Tracy Henham, 48, from Stoke on Trent, England is a poet who comes from a creative family, both parents are musical and enjoy crafts such as model making, card making and textiles, as well as her artistic parents Tracy’s siblings have their own creative flair too with her sister being a graphic designer and her brother a musician.
Tracy and her family lived in Australia until she was ten, her mother left when she was seven with Tracy’s brother sister. After this Tracy’s father decided to come back to England and they moved to Alton, the town Tracy was born in. Due to these emotional upheavals and changes Tracy reminisces that she had to take care of herself a lot when she was in her formative years, but this allowed for more creativity such as drawing, painting, music and writing, Tracy even made her own school uniforms, living with her Father until she was 16.
Tracy studied art in Basingstoke and then went to Stoke to do a BA. in multidisciplinary design.
Here is ASLI’s interview with Tracy:
What motivated you to deal with your chosen submission subject?
I am a firm believer in the idea that you write about what you know, so my chosen subject mental health chose me really. I have been aware of the idea that I didn’t want to exist at the age of eleven and things never really got any better. I have always tried to explore my thoughts through pictures and poems in a hope that I could somehow explain how my world was.
I started painting again in 1998, when an operation stopped me from walking and working for several weeks and I needed something to keep my mind busy.
by Tracy Henham
All the time in the world,
And at the same time,
I can’t think for long, counting in seconds, too long!
I sit, I stand, I lay down, No, none of it right,
let’s play a game,
I look at the screen,
I have played this so many times………
I don’t recognize it….?
turn it off!
They’ve given me leaflets and pieces of paper
about where to find help,
I can’t even begin to read it….
the words just dance
and I can’t concentrate long enough.
My head hurts all the time,
ALL of the time!
All thanks to the
Little steel ball that swallowed my mind.
I spend my time asleep.
I have no choice!
Programs on TV wash over me.
Or It’s too loud, it’s too busy, turn it off!!!
Try the Computer….
Can’t work it out
I have No patience for patience ….
Turn it off!!!
All these years….
I thought it was just a joke..
he can’t walk and chew gum…
but here I am…
unable to explain..
it is still in there…!
Inside the steel ball, hidden behind a curtain of pain,
hidden by the loud noises that make me jump,
the people and shapes that rush at me in shops,
the babble of TV or radio and those dancing words on a page,
it is still in there..!
I just can’t get to it!
For now……it is a lonely journey,
that only I can make,
so……everyday I’m gonna sit at the computer,
I will put on the game,
and I will play it,
for however long I can and
for however long it takes,
it will not beat me…..!
Angry, frustrated, and in pain,
I will regain, the use of my brain.
Give it time I’m told,
I had to sit for an hour in the rain,
because of my broken brain.
If I go to town,
I can do one shop, no other stops,
We went home!
My worst moment was in class,
yes I am taking a class, to manage my condition,
if I can get there…..
if…. I can leave the house,
if I can…. get out of bed,
We were told….
everybody has hope….
I sat while others thought,
then told about the hope in their life,
all the while searching my steel ball for an answer,
but there was none,
I got up and ran,
there is no hope, no hope for me,
then the teacher came to comfort me,
I was a snivelling mess,
you have issues you need to address.
So, now look at me,
I stand here before you,
you can not know how much patience it takes,
to get this far from….
walking OR talking,
OVER 2000 days…. worth of solitaire games,
just to get my brain working again,
never criticise those games I play,
it’s what got me to here, today.
Regarding this piece I have chosen to share, I have finally managed to write something that tells how it feels from inside mental illness and what I had to deal with when I had my last mental shut down and had lost all hope. I have read my poem at a few poetry gatherings and it has been well received, people find time to come and thank me, I have been told that it is how people felt or how a loved one has acted or just given people the courage to also read some more serious poetry than deals with the same kind of issues. I hope that by getting my poetry out into the world that it will continue to inspire others to also talk about what it is like and make this illness less scary and more acceptable to society in general.
What is your process when creating?
I am not really aware of a process, my art came from trying to make a picture look realistic, my original thought in 1998 was that I had taken some photos and I wondered if I could actually make people look real from a photo because I believed I could only draw stick men.
My hobby at the time was 17th century battle re-enactment (English civil war). As a woman there isn’t a great deal to do when the men are fighting and I had a camera so I took pictures. I turned them into paintings, then I showed the paintings to my friends and because they could recognise themselves most of those paintings were purchased.
I explore the use of colour, light, patterns and optical illusions. That premise runs through all of my disciplines even within music and poetry, there are different rhythms or pauses, which contrast one another, conveying feelings. Dancing, sculpture and painting, all have positive and negative spaces which you try to balance or not, depending on the effect you are trying to achieve.
However I guess when people look at some of my work they just see patterns, there is no real need to understand what I am trying to do as it is a personal journey that satisfies my inner creative. I have a strange delight knowing that they do not exist and never will again, except in my computer, my modern take on the Mandala, Buddhist sand paintings,(the sand blows or is swept away) this forces you to create in the present moment and not dwell on things from the past which are not permanent.
It has always been that my favourite painting is the next one, because it is the making of it and not the existence of it that delights me.
Who are you influenced by within your artistic discipline?
My influences are many, some which I remember are from when I was growing up, my Dad reading me poetry from A.A. Milne, Lewis Carroll, Dr. Seuss, Banjo Patterson (Australian bush poet),
Later I used to love the two Ronnies with their wordplay.
In art I was interested in the cubists and the playing with how we see space, M.C.Esher and his optical illusions, David Hockney played with space.
My all time favourite is Leonardo Da Vinci with his curiosity and exploration of everything, designs for things people could only dream of like flying or walking and breathing under water.
Who inspires you in general?
In general I am inspired by people who have chosen to stand up and talk about their journey with mental health difficulties such as Stephen Fry and Ruby Wax, I have always taken heart from the fact Winston Churchill managed to be Prime Minister and had depression or his black dog as he called it. Anyone who has managed to maintain a functional place in society and also deal with the crushing symptoms of mental illness give me inspiration to carry on.
What causes and world issues are you passionate about, campaign for, volunteer for…?
I am interested in and campaign for recognition of mental health issues, help groups and therapies. It is what is closest to my heart and life.
I also believe we are all entitled to the basic human rights like shelter, food, water and medical help and medicine.
I am angered that mankind can destroy our planet for profit causing animals and humans to lose their natural habitat and use up the resources of the earth when there are free power supplies, the sun being just one, that we could harness for a very long time.
I am very angry at the moment that the government seems to be picking on the disabled and those with long term illness, myself being included in that group. I have had to go to tribunal because they don’t seem to recognise mental health when it comes to the Personal Independence Payment, a payment that had helped me to improve my ability to be able to function, after I had a complete mental shutdown that has forced me to relearn so many of the basic human abilities like walking and talking at the same time, I am pleased to say that I won at the tribunal.
The questions were the same, the answers were the same but what was written down was different, I hope that I can be an inspiration for others who have been treated the same way, even after I sent the request to be seen at tribunal I doubted my own existence and my usefulness in society, wondering if I actually deserved extra help for my recovery and participation in society, all because of other people’s opinions about disabled people and those of us who need financial help to get better and take control of life again.
I struggle every day to function, some days are better than others. I can take pride in the fact that I try to help others to find a reason to carry on too, this is why I have helped my friend to set up an art group at the local wellcome centre for some art activities. Art therapy is a powerful tool for healing.
What do the statements “art saves lives” and “art creates change” mean to you?
“Art saves lives” and “art creates change” are two very true statements in my eyes, art saved my life and through art I have managed to change my circumstances, my way of thinking and personal goals. Without Art I would not be here on this planet.
Have your artistic and creative outlets saved your life in anyway and do you think your message within them could help create change in the world?
Art saved my life because it gave me an outlet to get all the confused thinking and perceived ideas on to paper so that I could take a step back and try to see what was going on in my head,
it gave me space to to re-imagine how things could be,
it gave me achievements that I could see and hold in my hand,
goals to pursue and feedback from other people,
I got to speak out when I thought I had no voice and in doing so found that there were others like me facing the same problems.
What are your present and future goals for your art?
I have a series of poems that I am trying to put together into a book, dealing with my life and the journey I took, the feelings I dealt with and how I am today. I have read some of them and recorded them with music of my own making on Soundcloud, I would like to make a presentation either a play, installation or rock opera to let other people hear what I have written. I have a series of earlier poems with art work, all my own, that I have made into two books, some of those I would hope could be used as an aid at help therapists or help groups to begin a conversation about mental health. I want to continue exploring the human experience and hopefully inspire others to give art therapy a go or just to stay on the planet a little longer because it isn’t all that bad after all.
Can you tell us about your own experiences with mental illness?
I am diagnosed as having bipolar type 2 and depression that never ends,
I have been affected since I was 11 years old, not wanting to exist, it is not the same as wanting to be dead, I think, as I just wanted the world to leave me alone. I have had several episodes of hypomania, I had hallucinations, visual and auditory, I don’t actually have delusions where I believe I am someone else but I do believe I can rule the world and I think so fast that it is impossible to keep up with me, I do things I shouldn’t then I come crashing down and I am hit with self loathing and disgust, flashbacks and regret, guilt, embarrassment, I then get suicidal thoughts that the world would be better off without me. I am paralysed just trying to go to the shop for milk, everything is too loud and I want to stay in bed, at my worst I just sleet, I have no choice.
I don’t look sick so no one believes me, I have had it for so long that I know what to do to keep my body safe, most of the time, up to now, so I have not been arrested or reported by the neighbours. I have always used my art to ground me as such, so instead of causing trouble I retreat and do things to distract myself. After so many years of doing this I have a great body of work which once I looked at it I realised that it told a story and I spent many years turning it all into books, not officially published but they do exist as books.
How does your artistic /creative expression help you with your mental health?
I then started on my project specifically about my last break down which is where the poem I am submitting came from. I have never been able to explain to anyone how it is or what happened to me. I have had lots of therapy but the world seems to break it up into 12 week segments so all I have ever done is to start telling my story over and over, I have broken at least one counsellor. I can now add a trust issue with therapists to the list, I already had trust issues with my Mum leaving so early in my life.
Have you ever experienced being stigmatised or marginalised due to your mental health or have you seen this happen to someone else?
Mostly I am told there is nothing wrong with me because I don’t look sick. I am also of higher intelligence and so don’t come over as having mental health issues, I learned to hide it well, obviously, so I don’t get the help I need in group situations as I am always adopted by the therapist to help the others, which is a complement but also not helpful, I should just play dumb maybe.
Have you ever received treatment for mental health and if so, what was it, did it help and was it private or state funded?
The help I have received has usually come from a charity like mind, changes, rethink. Any NHS mental health help is very rigid and has set time limits, I have never been able to afford to pay for therapy. I have tried CBT, Changes (a local Charity like mind) condition management, that was good it gave me a tool kit of things to do when I am not well,
I have been to group therapy, lots of talking therapy, telling my story over and no feed back, I have been on anti-depression drugs forever, no follow up as such, I had to come off the seraxat (now banned) but became suicidal at half a dose as the doctor didn’t replace it he just tried to get me off it.
I have had beta blockers since I can not remember for panic attacks, again no looking into why just handing out the tablets each month.
I have now had anti-psychotics which just put me to sleep but the psychiatric nurse seemed to think this was a good thing.
I have learned how to look after myself pretty much as I have had next to no support, Mum came back 8 years ago and does now stand by me but she still doesn’t actually understand, even with the poetry.
Do you think society and culture is accepting of people with mental illness?
Society is scared of people with mental illness, the headlines always seem to be about paranoid schizophrenic person kills normal sane person for no reason in a park. We aren’t all schizophrenic and not all schizophrenics kill people and more sane people kill sane people than people with mental health problems.
I think society thinks it is catching and not a process that happens inside the body and mind.
How do you feel your Government in your country helps people with mental illness and could they do more?
In England… the Government does not help us and the austerity cuts have caused several mental health facilities to close down. The benefit cuts seem to be affecting the mentally ill as well. One example being the change from Disability living allowance to Personal Independence Payment, the questions do not help to prove that we have a daily struggle even with documents from the psychiatrist. They are getting rid of the disability living fund, I have only just heard of this fund, they are saying people are fit for work when clearly they are not. People with mental health problems are less likely to fight the decisions and more likely to give up on life and even kill themselves.
Have you ever had any creative therapies as part of your treatment, did it help?
I have not had creative therapies as my treatment apart from those I have initiated myself, I even tried to initiate creative therapy into one of the local homes for people with mental disability some 20 years ago but due to their conditions we had no takers.
Do you think artistic / creative expression can be used to help people with mental health problems?
I think creative therapies are great for people with mental health problems because it can give them a voice to explain what they are unable to, it gives space and time to investigate their problems, it is calming and soothing or can be aggressive and angry helping people to get in touch with they feelings and emotions. I believe we use the other side of the brain to be creative so it can aid in the rewiring of the brain or find things people are good at which aren’t considered conventional, it gives people goals to achieve and something solid to show their achievement. The work can start a conversation.
Do you think artistic / creative expression could help raise awareness and communicate how mental illness affects people?
I think creative therapies can raise awareness and help communicate how it affects us. It certainly has for me. It gives information in a more entertaining way that people are usually willing to engage with and to tell a story, that I can’t tell in any other way, is a bonus. When people have nothing to relate to with something like mental health, you have been there or you haven’t there is no guessing, then to show them what it feels like, be it a painting, dance or poetry or all three, it will help to communicate. I have had mumblings from my Dad along the lines of, “ I hadn’t thought of it like that before.”
What made you want to get involved with ASLI’s MENTAL ILLNESS, HEALTH AND RECOVERY CAMPAIGN?
I wanted to get involved with your campaign because I want my work to help other people with mental illness. I have always been interested in creative therapy and mental health issues because I step between being ill and being able to help others. I have made these pieces because it tells my story and only those who have been there can even start to describe what it is like. I want to be an inspiration to others who think they are alone, or think they will never get better, or think they are worthless and a burden, I have been to all of these places, it isn’t easy to keep positive and to not let the depression win or the mania run away with you causing it’s own complications but it is possible to exist and even live with and after this condition, it is possible to get treatment and manage how it affects you, there are lots of others out there who have been there and are still dealing with their mental health.
Do you believe in more rights for mentally ill people in the workplace and for equal opportunities?
I have not been aware of inequality in the work place just complete misunderstanding. Many creative people are their own boss and have mental health problems, I would love to have a guide to how this is achieved.
We at ASLI want to de-stigmatize diagnosis labels within mental illness so that people treat others and their own mental health label as that of a diabetic or any other chronic “physical” illness, as we know the brain is physical and this would further improve stigma and marginalising mental illness. How do you feel about diagnosis labels?
Diagnosis labels are really only useful in the treatment and managing of the condition, I was deemed a liar until I was diagnosed last year but people in general do not know what the labels mean, even schizophrenic is thought of by how it is portrayed in the newspaper which is usually badly. The term manic depression seems to be accepted but still people do not know what it actually means on a day to day basis, they should teach about it in schools.
Everyone within ASLI is affected in some way by mental illness, with our MD having several chronic mental illnesses and other members either caring for or dealing with mental health issues. Would this make you think twice about working with ASLI? And does this make ASLI “less professional” in your opinion and if so why?
The fact that everyone at ASLI has a connection to mental health would not alter my opinion about working with them. The recovery group in Stoke on Trent, that I finally found 7 years ago, called Changes, all the people who are working for them, have had mental health issues. I think with everyone aware of people’s state of mind, that it is a much nicer place to work as people are aware of what is going on, there was a background however of paranoia but that could have just been me, people are people at the end of the day, it was nice to not have to worry about mental health and to be able to give back to those who had helped me and new people coming in to the organisation.
Are there any artists/creatives/performers which you admire, who suffer from mental illness that you feel use their work to discuss or highlight mental health?
Performers/ Artists/ who use their work to promote mental health, maybe because it is so much a part of my life and what I talk about and promote myself that I am not actually aware of this going on, my awareness is limited to Stephen Fry and Ruby Wax.
Finally is there anything else you would like to tell us about yourself or your experiences?
It has taken almost 40 years for my illness to be recognised,
I have been told “I wasn’t worth saving” before now, or worse…
“be a good girl and go to work you are only an hour late” when I phoned for help, just before I took the overdose, these were the professionals.
I have a strong survival instinct which stops me from hurting myself but it doesn’t make the pain of living any less.
Mum left when I was 7 and came back 34 years later, I was on my own for that time, Dad worked most of the time and I was strong and brave for him, I then left for uni when I was 19.
When Mum came back, I belonged to someone, it was then people took notice, before that I was battling to get treatment, diagnosis or even recognition of my difficulties, even my husband did not believe me, as I have always had mental illness and am able to manage it most of the time. It is now when I tell Mum what I did when she was away that suddenly it wasn’t normal and my health and treatment are highlighted and scrutinised.
Not everyone has this privilege to review their life, not everyone has the talent as a poet to be able to write or talk about the experiences,
or as an artist to make thought provoking pieces to try to help others understand, and for me now, the time to put it all together,
or compassion and love to start an art group with the purpose of bringing a little calm into the lives of others who without it could easily sink into depression without that contact and activity.
I am blessed to be able to give back to the world having had time and space to think about and analyse the world of mental illness. I struggle on a daily basis, I have been through many different stages in dealing with it like, anger, hopelessness, non productivity, super productivity leading to burnouts, not believing in myself, wanting to be dead,
I have lost so many friends due to the mood swings and change in my personality that it is now really hard to make friends.
Today is a good day and even if it isn’t I have to remember to…
Keep on, keepin on.
If you would like to know more about Tracy and her work please follow these links: