How does one find truth in unspoken family abuse? Is it possible to break the silence of buried family secrets and develop something powerful out of these traumatic experiences? These are the questions I began to ask myself when I stumbled upon my mother’s watercolors, ones she had made at the age of eighteen during a psychotic episode. It was then that I finally understood the origins of her psychosis.
My father had collected all these watercolors in a portfolio. I held them in my hands on Christmas, laid them out together with my son to take a closer look. What lies behind her struggle? I asked myself. So I began an investigation into my mother’s childhood and the abuse she had experienced.
I started by reinterpreting her watercolors in photography, staged in a studio with real people. I felt I needed to make a statement, to establish a new confidence for these psychotic events. This process is at the heart of my new book, Seeing Her Ghosts, a collection of essays, poems, and artworks by over 50 artists and writers who seek truth in psychic crises — truths that are often caused by dysfunctional families, and the resulting trauma, truths that are hidden out of shame and helplessness.
Seeing Her Ghosts illustrates the emotional load and fear that is produced by a mental-health diagnosis. It gives an impression of the feelings that lie behind each individual drama and outlines a conversation between mother and daughter in photographs, watercolors, and diary extracts. The journey of making this book was therapeutic for my mother and helped in her recovery; I hope it helps others understand their family backgrounds and confront their own emotional struggles, to accept and truly see that all these effects of sadness, anger, rage, distress, and despair originate from a deeper conflict.
Seeing Her Ghosts is a rambling conversation about our deepest hollows at eye level. It is a book to take out of your stash again and again, to share with friends, to prompt you to trade your own buried stories. The cloth binding shows a line drawing made by my mother during a psychotic period. (It reminds me of Les Fleur du Mal by Baudelaire and its beautiful Matisse drawings.) It shows two ghosts floating — like mother and daughter.
Here, ten artists share their artworks from the book and the personal stories behind them.
Faye Moorhouse, illustrator
I have anxiety. More specifically social anxiety. I was born shy, and I hated going to school — in fact, I hardly ever went. I hated going out with friends; I would cry and my mum would make up excuses so I didn’t have to go. Now I have to make up my own excuses to avoid going out. And I’m running out of excuses. I’d rather tear off my own fingernails than go to the pub, or a wedding, or a party. Sometimes I have to go out: birthdays, special occasions, etc. I beat myself up so much for not wanting to go, not being normal. The price I pay for it is painful.
I spend days, weeks beforehand worrying, catastrophizing, running through all the possible awkward scenarios. I become hyperaware and paranoid and struggle to think of things to talk about, and then afterward I spend days overthinking, analyzing, and worrying about it. Medication and talking therapies have helped somewhat, but I still struggle. It doesn’t get better with age or the more I expose myself to social situations. And it is a really difficult one for other people to understand. I have a dog. When I’m with him, I don’t have anxiety. If I walk down the street or go to the pub with Bear, I feel calm and free. If I don’t have him with me, I go back to being anxious. The problem is, Bear hates busy, social things, too: he barks, pulls on his lead, and won’t sit still. I like to think he’s just excited, but maybe he’s anxious too. Did I make him anxious? Can dogs even have social anxiety? There we go again, worrying.