Painting lessons saved my life

‘You will always be ill, medicated and you’ll never work again,’ a psychiatrist told me when I was 40 years old. 

I felt so disheartened – it was like I had been given a terminal life sentence, that I didn’t really want to live with. 

I was on 21 tablets a day to help manage my mental health. I was often bedbound because of my medication and my illnesses, so my children were my carers and I had been medically retired years earlier. 

Never would I have thought that 13 years later, I’d be living my life off all medication – and I owe it to art. 

I’d been in the ‘mental health system’ from the age of eight – although it was not a ‘system’ as much as it was just a GP who you saw regularly. 

I was classed as having ‘bad nerves’, but – with the knowledge we have today – I realise that a severe panic attack that lasted for several hours marked the beginning of my mental health issues. 

Throughout much of my childhood, I was in and out of the system, but have been part of it virtually all of my adult life.  

I was given medication from the offset, which made me sleep for days on end. My mum very rarely gave it to me but as I grew up, and my body became accustomed to it, I needed more. 

Much of it was to counteract the side effects of the antipsychotic, antidepressant and sleeping pills I was already on.  

So when my psychiatrist told me that I would essentially never get better, I felt that I had been written off. 

I felt like such a burden and nuisance that I was sure things would be better for my girls and my partner – even society – if I was no longer in the picture. 

So I tried to end my life.  


I felt that I had been written off (Picture: The Debs Effect)

I eventually passed out and when I woke up in hospital, I was so angry with myself that I had failed. 

I was actually in a bed opposite a lady with terminal cancer, who - after finding out I was trying to throw my life away - was really angry at me.

She hated me because she was trying to cling onto her life, while I was willingly giving mine away. 

What she didn’t realise was that I was jealous of her – she was getting an end to her suffering, whereas I was being forced to live with mine. 

I was doped up on lots of medication that made me feel like a zombie - like I could never be happy – in a dark despairing pit of doom. She couldn’t hate me any more than I hated myself. 

After two days, I was discharged from the hospital on the condition I was referred to a psychologist. 

It was there – while waiting for the assessment – that I saw a leaflet with the title,  Creative Minds: Art for Wellbeing. I don’t know why I picked the paper up because I wasn’t an artist. In fact, my girls often ridiculed me for the state of my drawings. 

But something made me take it and I rang the number when I got home, finding out that there was a taster session a few days later that was literally around the corner from my house.  

My friend had to drive me there; she dropped me off and I walked into an old mill, which was so daunting. I was about to turn and walk away when a man from the other side of the room called for me to join them. 

I sat on the seat nearest the door in case I needed to run out. 

I stayed for the session and I can safely say it was the day my life changed. 

We went through drawings step-by-step with the tutor – my first ever creation in the session was a thistle.

Overwhelmed with pride, I took it home to show the girls, who initially didn’t believe that I had drawn it, making me re-do the drawing for their benefit there and then.


Debs painting a seascape

I began to buy little bits of things to paint with (Picture: The Debs Effect)

I suddenly felt that I had a spark; something made me feel different, and I liked the feeling. I wished my time away until the next weekly class. 

I wanted to do more and more drawing and painting because it freed my mind and made me feel alive in a way that nothing else did. 

Later, I began to buy little bits of things to paint with, always the cheapest and not the best quality as I was a single parent on benefits.

But I was determined to do something at home although it never felt as exciting as attending the sessions at the art school.

I painted for hours at a time, creating landscapes and flowers. I loved the colours and vibrancy of life. I began to feel alive. 

About six months after my first session, I started a portfolio course, which I was able to attend every day rather than just once a week.

I was given a separate place within the studio to work, store and display my art. 

It was more about doing your own than structured learning but there were always other students and tutors around so there was always advice and guidance when needed. 

With my psychiatrist’s support, I slowly started to reduce my medication, feeling better after reaching for my sketch pad when I woke in the middle of the night, rather than going for sleeping pills.


One of Debs' paintings

Sand dunes and an iceberg represent contrasting elements of my bipolar (Picture: The Debs Effect)

As my mood improved, I began to reduce more and more of my pill intake, slowly and deliberately. After about 18 months I was medication free, just two years on from my first Creative Minds session.  

I felt that I was now in charge – not the pills or the professionals, but me. Painting became my lifeline, as well as my hobby.  

I have two paintings that mean the most to me.  

Although one looks quite dark, it symbolises my life. The big thick black clouds, the rough turbulent sea, my life still has those, but it also has that glimmer of hope and aspiration fighting its way through the storm. 

The other is a collage of the mind.

A gorilla that cannot see the beautiful roses right next to it. Sand dunes and an iceberg represent contrasting elements of my bipolar. A dress reminding me I was often bedbound and getting dressed was a big deal for me. 

Central to the picture is a magnificent butterfly ready to spread its wings and fly; this is where I am now flying free and no longer cocooned in my illness.

In time, I was asked to give talks within the mental health services I was still involved in, spreading the word to my fellow service users who wanted to use creativity to improve their mental health.


Debs surrounded by her art

Before I found art, I was a nobody (Picture: The Debs Effect)

NHS professionals treating me and others soon asked me to speak to conferences, workshops and staff training. 

Today, I have done thousands of talks all over the country with several abroad, including for the World Health Organisation in Helsinki. 

I won the NHS Trust Excellence awards for Outstanding Achievement and  was even invited to Buckingham Palace and Clarence House for recognition in social prescribing. 

I’m also a trustee for the National Centre for Creative Health and a member of the steering group for the Social Prescribing Network.

I don’t say this with a big head, I say this because I have felt like an invisible service user for most of my life and so to be able to have a platform to tell my story feels incredible. 

Before I found art, I was a nobody, known only by my patient number and the many labels of mental health diagnosis that I have. 

People often ask me what it was about art that made the difference. 

I tell them that it allowed my brain to heal and it gave me the space to stop for a while and work things out for myself. 

Not only did I learn art, but I learnt that my illness could be controlled – not just by medication but through a creative outlet, as well as socialising with other people on a subject we all enjoyed. 

The art class was never about my illness, it was about my wellness. Changing that focus made me feel better, respond better and made me start to live life to the full. 

I have been off all medication for nearly 10 years now, out of services for six and work in the same NHS Trust as the ‘expert’ that told me I would never work again. 

So please believe me when I say we are all experts in ourselves – you know how your illness affects you more than anyone else in the world. 

We need to be working together to find a solution that works for you. 

My illness may not have vanished, but I live well with it, and I firmly believe life is for living.

You can find out more about Debs here

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