Self documentation in extremis

Self documentation is fundamental to me, and I’m sure I’m not alone. I find that I particularly turn to it when I am in extremis in my mental state, and looking back on it can be enlightening. I have scrappy bits of paper from hospital admissions, screeds of poetry from depressions, and a couple of times, film projects that I have captained when suppressing and just about conquering raging highs. These were all interesting journeys. The ones that I still feel a shudder of trauma from is where I think about what I put the cast and crew through on my manic surge. However, there is an element to which things get done that wouldn’t otherwise get done in these heightened states. Though not exactly high this summer, I was certainly heightened as I realised that a lot of my ideas and preoccupations over the years were about to come together in a new project, Mental Snapp, which is all about the value of self documentation for service users.

It leads me to think about how I have used self documentation over the years. Maybe I am an exception, but if so I must represent a significant proportion of the population in that I have always diarised, kept notepads, written, photographed, filmed and edited my life and those around me. I was turning out old notepads a while ago and I came across my first effort at this, a strong feeling that I’ve always had that my life was interesting, at least to me, and that maybe it might be interesting and useful to other people too. It was a notepad entitled ‘Exodus’ and it was notes that I’d written, aged nine or so, to tell the story of how my parents had separated and my mother, my siblings and I had come away from the family home with only a suitcase. Looking back on it, it was sweet, self pitying and grandiose. But it showed my nine year old self battling with making sense of myself and my circumstances and trying to find ways to make them useful. I think that drive pushes me still.

I’m a very bad depressive. I don’t document well when depressed. In reflecting on the motivations that led me to do Mental Snapp, I revealed to the documentary film maker we were working with on it that I had a notepad from when I was younger in which I’d written when I was depressed. The seconds were ticking by so slowly and I’d run out of words to put in my poetry book. It seemed that time would always be like this. So I had a page in my creative writing book of pure maths. I had calculated by hand at twenty or so the number of seconds I had left if time continued to go so slowly for another sixty years. The film maker wanted a visual representation of this, and had me standing in a cemetery looking at a gravestone and opening my book. By chance, it opened to the very page where I had done my maths, and as I stood at the gravestone, and the seconds ticked by, he filmed me looking at my book and the grave. I had half the time that I had had before, and I could feel every second ticking away in the autumn sunshine. A bizarre experience, but one that completed and rationalised my depressed documentation.

I also contributed my story to the animation, The Lightbulb Thing, for Animated Minds by Andy Glynne at Mosaic Films. There I told the story of how when depressed I was discouraged at the betrayal of my body to force me to have to cut my fingernails, which kept growing. I knew that time had stopped and I was in groundhog day. My fingernails were somehow bizarrely convinced that it hadn’t, and I had to cut them as a consequence. And the effort of doing it was immense. These thoughts came from a poem i wrote at the time, which I felt conveyed the depths of my despair. This is why I say I’m a bad depressive, because on reflection, once out of the depression and looking back, it was actually quite light and funny. The last stanza is ‘That is why my fingernails are long/They remind me of time/And everyone says “What nice fingernails you have”/If only they knew the difficult relationship/Between my fingernails/And me.’

Self documentation in extremis isn’t just, I don’t believe, for the immediate therapeutic (or not) impact, but for the making of material to reflect upon. There is an assumption I think in art therapy that making when high or low is disposable, that it is only in the moment that it has its value. I’m not certain of the truth of this. I find the reflection on my work, whatever state I am in, valuable. And I value for example the edit of the original film that I made for the British Library when I was high far more than I value the less complex and nuanced, but more corporate edit that they made me come up with when I was off my high. In creations made when flying, there is a bird’s eye view. I relish that when I come back down to earth.

So, in terms of self documentation, I would say that it is important to always document, whatever part of the mental health cycle one finds oneself in. You never know what use it will be put to in the future, and it becomes part of your material. It is not just the making, but the reflection. The brilliant thing about art is that you take something out of ordinary life and you put a frame around it, it becomes an object and you reflect upon it. The brilliant thing about self documentation in extremis is that you take something out of an extraordinary part of your life, put a frame around it, and can reflect upon it. Either way, you make a creative act out of the material you are given, and I would say that inarguably there is merit in that, both in the moment and for the future.

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