prior to the 2nd and 3rd time I knew there was a 50% chance of it happening again. 

You will think me mad —- and I probably still am, in society’s definition —- but I felt I could trust the NHS —- having a family despite psychosis. It did damage me, and it damaged A. The children are healthy and relatively content. However, my philosophy is that you only live once, and what nearly kills you only makes you stronger etc. I am happy and healthy now.

Red, Blue and Pink: 

Birth; Psychosis; Recovery

  1. We confine the mother and the child.

Pink = ‘Chair’, 3 paintings and a toy pushchair, Oil on towelling, hi pile fleece and leather, 30  x 25cm, 25 x 30cm, 10 x 15cm, 2022.

Story

Psychosis after birth affects 1 in 500 women in this country.

I think back to where it might have started for me. I picture the birthing blanket my mother bought for me when I was pregnant with C. A large, colourful blanket of knitted squares, stitched together by volunteers at a local charity shop. After the birth I insisted on sleeping alone with C, only surrounded by natural materials: the blanket, a plain cotton sheet, my slings, C’s blanket. It was itchy and uncomfortable, but I was committed to the idea. I felt different after that —- elated, triumphant, but early on it was just a sense of doing things my own way, a home birth in which I had effectively delivered my own baby and refused a hospital admission following a big bleed. The trauma of blood loss was probably at least partly to blame for my ascent into psychosis, although the strongest force was my genes. I was only later to discover that postnatal psychosis following a traumatic abortion contributed to a close relative (X)’s suicide at 31 after a lifetime of mental disease. It took 6 weeks to notice my condition, even with this history.

I was militant about how I was going to be with this baby skin to skin 24/7, blind to my husband’s efforts to help or molliate my extreme demands. I could not be separated from C, and she responded with wide-eyed, soft-skinned awe. Routines were erratic, organic; forgetting day and night, I eeked out the time while she slept to write, draw and scour online shops for everything I needed for total intensive bonding with the baby: breastfeeding on demand and anywhere; baby wearing —- even in my sleep; having C nappy free even when out and about in my local town. I wanted to do it all; experience it all: I was on a high.

I knew I had reached a strange place when I smelt incense wafting up from below my window and had a hyper-vivid picture in my head of an ex-boyfriend sitting there wearing a Dalai Lama ‘Never Give Up’ Tt-shirt. I took it to heart, and swore I would never give up on my ideals. I embraced that moment, along with everything else.

I was trying to breastfeed my eldest child too. A dealt with him most of the time. I remember watering down the milk he would drink during the day, feeling guilty and pleased, wanting a symbolic disconnection from me, so that I could focus on C. My life had become a mockingly satirical morality tale about the difficulties of suddenly having two children to care for.

My nighttime activities became more outlandish. I would continue them as I did in the day, had abandoned mealtimes and adopted eating habits like C —- whenever I could or felt like it. I couldn’t sleep. Leaving C’s side to even go to the bathroom became too much for me —- I was literally ‘going potty’ by the bed —- confused and infantilising myself.

Finally the rage took over and I stormed into the room where A and B were sleeping, ripping off A’s glasses, which I believed had spyware installed in them, and accusing him of being a murderer, brought up in a family of spies. I was living in the world of The Bourne Identity, and Inception. I left C in our bed and ran out into the street, shouting and raving, confessing everything that I felt I’d been bottling up my whole life. In our sleepy suburban drift I got no response. I don’t know exactly what happened next. A chain of secret phone calls between family members (not helping my spy theory) led to the arrival of an ambulance: blue and white saviours in very shiny shoes, which I instantly stooped to kiss and thanked profusely. Luckily I didn’t refuse to leave with C and A in the ambulance: if I had done I would have been sectioned there and then. B stayed with O, who was no doubt harbouring racing thoughts about X and everything she hadn’t told me.

I remember C’s blanket in the ambulance, how she slept the whole time, how I never stopped caring for her, despite what the medical profession says about PNP. It was a relief going to hospital, but I felt misunderstood and still believed A was a murderer.

I was taken to a questioning centre where (as I remember it) nurses impersonated military officers and agents, testing me to see who I really was, to make sure I wasn’t a spy too. I didn’t give anything away, and chose my words carefully. I felt dirty with lack of sleep and lack of self-care. In these first 24 hours I had spent away from home since C’s birth, I was separated from her. My breasts turned into enormous rigid stinging cones, like truncated limbs. I had never used anything like the pumps they tried to get me to use. It did not help my sleep or my mood. When I finally arrived in a hospital with a mother and baby unit and was allowed to feed C, the highs dissipated. What had I done wrong? I had C now, but I was imprisoned in a room and told to go to sleep. Stoked with temazepam, I was physically restrained from getting out of bed in a prone position. It was there that the vivid waking dreaming started. I was paranoid about ECT, with family memories of X’s treatment in hospitals in the 80s insinuating my thoughts. I had recurrent nightmares of running races high above the clouds on electrified nets, sensations fizzling through my body and then waking up blank, scourged. I was paranoid they would wheel me off to ECT while I slept. Hypervigilant and terrified, I didn’t sleep for 3 days, dancing across the slippery cold floor using garments and bedding in a game of ‘islands’ to avoid the electrified shadows of the large barred windows.

The medication they gave me to stop all this slurred my speech. But they still kept interrogating me. Gradually time shrank, and my activities, educated by the bland setting and pronouncements of nurses and doctors: I began to focus more on care for myself and C. The questioning sessions punctuated this, different doctors each time it seemed, going over the same things: I felt wild, telling them different stories, driven by a kind of rage and energy to assert my beliefs. After a while the routines of care came into focus. I was still frenetic in wanting to do and achieve things (a part of my personality) but I was medically slowed and dulled. I felt a puritanical misanthropy towards my fellow patients, who looked like they were doing nothing. Feeding C became my own version of ‘nothing’, a habit of nerves which I returned to again and again: I was determined not to fail at that, even if I had failed to keep my sanity. My paranoias lasted for months, punctuated by confusing and traumatic visits from relatives. I was miraculously normal with B. 

Feeling trapped and railing against the pseudo-sectioning I was under, I was horrified that the door to the ward was locked. But this was an incentive to be ‘normal’ with my visitors, so that they could chaperone me out into the hospital grounds, even sometimes the city itself, for an hour or so. In my worst moments I took the wheeled cots and rammed them against the electric doors, mistakenly jabbing at the hand sanitiser that was placed next to it, imagining it was some kind of unlocking device. I did manage to sneak out one time and got in a lift with C, but came back cowed by the thought of even more strict incarceration, under actual sectioning.

A high that makes me soar, alienating me from others. Why don’t they understand my triumph? Why don’t they recognise this feeling as joy?

In my writing at that time, I explore materials, the static hospital blanket, the starched stiff sheets, smelling slightly of urea, C’s own blanket that I had cut out of a larger ancestral blanket and edged with a jaunty ribbon. I tried to start from the beginning, unknowingly, feeling in the dark to understand… 

My mind was even more of a playground and a battleground of words, images and associations than it was normally. 

Towards the end of my stay I was allowed to go out into the city with C. I went for long walks and visited art galleries, caring for C along the way. In some ways I had never been so happy on those occasions.

  • Why do we incarcerate madness?
  • Why can’t we harness it and use it to power the world?
  • Why advise me against art?

My secret sketchbooks and writings are the only things which enable me to truly understand and revisit my psychosis. Don’t ever advise me against that —- forgetting is overrated.

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