“Making art has helped me in dark times, including now”: life in a time of Covid-19

A collaborative drawing made by the author during lockdown

Since the Covid-19 pandemic has swept the globe, many populations of people have been either forced into quarantine or are self-isolating. During this time, contact with loved ones and strangers in person has been reduced to its minimum, every act of connection measured by the extent to which it has been deemed ‘essential’ and for the greatest good.

As the UK faces one of the biggest public health challenges of our time, for many people this will be the first time that they have to be home and in isolation. However, for people who have chronic illnesses, disabilities or mental health conditions, this period of social distancing will be familiar. It will not necessarily be their first time facing the loneliness that can come from no longer being a part of a broader social world beyond one’s home.

My first experience of social isolation took place immediately after pausing my studies after my first year of university. It had been a difficult adjustment to life on campus and for many months, I didn’t realise how much I was struggling. But the final term of first year came and with it, exams. Suddenly there was pressure to perform and I felt as though I had no capacity to learn, let alone achieve. Instead, I went to the nurse’s office and the GP and explained to them in a cold, disaffected manner that I was feeling suicidal. They said to me my studies hadn’t suffered, that I was still getting up each day, that I was attending lectures and socialising, so what was the issue? With that, I was sent on my way with a CD-Rom for an online CBT course.

Unimagined reality

I was not inexperienced in facing mental health crises but I had always managed to get myself through the worst of it by living in a world of fantasy, which provided an imagined future that could alleviate the present pain. I would imagine a different life of endless what ifs, spending hours lying on my bed exiting my present through my imagination. But now I was faced with having achieved the fantasy, entering a university that in my naivete, I had believed to be a ‘bastion of learning’, and finding that all the problems that existed before had in fact been magnified. I eventually went to my course leader and explained to him that I needed to take the year out. At this point, having been ignored by medical professionals and dismissed by university staff, without a diagnosis I was on my own, without institutional or mental health support. Under the cover of darkness, I phoned my mum a few nights after finishing my exams and asked her to come pick me up. I didn’t know why but I knew I had to leave, everything was packed in a chaotic and paranoid rush out the door.

After moving out of my family home only one year before, I came back to a house who’s dynamic had changed and a family who wasn’t quite prepared for my sudden return. In the void of undefined time, I would lie on my bed and watch the day go by through the computer screen, my life felt as though it measured as wide as the 15 inches of the laptop. I had left the university with many people who I had thought were friends, yet in this time when I most needed support, I was too ashamed to tell them what was going on, let alone ask for anything from them. Instead, agoraphobia started to mix with depression, and for months I struggled to leave the house. I would Skype a therapist every week and, aside from my family, that was the most amount of contact that I allowed myself. This was never a version of my future I had spent hours imagining. The worst part was it felt as though I was making it up, a terrible fabricated nightmare of loneliness, anxiety and despair. This was my first experience of a mental health crisis where every part of my life stopped going on as normal, and yet outside the world went on. I would look through the window on sunny days and wonder about this great chasm between myself and someone who was able to function more normally. What was the invisible difference? What made them feel able to get through each day?

Pieces of pleasure

I had always painted and drawn as a child, encouraged by my mother, who is an artist. She would take out brightly coloured pens and I would spend hours of time, obsessively colouring in the drawings I laboriously made. But in my successful pursuit of academia, art’s purpose in my life moved into the background. I forgot what it was like to do a drawing for the simple pleasure of getting so lost in concentration that I would not feel, think or hear the outside world. For some, this is called the zone but in my child’s mind it was something more simple: unadulterated joy. I didn’t know why I did it but I knew it made me feel good, the result often secondary to the pleasure of combining colours and following closely textured lines.

After almost exhausting Netflix’s back catalogue (which in 2012 was much more limited), I felt bereft. My days were shapeless and my sense of a future foreclosed in the nothingness that comes from depression. But one day, I was speaking to my dad and he suggested that I could do a course, something fun, simple and distracting. This sounds trite. It is the type of advice that you hear desperate loved ones give to those suffering with mental ill health. I don’t remember what made me listen or what made it possible – I suspect a combination of desperation and willingness that can emerge when faced with a situation that if left could only become worse. Yet on that particular day, I did take the suggestion. Pottery jumped into my mind – it was something that I had never thought of nor been particularly interesting in, but for the first time in months I had a feeling that wasn’t a version of despair. I found a course on the internet and went a few weeks later to a 12-week course.

Mental freedom

At the course, with elbow to hand covered in thick globules of clay, I remembered what it felt like to be able to make something that through time and patience could be a small example of my own capacity for affirmative transformation. I was not good at it but being a beginner reminded me of some of the curiosity that I had as a child. While my life still felt ill-defined and infused with the negative feelings of depression, in the pottery studio I saw for the briefest moment that I could make change – additions of clay – that had the potential to accumulate, even if only into a mug.

Seeing this process of creativity had a profound impact. It taught me many things, including the value of being a beginner, of doing something for reasons exclusive of success or productivity, of the community that can be shared by people who make things. Most of all, it allowed me to re-enter that space I had found as a child of mental freedom, where one’s thoughts slow and the rush of negativity is quieted as though it were passing through the silencing of thick concrete walls. People make art for different reasons. They make it for self-expression, beauty, community, money and even narcissism. There are as many reasons for making art as there are artists to make it. For me, making art was not a dramatic cure-all but it was integral to helping me build a life beyond university and beyond depression. It provided a temporary space of peace that ultimately helped make me feel more alive and less alone.

Child-like joy

This is not to say that I have never faced such a depression again. I have experienced extended periods of mental illness since but making art has been something I returned to in the worst times. Each time it has helped. It is helping in this precarious moment of 2020.

Right now, we cannot go out. I don’t know how long this will last and I don’t know what implications the pandemic will have on our lives and loved ones. What I do know is how to get through extended periods of time in isolation and uncertainty, day by day. And for me, I do this through simple, progressive acts of change – starting a drawing (like the one above) and finding a way to lose myself in the brief moments of joy that can come through concentration put towards the intention of transforming something as humble as a piece of paper, a piece of clay, a bag of flour, or whatever one has on hand into something that it wasn’t before. My advice: join your kids, remember what it was like to be a child, full of wonder at your own and other’s creativity, not for the reasons of solving the problems of your life or the world but for the tiny bit of joy it may create.

The author wishes to remain anonymous.

If you need help or support with your mental health, or are worried about somebody else, there are a number of organisations listed here that may be able to assist you. There are also links to information about staying well during Covid-19 on this page.