The theme of this year’s 19th Annual Bruce Woodcock Memorial Lecture is ‘Sharing stories, changing lives’. Each week, as we count down to the event in October, we’ll be featuring blogs from talented storytellers in our community. They’ll be sharing with you their moments of transformation—reflections about overcoming barriers and gaining strength, support and knowledge. The first in our series is ‘A thousand words’ by Fiona L Browning, who discovered the fluid nature of recovery as she went on a deeply personal journey with one of the world’s most famous artists.

I aspire to be a wordsmith, a linguistic artiste. I like taking the thoughts whirling around in my mind and coalescing into concrete black and white images, transforming mental abstracts to actuality. But when it comes to the lived experience of mental illness, sometimes there are no words. And sometimes the words just don’t cut it. Take the word ‘Recovery’. Whenever I say it, I add virtual speech marks because to me it’s a loaded term.  Simple definitions imply a complete, finite outcome: ‘return to a normal state of health, mind, or strength. Regaining possession or control of something stolen or lost’.

Recovery in mental health is anything but simple or easy to define. Much discussion, development of literature and research into the concept has been done with the hope of producing a definition that resonates with most people. One description I relate to is by William Anthony PhD:

"A deeply personal, unique process of changing one's attitudes, values, feelings, goals, skills and/or roles. It is a way of living a satisfying, hopeful and contributing life even with limitations caused by the illness. Recovery involves the development of new meaning and purpose in one's life as one grows beyond the catastrophic effects of mental illness"

But that’s such a cumbersome explanation it might as well be a thousand words. I recently visited a Vincent Van Gogh exhibition. It was like walking through a journey where there were no words, just a very visceral experience of the labile nature of his lived experience.

Van Gogh voluntarily spent one year at the asylum in Saint-Rémy de Provence. Though at times he was completely incapacitated by his illness, during his lucid periods he was allowed to work outdoors. In this time, considered to be his recovery period, he produced 142 works of art, some the most recognised of his career. To me these images captured what I cannot and I’d like to share that with you.

The Stone Garden in the Asylum (November 1889) drew me to a stark stone bench devoid of texture, centred between two twisted trees. The surrounding barren grasses surge with his signature brushstrokes, capturing his mental turmoil. Despite the solitary composition of the painting, tufts of spring-green grass shoot out around the edges of these features. Spatters of spring colour allude to promised renewal. It reminded me of those times when I had felt so alone and was yet to understand that hope would grow.

The Garden at the Asylum of Saint-Rémy (April 1890) Here, the stone bench is no longer the central focus and the bright colours of spring and direction of the brush strokes draw your eye down a small path. At the end is a window into the asylum, obscured by a flowery bough. It reminded me of the path I have taken, the path behind me.

A Wheat Field with Cypress (September 1889) Van Gogh discovered a new subject in the evergreen cypress trees planted around the province, protecting crops from brutal winds. He described the tree as being like “an Egyptian obelisk; the green having a distinguished quality, a dark patch in a sun-drenched landscape”. To quote the gallery: “Here sun-drenched wheat and wind-swept cypresses are combined with olive trees...under a sky filled with swirling clouds”. It reminded me of when I’ve come to stand tall and emerge from beneath the chaos of my depression, even if it has been momentary.

Over a couple of hours I traversed this visual journey of life experience centuries old. It resonated with me deeply. It emerged as diverse fluidity, sweeping from obscurity to clarity and vice versa. For once, I needed no words to understand; recovery can be fleeting or sustained, within reach or distant, articulate or indescribable. I just have to discover what it looks like for me.

Fiona L Browning

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