The fine art of recovery: Andy’s story

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Depression forced Andy out of the teaching career he had enjoyed for years. Then a challenge from a friend revealed a hidden talent – and opened a door to a new life

After seven nervous breakdowns, what did I learn in 16 years? That the lows can be overwhelming; but that there is also an amazing ability to keep going, looking for something brighter. There were also big changes professionally. This is my story about hope, how important it is to keep talking, and how art saved my life.

When I started a photography blog in January 2011, I had no idea about my trip. As just a few years later, it would become a huge part of my life and my ongoing journey to mental health.

As a society, we’re getting better and better at talking about mental health. And the funny thing is that when you start talking you not only make yourself more open and vulnerable, but you also open up to others around you and understand that it’s okay to be vulnerable too. It’s a safe space.

I have had ups and downs in my mental state for years. I was a geography teacher for decades and spent hours drawing places like Old Harry Rocks and Dorset’s Jurassic Coast to explain erosion or layers of rock. I now live on the same coast and instead of drawing layers of rock for my new career – as an artist with my own gallery in Swanage.

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During my apprenticeship I always found that my students came to speak to me because I was open to mental health. I always did what I could and stood up for the support of the students. It is important that people feel believed and supported if they have been brave enough to speak out.

In November 2013, after another period of depression, I became unemployed. I wondered if I would ever return to the classroom and what I would do next. I took medication and tried an online Beating the Blues course in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). I thought: OK, therapy and medication, what else can I do? I went walking, cycling, and kayaking.

I felt like a hexagonal pen in a round hole and, despite my best efforts, at the end of September 2015 I was deeper than I have been in a long time. I had always gotten out of such times, but in that moment I was totally lost.

In October I was released from work and discussed my medication with my family doctor. I kept telling myself that I was going to get out of there – I just didn’t know when. But there was a little light in that darkness; A teacher friend of mine presented me with an artistic challenge and I made my own unique rendition of “Balinese Girl” by Vladimir Tretchikoff.

I sent it off and waited longingly for feedback – which was supportive. I’ve always loved drawing with felt-tip pens, but at school I was put off by the arts. But the truth is that art is for everyone, it’s not about being the best, it’s about having fun and enjoying this moment.

I had an apprenticeship interview in Dorset in May 2016 and eventually moved to the county. Unfortunately, six months later, after another depression, I did what I thought was unthinkable – I left the apprenticeship.

I tearfully walked and drove and drove and felt like I couldn’t go home to those I loved because I believed I had let them down. My mood swayed like an underground roller coaster, occasionally popping up briefly before plunging back into another dark, damp tunnel. However, I did manage to explore the coast, take photos and make sketches.

It took time to grieve over the career I’d spent 30 of my 52 years in, but finally, on January 31, 2017, I started my art blog. I never saw myself as an artist, it was just something I loved to do. But I was fascinated and made several works of art every day. I could concentrate and the racing thoughts went away for a while.

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I drew a sketch of the beach huts in Swanage and went to the local tourist information center – there was nothing like it, so I suggested storing them. To my great surprise, they thought the idea was great. From then on I started making various works of art in the area.

I signed up to show some work at Purbeck Arts Week and did as much as I could to fill the space. I even did an art installation painting on boiler suits – the kids thought it was great fun!

After building my work online and through my blog, I took the plunge in November 2019 and opened The Courtyard Studio in the heart of Swanage with another artist. I am passionate about encouraging people to try art, especially those who have previously been put off – you just have to have fun!

People think I’m an extrovert in my noisy overalls and hats, but actually I’m pretty shy. When my depression is bad, I literally hide. I will curl up under a duvet and not leave the room. I withdraw into myself.

I’m a professional artist now, but that doesn’t mean every day is easy. The past year of Covid-19 and the lockdowns has brought its own unique challenges. But I now know that I will feel better if I can get out and walk along the beautiful Jurassic Coast.

January marked the fourth anniversary of my business and what a trip it was. I don’t feel like a real artist, right up to opening my own gallery, I’m proud of what I’ve created. Drawing really saved my life.

I can lose hours drawing; I’m so focused that I rarely notice people are watching. I live a stone’s throw from the sea now and life is good. It’s upstairs, it’s downstairs, but it’s always a rich tapestry.

I want to say to anyone going through this, please keep talking. Find someone you enjoy talking to, someone you trust. Try to be open to different treatment options. I’ve been on medication for 20 years, learned CBT, and found exercise really helps. If it’s your thing, find a support group. Keep an eye out for your friends, especially when they get quiet – they often need the most help. Be nice to yourself. Remember that you need to be in a good place yourself to help others.

Find my website at andyknillart.com and I will hopefully make you smile. And if you’re ever in Swanage, please stop by and say hello!

Rachel Coffey | BA MA NLP Mstr says:

Andy’s heartwarming story shows us that we are all unique in our experience and talents. By exploring his creativity, he not only supported his mental health but also found a new career.

It can be easy to try to hold onto something we’ve already put a lot of time and effort into, even when we no longer like it. Fear of failure is associated with “giving up”. Instead, think of it as progress. It takes courage to take the first step, the reward is freedom and real opportunity.

To contact a counselor to discuss ways to deal with depressive episodes or feelings of failure, visit consulting-directory.org.uk



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