There are people and places that act as our anchors. In turbulent times they are the touchstones, the points of stability and confidence that can ensure that in a changing, uncertain world we don’t capsize. For many, their anchors are the museums and galleries we call our workplaces. As we continue to navigate the most challenging two years many of us have known, some of us will be moving back into the physical workplace with an almost audible sigh of relief, whilst for others going back has brought challenges of a different kind.
Working with Arts organisations around the country has given me an insight into how we all are. It’s an insight that I shared recently when I was invited as a Founder Member of The Speakers Collective to be part of The National Gallery’s Health and Wellbeing month. I shared what it was like for me to return to my role within the gallery sector after my partner ended his life in 2003.
The 18 years that have passed have given me an opportunity to reflect on what helped me to navigate the new landscape I found myself in. Like many of us after lockdown, I returned to a job and a place that I loved after a period of trauma and loss. Like many of us now, I was trying to process what had happened but also the new situation that not only I found myself in, but also those around me who quite frankly didn’t really know what to say to me for fear of saying the wrong thing. The truth was, again like many of us in the gallery sector at the moment, I didn’t really know what I wanted them to say to me either!
Again, like so many of us returning to work now, some days were easier than others. The new range of emotions and sometimes physical impact of my trauma seemingly came and went without me being able to control them. It’s only now with the benefit of almost 2 decades of hindsight that I can say that most of what I was experiencing what acute anxiety. I suppose like many I thought anxiety was specifically linked to worry and I had a stereotypical view of what the signs of anxiety were. I now know that those psychological, physical and even behavioural symptoms were due to the level of anxiety I was experiencing.
For me, the psychological symptoms I was experiencing were very similar to what staff within several of our national Museums and Galleries have told me that they are currently experiencing. Many have felt a real comfort and relief returning to roles that they’ve spent a lifetime preparing and planning for, but for others the level of anxiety currently being experienced as a result of collective trauma is higher and more intense than ever before. It goes beyond those first day nerves. It manifests in not just fleeting worries, but a persistent sense of worry, apprehension and even dread which can impact everyday life and can be disproportionate to ‘normal’ levels of concern. I certainly experienced unusual levels of irritability and impatience which I found myself sometimes directed at those closest.
Probably the most difficult symptom for me to comprehend was my inability to concentrate. I’d always prided myself, again, I’m sure like many of you, in knowing the history and provenance of each of the works in the Gallery’s permanent collection. After I returned to work I felt like I couldn’t even retain or process the information in magazines on the table in the staff room. I really did find it disturbing and I wondered if I would ever write or research an object again. To anyone else it probably sounded trivial, even self-indulgent to be worried about my concentration levels after such a major life changing event, but to me it was horrifying.
Speaking to others who’d had the same experience and being honest about what was happening for me helped. Outside of work I started going to a support group – something that I definitely didn’t think was for me at the beginning, but a life line that I found so valuable that I became the national Chair of the Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide almost as a way of saying thank you for the help I received and to try and do my bit to make that help available to others. At the time I was also Lead for The John Moores Painting Prize which set the course for parallel careers in Mental Health and the Arts.
I never used medication to manage my anxiety, but I know others for whom that has been their lifeline. There are many methods of controlling anxiety that others identity as key coping strategies, but I was fortunate and my symptoms dissipated eventually, although they still visit from time to time
Like so many visitors before me, I found my anchor within the walls of the Gallery in which I worked. Every day I’d walk passed Gerald Leslie Brockhurst’s portrait of Kathleen Woodward Jeunesse Doree (1934). As I did I felt a calmness and a connection that lasted a little longer each time. I think many of us find a special connection with a painting or an object in our care for a myriad of different reasons. For me it was this painting had a special meaning.
Eventually I started a new relationship and I also started a new role and moved from that gallery to another, but I couldn’t leave the image behind. I bought a print of Jeunesse Doree that still hangs in my kitchen to this day. Now every time I pass by it reminds me of why we do what we do. We are the custodians of the anchors, just waiting for visitors to discover theirs.
Jeunesse Doree can be seen at the Lady Lever Art Gallery @liverpoolmuseums.org.uk