Lorna Collins shares the remarkable story of how art and creativity helped her recover from 20 years’ of psychiatric illnesses – and how she now shares the insights from her experiences to help inspires others in her work as a motivational speaker
When I was 18 years old, I was a high-flying success story. But my life broke into pieces when I fell off a horse and had a severe traumatic brain injury. After spending some time in a coma, I awoke severely disabled and with total amnesia.
This led me to develop a number of psychiatric illnesses, as my mind reacted to my brain injury. The gravity of my symptoms and destructive behaviours meant that I spent nearly 20 years detained in various psychiatric hospitals across England and France.
I was said to have so many disorders – anorexia, psychosis, schizoaffective disorder, various personality disorders, depression, schizophrenia. I remember one medic saying I should be ‘sectioned’, or detained in hospital, ‘for life’.
I had such traumatic experiences in these hospitals – forced to have ‘electro convulsive therapy’ on an already extremely damaged brain. Another time, I remember having my hands and feet tied down to a bed in a white padded cell and being left alone.
Lifeline and recovery: art
The breakthrough moment came when I began to paint how I was feeling. I began to splash paint on large pieces of paper placed on the floor. It was very messy, but incredibly therapeutic. I would interpret my pain, and create abstract compositions or wonky self-portraits.
I was never good at drawing objects or people, but these works would express my illness. Art gave me a voice, when I was silenced by my misery.
In one hospital, the medical team took my artworks very seriously, using them for the diagnosis and treatment of my various disorders. On my Care Plan, artmaking was prescribed as medicine.
A number of years later, I found a medical team who incorporated my creativity and artistic flair into the model and programme of treatment for my various illnesses. This was the
Cotswold House Ward, at the Warneford Hospital, in Oxford.
Here I found a model of care, which was radically different. The multi-disciplinary team helped me to use my art, painting and poetry, so I could express my most difficult issues, about trauma, abuse, dissociation and amnesia. In this way, art was guiding and informing my own recovery.
During my PhD at Cambridge University, I had to prove that art could help people make sense of their lives and initiate healing. My own recovery, using art, was the crux of my thesis. I had to recover, to prove my thesis and complete my PhD.
Art for us all
Now, I work as an advocate and campaigner in the field of ‘arts in health’, spreading the healing and reviving powers of art. Painting, drawing, dancing and speaking still help me to make sense of my life. When I am creative, the hash of unnecessary, busy thoughts stop, and I open a clear, lucid space of me-time. It’s liberating.
People often say to me: ‘I’m not an artist’, or ‘I can’t paint’. But, during my journey, I learned we can all access this basic instinct, which is to create, to enjoy, to heal, to revive ourselves.
We just have to open up the gateway of creativity. This might begin by just scribbling on a piece of paper, doodling, and seeing what pictures come up for you, or inventing a new recipe to cook, or experimenting with the senses in some way.
i work with Oxford Health NHS, the team who helped me get well. I use my story of illness and recovery to help other people who are suffering. I love telling my story, and inspiring others.
This is why I’ve joined the specialist speaker agency Speaker Buzz, which represents speakers who want to make a positive difference to society, so I can spread my story and messages to a wider audience to achieve greater impact.
With my books, articles, workshops, talks and campaigning, my aim is to help people open their innate capacity to be creative, which exists inside us all.
About the Author
Lorna Collins PhD. (Cantab.), FHEA is an active researcher in the field of arts in health. She also works with ‘Time to Change’ and ‘Mind’, campaigning to change stigma around mental illness. As a speaker, she shares her story and ideas about art and mental health – for more information, visit www.speakerbuzz.co.uk/Lorna-Collins