Tim J. Evans, 34, from Melbourne in Australia is a poet and submitted a poem of his personal story regarding his own mental illness. ASLI chose this submission as we felt a
Tim was born in Newcastle Upon Tyne, England, but moved to Melbourne, Australia with his wife. Having studied English and Media at University. Since childhood Tim has loved all kinds of artistic expression; visual art, the written and spoken word, film and music. With a group of friends he ran PopArt London which was conceived as ‘a fanzine presented via the medium of a club’, a hub of self professed “crazy ideas” with live bands and a interactive audience experience. Named the “London’s Indie-Pop Pranksters” this is a time which Tim is very fond of and describes the community as “vibrant, friendly and caring”. We discuss his poetry, novel writing and how this all relates to his mental health.
ASLI wanted to find out more about Tim so here is our interview with him:
What motivated you to deal with your chosen submission subject?
I started writing poems regularly during a previous period of unemployment. It grew, I suppose, out of diary writing I’d been doing as part of my psychological therapy, which helped me recognise, process and move towards dealing better with patterns of thought and behaviour driven by anxiety. With my poems, I allowed myself to be a bit freer and, as well as the struggles of anxiety and depression, also express and nurture the playful, hopeful parts of myself if they presented themselves. So my motivation to write about my experience of mental illness was, initially at least, a form of catharsis. It also gave me a focus and some small feeling of accomplishment to have created something each day.
Losing at Shadow Boxing – By Tim Evans
Morning, I stir and stretch, the day already broken
My shadow always stirs and stretches long before me
I don’t know when this round began
For days or weeks I’ve made my stand
Now I’m hanging to the ropes
Grasping breathless for a hope
Shadows of the past now jab
‘You fucked up every chance you had’
Every stupid thing I said
Rings louder now about my head
Wearily bring up my guard
Braced and tense, my body hard
My shadow looming large before me
Resigned to living as its quarry
From everything I duck and weave
To the safety of my corner cleaved
Outside this ring a life is waiting
Each step ends in hesitating
Shadows of the future now aimed below the belt
Whether they connect or not, the pain already felt
Every path I peer down seems cast in shadow thick
All too real and solid to be nothing but a trick
My shadow shows just fear and pain
Warns me ‘don’t try that again’
Deceives that it’s protecting me
From forgone catastrophe
If I could see I needn’t fight
If only I could face the light
My shadow falls
What is your process when creating?
It varies. I began initially writing a lot of short forms – haikus and tankas. With those I tried to write and publish (on my twitter and blog) one piece every day. It was a way of freeing myself from perfectionism, over thinking and lack of self-confidence – choosing to write a short poem, quite quickly, and then post it online. They became an exercise in mindfulness and I found if I could just ‘be’ in a moment, something around me or within me would reveal itself. At the same time, being mindful meant also being true to where I was – in the supermarket, a café, the laundrette, the empty flat. So a kind of whimsical interplay emerged between a sort of philosophical musing and the mundanities of life. I was glad they often ended up being funny and don’t think that detracts from any deeper, meditative aspects. Humour is a big part of my character when it’s not buried under anxiety and depression. That seemed to be the best ‘truth’ I could tell, about the world as I saw it and about my own mental state. I think life is a (sometimes dark) comedy that I’ve been living as though it’s a tragedy. Or, as Kurt Vonnegut put it “Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion. I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning up to do afterward.”
With longer pieces my process is different. I tend to have an idea for a title or a line as I become aware of a thought or feeling I’m experiencing and just make a few notes. Then I leave it to brew in my head, maybe come back to it as other lines occur to me, just letting them float around together in my head. Then, sometimes, there comes a point where I’m almost speaking the whole piece to myself under my breath (which I’m sure causes people on the tram to leave that seat next to me empty) and I then try to put it all down on paper. There’s a bit of tinkering and new ideas that come about from seeing it as a whole on the page, but I try and keep faith with what was in my head. This way of working means I’ve got dozens of notes and half ideas and possible titles and very few finished pieces, but personally, when I try too hard just sit down and write, that’s when the anxiety and self-doubt and “you’re not good enough,” creep in. Invariably, having gone through the process, I naturally come to a point (similar to the edge of humour with short forms) where I want very strongly to end on a point of hope. Without undermining the intensity of the experience and how terrible it is in the middle of it, externalising it allows me to see that, although maybe not now, I do have the capacity to overcome it. Without wanting to over explain the poem, I’m trying to express the, at times seemingly ridiculous, irony of feeling you are fighting against yourself, and battling things (thoughts, feelings) that have no tangible existence.
Who are you influenced by within your artistic discipline?
Although I enjoy reading poetry, I can’t nominate a ‘favourite’ or particularly influential poet, which sometimes seems to confuse and infuriate people. I am very much inspired, though, by all the poets I’ve had the privilege to hear and speak with in the Melbourne performance and open mic scene (when I’m able to go) and by the audiences. Their ‘influence’ is in repeatedly showing me that it is possible, despite difficulties, to write and create and express your truth, your concerns, your emotions, your unique views without (much) fear of being too harshly judged or criticised. In my experience it’s an atmosphere where (although we might all subjectively prefer one poet to another) there is a great deal of community, empathy and respect for anyone courageous enough to really give something of themselves and share it with others.
Who inspires you in general?
I’m very much inspired by music and lyrics, from the fragile indie-pop of Belle & Sebastian to the battered and bruised folk commentary of Bob Dylan to the raw emotion of 60s soul, and by countless others. The debates around the cultural worth of popular song lyrics versus traditional poetry are old, old arguments, but for me if an artist has expressed something vital and visceral using words beyond their base functional meaning, using rhythm and form, that is poetry. Or, as Ezra Pound put it:
“Poetry is a composition of words set to music. … Poetry withers and ‘dries out’ when it leaves music, or at least imagined music, too far behind it.”
In terms of visual art I’m inspired by David Shrigley and Ron Mueck. Shrigley’s work is often ostensibly rudimentary, messy and immature, with crudely drawn figures and scrawled corrections, but for those prepared to approach with an open mind, it’s funny and sad, insightful and ridiculous, compelling and inspirational.
Ron Muek’s work is entirely different in that he painstakingly creates sculptures that reproduce the minute detail of the human body, looking somehow more real than the subject itself, but plays with scale to create a jarring experience. In particular, I’m inspired by his piece ‘Angel’, in which a small male figure perches on a normal sized stool, glumly resting his head in his hands, while his demeanour is (to my mind) contrasted by a set of beautiful feathered wings that half fold out from his back.
What causes and world issues are you passionate about, campaign for, volunteer for…?
I do some voluntary writing work for an amazing charity called Cambodian Kids Can (CKC). They fund three projects; Mekhala house runs a comprehensive child development program for the most vulnerable young girls, Mekhala Learning Centre is a free centre for the community offering initiatives such as computer classes and CV workshops, and a library, the largest in Prey Veng, with over 600 visitors a month. Mekhala House is dedicated to providing education and development opportunities to girls who are at-risk or orphaned. The aim is to empower the girls so they can improve their lives and lift themselves and their families out of poverty. Through personalised development programs, Mekhala House assists the girls to become future leaders in order to effect positive change in their communities.
I am currently working on a cookbook with CKC, with traditional Cambodian recipes donated by local restaurateurs and food sellers, and by the girls of Mekhala House themselves, passing on what they have learnt.
What do the statements “art saves lives” and “art creates change” mean to you?
I think art has always reflected and expressed what it is to be human and, as both creators and consumers, helps us make sense of ourselves and our world. Whether that’s by celebrating beauty and wonder or by tackling the social and personal horrors that we face, art has certainly made me feel it’s not such a bad thing to be alive. Art can be comforting and cathartic. It can also challenge us, in a very visceral way, to look at the world and our attitudes to it in a new light and reconsider our thoughts and actions. In those ways, I think, art can both save lives and create change.
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?
Along with an excellent GP/Counsellor and Psychologists, and the love and support of those closest to me, I think my artistic practice has and is saving my life in so far as it allows me to process and come to terms with my illness, and beyond that to see greater recovery as a possibility. If writing hasn’t literally saved my life I think it’s been a big part of saving me from a life dominated by fear.
I hope my work might create change by increasing the visibility of mental illness, perhaps making those who have similar struggles feel less isolated and contributing, in some small way, to greater understanding and acceptance.
What are your present and future goals for your art?
I just want to continue writing, learning and improving. I hope to develop more confidence in sharing my work, both through publication and spoken word events. It still feels, in some ways, very personal and raw but I also feel a sense of accomplishment, albeit mixed with uncertainty and discomfort, in reaching even a small audience. Difficult as it can be, I do feel more like a poem is more finally realised when I’ve shared it with others.
The following questions are about mental health:
Can you tell us about your own experiences with mental illness?
I have Generalised Anxiety Disorder (with particular social anxieties) and depression. This first came to light when I saw a careers guidance counsellor, also a psychologist, who highlighted my anxieties and unreasonable perfectionism – all stemming from fears that I’m not good enough, that I don’t know what I’m doing, that I’m a fraud and I’ll somehow be ‘found out’ – the list goes on. It had never occurred to me that I might have particular mental health issues but as soon as it was suggested I immediately recognised myself and, with hindsight, it made a lot of sense of the struggles I’d had since adolescence, or even earlier. Since, then my mental health has been both better and worse. I’ve had periods where I’ve been much more confident and capable as well as periods where I’m entirely overwhelmed and unable to cope with both everyday tasks and bigger life issues – sometimes within the same day.
How does your artistic /creative expression help you with your mental health?
Poetry provides me with an outlet to express and process my thoughts and feelings in a way that I’m not able to verbally or in prose. It helps to lift a burden and to create something positive out of painful experiences. It also provides time and space where I feel more grounded and mindful.
Have you ever experienced being stigmatised or marginalised due to your mental health or have you seen this happen to someone else?
I think personally I’ve generally been fortunate enough not to directly experience much overt stigma or marginalisation. I have come across people who don’t seem to understand that I am dealing with a debilitating mental illness because I seem to be generally ordinary. I guess that comes from a hideously outdated, binary view of there being ‘normal’ people and cartoonish ‘lunatics’. I have even had a brief debate with a stranger on Twitter who said no men they knew would go to a psychiatrist. How she is so privy to the internal world of every man she knows aside, I pointed out that I’m a man who sees a psychiatrist and there is a huge social problem with men feeling unable to seek help for fear of being seen as ‘weak’. Her response was “Nah, men are tough.” I suspect she wasn’t taking the discussion as seriously as I was, but it reflects a retrograde attitude towards mental health and reductive gender stereotypes.
Have you ever received treatment for mental health and if so, what was it, did it help and was it private or state funded?
I got to a point where I felt I needed more help so I got some really useful guidance from a charity called Beyond Blue and made myself an appointment with a psychologist. She explained I could claim back most of the cost through the government Medicare system if I went to my GP for a referral. My local GP was, bluntly, terrible. He very much had his own agenda as a nutrition specialist and said I could ‘solve’ things by changing my eating habits. It had taken a lot of courage for me to say out loud that anxiety was making it difficult to function and I then also had to find the strength and self-confidence to say I wanted to see a psychiatrist and needed a referral. He refused to do a mental health assessment (the usual process) which he saw as a bureaucratic waste of time, but did give me a basic referral to the psychologist I had found.
My psychology sessions though, were immeasurably helpful. I began writing down my thoughts during times of particular anxiety, which was initially quite confronting to see in black and white what my brain was coming up with. This formed the basis for our discussions and I slowly came to be able to first reduce the intensity of those anxious thoughts and then, through that process of externalising and looking subjectively at them, see that (real as they felt at the time) they were not based on any firm evidence, not very likely to happen and not so earth shattering if they did. Being able to discuss things with someone impartial and non-judgemental was a huge benefit. As much as family and friends care very deeply, they can sometimes be too close to you and too much impacted by your illness themselves.
I went through another very difficult period after retraining as an ESL teacher, being unemployed for a time, finally starting teaching work and losing that job after several months. I found an excellent new GP (again through Beyond Blue) who did a proper mental health assessment and referred me to a psychologist. I’m continuing to see my new GP regularly, who is also qualified as a counsellor. Those appointments are fully state funded. I’m also getting a lot out of talking therapy with my psychologist, which again is mostly covered by state funding.
I’m also taking medication but I don’t know to what extent that is state funded, if at all. The situation in Australia seems to be that there is an open market for pharmacies, so I might pay more at one than another for the same medications.
Do you think society and culture is accepting of people with mental illness?
I think the situation is improving and I’ve been encouraged by the responses from people who I have told about my mental health issues. I’ve actually found a surprising number of people have personal experience of mental illness, either their own or a loved one. In terms of ‘acceptance’ I suppose that raises the question of why mental health is not discussed more openly and why those who are dealing with it are more guarded in disclosing than they might be with a purely ‘physical’ health issue. For me, my mental health felt much more bound up in my character and my ‘being’, so it is more difficult to be open about because I have felt I’m not who I was anymore – probably more so than those around me. I think rather than ‘acceptance’ the greater issue is one of understanding. I think a fallacy persists that ‘it’s all in your head’ and very well-meaning people want to try and ‘fix’ you by telling you to do more exercise, get out and see people more, find a job, consider how much worse off people in other parts of the world are or simply ‘stop worrying, look at what you’ve got’. All of these can be greatly helpful at various times, but I think there is a lack of understanding that for those currently dealing with mental illness it can be a long road and they can’t necessarily react to or process these activities and ideas in the same way they bring comfort or enjoyment to others. They may well be useful eventually, but I certainly need time and space to find my own way there.
How do you feel your Government in your country helps people with mental illness and could they do more?
There is a certain amount of help available. My criticism would be that there seems to be a ‘one size fits all’ approach in Australia (how that differs from the UK I don’t know). With a referral from a GP, you are entitled to up to ten sessions per calendar year with a psychologist and, depending on the rates they charge, all or most of the cost is covered by the Medicare system. For some people, at some times, that will be enough. However I have used all my sessions for this year and for various reasons I’m still struggling. I’m currently able, for instance, to do a very limited amount of paid work and even from a purely dispassionate point of view, you would think governments would want to at least try and facilitate a greater level of recovery for economic reasons. Unless you are at the very severe end of the mental illness spectrum, that seems to be about it. I’d like to see a more flexible system based on the varying needs of each person.
Have you ever had any creative therapies as part of your treatment, did it help?
Not formally, although I suppose the thought diaries both my psychologists have got me doing are creative to an extent, and the people I’ve worked with have certainly been encouraging about my poetry practice.
Do you think artistic / creative expression can be used to help people with mental health problems?
It has certainly helped me, as I say. I wouldn’t presume to know what would help others but I do think some sort of freer, unmediated expression can certainly cut through self-flagellating thought patterns and help us to process and come to terms with mental illness. I think creative expression can also bring relief in terms of providing a mental space for complete concentration on an activity and a period of calmer mindfulness. That might include, painting, writing, drawing and colouring or equally cooking, sport, games, woodwork, tinkering with cars and so on.
Do you think artistic / creative expression could help raise awareness and communicate how mental illness affects people?
Yes, and for the same reasons it can help those dealing with mental illness – art can be more visceral and can connect more deeply with others who don’t understand, who are dismissive or even prejudiced.
What made you want to get involved with ASLI’s MENTAL ILLNESS, HEALTH AND RECOVERY CAMPAIGN?
From a personal point of view, I’m trying to build the confidence to share my work with a larger audience and this mental health specific campaign seemed a less threatening way to do so. I also hope that in doing so I might help create better understanding and visibility of mental health issues.
Do you believe in more rights for mentally ill people in the work place and for equal opportunities?
In short, yes. I think more could be done to accommodate mentally ill people; greater flexibility in choosing hours of work, working from home, job sharing arrangements, ‘buddy’ systems etc. That being said, I do personally worry about interviews and I can see that for employers the core requirements of a given job may be inescapable and if one candidate is able to do them and another is not they will naturally be inclined to the former. I’m unsure whether ‘equal opportunity’ in that sense stretches only as far as giving a fair consideration to all candidates. In-school teaching, for instance, will always involve standing in front of a group of people and leading activities, which I currently don’t feel able to do. For those with mental health issues already in work, I do think employers should make all efforts to support them to stay in employment wherever possible and play an active role in their recovery. I suppose there is a balance to be struck between employers being more committed and flexible in supporting those with mental health issues and individuals finding work that suits them – for me at the moment that is freelance copywriting, where I can work from home at times that suit me and I choose to deal only with agencies whom I trust and don’t require me to deal directly with clients.
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?
I think a lack of understanding, and therefore stigmas, still persist around mental health diagnosis labels, ironically stemming from a fear of mental illness and outdated ideas of ‘madness’ being synonymous with danger. I think there needs to be a greater attitude of openness and empathetic enquiry. There needs to be greater education about what mental illness diagnosis labels mean, which is a very broad spectrum both in types of illness and levels of severity and also, on a person to person scale, a willingness to tactfully ask about someone’s experience and find out what the label actually means for them (to the point they are comfortable discussing it), rather than making assumptions based on inaccurate and hopelessly all-encompassing stereotypes.
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?
Not at all. My relationship with ASLI Magazine has been equally “professional,” as my experience with other publications and organisations, or even more so. In fact I think an understanding and empathetic approach in some ways makes ASLI more “professional,” than some other organisations. Problems aren’t confined to working with people dealing with mental illness. In any organisation, deadlines are sometimes missed, projects hit snags and are pushed back, problems directly or indirectly related to work arise, some people are easier to deal with than others (and our culture seems to be more accepting of people who are aggressive or ‘don’t suffer fools’ than those with mental health issues). None of those have been issues in my relationship with ASLI, but it has been very constructively based on mutual respect, understanding and effective communication.
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?
I’ve recently come across a photographer who is maybe dealing with similar ideas to me in that she is shown as both “instigator and victim” of her anxiety/depression. Some of her self-portraits are here http://hellogiggles.com/self-portraits-reveal-anxiety/
I’d also like to mention an excellent podcast called http://theanxietyshutinhour.com/
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