Sunday 20 June 2021

"Even in the most crazy, terrifying moments, we are not alone." The exhibition is done, what a week.


The Addicts And Those Who Love Them exhibition in Brighton last week

Busy week.

I am sitting alone in absolute silence on my pink sofa in the empty house, feeling exhausted.  Today is the first day in a long time that I am, theoretically, doing nothing. Except today is the only day I have in which to do my blog and newsletter and so I am not quite doing nothing.  And, I am dressed in my walking clothes because this afternoon I aim to go back on the Downs for a walk.  Have I been invaded by aliens?  Probably.  I was looking forward to today so much, imagining myself lying on my bed in glorious well earned abandon, pots of tea on my bedside table, a plate of shortbread within reach and a smile of absolute success on my happy, sleepy face.  Interestingly, I have my lipstick on in this mental image.  I think I was imagining it on the front cover of a magazine.  The idea of a day of joyful snoozing has been the carrot that has kept me going.  But, I am not doing that.  I did a bit of it and then decided to get up and get stuff done.  And, I am really looking forward to a walk this afternoon.  I have even made the salty soup that I took on my walks while training for the Macmillan Mighty Hike, the 26 mile sponsored walk that I completed two weeks ago yesterday.  I think I am a changed person, taken over by aliens, or whatever, because where once my greatest love was to sit on my sofa where possible and live my life from there, now I am wanting to put on my walking boots and go for a hike on the Downs. Crazy.

A week ago today was the last day of the exhibition Addicts And Those Who Love Them.  This was the culmination of two years of work putting together paintings and words by me, drawings by Marie Paul and photographs by Michael McAlister on the subject of addiction.  The exhibition tag line was "behind every addict is someone traumatised by loving them", because though I am not an addict, there is addiction in my family.  The ongoing, messy, destructive, chaotic and ghastly business of living with and alongside addiction is something many of us experience.  Working through art to tell stories, paint portraits and share experiences of addiction helps us understand how other people manage. It is also the only thing I can think of to do.  I cannot change the addiction in my family, I can't make it go away and I can't escape from the fall out.  I have to find a way to manage the damage and to keep myself strong and boundaried while hoping for a miracle and keeping my idea of love strong and bullet proof. I will need it for myself and it had better be robust.  If I keep working on that love for me, I can hold it for my addict. It is a hard lesson to remember, that if we believe love is all, we must love the unloveable.  The love is there but it is tough, and real, and detached and keeps us going when we are in despair. This love is about letting go, walking away, and maintaining a distance from the madness (which is not ours) while keeping our hearts ready to respond if that response is going to work.  It is about hope. But a realistic hope.  

The week of showing the exhibition in Brighton, as part of the Brighton Fringe and supported bymy friend Ian's relapse prevention support group Arun Exact, and the excellent charity supporting families in addiction Adfam, has been intense, beautiful, enlightening and amazing. It has been hard work.  It seems that the people who came all needed to be there for whatever reason.  There were tears, powerful stories, insightful comments and interesting interpretations.  There were some crazy people, there always are, but they have stories too.  I met with and talked to many brave people who were living with, inside, and alongside addiction.  There were two fellows who left their cans of beer outside and came in for a cocaine filled experience of Addicts And Those Who Love Them.  After a while I asked the less buzzing of the two to take his friend out now, as he was not going to stop whizzing about and talking unless he was removed by his friend.  They both had a hug, gathered their beers, and left.  

Cousin Maddy helping to set up
We had an eighteen year old couple with addicted parents visiting every day, and telling their stories.  They had been together since they were thirteen, and seemed to be both way older than eighteen and also lost in a stunted childhood that could not progress.  I am hoping to work with these two youngsters to tell their stories and create their portraits. They would touch a great many people who have the same lives but who are no so articulate.  I met people with brain damage who were living free of active addiction.  I met a lady who I hope to work with, who is sober now in her seventies but with parents, children and grand children drinking as she had. Her husband died of drink.  Her story and portrait will be very important. One evening, we had a whole AA fellowship group come to see us after their meeting.  That was lovely.  All those people had found God, each other and hope.  It does not follow that they were all sober though. After listening to the stories from the week I am aware that giving up alcohol and drugs often takes more than will power and a good fellowship.  It helps, they say, but rehab is where many were able to stop.  And even that, I am told, is not necessarily effective only once.  It may take many rehabs.  There is a rule of three, my friend Ian tells me. Ian is ten years sober and clean after forty years of addiction.  He says that one person will relapse, one person will die and one person will recover.  The rule of three.  So speaking to the visitors in recovery last week, and having a whole fellowship meeting come to see us, was a powerful expression of hope.  And I suppose, it keeps me going where my own addict is concerned.  If these people who were so deep into addiction found ways through, maybe my addict won't die an addled death alone somewhere, maybe we can visit each other and have tea one day and talk about life, and sit together on the sofa in companionable silence.  Maybe. 

The next stage

 I will gather all my notes, new contacts and thoughts into some order from last week now.  Then I will start to paint and speak with new people from the exhibition just gone to create a new body of work for the next showing of Addicts And Those Who Love Them.  I don't know where I will hold the next exhibition yet, I will find a gallery or an exhibition space and take it from there.  Michael McAlister, a dear friend and colleague, will show his photographic series of powerful and challenging photos called Small Signs.  These are the small signs that describe his thirty years of addiction.  Sober and clean for many years now, Michael's work is deeply inspiring.  Marie Paul, another dear friend and colleague, is hoping to add to her dark, beautiful and mysterious drawings in charcoal, pastels and black crayon.  Marie's work is skillful, detailed, and personal to her own journey with drugs and addictions. It is the insight and creativity that Marie and Michael bring to the exhibition that inspires me too. They are part of the story of the exhibition through past addictions and are now exhibiting their own artwork from a position of recovery.  I am looking forward to working with new people for the next showing, though I am a bit nervous because there is so much work to be done to get to the next stage.  However, "nothing comes of nothing" as Shakespeare says. Or "get a move on" as my late husband Alan would say.

The Addict's Room.  Oil on wood.

Thank you

The exhibition ran smoothly because of the help and support I received. The generosity of all those heroes who helped to fund it through my Go Fund Me crowd funding is deeply wonderful.  Thank you all.  My two cousins Maddy and Kirsten stayed with me for the week and provided food and care at home here, and practical exhibition management support with me daily in Brighton.  My cheerful and efficient assistant Lora from Pink Spaghetti has helped from the very beginning, and everyone who came to this first showing of Addicts And Those Who Love Them made the week so worthwhile.  Thank you.

And it was sunny. Most of the week was downright Mediterranean. Cousin Kirsten turned a healthy shade of mahogany during the week and fair skinned freckled Maddy turned a gentle salmon pink despite being in the shade for most of the time.  The Fishing Quarter gallery where we were exhibiting overlooked the beach on the Brighton sea front, which meant that we had to have lots of chips.  We had to.

And now

It is time to rest and recover. Whatever I do on addiction is only a single grain of sand on a seashore. I want to gather together all the stories of the people I met last week and plan my next exhibition phase. In my own life, I have always decisions to make about the addiction in my family.  It does not go away, at least not for long.  It is unsolvable, constant and destructive.  It is distressing, frightening and confusing. I suppose one of the most important messages from this work I am doing is that we are not alone.  Even in the most crazy, terrifying and out of control moments, we are not alone.  And we all need each other.  Keeping quiet about what is happening to us when it is traumatic and distressing (whatever it is) is unsustainable, and it is a shock to meet other people and hear that your story is their story too.  We can get lost in the shame and stigma of having this thing, addiction, in our lives, and try to keep quiet about it.  We make excuses, explain things away, take the rap, try and cover up the damage.  And when we don't any more, and the world does not end, because we have found the support of a community who know how we feel because they are feeling it too, we can move forward.  I remember walking into a drugs and alcohol support meeting many years ago for the first time, and collapsing in tears when it was my turn to speak.  I heard myself saying that I hated my addict, and I wanted them dead.  I was taken aback by what I had just said, feeling a little out of control and was expecting the group to ask me to leave. Instead, they listened, gave me tissues, hugged me and said they understood.  Many of them had come to this group with the same feeling, and look at them now, they said.  Of course I would feel this way they said, it is intolerable dealing with so much on my own.  It isn't that I want my addict dead they helped me see, it is that I wanted the situation to go away.  And I hated the addiction, they said. If I hated the addict, I would not be there with them in floods of tears with my heart breaking.  

And so this project continues.  But first, in a minute, I will go for a walk.  I has been an insanely busy time.   


Marie, Me and Maddy. What a wonderful week.

I am looking for stories and experiences of addiction, either your own or someone who you love, for possible use in the Addicts exhibition.  Stories can be anonymous too. Email me here in confidence.

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Sunday 6 June 2021

It's all over by the time you read this. In a good way.

The Walk

A photo of walking equipment in my nice quiet sunny kitchen today.

By the time you read this I will have completed my Mighty Hike walk for Macmillan.  I am heartened by thinking that this walk will soon be in the past, meaning I will have done it and won't have to think about it ever again.  Yesterday, as you went about your day without a care in the world, I walked 26 miles from Brighton to Eastbourne with 499 other people and let me tell you, it was tough.  I don't actually know that yet, but I expect it will be. Near the end of the walk, at about the twenty mile mark, there are the Seven Sisters which from what I gather from our walking Facebook pages, are seven huge hills that will kill all of us.  Apparently they are very difficult even without having already done twenty miles.  "They are tough, there is no denying it, and many may never walk again," say the experienced walkers on the social media pages, who have done Mighty Hikes with the Seven Sisters before, "but just enjoy the day and look at the view."  Oh that will help. I will just admire the view as my legs fall off.

There is always a chance that I didn't make it, and that I am still there on the route, lost and confused and a long way from home.  If you don't read this blog, then that is why.  It never got posted because I am still walking twenty four hours later and may have gone mad.  No one can find me and Macmillan will have to send out a search party.  They will have to lure me off the Seven Sisters with flasks of tea and eggy sandwiches.

The training for this Mighty Hike has been a lesson in perseverance and strange rewards.  In the beginning I would walk for an hour or two, and think that there was plenty of time.  As time went by I planned longer routes and eventually, with a new tiny turquoise ruck sack, a flask of salty soup, water and my excellent (new) walking boots, I would take a whole day and do up to nineteen miles. On some walks the weather changed suddenly and became very unpleasant.  Twice, I was utterly caught out, unprepared and under dressed in just a pink dress, a jumper and no coat or hat.  I squelched back to the car in a crazy downpour with gusts of freezing winds thinking, this is what it must be like on a mountain when the storms come and no one is prepared.  Those eight miles back to the car were absolutely awful and when I got to the car, I couldn't open it.  When I did get into the car, I found that the peanut butter sandwiches that I had wrapped in water proof bags were holding water like a sponge.  The treat that had spurred me on through the storm had been snatched from me by the elements and I was left to drive home cold, hungry, miserable and drowned.  The strange reward from this walk was that it would probably never be that bad on the day of the real walk, and that I had survived.  This was SAS level training, I said to myself, you're tougher than you think.  

Training for the Navy Seals.

As I write this, I see that on Saturday the weather will be hot and sunny.  I have all the things I need; a new sun hat, factor 50 plus suncream and lots of books downloaded on Audible to listen to.  I am revisiting all the Inspector Rebus books by Ian Rankin.  It will be interesting to walk through brilliant hot June sunshine on the beautiful South Downs by the sea while being a part of a dour Edinburgh police team searching in a freezing winter for unspeakable baddies and led by an alcoholic misfit genius. I will be in Edinburgh for much of the Mighty Hike.  I also have a plan, which may or may not have worked as you read this.  At the foot of the first Seven Sister cliff which looks terrifyingly like climbing to the moon in the photos I have seen, I will have a flask of sweet tea. I did this at the bottom of another hill when training and it was so delightful that I think of it still.  I sat on an old mossy log underneath beautiful trees and luscious green leaves at the bottom of a very steep mile long woodland ascent from Washington village back up to the Downs one sunny afternoon. I was trying out my new idea, a flask of hot sweet tea on a long walk.  I always take hot salty soup with me, as it seems to hit the spot.  This time I trialed sweet tea and boy, was it good.  On the actual walk day I will take both, a flask of salty soup for half way and sweet tea for the last climb over the Seven Sisters.  It may be the last time anyone will see me. 

You can still sponsor me through Just Giving and all the sponsorship money goes direct to Macmillan.

Post script - I did make it and here is a photo of me going directly to the Macmillan fry up at the end.  My sister in law Jacky was there to greet me and bought me a bag of crisps and chocolates.  She put an apple in the bag too but I didn't want that, fed up of healthy stuff, I wanted the crisps.


Not wanting to be fobbed off with healthy stuff.

The Exhibition

A six foot banner in case anyone can't remember what they are looking for.

If I don't come back from the South Downs on Saturday then this next bit is an apology.  Sorry, the exhibition is off.  I am writing this before both the walk on Saturday and the Addicts And Those Who Love Them exhibition opening on the Tuesday.  

Assuming all is well, the exhibition will be opening to the public at midday on Tuesday 8 June and I am spending this week before everything happens writing lists.  The paintings are all finished, the writing is nearly done, wrapping up all the paintings is not a problem so can wait a bit.  But there is all the other stuff to remember like a giant kettle for tea for the week at the gallery.  A coffee maker, a cold bag for milk and lunches.  Hanging equipment - hammer, nails, picture hooks, measuring tape, sellotape, blutac, string. I must remember the easles and the A-boards, and of course the new six foot banner I had made to go over the door outside.  That reminds me, we need a ladder.  Then there is the planning for the private view, which includes all the (low key) catering, and always the constant remembering to tell people about the exhibition in the first place.

 Addicts And Those Who Love Them is a serious exhibition. The idea behind it has always been to tell the stories of people dealing with addiction, and that is not just the addict, but the people behind them. 

I first began creating a body of work in 2018 on the subject of addiction.  It was in response to my son’s struggle with opiates, and it was called The Brighter The Light (the darker the shadow).  I showed it here in Bognor, and it resonated with others who were experiencing the same thing.  From that exhibition came the idea for this next one, Addicts And Those Who Love Them.  It seemed that we who witness and journey alongside addiction in our close circles feel vulnerable and alone.  When we eventually do talk to someone who understands, and when we tell it like it really is, which is very horrible because we expect not to believed, the relief is enormous.  At this first exhibition, I remember a mother coming in and walking around the paintings in shock.  When she managed to come and ask about the stories behind them, and I told her exactly what had happened and was still happening, she broke down in tears.  She and her daughter were living in a silent nightmare of the daughter’s addiction.  The mother, feeling (as we do) that it was her fault (and addicts are expert at blaming others) finally understood that she was not alone, the addiction in her life was not her fault and that there were places she could find help and support without judgement.

Though this lady does not feature in Addicts And Those Who Love Them, the whole idea behind it was inspired by her.

I have a great team with me for this exhibition.  My two cousins Maddy and Kirsten are coming to stay with me for the week to make sure there are always two of us in the gallery, and that someone (Kirsten) will be doing food. There is so much organising, and I have a wonderful VA (virtual assistant) called Lora, who does so much of it, with her lovely cheerful smile.  I am grateful to have the support of Arun Exact, a peer led relapse prevention group in Littlehampton near here, and of Adfam, a wonderful charity supporting and educating families and friends of addicts as they deal with the addiction journey.  Perhaps I could call it the addiction lifestyle.  I have also, with huge gratitude, had wonderful support from all the people who have donated to my crowd funding pages to help pay for the costs of this project.  All the work I do is free, and the exhibition is free.  That is why the crowd funding has been so important and special. 

I have two Go Fund Me pages for this exhibition. The first was set up a year ago in 2020 when Addicts was meant to show at the Brighton Fringe.  Of course, everything was suddenly cancelled last year and when I was offered a slot this year I couldn't find my old page and so began a new one.  Then I found my old page.  Both had donations on them and I simply had to pretend I always wanted two pages and that was how I rolled.  If you would like to donate you have a choice.  The first page is here and the second is hereYou could donate to both, in order to maintain balance.  I will not stop you. 

In the studio holding a portrait and words of Ian from Arun Exact.

And so

I write this blog before my busy week begins.  If you are reading this, I did make it on Saturday and I am taking the Sunday to rest before hanging and preparing the exhibition on the Monday.  I have toyed with opening the Addicts And Those Who Love Them from a wheelchair but I have bought myself some orthopedic flip flops instead.  I will be supported by them and look nice too. 

Just as a little extra, my darling brother John is getting married in London on the Friday before the walk and exhibition. So I will be partying on the Friday at the wedding.  My train home arrives at Bognor at 11.30pm, and I am up for 5am the next day ready to make my mark on those Seven Sisters and earn the right to wear the orthopedic flip flops for the next week in Brighton.  

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