There is an upside to living with mental illness. Not a phrase I ever thought I’d hear myself saying but, as far as my creativity goes, it's true.
I’ve had two total nervous breakdowns in my life and there is without doubt, a huge difference between what I was capable of creating before and afterwards.
After each breakdown, I had to rebuild myself. My brain had to rewire itself. New connections were formed. And suddenly I had access to skills and ideas that simply weren’t there before.
Don't get me wrong, I've always been creative. The only thing I've ever really been good at is art. I even briefly thought about being an artist when I was a kid before realising that it wasn't an option for a working-class boy like me. And some of my earliest childhood memories are of doing these incredibly detailed pen and ink sketches of houses and churches. That love of sketching followed me into adulthood and I never travelled into a war zone without my Winsor & Newton watercolour sketching set.
But after I was recovering from my first really serious bout of mental illness, I started noticing that I was able to tap into a whole new level of creativity. Like a door that I didn't even know existed had been left wide open. I began to get very clear images in my head of things I needed to create, paintings I didn’t have a clue how I’d paint but knew I needed to find a way to learn.
I'm sure some of that is because I began to increasingly turn to creativity to get me through the hardest of times. And it wasn't always just art. After a particularly busy year when I had reported from war zones for TV news for eight out of the 12 months, I was desperately struggling with PTSD. During the first of what would be several failed attempts to get out of the news business, I decided to make furniture out of recycled materials. I found a huge amount of solace in the distraction of creating for several months. But my inability to deal with potential customers meant it was a doomed business from the start.
And so I went straight back into doing more wars until my PTSD became so overwhelming and all consuming that I had no choice but to leave that world behind. It was a matter of choosing to live or not. And that was when art became my saviour.
Art therapy, in particular, just flicked a switch in me. All of a sudden I was able to access what I truly felt while I was painting because what I didn’t need to do anymore was just survive. And getting some great psychiatric care allowed me to access who I really was without fear of what was going to happen once I’d released the genie. It gave me the safety net I needed to create in a way that I could only have imagined before.
I also found that with that creative freedom came an obsessive desire and ability to work things out. Where previously my lack of artistic knowledge had prevented me from trying to paint with oils or attempt anything other than only the smallest of artworks, here I was, standing in a poppy field with a massive canvas throwing oil paint like there was no tomorrow.
Don’t get me wrong, living with PTSD, depression and all that frustrating stuff is not my preferred path to creativity. It’s not fun. But I live with it every day so I’ve got to work with it.
The nervous breakdowns helped because they fused me. I had broken connections and I rebuilt them in a way that gives all my weird and wonderful experiences a purpose.
Ultimately creating art gives my bonkers brain a job. And as much as my previous adrenaline-filled life was exciting, I’m much healthier and happier with this job thank you very much.