Mental Health Awareness Week

My story

Had a bit of a shock just now, but it’s sinking in, and I know I’ll be alright.

Got notified that I’m mentioned by name in The Bookseller online, as part of an event at HarperCollins (the publishing company).

It reads:

Over at HarperCollins, on 14th May author and journalist John-Paul Flintoff will talk at The News Building about how he went from being on top to having a breakdown and spending eight weeks in psychiatric hospital. 

Nothing wrong with that. So far as it goes, it’s correct. But I felt a bit exposed.

Not half as exposed, mind you, as I expect to feel when I go to do the talk, and share the pictures I drew – in hospital and afterwards – potentially with people I have worked with (at The Times and The Sunday Times, because they have been invited too).

Keep reminding myself: it’s not about me.

I’m doing the talk for people who may be feeling some of the distress I was feeling, to give them a chance to avoid the worst – and for others whose relatives may be going through something similar.

My story
While I was still in psychiatric hospital (but going home at night), I went to a reception at 10 Downing Street. It felt like another planet. Happily, a great friend recognised me…
…and we took a selfie at the front door, on the way out.

I’m posting these pictures because I’ve been in touch with my friend again today. I remember how wonderfully she responded to me telling her I had come straight from mental hospital.

She laughed, and shared a few things about her own various struggles, over the years.

I felt hugely grateful to be able to laugh.

And for her bravery in sharing her own stories.

The following day I was back in hospital again.

Next time I attend a glitzy reception (if anybody should invite me to one) I will try to remember that the people around me might include psychiatric patients on day release…

Postscript. Farah Tazeen Ahmad died on 6 November 2019. The world lost an award-winning broadcaster, her sons lost their mother, and I lost a dear friend.

Why draw?

My story

What has drawing got to do with mental health? That’s a question I’ve asked myself since being invited to run a lunchtime workshop using drawing during Mental Health Awareness Week.

Apparently a lot of people in the organization in question have asked to do something using art.

And when I gave a talk there in February, using my own drawings, it was very warmly received. So it made sense to the organizers to invite me back to share some thoughts about how drawing had been helpful to me.

My first thoughts:

  1. Drawing is necessarily very immediate, and brings me into the present moment
  2. Drawing gets me away from the tyranny of being verbal
  3. Drawing gives me a sense of agency

1. Drawing is immediate: It’s hard to draw and also be obsessive about regrets (past) and worries (future). I learned that instinctively, unconsciously. Ever since childhood I’ve found drawing to be relaxing.

Obviously, this ceases to be the case if you worry about the drawing itself (“it’s terrible!”). That’s why I like to remind myself that drawing is both a noun and a verb: you don’t have to like the finished artifact to enjoy the activity. I try to let go, in advance, of any need for the artifact to be “good” – as if anybody really knew what good is, anyway.

2. Escaping the tyranny of words: I like words. I’ve used them all my working life, as a journalist and author. I have a couple of degrees in English. I’m very verbal.

But the downside is a tendency to become overwhelmingly analytical and logical. What I’ve learned through my breakdown and subsequent therapy is that I’m also capable of having feelings that are not logical. Drawing helps me to access those. And sometimes by seeing them on paper I’ve been able to recognize that they don’t “make sense”.

In fact, I’d go as far as to say that drawing saved my life. When I was in total despair, I drew some very dark pictures to help myself “see” the self-destructive urges from the outside. They looked bad, repulsive.

3. Drawing gives me agency: By making a mark on paper you apply your mind to shape the physical universe. It might not sound much, but when I felt utterly worthless, and alone, it gave me a teeny tiny boost to see my thoughts “out there”, even if nobody else would ever see them.


The workshop

I don’t know yet how many people will be attending this workshop. But I’m really looking forward to it.

I’ll probably give a short talk at the beginning, along the lines of this post, and explain a bit about who I am.

Then I’ll invite participants to think about what they’re hoping to get out of the session – and tell me!

Then we’ll do a series of very simple drawing exercises, taking about 10 minutes each. I’ll ask people to draw things in front of them (nothing complicated, probably cutlery, salt cellars, or coffee cups), and also draw certain things from memory – but nothing “therapeutic” – I don’t want to scare anybody off!

No experience is necessary, and people who are “bad at drawing” are particularly welcome, because they won’t intimidate anybody else.

I’ve been so uncertain, for such a long time, about my ability to do anything at all – and why anybody should want to hear from me.

So it’s helpful to have received feedback from my first-ever talk about my breakdown, to a large group of strangers. Here it is:

“Just wanted to say again, a HUGE thank you for today. You were ABSOLUTELY incredible.”

I’ve had positive feedback before. I hear it. I read it. I like it. But it never really went in. I always thought people were “just saying it”, because I didn’t believe in myself.

I sincerely believe that is changing.

At least, I hope it is.

My story
Drawing of group therapy. I'm holding my head in my hands

That’s me, on the right

My story

I drew this immediately after my first group therapy session, having been admitted to psychiatric hospital.

I talked for a while, then burst into tears and kept crying for several minutes.

The people on either side of me put a hand on me.

I particularly remember that.

It felt good.

But I couldn’t stop crying for a while.

Afterwards, I was exhausted. But relieved too.