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Artist insight: Dolly Sen

Updated Friday, 18th June 2010

Dolly Sen describes herself as 'a professional mad person'. She talks openly about her childhood and how she used creativity to come to terms with her mental health.

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Paint pots with paint brushes Creative commons image Icon Flickr CreativeCommons CamIncoll under Creative-Commons license

[Image copyright: Cam Incoll - CC-BY-NC-SA licence]

Copyright The Open University

[The music on this audio is Song to my shadow by Dolly Sen. Used with permission]

[Readings from The World is Full of Laughter by Dolly Sen, Chipmunka Publishing, 2005. Used with permission]


[Music plays]

My name is Dolly Sen, and I’m from London. I’m a professional mad person. And what is a professional mad person? Well, out of the experience of using the mental health system and having to deal with my mental health issues, I write and I paint and I make films. Luckily, people have paid me to write and paint and make films - not only that, to talk about my life and to teach others what has helped me.

So, basically, any income I have, it comes out of the fact that I talk about madness, I write about madness. I share my coping strategies, my creativity is fuelled by my mental health experiences, either by giving it content or, you know, if you’re manic, it gives you motivation and the belief you can do anything you want really.

I was born in London, and I’ve lived all my life here. I’m the eldest of five kids. My dad, basically, had a lot of alcohol problems. My mum was physically disabled, and she was also deaf, so I was her carer. So I didn’t really have an easy childhood. My dad was physically abusive and emotionally abusive. We were very poor. My brothers and I have had periods of neglect where we’ve been left for days alone. And because we were poor we were bullied at school.

So it seemed to be a kind of snowball effect that one area of, you know, pain and abuse kind of seemed to collect itself in other areas. For example, we were on the At Risk register at Social Services, but they didn’t help. I felt very alone as a child. I thought if everyone was not helping me, then it was me, that something was wrong with me. Which I think was the reason I had my first psychotic experience at age 14 and why I have the psychosis in the first place.

[Music plays]

The first auditory hallucination I recall happened around at the age of 14. Every Sunday, the radio would play the top 40 UK hits. I listened to it and taped the songs I liked. All of a sudden, the music went quiet and a troll-like voice issued from the radio, “What do you want, Dolly? How much do you want?” My skin prickled. I shut off the radio in fear. Deep demonic laughter followed. “Can’t get rid of me, I’m yours for life now,” it said. “Who are you?” I said. “I am the universe. I choose whether you live and breathe.”

I got up and ran out of the room. I stopped listening to the radio from then on. And as the days passed I thought maybe I had just dreamed it all. The voices then chose the TV as their medium. I was drowning in a sea of bad ads that I had to read into for their cosmic significance. Soon, I stopped watching TV. I became obsessed with the battle between good and evil played out in the Empire Strikes Back. I was thinking, everyone thinks this is just a film - entertaining make-believe! But that’s what they wanted me to think, and that was the reality, and the audience watching and their little lives were the fantasy.

[Music plays]

From that first experience of hearing voices, I began to see things. I saw shadows hovering over me. I thought the people in the TV were talking to me and when I walked down the street I had a sense that there were people on rooftops with guns that were going to kill me. You know, when you’re 14, and you have those experiences, if you think demons are chasing you, you want to escape, so therefore literally a week later after my first experience of psychosis, I attempted suicide.

Basically, the suicide attempt was an attempted overdose. I didn’t go into hospital or anything; I just felt very sick the next day. Both my mum and dad knew about it but that kind of thing made my dad angrier. And because my mum was in a kind of very vulnerable position in that she was scared of my father, and she was deaf, so therefore couldn’t pick up a phone to call the doctor or anything, Social Services referred me to a child psychiatrist.

I wanted, actually wanted to talk about my experiences but as soon as I went into the consulting room she was just very cold and was just literally reading off her questions off the page. No eye contact, no warmness about her, so I clammed up. I don’t know what the diagnosis was, but out of that session with a psychiatrist I didn’t need to go back to school. So I was supposed to have home schooling, but that didn’t work out.

The first few months after that, I mean I was still just struggling with the experience, I didn’t really do anything. It’s only when it started to lull down a little bit that I went to my local library and made the decision to read every book in the library. I think I did it over the course of a couple of years. So, basically, I just educated myself by reading, watching documentaries. So I did it myself really.

I didn’t want to use the Mental Services because I was just basically scared of them. It was only in my early 20s when my mum forced me to go. Although my first community psychiatric nurse was very nice, what I found frustrating was I knew where I needed the help in my life basically. I was, you know, still being physically abused by my father at that point, and I wanted them to help me either find my own place or to get some legal help.

I knew that the stress of the situation was why I was always suppressed and always reacting to situations with psychotic and paranoid thinking. What they thought they could offer me was a tablet. But like I say, you know, tablets don’t cure abuse, tablets don’t cure loneliness. I didn’t laugh or cry for many years whilst I was on medication. Periods in hospital, you know, some of the kind of worst periods in my life. You’re a vulnerable person and you’re put into the kind of space with other vulnerable people. Not really cared for, you’re just basically contained.

After like twenty years in the system and me telling them, you know, medication’s not the answer and I’d like to kind of talk through my problems, I was referred to a clinic at the Maudsley Hospital called a Pick-up Clinic, which is a clinic that offers CBT to people who suffer from psychosis. And CBT basically is just a new way of thinking about things. It’s a kind of questioning your thinking and how you respond to things. It was kind of a new thing because before then I used to say can I have CBT? They’d say you can’t have CBT because you can’t treat psychosis with CBT. But actually that was the thing that turned my life around.

It kind of made me see that my psychotic thinking wasn’t as illogical as I thought. There were certain triggers. For example, when I’m psychotic, because my behaviour changes slightly I start to become kind of withdrawn and a little bit kind of brittle. My family’s reaction changes accordingly because they don’t know what’s going on. And because I detect the change of behaviour in them, I think, when I’m out of it, I can see it’s because they’re just reacting to my change in behaviour, I get paranoid and I think, you know, they’re up to something because their behaviour has changed. That’s how my psychosis builds up really, and what it did was show me what happens when it does start to happen and, therefore, I can change my thinking. CBT has offered me another road to go down rather than the kind of psychotic road or the negative thinking road.

The other things that have helped is to kind of learn to think positively. Because of the abuse I had as a child and, you know, people’s kind of indifference to what was happening, I became very mistrustful of people. I became very angry. I was angry at the world really. I was angry at my dad. I just realised my father couldn’t behave in any other way really. He was stuck in that horrible mindset, and he couldn’t escape it. I had the realisation that I don’t have to take his mindset and that’s what, exactly I was becoming my father really, just hating the world.

I also kind of got into Buddhism at the time. One of the books I was reading was The Power of Forgiveness. And basically what the guy said in a nutshell was that if somebody has hurt you and you don’t forgive them, you’re handcuffing yourself to that hurt. So I kind of made the decision to forgive my father, and it was really hard at first but once I did, it felt like a kind of huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders because the anger had gone. I realised my dad needs compassion, really, and I need to be compassionate about myself.

Forgiveness is so powerful. I mean when you’re bitter about something, you are swallowing the poison and hoping the other person will get sick from it. And if you kind of think of it that way you realise how pointless it is. It’s quite a controversial thing because the hurt is so strong but, for me, that was a way to let go of that hurt, that the pain of my past didn’t own me. I had power over my life really.

After I went through the process of forgiving my father, it freed so much of myself and opened so much that my previously blocked-off mind and my blocked-off heart, it was just hungry to do things, and so my writing kind of flourished, I was starting to get published.

Because of my writing, I got involved with a few mental health arts charities, such as Sound Minds and Creative Roots, which are both based in London, and out of that I started to perform my poetry. I had written books before I wrote my memoir, but writing my memoir was the biggest challenge and the one that had the most effect on my life.

The most powerful impact the book has had when I wrote the book, and I read through the book, I could see myself for the person I was, really, that I was just an ordinary girl when I first heard voices, going through an extraordinary experience and for the very first time I had empathy for myself. I had empathy for the character in the book which was me, and I could kind of not hate her as much as I had hated myself because I could see why I became the person I became really.

It began the journey towards self-acceptance. I could actually connect to myself as a human being for the very first time. I just felt, you know, I’m just a human being doing the best I can. It was an extremely powerful experience. So glad I did it, yeah.

[Music plays]

Something in your life will always tell your story, so you might as well have control over it. For me, creativity gave me control in the world where because of my diagnosis I had no control. A South American poet said, “Take away someone’s creativity and you take away their humanity. Give someone back their creativity and you give back their life.” I found this to be true while writing my story and every day after, too. Writing your life story does so much for you. It gives you an opportunity to reflect. It empowers you because you have nothing to hide anymore.

[Music plays]

Everyone has their own story and the power to change that story as well. It also makes me look at the story of humanity and what my part in that story is. We live in brutal times, but I refuse to be part of that, that kind of darkness and negativity and I want to bring light. My creativity is my way of bringing light into the world.





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