Demons of The Mind

The photograph above is of a painting Didi did for her Art O'Level back in 1985 which she took a year early. The original was never returned, but Didi reproduced this from a photograph she had at the time taken, after having left school under something of a psychological cloud. The painting was undertaken using spray-diffused inks, Caran d'Ache crayons and water, and pen and ink. The painting itself is very large - too big to scan, hence the sadly rather poor quality photograph.

This painting is highly significant due to its disturbing nature. During her childhood, Didi was becoming increasingly aware of being different to other people and this terrified her. Even her family would sometimes be pushed so far as to say (during confrontations) that she needed to "see a shrink" - because she was just so difficult to deal with. And then there were the moods, night terrors and delirious episodes that persisting throughout her childhood. Back then, Didi lived in fear on a daily basis - not of other people, but of herself. Her family were becoming increasingly concerned about Didi's psychology and reacted with dismay when she started producing this type of art (and poetry). Didi on the other hand was so pleased that her art mistress had shown her a way to communicate her angst that she remembers being terribly distraut and even more isolated by their reaction. So, this painting is really all about her living nightmare of dealing with a psychology that would later result in her being diagnosed - some twenty years after painting this - as having bipolar disorder.

Why is this painting significant in that regard? Well, bipolar disorder leads one to experience great highs and terrible lows. The condition used to be called "Manic Depression" for a reason. For a few days or weeks Didi feels fabulously high: on top of the world, do mad perhaps dangerous or foolhardy things, feel immortal and omnipotent and the most important, significant person in the whole world. Concentration becomes impossible and people get freaked out by her hyper and jabbled one-sided conversations filled with strange ideas and weird jokes. However, when she is in that phase, she simply doesn't care - it is "the others" that have the problem, not Didi!

Then, just when Didi would begin to think these wonderful feelings would last forever, she would begin to spiral downward: begin to feel listless and tired, get ill at the drop of a hat, find it very difficult to get out of bed, get muscle aches - all symptoms that for a while confused her doctor and shrink so much that they initially diagnosed her with ME (Chronic Fatigue Syndrome). But that's just the physiological bit - the psychological part of a bipolar downturn is far, far worse...

Over the days or weeks of Didi's downward spiral into psychological hell, she would begin to feel increasingly worthless and stupid; scum in fact (her word that she said really described how she felt). When it had gone on for a while, usually after about two weeks, Didi would become increasingly paranoid - and that's the bit she almost found the hardest: she would begin to think people - even those with whom she was close and whom she normally trusted - were talking or plotting about her; being nasty or judgemental. Didi's shrink had taught her to talk to people as soon as she had a problem to prevent her bottling anything up and making herself even more paranoid. So she would initially believe the person when they reassured her. But, gradually Didi would slide to a point where she ceased to believe them, made worse as the depression and paranoia would go so far that she'd eventually be too paranoid to communicate any more. This would mean that quite innocent things would get increasingly misconstrued by Didi's mind and she'd sometimes end up exploding in a fit of paranoid temper resulting in lost friendships and even lost family bonds. The situation would then become worse because Didi had no one to turn to. This paranoid bit is why people sometimes confuse bipolar downturns as schizophrenia because in a really bad bipolar phase, even the television can seem to be saying negative things (who else would they be talking to? A bipolar sufferer gets increasingly egocentric with the condition so assumes it is them even though they really know it isn't, it becomes hard to separate fact from fiction).

All this (and the fact Didi felt like shit) made her become increasingly reclusive, because you a) she couldn't cope with herself or her paranoia, and, b) wanted to protect people from her beastly self. Didi's mother would always say "smile and the whole world smiles with you, cry and you cry alon", as a way to attempt to "make" Didi not be miserable. But it is impossible to be what you are not if you have bipolar disorder, though acting becomes a little easier with age. So Didi would just choose to withdraw as that seemed to be the only option. By this time in her depressions, Didi would find herself thinking how nice it would be if it all stopped and begin wondering how to get off life's not-so-merry-go-round. She would find herself fantasising about different ways to end it - partly for peace and partly to rid people of the pain in the neck that she thought she had become. Those feelings kind of oscillate: one minute it is about the bipolar sufferer, the next about the awareness of the sufferer's effects on other people.

Didi was one of the lucky ones - she had a bad turn when she was very young and ended up in therapy when she was 17-19. It is far easier if you learn ways to deal with yourself at such a young age. Didi narrowly escaped being sectioned in fact and had to attend weekly therapy in order to not be until they were satisifed she would no longer be a danger. The shrink and various people taught her ways to deploy her excess nervous energy when she was high to try and reduce it, and ways to turn her negative depressive energy into anger, not against herself but turn it outwards to motivate herself to do stuff. Didi never forgets to think about the many who kill themselves daily simply because they do not have any support.

So this painting. Robert Persig described his "evil" alter-ego whom he named "Phaedrus" in his famous book "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance". Didi too, has her very own "Phaedrus". For her, he represents the bad phase of bipolar disorder. Didi says that her "Phaedrus" is always present, like a shadow in her mind, hovering just behind her neck and shoulder (interestingly, her right-hand shoulder which she thinks is significant given the "left-brain", "right-brain" thing). The drugs that Didi now takes keep him at bay, but if she misses a couple of days worth of pills, she can feel him looming closer; desperately trying to be given attention by attempting to reach out and clasp her mind in his cold, harsh hands. And, he often visits her in her sleep. Didi doesn't know why her "Phaedrus" is a "he" but he always has been. This is what the painting is about - the "Phaedrus" - or demons - of Didi's mind.

The tomb represents Didi's "Phaedrus's" home - where he is normally locked safely away in her mind. In the painting however, he is symbolised by the skeleton and has therefore broken free (the shattered tomb). Didi said that it would have been very difficult to draw her "Phaedrus" in a way people would understand, and since she aims to communicate something in her paintings, this is why she chose to use symbols that people will traditionally recognise as "scary", or "bad", or even "good" or "nice", for example. The sun, trees and grass are Didi's "nice" symbols - the nicer part of Bipolar Disorder but that is being clouded over by the emergence of "Phaedrus", the skeleton from the tomb. The hands in the foreground are Didi's of course, attempting to shield herself from him. The blood which he is spraying from his hand is the symbolic equivalent of him "trying to get her" and the fact there is only one skeleton there, amongst a huge array of graves, is because there is only one "Phaedrus" - it would not have meant the same thing at all and would have totally changed the significant of the painting if Didi had more than one skeleton in the painting - perhaps you can see why. The yew tree on the right - originally put into graveyards to ward off evil spirits - is meant to symbolise exactly that; that whatever charms, potions and pills (the yew tree) Didi employs, she can never be totally free from her Demons. In fact, Didi used to wear a talisman around her neck before she did a science degree and ceased believing in such things! And despite her trust in pharmaceuticals, she can still feel "Phaedrus" knocking on the roof of his tomb...

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