Continuing the conversation with artist, writer & filmmaker, Sanchita Islam.
R: What is your opinion on medication for mental health issues?
S: People should do what is best for them, personally I choose not to go on medication because the side effects are awful and I believe sleep, nutrition, exercise, meditation, altruism, working, spending quality time with the children – all this helps to achieve a positive state of mind. But it is hard to manage a mind like mine without meds. Since the psychosis my prefrontal cortex doesn’t work properly and often my limbic system is in control especially when I am sleep deprived, but I understand this, I employ complex strategies to avoid psychosis, not everyone could do this. When I am very sleep deprived sometimes I have to take a pill to knock me out, but I do this very seldom, or at least I try to avoid taking anything.
R: Were you prescribed medication?
S: Yes I have been prescribed anti depressants and anti psychotics, but none agreed with me, all of them have had awful side effects, anti depressants made me psychotic, which is why I avoid all meds now. I also avoid alcohol and drugs, especially skunk, since these can have a corrosive impact on your brain and make you more depressed and more predisposed to psychosis.
“they are not doing it for money, they care and not all therapists that I have encountered do care, it’s just a job, some have looked bored”
R: Have you seen a therapist?
S: I have seen over 40 different health care professionals, I wrote an essay about this experience in my book, it’s not an easy read.
R: Did therapy help?
S: Not really, it made me feel very vulnerable and I found it stressful and time consuming and exhausting trying to make the appointments. This is why I use the helpline instead, I call, purge myself of all my mental shit and work at my desk at the same time. This works, it’s empowering, it’s anonymous, I can call several times until I feel better. There’s no time limit. People manning the helpline are volunteers, they are not doing it for money, they care and not all therapists that I have encountered do care, it’s just a job, some have looked bored, others have been quite cruel, it was traumatic doing therapy and I will never do it again. Now bits of my life are written in so many black books – what happens to all the information?
R: How do you best manage it? (Medication, meditation, yoga, alternative medicines, or something else)
S: Sleep, good food, hydration, cycling for endorphins, dark chocolate for dopamine, gardening for nurturing and fresh air, Pilates and meditation (I teach both) and my art and children help too. I involve my children in my work, I have been drawing and painting them since birth, creating this work helped me to slice through the psychosis and visions to harm my children and myself. I try and immerse myself in their world, listen to their laughter, make them laugh. I am painting them every year until they are 18 and also making scrolls with them (some of these works have been exhibited in London and New York) and now I am doing my 1000 Postcard project, they make the squiggles and I transform them. My son also chooses Lego figures for me to draw. It gives me pleasure to see their delight when they tumble into my studio and study my work. Building Lego also helps, anything that involves using my hands helps calm down my brain. I have built an intricate Lego town for my children and I do get lost in this other world we have created. Having children allows you to be a child and being a child and joyous protects me against Fred, of course he tries to attack and undermine all my best efforts, but all these things help to keep him in check.
R: Did any treatments work?
S: Not in my case, but my strategies are working for me, of course a psychiatrist would argue the contrary and insist that life could get better if I went on medication.
R: Do you feel as if you’re in control now?
S: Not really, because my prefrontal cortex doesn’t work effectively, but because I know this I can do everything I can to stop a descent and at least I understand what is happening to my mind and that much of what occurs is chemical or related to lack of sleep etc. If I sleep, eat well and have a good routine perhaps I am one step ahead of Fred but it doesn’t take much for me to tumble.
God by Sanchita Islam – Oil on Canvas 2009
R: Where do your mental health complications come from?
S: In my book ‘Schizophrenics Can Be Good Mothers Too’ I talk about mental mapping, this entails plotting a mental map from birth to present day to try to understand the origins of the nascent madness, if you like. It took a long time to fathom the complexities of the mental map of my family, which extends to my maternal and paternal side, my extended family and my siblings.
My mother suffered a trauma as child, which she revealed to me in 2014, this was the missing piece of the mental jigsaw puzzle. Everything slotted into place and it all made sense – her behaviour, her rage, and her pain.
Everything stems from my mother, she carries the gene, two of her sisters manifest the same mental issues, but for my mother it is quite specific. As well as the childhood trauma, she was born after her twin brothers died, she grew up feeling should should have been a boy, so she had self-esteem issues. Then my father passed away when I was 8-months old, which impacted on her and my sisters profoundly, we were raised under a cloak of perpetual grief, my mother says she sees my late father everyday.
My mother worked fulltime and she had to cultivate this professional persona to the outside world, she was dynamic, beautiful and stylish, but when she got home she was exhausted and then she would just change, anything would trigger her. It was quite habitual to hear her say, ‘I wish you were never born, I wish you were dead.’ There was also violence too, both from my stepfather and my mother, they were exhausted and I have since forgiven them. It was a big economic struggle growing up.
My parents were also one of the first immigrants to come over in the 60’s and they were trying to carve a life, but they were isolated, far from family and although my mother sought help and was given medication she never really got better when I was growing up. Both my parents are much more mellow as they have got older and wiser, too. They are both sorry for what happened, but the damage was done during the early years.
Also, my middle sister manifested signs of mental health issues when she was very young, I knew something was wrong and wanted to help her, but didn’t know how, it was very painful growing up with a sibling who was clearly not well and my parents were at a loss too. No one was able to help her.
I think these factors all impacted on my mental health, from a very young age I became very compliant and obedient, when my parents hit me I didn’t cry, I didn’t show any emotion, I also shunned all affection and became quite repressed. This was when the OCD kicked in; I was always seeking external order to counter the chaos and violence of family life. My internal world was fragile at a young age. Family was not a stable nest – it was full of volatility.
I sensed a shadow of melancholy following me as a child, and this has continued into adulthood. Even though I understand the origins of my mental health issues, the patterns, the triggers, the mental map of my own mind, this doesn’t mean it makes it any easier living with a mind that has been battered continuously by internal and external forces that are beyond my control.
R: Did any health professionals explain where your they originated?
S: I would say the mental health care professionals did hint that my condition was partly genetic and also environmental, but I, by and large, worked it all out and pieced it together over many years.
R: Do family members have similar experiences?
S: My sisters have varying degrees of mental heath issues, but as far as I know I am the only one who has experienced psychosis, although tragically my nephew too has mental health problems. This inherited condition has blighted and ravaged my family.
My susceptibility to psychosis might also be because of my artistic temperament, historically many artists and writers have similar brain chemistry to my own.
Kobi by Sanchita Islam – Oil on Canvas 2012
R: You have 2 children, how does Mental Health affect being a mother?
S: Yes of course it does, I go into tremendous detail in my book, my biggest battle was PPP and trying to deal with the visions that came coming at me and trying to fire bullets of logic back while breastfeeding and looking after two small children. It was very challenging and isolating, but my art and words saved me. It is very painful to write about to be honest, the shame, the guilt, the fear that exposure to Fred may have damaged my children – it can be too much to recount.
“Oh and I am a mother of two small children; there is an assumption that mothers with a mental health condition are bad mothers.”
I can only hope that all the art I have made with my children, the paintings and drawings of them both, the poems, the book, the articles – makes them see how hard I have battled with Fred to protect my children.
Having a mental health issue stops you from being the mother you want to be but you can still aspire to be that mother.
I think all mothers feel they are failing their children, those with a mental health issue even more so.
S: Where do I start?
You can see a lot of my art on www.pigmentexplosion.com
But I still have new work to put on there; I can’t keep up with my output
I don’t just write about mental health, I write about art, motherhood and also politics, ISIS, human rights issues and issues related to sexual violence
I launched a YouTube channel so you can see my films, but I have also started making little films related to mental health, poetry and art.
I created a Schizophrenics Can Be Good Mothers Too Facebook page and I regularly tweet and write posts on Facebook about mental health and I post new work daily.
Basically if you take a look at my work you will see that I draw, paint etc. but I specialize in 30-foot scrolls, A Soul on a Scroll took me 5 years to make, my latest scrolls are all related to war, I am exhibiting the first war scroll in Brussels on 17th Feb organized by KAOS. I am working on my third war scroll with my children.
My films were mostly funded by the Arts Council and British Council and have been shot all around the world and shown all around the world too. I also made an animation film about a little girl with mental health problems called White Wall funded by the UK film council.
Although I have published 9 books, I have written more. I write poems regularly and post them on Facebook; my publishers Chipmunker Press want to publish my second volume. The first volume I published was ‘Eternal Pollution of a Dented Mind’ much of this writing is related to mental health.
I am also working with a new award winning publishing house, Oyez publishing on several children’s books, The Tree People and also White Wall, the book.
Writing and art are intrinsic to my practice, and text often features in my work since 2006 my writing became incredibly small. Now the writing has become an artwork in itself.
R: What was your inspiration for writing Schizophrenics Can Be Good Mothers Too?
S: The book wrote itself, I was in the throes of PPP but had already attempted to write about the psychosis of 2009 and 2010. I faced many blocks, but then I was invited to speak about mental health and creativity at Pegasus theatre in Oxford, as a result of this I wrote an essay on the topic and then wrote two more. I sent these to Stephen Fry and he said they were ‘unbelievably brilliant’ so I continued to write until it became a book. It was my old psychiatrist Dr Bass who put me in touch with Muswell Hill Press and they agreed to publish the book straight away.
R: What is your primary aim?
S: To help pregnant mothers with mental health problems since their mental health impacts on their unborn babies. I have been invited to participate in an exhibition at the Houses of Parliament in June and all the work that I will be showing is related to mother and baby. It links in with the first 1001 critical days campaign. We have to protect our children and children born to parents with a mental health issue need to be educated early to give them the tools to navigate their own minds.
R: Have you received any great feedback / response?
S: Yes all those that have read it have been very positive. One lady from the US wrote to me saying she wished her friend had read the book, since she took her own life and that of her daughter when she was in the throes of PPP. Stephen Fry, Helena Kennedy and Alastair Campbell have all read the book and said it was brilliant, but as long at the book helps others, raises awareness about PPP, psychosis and helps to protect the mental health of our young then that’s all I can hope for.
R: Where are they available to buy / read / participate in?
S: You can buy it from amazon or Brick Lane Bookshop, the launch is on 5th Feb, 166 Brick Lane from 7pm
Gungi Blues and Eternal… are available via amazon or the Chipmunka website.
My other books are limited edition prints available if you contact me via the pigmentexplosion website.
All 9 of my books will be available on 5th at my launch.
R: Do you tell friends, family and colleagues about these experiences?
S: Since 2015 I have been more open via social media, I find it easier being open online than face-to-face, I would say I am more guarded and vigilant when I am talking, but very open when I am writing about mental health.
R: Do you know others with complications?
S: Yes I have worked with patients in Brussels via KAOS/TrActor suffering from mental health issues, I completed two scroll projects with them and I work with a Belgian photographer with schizophrenia. We are taking photos of one another each year for as long as we can continue, it’s turning out to be an interesting project about perceptions of madness, I showed some of these photos at my last show at Rich Mix June 2015.
R: How do you educate yourself on management and resources? Do you read specific blogs, magazines or news articles?
S: I try to keep abreast of developments by following certain people, doctors MH organizations, as well as reading articles related to mental health. It seems there is a mental health revolution-taking place and I am just one small part of it.
I would say that some psychiatrists are indifferent to the work that I am doing, others are more receptive, especially the younger generation, and maybe the old guard is slightly threatened or set in their ways about approaches to mental health.
But my point is not everyone has access to doctors or proper care, if people are given the tools to understand their mental health condition this would make them more independent and better able to cope when they are failed by the system which is becoming more frequent due to cuts in the UK.
R: Have you read any great books about Mental Health?
S: I read two books An Unquiet Mind and Touched with Fire by Dr Kay Redfield Jamison. Apparently it has now been turned into a film of the same title.
I disagreed with much of what the author wrote in the first book, she insisted that manic-depressive disorders could only be treated via lithium. The second book was interesting because it proved that many artists, writers, poets all suffered from mental health issues.
R: Or seen any movies?
S: I have seen a few like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, A Dangerous Method, Girl Interrupted, Silver Linings Playbook. I would like to see Touched with Fire.
“I hope to leave a vast archive of work related to mental health that will serve to help people across the world to understand their minds better”
To be honest I would like to see more written not only from a white perspective, I have been shooting my own ‘Portrait of Madness’ over many years, I am in the long process of editing it, stories like mine are seldom heard, rather than wait for funding I have decided to make it myself, it will be an artist’s film, but it will be true and honest and I hope provide insights into the unfathomable maze that is the mind. Some of the content will be honest and probably make uncomfortable viewing, perhaps I will show it at my gallery to a selected audience first.
Last year I performed my play ‘Do I Look Like A Fucking Mad Person?’ so there is a performer in me but of course writing and creating films about issues related to mental health makes you feel vulnerable.
The play was filmed so I will edit it and put it online.
When I die I hope to leave a vast archive of work related to mental health that will serve to help people across the world to understand their minds better.
R: Can you recommend any therapists / doctors / specialists / coaches / mentors / clinics / foundations?
S: I would say there are many groups emerging on twitter, but hard to recommend a single one. There are the obvious ones like Mind, Sane and the Samaritans… the online mental health community is vast and growing by the day. I would recommend people to look around, however the problem with social media is that it can make you ill, so limit time spent on the web. I would say though most of the resources or interesting people working in mental health are accessible online.
There is one doctor that is very compassionate and campaigning about mental health, I would recommend that you tweet him I am sure he will follow you straight away, he’s been receptive to my work: Raja Gangopadhyay as has a young psychiatrist by the name of Ben Pearce who is working hard in the realm of mental health campaigning up and down the country and my publishers Chipmunka Press and Muswell Hill Press who publishing books related to mental health written by sufferers.
R: What’s on your horizon for 2016?
S: I have my launch on 5th Feb at 166 Brick Lane Bookshop from 7pm
Scrolls by Sanchita Islam
There is also my scroll exhibition at KAOS on 17th Feb in Brussels.
I will be participating in an exhibition at the Houses of Parliament from the 6th – 10th of June 2016; the theme is motherhood and infant mental health.
I am working with Oyez publishers on my new children’s books.
I will be giving a talk and presenting some of my work at Ilham Gallery this year in Kuala Lumpur.
Finally, I am campaigning for better global mental health. I began my campaign in Burma, Bangladesh and Malaysia in 2015, but there’s a lot of resistance, it will be a long and hard campaign.
R: What’s next for your mental health?
S: Have to focus on sleeping, eating, regulating my time using social media and the computer, need to keep hydrated and do all the things that I know are good for my mind, and try not listen to Fred.
R: Anything else you’d like to add?
S: I think that’s everything don’t you?
R: Thanks for being so transparent about your struggles Sanchita, I (and hopefully many others) am very grateful for your deep insight.
If you’re in London this Friday Sanchita has her book launch on 5th Feb at 166 Brick Lane Bookshop from 7pm
Read Sanchita’s writing on mental health and more at the Huffington Post
Rodger Hoefel in conversation with Sanchita Islam
Cover Photo by Sanchita Islam