As I approach writing today, I am musing on how it is feeling to be sharing some things about myself that are very personal and that I find hard to talk about, for fear I will be judged or misunderstood. Yet there is something about the nature of blog writing and digital sharing that is anonymising. I hope that in my writing I might go some small way to help others feel ok about sharing their feelings and experiences, knowing that they are far from alone. Mental health remains very hard to talk about, which seems tragic given the level of suffering so many of us have to endure, while feeling forced to pretend that everything is ok.
I open in this way as I am feeling particularly challenged by a particular facet of my mental health which I have tried hard to resist acknowledging. The resistance has been because I am afraid that by naming the problem I will become even more consumed by it than I already feel. There’s something about labelling myself that takes me out of the realms of ‘normality’, leading me to feel more marginalised and separate. Yet, who’s definition of normal do we, as a society, subscribe to? From my observations; the people I have met who have mental health challenges, do so purely because they have had to endure circumstances in their lives which were far from ‘normal’ or acceptable. We develop coping mechanisms, which are often lifesaving, to deal with extreme circumstances.
The problem I have struggled to name, is the difficulty travelling; leaving the place where I feel most safe. For me, this generally means home, but there are also safe places beyond home, where I feel relatively safe. The name for this problem being ‘agoraphobia’. This problem has become much more of an issue since the pandemic and is resulting in me frequently making plans which feel beyond my capability, resulting in my having to cancel. This is particularly frustrating, as there are so many people I would love to see, who I haven't seen since before the pandemic. This has been additionally problematic as I have physical health needs that can be very limiting too. This has been particularly painful, over the last week, as I had to cancel seeing a very dear friend and that just feels heart-breaking.
Agoraphobia (and anxiety in general) leaves me feeling very trapped and restricted and renders the very places I call safe, unsafe, because they begin to feel like a prison. However, I count myself as very lucky to have a mind that is creative, as art never ceases to give me a different means of travelling and exploring. My ongoing screenprinting project inspired by a recent visit to Dungeness in Kent has been a celebration of having made the trip and remains a reminder of what is possible, under the right circumstances and with a little support. I think Dungeness has inspired me to such a degree, as it is so open, the expanse of sky and sea making anything feel possible.
Watercolour sketch, Dungeness and screen print of Derek Jarman’s garden by Naomi Elfred-Ross (2022)
Natural environments tend to feel very safe to me and perhaps unsurprisingly, art galleries are generally places in which I feel safe, obviously depending on where they are. Art exhibitions offer an invitation to travel into the psychic landscape of the artist, which feels like such an act of generosity, I am always humbled. It may be a bit of a cliché to think of the artist as having a tortured mind and that this is somehow a part of the job description. Of course, we tend to hear more about those artists who unwittingly reinforce this stereotype. From my own experience of other artists, I would say there is often a tendency towards a higher level of sensitivity, as this would seem a necessity. Perhaps, when sensitivity is forced to encounter the apparent harshness of our world, this may make one more vulnerable to being more deeply affected.
I have been intrigued to research artists who have also experienced periods in their life when they have had trouble leaving their safe places and how they have expressed, or processed this through their art. Edvard Munch is an artist who suffered from agoraphobia, among many other challenges. It is thought that his most well-known painting ‘The Scream’ was an expression of the artist’s experience of panic and anxiety on being out in public places.
He described having been out walking with two friends when;
‘the sun set. The sky became red. I felt a touch of melancholy. I stood still, leaned on the railing, dead tired. Over the blue-black fjord and city hung blood and tongues of fire. My friends walked on and I stayed behind, trembling with fright. And I felt a great unending scream passing through nature’.
Through paint and words, Munch describes perfectly the existential terror felt by the agoraphobe.
It is said that Munch felt very attached to his different mental health difficulties and had no means of defining himself without them. He felt his illness enabled his creativity and so he led a very solitary life. I think Munch’s paintings are so reflective of his mental turmoil and I cannot help but feel disturbed myself when I look at them. I am deeply grateful to him because in spite of how isolated he kept himself, he has reached out to countless people who have looked at his work and have seen something of their own experience of life reflected back at them.
The Scream, by Edvard Munch (1891)
From my own perspective, I like to think it is possible to continue to be creative, without having to endure such a degree of suffering. That art, in fact, is a means of healing mental distress and can be used as a route through recovery. However, I can also understand the attachment that one feels to feelings of anxiety. I am not entirely sure I know what it feels like not to be anxious, but I am hopeful that I might learn.
Wandering into the realms of literature; Emily Bronte made several attempts to leave her home in Haworth to earn an income as a governess. Returning home from her last disastrous trip to Brussels in 1842, she wrote;
‘So hopeless is the world without,
The world within I doubly prize;
Thy world where guile and hate and doubt
And cold suspicion never rise.’
Having led a life seemingly so limited, I have often marvelled at the richness of Bronte’s inner world which was able to conjure up Wuthering Heights, a masterpiece of the imagination. Perhaps the challenges she faced in her efforts to find employment were channelled creatively through this remarkable book. She was clearly a keen observer of human nature and her home in Haworth and its dramatic surroundings provided ample inspiration for all sorts of possibilities.
The Bronte family (c 1834) by Bramwell Bronte.
Moving to the present day, on my searching of the internet, I discovered an artist with a wonderfully novel solution to the restricted life of someone suffering from agoraphobia. Jacqui Kenny, who calls herself the Agoraphobic Traveller, has used Google Street View to travel to wherever her heart desired. She has carefully explored the streets and landscapes of the world, taking screenshots as she travels. The series of photographs she has created has discovered a kissing couple in Chile, then three camels crossing an empty highway of the Arab Emirates, followed by a game of five a side in Cajamarca, Peru. Kenny had a particular interest in areas which have a feeling of isolation. She sought countries with warm climates, where colours are bright and vibrant. Kenny’s images have opened up a world for her, as she has connected to a network of support, as well as those interested in these unique artworks.
Another artist I was excited to discover was comic artist Kim Anderson. The super heroes of Kim’s comics are not the kind you mind usually expect to find in a comic book. There is, nonetheless, a demonstration of the tremendous strength in the summoning of the courage needed to get through the day, when coping with such an all-consuming anxiety disorder. The imagery and narrative in Andersons stories express both uncertainty and resolve, exploring what it is like to be stuck indoors.
Illustrations by Kim Anderson.
I have nothing but admiration for these artists and I feel inspired to explore what creative approaches I can use to address this particular challenge. I want to see new places and the people I love. I am reminded of my dad, whose life was so limited by agoraphobia. Instead, he travelled through the close examination of maps. If I ever needed to go anywhere, he was the person to talk to for the best route, forget National Rail Enquiries and Citymapper! He was also a lover of trains and felt safe stood on certain station platforms taking down engine numbers. He also travelled in his mind, as he was a prolific reader. Towards the end of his life, he began to gradually push the boundaries of his anxiety and would send me a postcard from his journeys of discovery, I received one sent from Portsmouth of HMS Warrior. I was even lucky enough to be visited by him, in Southampton, a day I will never forget. I now fully appreciate just how much courage that took and I am so grateful. So, I will find my way and I will do it for him. If only I could send him a postcard, if only he were still here.
By Naomi Elfred-Ross