Down The Dark Alley

Walking down a dark alley.

Constantly walking down a dark alley…

With every few steps a black curtain comes down in front of your vision.

Sometimes you focus on the darkness.

It’s like watching the end of the world happening before your eyes.

For a few seconds there is no tomorrow.

No future moments

Not in those seconds… or minutes that follow.

Other days are more optimistic.

The darkness still comes

The moments still occur,

But you focus on the light:

The morning…

The excitement which comes with the dawn of a new day

where anything can happen,

and the world is full of possibilities.

But in both scenarios you are still walking down that same dark alley.

Only your outlook on it changes…

But you cannot decide which one you are going to opt to do.

Over that, you have no control.

This was my experience of living through mental illness,

walking with this curtain constantly blinding me – blacking out my perception of the future

And it was completely invisible to everyone bar me.

– It was this experience which led to my first encounter with Designs In Mind.

…I’ll try and take you back in time:

We have parked up. Paid and displayed. Wandered our way through one alleyway and are now in the second. There is no shop front. Just a blue barred door-shaped gate, swung to one side. Multicoloured slices of mosaic triangles set into grey concrete, line the right-hand side like a yellow brick road sign-posting the way to those in the know.

At its end is a basic blue door with glass panes. We enter and proceed up a set of steep winding steps.

Upon the first landing questions are asked. I try and stand still. Quiet. Hoping to remain unnoticed. At least for now.

Perhaps I should explain this mysterious second person, walking by my side.

I never go anywhere alone. The problem with mental illness is that everyone can see it. Yes, it is an invisible illness… But that is certainly not how it feels, particularly to a new sufferer, with no tools, skills or experience to hand. No methods of dealing with this… unknown… ‘thing’.

Ophelia is my support worker. She has been paired with me to support me in… well… in learning the ropes to this new life, to provide general help on my ‘road to recovery’. And I am supposed to recover. Or at least, so I am told.

Today she has taken me to a busy art studio. Not the sort where you wander in, watch one artist working away, surrounded by their various creations, where you are invited in strictly on a ‘look but don’t touch’ basis… No… This is a fully-fledged living, breathing studio, capable of supporting many artists working in a variety of different mediums.

We meet Jo, leader and founder of Designs in Mind. She has a conversation with us. No…

hang on a minute, she’s talking to me.

This has become such a rare thing in my life it takes me a moment to understand what she is asking, and how to formulate responses.

It is not that no one speaks to me. It is just that so few people speak to me these days. I am experiencing emotions which simply don’t tally with the situations I find myself in, making socialising difficult to nearly impossible. I either talk too much, or not at all. Strangers terrify me, but this is nothing compared to those I know, many of whom I go out of my way to avoid, because this is not me. This is not who I am. I do not want them to see me this way.

Now I am spoken to as a patient, or kept at arms length; many people I once considered to be friends won’t speak to me at all, and the few who have remained are doing the very best they can with me, but I know, deep down, conversations are difficult and our friendships are under a great deal of strain.

To find Jo, now, speaking to me as a human being, asking me about art, both in my past and in the possible future was a huge relief and a breath of fresh air. I discover we have a mutual interest in pottery and clay work, and find her passion for her work intoxicating – and that her work isn’t her own individual artwork, but the group itself.

Half way through our conversation, a girl with dark hair, green eyes and freckles politely interrupted us to make Jo aware of the trailing wires of a sewing machine she was plugging in. A simple, everyday health-and-safety thing. It stuck in my mind. Maybe because she was the first studio user I had heard speak. Maybe it was because I was ‘the new girl’, and as being such I was looking out for any sign of welcome… any chance that I might ‘fit in’.

While emotionally I’m all over the place, my knowledge of right and wrong is unimpaired, and I rely on it like crazy to get by, particularly in unfamiliar situations such as these. This simple act of plugging a sewing machine in showed me quite clearly that there were a set of rules to follow, along with a certain respect of confidential situations.

I looked around the studio more thoroughly, slightly more relaxed, and saw two other people. A guy with sparkling brown eyes, who smiled over at me and nodded, and a girl of around my own age, engaged in cutting some colourful material.

Returning to our conversation, I gained an almost instant admiration for Jo, upon finding she had built Designs in Mind from the ground up, not from the charity aspect of aiding mental health service users in this way… (indeed, my knowledge of mental health was so limited it was almost non-existent), but from establishing and running it as a company. In the past I had been actively involved in running drama groups. I loved drama, both acting and directing, and established a drama company with a friend. I found running a drama company exhilarating. In the art studios I could feel the hive of activity bubbling away. People wanted to be here. Were proud to be here. And as a company, were aspiring to work to a high level. I was both excited at the opportunity to participate and felt welcomed in a world which had, for one reason or another, given me the cold shoulder.

Maybe here was a place I could fit in… A safe space where the rules weren’t quite so complicated, where social mistakes are more easily tolerated, and personal differences more accepted. Here in the next town along, in an anonymous art studio down an unmarked alleyway.

It’s not like this now.

The brick-walled roof of the alley is now painted sky-blue with puffy white clouds.

The light catches the perspex multi-coloured triangles as they dangle down from these painted heavens.

The dark alleyway now has a sign above it:

Designs In Mind.

This is the second blog in a series of blogs by Lorraine Knight.