It took me years to accept my mental ill-health; I always knew there was something different and unnerving festering within me that I never truly understood, let alone able to articulate. I was, and in truth, still am a very sensitive person, I wear my heart on my sleeve and although that has many perks and brings human qualities I am grateful for, it also allows for my vulnerabilities to become debilitating.
Growing up in the Splott area of Cardiff as a “Tomboy Splott Girl” I felt like I had to feign a thick skin to protect me and my brother from being bullied. A sensitive nature and showing “weakness” was not acceptable in my eyes for fear of people finding out about me and my weird “mental” mind and taking advantage of us; and so I quickly learnt to put on a mask and hide behind it. Everything negative that affected me emotionally was buried. Buried deep, deep down so nobody knew how weak and vulnerable I truly was. I perfected this mask to hide everything that was other than “Normal, Happy, Larger-Than-Life” Tam.
Every nasty comment about me, my weight, my body image, my ability, my deafness, my spelling, my personality, imagination or just because… was buried and my perfect mask became the perfect armour to hide behind so those people would never know how much it all hurt and clawed at my sensitivity. The more it happened the better I became at building an exterior mask of perfectionism; or what I understood perfectionism to be.
This method of control was never going to last. Bits and bobs managed to escape here and there, random dramatic outbursts, acting out in ways that made no sense, threatening and attempting to leave home because nobody understood, excessive crying when alone, secretive obsessive behaviours… Many of these were seen as a form of attention seeking behaviour but in truth it was my way of trying to communicate something that I had no words for.
My dad has always inspired me and my creativity and this is what got me through the rigidity of a school where Maths, Welsh, Science and (reluctantly) English were everything. Luckily for me I had an incredible mum and dad who were hugely supportive of my engagement with physical activity and the arts. My mum took me to a dance class at Rubicon Dance and this is where I found my coping mechanism for my mental health. In ‘Nubrico’ I was able to creatively and emotionally express myself with movement in a much more meaningful way than words could have ever done. I would always leave Rubicon with a new sense of purpose and a feeling of belonging. Dance, rhythm and music were in my blood, I took to it like a duck to water and it was my way of keeping my mental and emotional wellbeing intact.
A long story short, dance ended up becoming a demon of mine when things became serious. I wanted to dance as a profession but the emotional and mental cost of the reality of dance training, with all its structure, intensity around technique and lack of creative freedom really did take its toll on my mental health. Perfectionism and OCD issues escalated, I never felt good enough, looking in the mirror at what wasn’t “right” every day for hours, the competitive need with myself to be the best I could be. Essentially, setting myself up to fail. All of that in the atmosphere of control at the dance conservatoire ended up with me removing myself from the course and going home, back to what I knew, back to my safety blanket and back to Splott.
I disengaged with dance and the arts for years. Eventually my need for creativity exploded and I reemerged with a desire to find my own path.
I met, my now creative partner, Paul and we started to explore the stories we wanted to tell through play and improvisation. We amalgamated different art forms and explored how we could express our stories and experiences of mental illness through physical movement, film, soundscape, theatre and the visual arts. Initially we never intended for any of it to be seen, we were playing with ideas, characters and simply doing it for ourselves, to freely create the work we wanted to with passion. It was from here people started to notice our work and it soon became apparent we needed to walk our own path because it acted as a catalyst for conversation for people to talk about their mental health experiences. I am now able to talk about my mental illness without shame. Through creativity I have found a way of articulating my thoughts and emotions in a helpful and meaningful way that people can understand and also help them start to process how they can communicate their mental and emotional health. It took a long time to get there but I am lucky. I am lucky that I was and am still able to express myself in a creative way and learn about my mental health through the arts. A shared experience allows us to feel less alone and less ashamed of not being our own idea of what is perfect.
Four In Four is the Creative Partner of the Green Ribbon Arts Festival