Fractured Identities and art: on the couch at the SICK! Festival

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Dolly Sen recently participated in Fractured Identities a SICK! Festival event in Manchester exploring identity and mental health with artist Cheryl Martin, writer Ravi Thornton, Dr. Dawn Edge and Laia Becares of the University of Manchester. Here she responds with a reflection on how fractured identity can open up possibilities…

Black and white photo portrait of Dolly Sen wearing a Sick Festival eyepatch

Dolly Sen being Sick

The Sick Festival says on their website: SICK! Festival is the antidote to the physical, mental and social challenges of life. At the forefront of the arts and health agenda, the festival brings together an outstanding international arts programme with perspectives from academic research, clinical practitioners, public health professionals, charities and most importantly, those with lived experience of the issues we address.

Taking the conversation into the heart of the communities where the subjects matter most, SICK! Festival creates a shared space for experiences, reflection and connection.

Fractured Identities became a heartfelt and interesting discussion, part of it focused on how ‘otherness’ hurts mental health. My main message was to say: yes, I have been alienated a hundred times over. Of course, it is painful but it also gives me a freedom to be whoever I want. My fractured identity is the paving stones to my own path. A bit like the yellow brick road in the Wizard of Oz.

My fractures in identity come from being of mixed heritage, of being gay, of having a disability, of being mad, of being a survivor of abuse, of being in the psychiatric system, of growing up poor. There are overt and subtle hurts and hatreds directed towards me. And more recently, because of being a big woman, of having vitiligo, and tattoos, the assumption is that my identity is more in the hands of others than it is mine. But those hands do try to push me away, and get angry when I wish to seize back my identity and do what I want with it. The intersectionality of my experience could resemble a car crash if other people got their way. And I have had crashes, but now I am an armoured car, powered by ‘My Little Pony’ horsepower, with the most radiant of headlights, and a satnav that points my own way.

Having no solid ground for identity, just being resident in a no man’s land, a disconnecting quicksand of self, can drive you mad. So you go to psychiatry and ask for help. They pathologise your broken heart, they individualise your mental distress to be your own responsibility. Doesn’t matter if you are raped as a child, shot at for being gay, spat upon for being brown, your madness is to do with YOUR brokenness, not the world’s. So you are labelled ‘broken’ and given labels such as schizophrenic, which makes the world welcome with open arms – NOT. It reinforces a positive identity of yourself – NOT.

You need mirrors of yourself in the people around you. As a child of colour in a predominantly white neighbour, with racist neighbours, I saw no mirrors, just broken glass. I can’t ever see the whole of me. I see splinters and broken pieces that I can’t hold onto without being hurt.

You become othered so many times, you can’t see the horizon of humanity, just its distance. Nobody is welcoming me with open arms without asking me to leave something behind. My path has to be own. I will leave behind hurt and art when the distance stretches into the end of me.

Part of the discussion pondered on fractures and fluidity in identity. Somebody in the audience talked about gender fluidity, and how it doesn’t apply to other areas. For example, she said, no-one says they are mad-fluid. They don’t say there are but the mind is the strangest ocean and most people have touched the waters and some have drowned in it

My ship of fools has turned into an interesting, magical but sometimes treacherous cruise travelling unique waters. I used to drown in mad waters and know the sane shore, but I have to pass the sharks that the sane nurture and feed with too many people.

I have just about learned to swim. Come paddling with me.