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Survive or Thrive Exhibition

15 May 2017

At Changes Bristol we took part in Mental Health Awareness Week by holding an exhibition of work produced by our own members on the theme of Surviving or Thriving. We were very honoured to display our collection in the Park Street Vestibule of City Hall.

Our exhibition included a wide range of pieces from our members; some of them were interactive! As you entered, you encountered the blanket fort:

“Many people retreat into a very small world when unwell. They may have trouble leaving the house, lose contact with friends, leave work, stay in front of the television and perhaps even stay in one room or just one part of the room where they feel safe.

They move into a state of existence rather than living. Surviving. Waiting for the attack to end. The fort may appear comfortable but it is under siege and the enemy may be very frightening. Survival takes courage and there’s no knowing when it ends.”

“I’m sat in Survival Corner as a living exhibit while I do some work. It’s a very strange experience. A few speak to me or give me an uncertain smile, some pretend I’m not here, some just walk right past. I think in some small way it’s a little like the whole experience of having a mental illness. People don’t quite know what the ‘right’ reaction is so perhaps it’s better to try not to have one at all for fear of causing offence or maybe making things worse.

Actually it’s a bit lonely down here by myself and the best thing people could do would be to ask me about it. I’d be happy to talk about my own experiences. Right now I feel like I’m in a tv programme – I could have a Geordie voiceover describing my interactions with people or David Attenborough talking through my battle for survival in sympathetic but practical tones.

What I do have is coffee and a muffin brought by my fellow exhibiters once again demonstrating how fab peer support is.”

“How are you doing? Are you thriving like the plant or are you surviving underground, waiting for your moment in the sun?

Pick a leaf if you’re thriving or a worm if you’re surviving and write a word to describe how you feel. Stick them on the collage and let’s build up a picture together of how our visitors are managing today.”

“There is such stigma attached to mental illness that many people feel unable to seek help and resort to their own maladapted coping strategies in their bid to survive.

Drug and alcohol use are relatively common and can be an attempt to ‘self-medicate’. This can further alienate people from the family and friends they need to support them.

Another strategy can include withdrawing from the world; isolation is not conducive to good mental health and can make problems much worse.

Sometimes people repress and deny their emotions until they explode out in inappropriate and unpredictable ways that other people may find frightening or impossible to understand.

Self-harm is another common strategy that friends and relatives can find upsetting and difficult to comprehend.”

“Wearing a mask is a common metaphor that we employ to describe how it feels to be trying to appear to be functioning normally whilst suffering mental torment. We might appear to be thriving when it’s not quite the truth. We wondered how it would be if people could put on a mask to enter our world instead and engage with some of our challenges for a while.

Lucy – represents the difficulty in expressing anger.

Sully – the feeling of walking round on autopilot, functioning but not really in control or aware.

Cleo – grandiosity, a sense of inflated importance, having to tell everyone your ideas and plans.

Nyx – insomnia, not a choice to be a night owl but an exhausting denial of sleep even when tired.”

“Black hole/everything changes” depicts the chaos and darkness that can be found in mental illness, but also the light that may seem far away but is still present and possibly attainable.

“Stigma – Jemima wants to work and she wants to be seen as the capable, ambitious woman that she is, not as a person with a mental illness.

She should be able to access help to stay in work but she has been judged by others in the past so she stays quiet, her health suffers and she needs to take time off.

Her boss doesn’t understand the problem and she faces a stressful disciplinary procedure where she loses her job.”

“Dissociative Garden – Dissociation can be experienced in different ways.

Here in the garden, Fred is experiencing derealisation, where objects may appear out of proportion, unusually bright or unreal. It’s not always unpleasant – sometimes it’s just strange.

Go ahead and pose Fred according to how you think he might feel right now.”

“Emotional Skittles – We all experience ups and downs. We usually cope with tough times by deploying our resources like maybe a chat with friends, taking some time out or distraction.

Mental health difficulties can emerge when life throws more at us than we have the resources to cope with.

Go ahead and toss one of the life events at the skittles and see who copes and who falls over.”

“Cards for Mental Illness – Break your leg or have an operation and you can usually expect a flurry of cards from well wishers hoping you ‘get well soon’.

This is rarely the case when someone has a mental illness. People feel awkward; they don’t know what to say, often saying nothing which leaves you feeling isolated and disliked.

Our members came up with some ideas for the kinds of cards they would like to receive when feeling unwell.”

When thriving, our members are able to engage in a wide variety of activities; photography is very popular as it gets us out and about but without necessarily having to engage with other people. Interaction can be slowly built up whist enjoying the benefits of time spent in a natural environment.

Many of our members, when feeling up to it, take part in craft activities such as basket making, knitting, crochet, and jewellery making.

Some of these activities and others are enjoyed at regular Boiling Wellness sessions at St Werburghs City Farm.

“To make this collaborative painting, we each had a clean jar in which to mix our preferred colours.

There were eleven of us and we emptied our jars onto the large canvas at the same time.

We tilted the canvas to move the paint around and made sure all the sides were covered in paint too by dabbing them with our painty fingers.”

“These paintings depict surviving and thriving with a mental illness.

Illnesses are generally thought of as something having gone wrong biologically; this is reflected in the red cell like parts of the work.

There are layers between surviving and thriving, rather like the layers of the Earth, but with mental illness at the core. The layers merge into one another and colours or parts of one layer can be found in another layer, making each difficult to compartmentalise.

There is a sense of movement or flux; little or nothing remains the same and fixed, though this is a much sought after facet of recovery.

The tree that is struggling to thrive will always remain deeply rooted throughout the layers but this is not necessarily visible to the outside world.”

“Cosy Corner – The opposite to the blanket fort, which is a place of necessity, the cosy corner is a place of genuine comfort, relaxation and please in living.

It might be a place to learn, reflect and grow – a place to thrive.

Above all, it is a place where someone chooses to be, rather than being there by necessity.”

“Knitting – While you’re sat in cosy corner, do pick up the knitting and knit a few rows. Any stitch or colour you like is fine.By the end of the week we should have a lovely table runner.

Lots of people fine repetitive crafts such as knitting a good way to relax; it can be almost a meditative experience. See how you feel after knitting a few rows.”

We had all manner of visitors to our exhibition: old friends, potential group members, people who work for other related organisations, people who have experienced difficulties with their mental health and have recovery stories to tell, people still having troubles and people concerned for others as well as some staff from the council building who have shown a real interest in what we do.

Everyone was very complimentary, some leaving lovely notes in our visitors’ book, some dropping donations in the pots and some leaving us with their thanks for what we do. Apart from the odd one or two people, most were hopeful, even if not exactly thriving and the whole experience was really positive.