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Susanne Wawra: The patients' stories would go into the paintings

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 Self Portrait

Self Portrait

 Susanne Wawra's hospital record

Susanne Wawra's hospital record

 The walls of Susanne's hospital room were adorned with notes and paintings

The walls of Susanne's hospital room were adorned with notes and paintings

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Self Portrait

I was admitted to St Patrick's Hospital twice last year suffering with depression. I spent about four months there in total. In the beginning, I couldn't read, I couldn't watch television; I couldn't even listen to music. All I did was sit and cry.

My mother told my boyfriend that as a child, when I was down, I would paint and it would always cheer me up. So when he visited, he brought me some acrylic paints. At first, the staff were afraid that I would try to drink them so they took the paint away from me.

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 Susanne with a portrait painting

Susanne with a portrait painting

Susanne with a portrait painting

It was as though my being had broken down to the level of a child. I thought, 'if my Mum says I should do this, I should do it'.

Growing up in rural Germany, I had always loved art. I even applied for a place at art college, but my application was rejected and I studied English instead. After graduating university in 2007, I took a job in Ireland working for Google. I specialised in online advertising and helped devise marketing strategies for several large German companies.

I immediately loved Dublin. It's such a European city. If you're speaking with an accent that isn't Irish, people don't look at you any differently. It's also a very young city. Every international touring band stops here, so there's always something exciting to do.

When depression suddenly hit me, my friends and colleagues rallied around. There was a corporate doctor to help me. My boyfriend drove me to appointments with my therapist when I was too frightened to leave the house on my own.

Nonetheless, for three or four years, my condition steadily worsened. Looking back, I understand that I was suffering from a very serious illness, but at the time I didn't know what was happening. It was scary. I couldn't eat, I lost a substantial amount of weight and had suicidal thoughts. Even when I was prescribed antidepressants, I only ate small amounts: a bowl of porridge a day, maybe.

I had always believed that I would deal with my depression on my own, so, when I was admitted to St Patrick's, it felt as though I had failed. Fortunately, the psychiatric hospital wasn't as intimidating as I had feared. The walls were brightly painted and the atmosphere was positive and supportive.

I had my own room with a small desk. This was important, because I didn't want to be around other people. Of course, the staff checked on me regularly to make sure that I was okay. It's funny. All through my 20s, I hadn't made art. But here in a psychiatric hospital, at the beginning of my 30s, I experienced a great spurt of creativity.

Every day I would draw and write poetry. I would lose myself in my work. Suddenly, I was very aware of my own mortality. I felt that I was going to die and I was determined to leave a mark. I wanted to prove that I had existed. I felt this real urgency to create.

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After a while, I made friends with another patient named Tom. He was in his 60s and suffering from depression as well. I did a conventional portrait of him with charcoal. When other patients came to visit, they admired my work and told me their own stories. Some of them were dealing with bipolar disorder, some with OCD.

I learned a lot about human beings and their vulnerabilities. I learned to appreciate that nobody is perfect and, in the case of mental illness, sometimes these imperfections can take extreme forms.

Most of all, I enjoyed sitting in the sunshine. I liked sitting next to someone and not having to talk; not having to pretend I was feeling good. There's a kind of comfort in that when you're in the hospital. You can just... be.

It was during my second stay at St Patrick's that I began to experiment with abstract portraiture. I began to ask other patients if I could paint their picture. I explained how I would go about it, that their faces wouldn't be recognisable, but that their stories would go into the paintings. I would try to express something of their struggle.

After leaving St Patrick's for the second time, I did nothing with these paintings for about six months. But after showing them to friends, and getting a good response, I began to think about exhibiting them. It really inspired me when Ruby Wax or Stephen Fry spoke out about mental illness. I felt that they were really brave. I wanted to be brave, too.

Also, as I have recovered, I applied to study art at NCAD. My application was accepted and I start there in September. My family are thrilled. Because I had a life. I had a career and a CV and depression took all of that away from me. But now my life is going in another direction. A direction that's about who I am and who I want to be.

When I was ill, my parents travelled several times from Germany to visit me. Now, my mother is coming to help me set up everything for this exhibition.

Of course there were times, when I was ill, that they wanted me to return home to them in Germany, even just for a month or two. But my life is here. My routines are here. My boyfriend is here. I wanted to stay in this life, in every sense.

In conversation with Eoin Butler

Susanne Wawra's 'Face It' exhibition runs at the Avenue Road Gallery from July 7-9 as part of the 10 Days in Dublin Festival


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