Over the last couple of years, since coming out of psychiatric hospital, I’ve been blessed with support from many wonderful people.
One is my friend Tazeen, whom I knew already when I saw her across the room at 10 Downing Street, while I was on day release from the hospital.
It was the only time I’ve ever been invited to Downing Street – by a charity we both supported. I felt like I’d arrived on another planet, and meant to leave Tazeen to mingle with the famous and powerful people in the room, but she spotted me and came over to say hi.
It still amazes me that the official photographer captured that moment.
I told Tazeen I had come directly from a mental hospital, and she laughed – but not unkindly. She told me a bit about her own past struggles, and stuck with me for the rest of the evening, losing all chance to mingle with the other amazing guests.
We both laughed a lot, because it’s refreshing when you can talk honestly to somebody without fear of judgement.
On the way out, we took a selfie:
Over subsequent months, Tazeen frequently expressed astonishment that I lacked confidence in myself. I had amazing talent, she said – as a writer and speaker, but also as an artist.
I’d wanted to make art since I was a child, but until my breakdown I’d not put it out much.
I showed Tazeen many pictures I’d drawn as part of my recovery, and told her how much it helped to draw them. Click to enlarge:
She was encouraging, and I felt grateful, as I always do when people make kind comments. I believed the comments to be sincere, but mistaken – because I simply didn’t think much of myself (massive understatement).
Tazeen made it clear that she was not just saying it. She had many talents herself – and one was fierce encouragement.
Earlier this year, my friend was diagnosed with advanced cancer. This was devastating news for her many friends, the people she mentored and worked with – and of course infinitely worse for her family. Her sons were 14 and 12.
Over several months, knowing she hadn’t long to live, she pulled us all together: people from her work in TV, from her training in therapy and coaching, and the parents of her sons’ school friends.
In the summer, she asked us to gather in her garden and say in front of her what we planned to say at her memorial. She called this her “premorial”.
It was an extraordinary day. I felt grateful all over again to have such a friend, and sorrier than ever that I was going to lose her.
Often when I visited Tazeen at home I found her very drowsy. But usually we talked for a while. One day, she said that I must sell my art, and put on an exhibition, before she died.
Then she asked me to make pictures of her with her sons, for them to remember her by. Gulp.
I did, and asked the friends I’d met at her premorial to help chip in to the cost of the printing and framing – so that the present was not just from me but from everyone.
Soon after that, I got my first commission – for an oil painting, a landscape a metre wide. I was so pleased to tell Tazeen I had sold a painting.
Not long after her 48th birthday, Tazeen was taken into hospital again (it had happened before several times).
Her brother stayed with her constantly, and friends visited frequently, including some who travelled thousands of miles to do so.
Living nearby, I was able to get in every day. And going home after, I tried to make sense of what I had seen, as my friend gradually faded away, by drawing pictures.
I sent a few to her brother to show her. He liked them, said she did too, and showed them to others. I had worried that this might invade the family’s privacy, but he reassured me it was welcome.
I was terribly sad when Tazeen died, but happy to have been with her in her last days.
She was born on a Wednesday and died on a Wednesday.
Last week was her funeral. Afterwards, at her brother’s request, I took my tiny drawings to Kenwood House for the memorial, and put them up in a room alongside works by Sir Joshua Reynolds and Rembrandt.I hadn’t managed to put on an exhibition during Tazeen’s lifetime. But I managed it at her memorial.
I hope she knows, and feels pleased.
I wrote this in 2019, when I was still very fragile. A lot has happened since then. In the pandemic I made a lot of art, shared it on social media, and sold some too. A publisher commissioned me to write a book of 50 poems, with 50 of my own illustrations. And the nature of my art has changed: from stark line drawings about my own state of mind towards more colourful pictures celebrating the beauty of the world around me.
But I want to keep this page more or less as it is. Because whatever else may happen for me as an artist, I’ll always owe a huge debt to the encouragement I received from Tazeen.
Thank you for reading.