Andrea Ballance, 41 from Lancing, England is a multimedia community artist who submitted for our first campaign “Celebration of Women”, as a team we felt keeping Andrea’s work for the following campaign would give her a better platform as her piece speaks about the effects of post traumatic stress disorder and being a survivor. This is why we felt her story was better suited for the present campaign “mental illness, health and recovery”.
Andrea is a wife and Mother of two children and has lived all over England as well as mainland Europe and describes herself at present as a: “stay at home mum with 1001 projects bursting from every thought”.
I feel my true artistic background is a lifetime of being obsessed with light and dark. This then turned into an obsession with colour tones and led to me doing a degree in Community Art.
Initially my work was motivated by understanding intimacy on one shape or form and that has slowly matured until all my art is fuelled by trying to understanding compassion, love and kindness.
As a multi-disciplined artist Andrea uses writing, poetry, animation and sculpture to pursue her activism and as a tool for healing as well as her outlet of self-expression. We were moved so much by her strength as a survivor and knew straight away that her story needed to be shared.
Here is our interview with Andrea and her story:
What motivated you to deal with your chosen submission subject?
Holistic health and well-being is just a boring, matter of fact humdrum need of life that is generally ignored. Art does save lives. I was motivated to submit my work because I want to show people how art has brought the broken pieces of me together and later I see it bring people together hopefully to do the same for them.
I am a ‘survivor’ of a High demand Buddhist group called the NKT. I have lived through PTSD (Post traumatic Stress Disorder) and RT (religious trauma). I feel that I have something to say that can help people. I feel ‘Art’ in all its facets has an important role to play in an individual’s health and the health of our whole society.
This is a piece I wrote about my experience of leaving the high demand group I was in. It explains how lost I was. Without the ability to express myself through words I am not sure how fast I would have healed. I really recommend writing and storytelling as a tool of healing.
My name is Andrea Ballance. I was a member of the New Kadampa Tradition. I was ordained in this tradition. I was a fully absorbed, dedicated, misguided and later an abandoned devotee of Geshe Kelsang Gyatso.
I thought when I joined (before the internet as we know it, now you can always google the group you are getting involved with!) that this was a mainstream Buddhist organisation similar to being in a religion like the Church of England but the Buddhist version.
I joined as one of their main teachers called Gen-la Thubten was being exposed for having sexual relations under the guise of a spiritual practice with nuns, single students, students who were married and in long-term relationships. I was kept oblivious to all of this so I had no qualms about diving head first into the tradition. I was extremely naive back then. I thought all Buddhism was connected to the Dalai Lama. He was on TV, had books in normal bookshops, etc., he had to be legit, except it turned out (more to do with my happy blindness rather than it being hidden) this tradition had nothing to do with the Dalai Lama and I had not noticed.
I was ordained for about five years. Disrobing (this is the name they give taking off robes and dressing like a normal person again) from being, what I thought was an ordained nun, took me a long time. The process had started really from the first year of my ordination. Small chinks and rips in my integrity and ideas of what is moral and right were my first warnings.
I can not tell you how much I loved being a nun. No words can describe to anyone the absolute amazement and joy I felt when I realised not only that I, ME, could be a nun but that I was actually going to get ordained. The freedom I felt, freedom from conventional demands of beauty, behaviour, dress and female expectation. The joy of being allowed to be something I admired with all my heart. A nun – to me the ultimate expression of spiritual compassion and bravery. I loved nuns and monks so much that I have to admit I did not feel worthy of the robes. I hid in my ordination photos – I did not want to ruin the pictures with my obviously misplaced aspiration.
After ordination I was living, motivated to the best of my ability, a REAL life. A life dedicated to compassion and growth. A life that really had the power to benefit and influence the world, starting with the people around me. I was an object of trust and unconditional love for people, albeit aspirational. I could be useful to people who like me, may have had dark times and needed just one human to project ‘good’ on to so that they could choose to keep going. The slow cracking and poisoning of this well-meant life choice practically nearly killed me.
I never fitted in. I was never allowed to fit in. I would call out teachers if I thought what they were saying was wrong. For example a teacher said, in front of a crowd of mixed ordained and lay people, “Fat people do not look very nice but thin people might be sick”. This ended in me having stern words with this particular teacher pointing out the shallowness of the statement. Pointing out that people saw him as Buddha on the throne (although to be fair Buddha was no stranger to being portly) and Buddha never said anything like that! Pointing out that thin people may be anorexic and that he may have caused some serious damage and pointing out that fat people only ‘look bad’ to people who can not live in the real world. I was not liked. I was seen as a troublemaker and a problem. I was excluded and pacified and basically ignored as much as possible.
I moved around from one centre to another – asked by the guru himself to move into the centre my first terrible cold and selfish teacher was moved to. I could not move straight away and spent sometime with the new teacher that had been ‘promoted’ to the main centre, Manjushri Centre. I realised quickly that we would not get on. I felt physically sick when a nun cornered me in the main hallway and whispered that I had been ‘picked to be in Genla Samden’s inner circle’. I left as soon as I could.
I then moved to the centre run by my first teacher called Losang Dragpa Centre. This particular centre has been shut down and it is now and sold off. It was deemed too impure. Unsurprisingly I was kicked out of that centre after a couple of years accused of ruining people’s faith and ‘stalking’ the teacher. I have to add that this teacher I thought was like a best friend. Like family. I loved him very much and even though I saw him as terribly flawed I was devoted to him.
They then allowed me to move to another big centre called Madhyamaka Centre. This was run by a teacher called Chodzom who it was later revealed was having sexual relations not only with the teacher Genla Samden but also with her own students. I did not know that at the time but knew I was not welcome there. My problem was that if I left the Dharma centre and tried to go it alone as a nun without a group I knew that I would become lonely and isolated and that would not be right for my spiritual growth. Needless to say leaving this Dharma centre was the rusty nail in the coffin of my ordination.
I did not know how to leave. Barely no relationship with my family. I was stuck. No money. No deposit for a flat. Nowhere to go to. No one who would understand me outside of this group. I couldn’t stay, it was just too painful. I knew of the current sexual habits of the promoted main teacher. I couldn’t settle with the way I had been cast out of my last centre. I was not welcome in the new centre and was policed. I had become very ill and suffered from exhaustion; this was seen as laziness and selfishness and I was bullied for it by the centre management.
The months before I finally left I completed a month of silent retreat. I had found myself thinking everyday that the students were not compassionate in the Dharma centre and tradition. Not interested in practice of Buddhism as I understood it. No compassion, no Dharma. If there was no Dharma there then why was I trying to be a nun there? This echoing would not leave me alone. It would start the minute I sat on my cushion to meditate and repeat mantras.
This month-long silent retreat helped me to come to terms with my undeniable realisation that the tradition I was involved with was not right for me and questionable for others. With this came the realisation I could not wear the robes of a tradition, be their advertising so to speak, if the tradition had no integrity or compassion. I just couldn’t do it.
The whole experience leaving the Dharma centre and choosing to go it alone was so traumatic. I can not even remember how it all came about. When had I contacted my family? I cannot remember emptying my room. Where we went… How we got wherever we ended up. All that part of my memory is a blank, a void. Same with the following months, they are missing completely from my memory. I remember nothing until I remember that I was living back with my family.
I couldn’t talk about the things that interested, healed and motivated me. I felt like I had been dropped into another country and I didn’t know the language or the customs. It felt to me like I was a character in a dark comedy horror film – a film where I was the main character, a ghost of some drowned, gray, dripping, cold, uncomfortable to be around ex Buddhist nun. Forced, for a plot twist, to live in a normal warm-blooded family. I was a bald-headed woman, wearing funny clothes, in a world that doesn’t recognize a desire to be a pure Buddhist.
If I had been isolated as a member of the NKT it was nothing to the isolation I experienced here. The confusion and darkness that filled my life was unbearable. I couldn’t talk about the pain I was in with anyone. How could they possibly understand? No one to turn to that could understand that my mind felt like it was being held in acid, burning all day and all night with no relief. The only relief was dreamless sleep. I tried to sleep all the time. I was a shell. No Sangha, no Dharma teachings, no deep conversations. Alone, exhausted, stripped bare. No practice, no prayers and eroding faith. Guilt for letting everyone down and not making it as a nun. Pathetic, untouchable, unlovable, rightly abandoned and ignored. Ignored even by my guru.
I couldn’t get angry and back on my feet because I can remember the underlying feeling that everything that had happened was meant to be for my benefit. It is what the wrathful guru, a real teacher like Marpa would do right! A guru who really believed in my potential and really believed in the fact this pathetic human could use Buddhist teachings to purify their intention. Become a really useful living being. A real guru, who trusted my intention to be pure, who would force me to go it alone, to face my darkest fears. In particular, my fear of being in a world that doesn’t recognize bodhichitta.
It did not occur to me at the time to question the fact this ‘test’ was being given to a nun who had never been able to get any personal guidance on her practice or even stabilize any meditation techniques. With no one to take refuge in. I was left with an unsettling, undermining feeling that I should be grateful. That all my feelings of utter devastation, confusion, my feelings of isolation and abandonment were the evidence no one could work with me. That I deserved abandonment. The crushing and humiliating proof of what a self-obsessed, ego-driven, selfish person I was.
This invisible acid bath of torture I found myself lying in had the words MY and SELF forming in its vapours. The biggest crime an aspirant of unconditional love could commit. Everything I was, was harmful mind disease. I did not want to reach out and contaminate another human being. I was contagious and a vortex of badness that would ruin people’s lives.
I would like to say this dark place taught me loads of positive things and that i was back on my feet in months. But being an ex-cult member doesn’t heal like that. It just doesn’t make sense one morning and TA DA! you jump out of bed shouting, “Oh! That was unpleasant but I learnt a valuable lesson there”. The reality is, you exist. You exist until something manages to get inside the darkness and empty greyness and make life have meaning. That thing has to get in almost against your wishes. It needs to germinate when you are not looking and often it is just time and space away from the cult that gives the seed of happiness a fighting chance.
For a long, long time nothing has ‘enough’ meaning. Nothing really motivates you. Nothing makes you feel happy naturally as a by-product of it just being there. It is grim, exhausting, lonely and relentless. You become a bedfellow with suicidal thoughts and the arguments for not ending it all. You revisit your guilt and pathetic-ness, each time fighting their gravity because the only thing left in you is the belief that negativity is a bad thing. Of course you know what negativity is, you have a degree in that. An intimate knowledge that can be called upon for varying levels of self-abuse your cult no longer needs to provide people for because you have taken on their job for them.
You do survive however. You do become endowed with a creeping feeling of meaning in your life and you do go on to achieve awesome things and be an awesome person. It just might take ten years or more before you can get it together enough. For your memory to stay strong enough to be useful. And, as in my case, you might find you are no longer motivated by love and kindness just a desperation to be free of being remembered as ‘that person who brought it upon themselves, because they willingly joined a cult’.
You may also find that when you go through periods of having a good time… or people being nice to you… or a run of good luck… or even something small like someone checking how you are feeling, that you have an overwhelming need to run, hide and cry. The panic may swallow you whole and leave you breathless and you may feel lost in this new and unchartered experience. You must be your ultimate bravest at these points. You are entitled to be loved and experience happiness after all you are a sentient being and there are Bodhisattvas out there working on your behalf too.
May EVERY living being be free from suffering – even us.
Andrea Ballance also created the video cartoons :
What is your process when creating?
Anything I create has to resound with my personal truth, whatever that may be at the time. I have to put myself initially in a non critical space. I allow myself to write, paint, create in whatever way seems natural in that moment. After I have created I force myself to keep hold of the art piece/idea I am creating as it is my natural habit to dismiss anything I create. I have learned that I do not appreciate my own art. I know that in six months I will look at the work and see its worth but it can take me a long time to be able to do this.
Who are you influenced by within your artistic discipline?
I am influenced mainly by my artistic peers. Emerging artists like Yasmin Raphael whose work is unashamedly seeped in spiritual meaning and nature. She works in many medias and her ability to refine, pay attention to detail and not lose the beauty of an organic shape is fascinating to me. My peers drive me to stay in touch my integrity and to be accepting of the results of my own creativity.
If I was to pick a famous artist it would be Grayson Perry. His work investigating human society and celebrating peoples differences and achievements is just awesome to me. He sees interest and beauty in places arrogance can not see anything.
Who inspires you in general?
I am inspired by all the people in the world who live through oppression and trauma. Any being, even the ones who I have not met, read about, heard about, I know they are out there, living through dark times, they inspire me. They keep me motivated. They make me strive to improve my world. The propel me to make a space for freedom of expression.
What causes and world issues are you passionate about, campaign for, volunteer for…?
I am passionate about community. I am particularly interested in relieving loneliness. I am haunted by the thought of people alone with no support lost with no help in real pain. Emotional pain.
I created and run a voluntary group that put on a lantern parade for the local community. We called it the Adur Sea of Lights. It is deliberately created to give our broken down community an avenue to express themselves through art and be proud of their community. To come together, mix and have an experience they can share and talk about.
What do the statements “art saves lives” and “art creates change” mean to you?
From my perspective as a survivor of a high intensity group art saves lives is just a statement of truth. A totally oppressed person has no voice and sometimes no ability to express themselves as an individual outside of the trauma. Art saved my life by giving me a voice and a way of expressing my experiences in a public way. This gave me the opportunity to look at myself with distance and compassion but it also brought other people who had experienced similar experiences into my life. Ultimately it brought me people who had been helped by my work and that was profoundly healing for me as I was ‘seen’ often in a positive light after always being perceived as a problem.
Have your artistic and creative outlets saved your life in any way and do you think your message within them could help create change in the world?
Art gave me space, time and a slow-growing confidence. It is something that has been within me since childhood and has been a behind the scenes motivator of all my life’s choices. The High Demand group I was in took that away from me. Regaining and owning my creativity was like finding myself again. Following my creativity gave me the opportunity to learn new things about myself. It helped me change my rigid and often given views of myself. I feel that it was a part of creating a new and healthier, freer me.
What are your present and future goals for your art?
I am already planning next year’s Adur Sea of Lights. I will keep trying to improve my local community with little projects. I will also keep my little business afloat www.dakiniarts.co.uk
The following questions are about mental health:
Can you tell us about your own experiences with mental illness?
I had PTSD/RT leaves you extremely lost and without any direction. It riddles you with fear and anxiety and can freeze your life. I experienced extreme loneliness and isolation. This little cartoon I wrote explains things better than I can now.
How does your artistic /creative expression help you with your mental health?
Because I was frozen and afraid to speak Art gave me a voice. It gave me a place where i could learn to be less critical of myself. It showed me that I was capable of great things by leaving a trail of creations I could look back on.
Have you ever experienced being stigmatised or marginalised due to your mental health or have you seen this happen to someone else?
I have never been stigmatised or marginalised that I am aware of but it was the fear of this that drove me to self-heal and not reach out for professional help. That and lack of money. Spiritual PTSD and RTs costs a lot of money to get help for as it is a niche and allegedly uncommon. There just are not the therapists out there.
Do you think society and culture is accepting of people with mental illness?
I think some areas are able to deal with mental illness/mental disharmony. I have never found anyone who could take me on. I do wonder if we have to be in a really bad way before we can any real help.
How do you feel your Government in your country helps people with mental illness and could they do more?
I feel that we could be taught how to deal with emotions and their consequences in school and from an early age. I also feel we should be taught a ‘emotional kit’ of tricks like meditation and breathing techniques.
Do you think artistic / creative expression can be used to help people with mental health problems?
Only the work i did with myself. Letting myself paint my pain and trying to draw love etc.
Do you think artistic / creative expression could help raise awareness and communicate how mental illness affects people?
It is completely essential that we humans with minds in crisis share our experience through art. There is only so much we can do through academia.
What made you want to get involved with ASLI’s MENTAL ILLNESS, HEALTH AND RECOVERY CAMPAIGN?
Mental health is every one’s right and everyone deserves compassion and help not isolation and stigma while they get back on their feet. I Aligned myself with this campaign to bring awareness to Religious trauma. To show you can get out the other side and to say clearly Art was a big part of my healing. It could be someone else.
Do you believe in more rights for mentally ill people in the workplace and for equal opportunities?
I believe in rights for human beings even when they are ill and struggling. I think that society should get real and start being a place for real people and not just a fabricated image of what might be easiest to get along with or control,
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 am in two minds about labels. I needed a label for my own healing. So i could use it as a foundation to work from. However I never once thought the label was ‘me’. I saw it more as spring-board. I believe that I am just moments strung together and that if I have a distant image of who i want to become each day I can work towards it. I think you can only do that by honoring where you are ‘at’ in the present.
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?
I find that the people I warm to and I connect with are often people who are over small talk and polite chat. If I had any reservations they would be my own, would I be able to be helpful, useful, clear etc.
I like real people. I like people who have no need to be fake. I find people with ‘mental health’ issues are often very straightforward and easy to get along with.
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 know this may be perceived as making light of this question but I do truly see all living humans in some kind of mental flux. I realise not all people experience the extreme levels of mental health we are trying to remove stigma from. In the same breath someone who maybe ok now will not necessarily be well in a few years. Most artists I know suffer with chronic self-doubt and anxiety and depression.
In the broader sense of art I have always deeply admired Robin Williams. He had a life long battle with his mental health and he remained kind. I struggle with my compassion when I am experiencing a ‘trigger’. He was deeply inspiring.
If you would like to find out more about Andrea follow these links:
If you would like to find out more about NKT survivors: