A Woman Struggled With Her Mental Health, But When Medics Saw Her Art They Made A Shocking Diagnosis

Down one of the many corridors in Cambridge, U.K.’s Addenbrooke Hospital, a woman is struggling with her demons. For close to two decades, Lorna Collins has battled mental health problems, but her carers cannot agree what is really ailing her. One says one thing, the next something else, but none of it is helping Collins to get better.

And what ails Collins is putting her life in danger. Anorexia has her firmly in its grip. At the worst time in the disorder, she becomes dangerously thin, not even half a healthy weight. With a body mass index measured at 12, the risk of organ failure has become real – her wellbeing has truly reached the level of life or death.

Through all this, Collins has no way to explain what she is feeling. She just cannot express herself in a way her doctors can understand. The woman, once a lecturer at university, now finds herself confined for the good of her mental health, with no voice to tell the world how she feels.

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Then something miraculous happens to Collins. She starts to muck around with some paints. But it’s not just a meaningless mess: in her daubs and splashes, she is starting to find a way to share what’s inside her. Incredibly, a specialist who looks at one of her works realizes that in among the colors is an explanation, a diagnosis, and Collins’ road to recovery has begun.

As a youngster in the U.K., Collins seemed to have a bright future ahead of her. She had the smarts that later in life not only would see her graduate college in a single year, but would lead to a doctorate from prestigious Cambridge University. On top of that she was an accomplished sportswoman.

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Collins’ love of horses had seen her grow into a fine horsewoman, good enough at the sport of equestrianism to take part in the European Championships when still 16 years old. As a teen, she had climbed into the continent’s top ten. But tragedy would strike when she turned 18.

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Yes, everything was turned upside down for Collins when she crashed to the floor from her horse. The accident was horrific, leaving her a still, seemingly lifeless figure on the floor. Only the prompt action of her father kept her alive, but the damage to her brain left the youngster comatose.

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When Collins eventually came to, she found that the fall had robbed her of her past. She couldn’t remember a thing. She told U.K. local newspaper the Oxford Mail in February 2019, “I had no recollection of my entire life. I had to start again from nothing. I was like an artist with a blank canvas.”

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Worse still, the accident had left Collins with mental problems. For close to two decades, she would struggle with psychiatric issues that couldn’t be resolved. Each different set of doctors at the different institutions that she stayed in would come to different conclusions about what exactly was happening, baffled by a range of symptoms.

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It seemed that every physician had their own label for Collins’ disease, and on top of that, she had an eating disorder. Desperate to find a way to manage a life that had been sent off the rails by a cruel mishap, Collins fell prey to anorexia. She told the Oxford Mail, “It was about control; trying to control what I ate, trying to control the size of my body, control parts of my life.”

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The young woman’s struggle with anorexia became desperate. When deepest in its grip, she found herself so emaciated that she didn’t have the power even to move. The hospital would feed her through a nasal tube, and even this measure Collins would try to resist. She described that low moment to the Oxford Mail, “I would try, with all the strength I could muster, to pull the tube out of my nose.”

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Collins added, “It took three nurses to hold me down because the last remaining shreds of energy and life I had in me made me aggressive against myself and against anyone who tried to force me into being alive.” This was to be the lowest point for Collins in her long struggle with the disorder.

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And it was a low point: Collins had become emaciated, and she faced shutdown of her organs. Indeed, anorexia could well have spelled the end of her. As many as one in 16 people who have a serious case of the disorder do not survive it. Many others have damaged health for life.

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In the U.S., as many as 10 million women struggle with an eating disorder. And it can be a lifelong fight – only half of those who once suffered the condition say that they are now clear of it. And although the problem can ravage your body, there’s more to it.

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As Collins explained to the Oxford Mail, “When your body goes below a BMI of 17.5 your brain cannot function properly.” For someone already afflicted with poor mental health, the condition left her at a desperately low ebb. She explained how it felt, saying, “It was ‘I cannot bear to live inside this body.’”

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Change finally came for Collins when she was a patient at Addenbrooke’s Hospital. This medical center is closely linked with the University of Cambridge. It’s been around since the 18th century, when its namesake, John Addenbrooke, left the money to found it in his will. Now it operates from a campus on the southside of the city of Cambridge.

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There, Collins began to express herself through painting. She’d lay out big sheets of paper on the ground and start creating art with splashes of paint. It felt great, and the outcome – bold, slurred abstracts and pictures of herself gone askew – helped her to get her feelings out into the open.

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Collins had no great skill in draftspersonship and couldn’t render things or people with any great accuracy. But that didn’t seem to matter. What she could get across, it seemed to her, was the anguish that she was feeling. The paintings conveyed exactly all the hurt that she was going through.

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The artmaking would prove to be very good therapy. She explained its value to The Guardian in July 2019. She said, “In hospital, painting eased the wounds by allowing me to concentrate on something else. It set me free. The abstract images I created embodied my feelings, and gave me a voice.”

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On one occasion, Collins captured a distressing experience on paper. Feeling as though her throat was being constricted by barbed wire, she drew the experience. Attempting to convey this frightening hallucination of life-threatening strangling, she ended up with a vivid piece of art. And she didn’t keep it to herself.

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Indeed, Collins took the work to the specialist caring for her. But the consultant and the team of medical professionals who worked on Collins’ case weren’t just looking at it as a piece of art. It seemed to them that they were able to see in the drawing what she had felt.

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Amazing as it seems, the painting told the consultant a medical story. Looking at it closely, he could see in the jagged image the particular instance of tactile hallucination that Collins had experienced. Furthermore, the drawing’s gloomy nature showed the consultant that she had been having a problem with mood.

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But as the medics studied her paintings, they were able to go a step further. They found that they were now able to see in her work exactly what was going on with her. Consequently, they could hand her a definitive diagnosis. She had schizoaffective disorder, and knowing that meant that she could finally begin to recover.

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Now that the consultant had the ability to diagnose the artist’s condition precisely, he could give her the drugs that she needed. And he could decide what treatment she needed just by studying her art. Suddenly, Collins found that she had a way to communicate what was happening to her, and her medics could respond appropriately.

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The time that the consultant saw Collins’ disorder displayed on paper changed her life. Finally, she felt that people were able to understand her. Painting allowed her to say what she otherwise had no words for. She told The Guardian, “It offered me language when I was silenced by my misery.”

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Collins told The Guardian about her newfound freedom. She said, “All I had to do was pick up a brush, dab it in some paint, and then let it go. Thoughts stopped, and the intrinsic power of creativity and the imagination took me to places where my conscious mind did not dare go.”

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The process didn’t have a defined goal, and there was nothing in particular that she aimed to achieve with the painting. Indeed, Collins just let her creativity flow, and it was as though the art made itself. Once she had finished one of her works, she would share it with her nurses.

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But the staff at Addenbrooke’s Hospital did not just sit and admire Collins’ art. They saw it as a medicine that would help her get better. Painting proved to be improving her health so much that her doctor added it to the list of medications that they prescribed for her.

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And it’s true that making art was opening new vistas for Collins. When she didn’t feel safe or was struggling with her mood, she could cope by turning to painting. Having personally experienced the success of arts therapy, she even chose to make a career change to working and researching in arts in health.

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Collins began to retrain in art therapy. Her first degree had been in media, and she had completed a postgrad qualification in European culture and literature. Now she studied with a fresh focus, working for a doctorate centered on therapy. Her PhD thesis would look at medicinal uses of art.

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But to complete a doctoral thesis on healing, first of all Collins had to heal herself. Her own improved health would be the proof of her pudding: she became her own scientific subject. And in the end art did prove to be a life raft for Collins in a sea of mental illness.

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Consequently, Collins converted the thesis into a book, called Making Sense: Art Practice and Transformative Therapeutics. This work illustrates the healing ability of art and how and why it happens, deploying understanding from French philosophy. First published in 2014, it was successful enough to need a second edition in 2017.

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Having completed her PhD, Collins’ passion for art therapy led her to a new career as a lecturer. This took her to several educational establishments in the U.K., France and even Singapore. But it wasn’t to be all triumph for Collins: 2017 saw anorexia return to her life, sending her back to the world of medical support.

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Returning to a therapeutic environment at Cotswold House, an eating disorders center run by the U.K.’s health service, Collins battled once more with her anorexia. She told the Oxford Mail that the psychiatrist who helped her gave her a new focus. She said the doctor “redefined my idea of normal and helped me get to a normal weight.”

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Collins felt that Cotswold House had a different path. She told the Oxford Mail, “What made Cotswold House so different to other wards is that it has a holistic approach to treatment.” The service considered how the damage done to her brain as a youngster was expressing itself and how it could be fixed.

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Gradually, Collins began to recover again, taking time with her pet dog and her horse back home at the farm on breaks from the service. She eased back into life outside the institution, and by February 2019 she had had a year living back in the community, and her treatment was coming to an end.

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Indeed, Collins’ future once more seemed bright. She believed she might have at last conquered the disorders that had blighted two decades of her life. In July 2019 she was able to express sparkling optimism to The Guardian. She said, “Now I am well and happy, with the brand-new life I have created.”

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On top of that, Collins kept up the art, painting each day and loving it. At the same time, she is authoring a new book, all about her journey. That work, The Butterfly, is expected to see the light at some point in 2019 or 2020. But she didn’t just treat arts therapy as an academic exercise.

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No, Collins also worked in the arts therapy and mental health fields. In July 2019 she started a role as a champion for mental health in the part of the U.K. she calls home, Buckinghamshire. She is also starting a service that will provide prescription art, aiming to provide people with the same route to recovery that she took.

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But Collins has even bigger ambitions. She told the Oxford Mail, ““I’m proud of myself. There are things I want to do. I want to revive my work as a university lecturer. I want to write more books and keep painting. I want to be well.” She’d come a long way thanks to art, but she didn’t just see herself as a survivor. She said, “I don’t want to just survive. I want to thrive.”

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