Waiting patiently for the end of the world

By Emma Tracey
BBC News, Ouch

Image caption,
Colin Hambrook's cover illustration for Knitting Time

Colin Hambrook is a poet and visual artist with mental health difficulties and ME. He runs Disability Arts Online (DAO) a web portal for disabled artists which reviews and showcases their work.

In Hambrook's latest autobiographical project, Knitting Time, he recalls being brought up by a Jehovah's Witness mother who was mentally ill. She, Hambrook and the other Jehovah's Witnesses they knew, believed that the world was due to end in 1975. This collection of illustrated poetry, and the accompanying art exhibition, explore the psychosis and grief he experienced as a result.

Why did you call it Knitting Time?

Knitting time is an allegory for psychosis. What that does to you is bring you to a place where time is distended. Brain functions, like memory and cognition, can get distorted and it becomes very difficult to believe what's going on in your head. The idea of Knitting Time was to try and encapsulate that sense of bringing yourself back into reality.

What's it about?

The story that unfolds through the poetry and artwork is that of my mother. She was sectioned in the late 60s, early 70s and knitting was one of the key activities that "mental patients" were given to keep their hands busy. Once they had finished, the knitting was ripped apart and the wool re-used.

My mother's psychosis got worse as time went on and knitting became a key part of her world. She was knitting new universes, places of safety we could go to when the world ended.

What was it like to believe that the world would end before you'd reached adulthood?

I was a very serious little boy and took the Jehovah's Witnesses seriously. It was frightening to be brought up in this belief and to realise I had to do my best to be perfect, so that I'd be among the chosen ones when the end came.

Everything went wrong quite a few years before 1975 though. When my mother was sectioned, we were thrown out of the faith. We were led to believe that only families who had a strong patriarch at their helm were eligible to be chosen but dad refused to have anything to do with the Jehovah's Witnesses, So we felt we were damned anyway.

You were 16 in 1975. Did you still believe the end was imminent?

By 1975, I had largely come to realise that it was all rubbish. All about money, power and religious oppression. But there was still a part of me that was keyed in to those beliefs.

How did you feel when the end never came?

My feelings were mixed. What had happened to my mother in the mental health system left me very depressed, so a big part of me was looking forward to it all ending. I didn't move forward easily. I became very lost and pretty mentally ill and stayed in that state for most of my twenties.

There's part of me that's never quite come to terms with the fact that the world didn't end in 1975.

Knitting Time's main theme is psychosis. What's your personal experience of this?

I don't think psychosis is necessarily a bad thing. It's common for toddlers to have imaginary friends and night visions, to see things that aren't there.

I had that facility to a greater degree than most. I remember vividly seeing things at night time like a lion treading up the stairs or a man dressed in an archetypal burglar outfit, swag-bag on back.

Did your psychotic episodes change when you became an adult?

This capacity for hallucination has come and gone throughout my life. A large part of me realised early on that it was my mind playing tricks.

If I haven't slept and my nervous system is distended, it is likely that the psychotic episode will be unpleasant. But if I can relax into it and find space to let it be, then it can be interesting. When I was nine or 10, an angel exuding white light stayed with me all night. That was very beautiful.

What was your motivation for producing work about psychosis?

People's prejudice around psychosis is down to a fear of those kinds of experiences, because people don't understand it and people don't talk about it. One of my main motivations for doing this project was to try and have a conversation about something people see as very dark and very difficult.

The other big theme of Knitting Time is grief. Why?

After my mum had electric shock therapy, she temporarily lost all memory of her children. It was like she'd died, the person we knew before never came back. During my pre-teen and teenage years, I went through a process of mourning. A lot of my psychosis was in response to the grief I felt.

I read a book by Joan Didion about the years following her husband's death, when she went through a psychosis related to her grief. It brought home to me my own experiences as a child. The poetry I wrote for Knitting Time is a reflection on that part of my life and how, like Joan, I came through it with the help of family and friends.

Knitting time is published by Waterloo Press. The art exhibition which accompanies the book is at the Pallant House Gallery until 3 November. Read more about the project on Colin Hambrook's blog, or listen to the creative audio description tracks for ten of the paintings on show. All images above by Colin Hambrook.

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