‘I won’t let my abuser dictate my life story,’ says artist and mental health activist Dolly Sen
As a child, Dolly Sen aspired to be a doctor but after being abused and struggling with psychosis for over a decade, her life ended up taking a different course. Instead of administering care, she was on the receiving end at hospitals and mental health institutions throughout her teens and twenties, or else too afraid to leave her own bedroom. Her early thirties marked a turning point and since then, she’s crafted a new career as an artist and mental health activist, producing work that is startlingly authentic, derisive and direct — and perhaps most importantly, a path that is wholly her own.
Today, Dolly Sen is an accomplished artist, author, film-maker and public speaker whose work has appeared in exhibitions across the globe. She is the author of auto-biography ‘The World is Full of Laughter’ and will participate in EUFAMI’s Home exhibition in Brussels in November, 2017.
Playful and irreverent, she describes her art as “sticking two fingers up at people who try to oppress other people” but also about empowering people with mental ill health to be themselves and stand up to oppression in whatever form it takes.
Her approach is frank and unafraid, as well as being full of a kind of warmth and understanding.
“I didn’t feel I was part of society (…) At the time, there were very few roads I could travel down.”
She started to have mental health problems at an early age. At 14, she had her first psychotic episode which she says resulted in her losing her “mathematical and scientific thinking.” She also dropped out of school, which she says was incapable of handling her psychosis. Too scared to leave her parent’s house, she said she spent long hours in her bedroom reading anything she could get her hands on, especially poetry. Early inspiration came in the form of Allen Ginsberg and the Beat Generation literary movement.
“I didn’t feel I was part of society at that time”, says Sen. “Most of the Beat writers had spent time in a psychiatric hospital and were interested in authenticity. They really showed me a road ahead. At the time, there were very few roads I could travel down.”
“On my 30th birthday I gave myself a choice to either live or die. And I said if I live, I’ve got to give it everything I got.”
Creativity was also a way for her to forge her own path and “take the pen out of my abuser’s hand”. But it was only on turning 30 that she felt the courage to make a break with the past.
“On my 30th birthday I gave myself a choice to either live or die, says Sen. And I said if I live, I’ve got to give it everything I got. So that’s the start of my creative career.”
Success did not happen overnight, but, she says, clear objectives helped pave the way for what she calls a kind of “synchronicity”. Shortly after this dramatic turning point in her life, certain elements started falling into place. At a coffee morning run by a charity she met her first publisher, which resulted in the publication in 2002 of ‘The World is Full of Laughter’, an autobiographical account of her battle with mental ill health and troubled relationship with her abusive father.
“I was full of self-hate, I didn’t have an ounce of compassion for myself”
Writing the book was cathartic, but it also helped her to get a more objective view of her life story.
“Before I wrote my memoire, ‘The World is Full of Laugher’ I was full of self-hate, I didn’t have an ounce of compassion for myself”, explains Sen. “And, it was in the reading of the story that was most important for me as I had empathy for myself for the first time.”
Whilst promoting her book, other opportunities arose and Sen was able to build her reputation as an artist and mental health activist. Her focus has often been the health sector and especially mental health. As someone who has experienced the system — in the UK in this case — its failings (or limitations) are laid bare. In her Mister Men series, she uses Roger Hargreaves’ childish and cheeky humour to heap ridicule on a system that proclaims to work in the interests of people with mental ill health.
This combination of cheekiness and authenticity is a common strand throughout her work, holding a mirror up to hypocrisy, whether within the health care system or attitudes towards the ‘ill’.
She says she is not afraid to offend and even revels in doing so, if it concerns “racists, homophobes or people who bully within the mental health system”.
“Charity is not the way forward for disabled people”.
In her ‘Help the Normals’ campaign, she makes a mockery of the charity model for disability, including mental health. By asking for charity for so-called normal people, she “switches the position of the object of pity and the giver of pity.”
“Change the word ‘normality’ to ‘mediocrity’ and ‘typical’ to ‘boring and average’, says Sen. “Then throw money at them and expect them to know their place as a poor, pathetic thing, I think they will then ‘get’ why charity is not the way forward for disabled people”.
Other works of art have involved selling nothing on eBay, writing a spoof review of a stay at a mental institution on tripadvisor, and a “Madvent Calandar”, which she explains is “simply an advent calendar, gone mad.”
“I was told I was stupid to think I could be a writer and should aim very low, perhaps work in a factory”
Self-esteem issues have been a constant struggle. She explains how she’s always had to defy expectations.
“I was told I was stupid to think I could be a writer and should aim very low, perhaps work in a factory, says Sen. “That, to me, was not a road I wanted to travel down.”
Art, she says has “given me an armour and shield to face the world” and deal with mental health issues.
She describes her ongoing battle as like being stuck in a car on a long journey “with somebody you don’t really want to be with, who’s annoying and distracting and sometimes quite vicious, but you realise they aren’t going to get out of the car so you have to do something about it.”
The older I’m getting through life experience, it’s what I carry around with me — home is that.”
In her book ‘The World is Full of Laughter” she talks about her early years growing up in east London “within earshot of the Bow-Bells” and subsequently in working-class Streatham. During our telephone interview, you can still detect a slight south London drawl.
She currently lives with her partner in Norfolk but says she doesn’t feel particularly connected to the region.
“The physical substance doesn’t matter to me, it’s being home with love, light, creativity and kindness, says Sen. “The older I’m getting through life experience, it’s what I carry around with me — home is that.”
Before ending the conversation, I ask Sen if she has any advice for people struggling with their mental health. She says it would be arrogant for her to do so, especially to people she doesn’t know. But she does offer one very important lesson: “You might have more control writing your story than you think.”
Interview carried out by EUFAMI Communications Officer, Paul Nolan