‘Art has helped me to express my emotions’

Charlotte Farhan, pictured in her studio in Milton, Southsea. ''Picture: Allan Hutchings (131195-454)
Charlotte Farhan, pictured in her studio in Milton, Southsea. ''Picture: Allan Hutchings (131195-454)
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The painting of a tree spreading its moonlit branches across a lonely corn field has special significance for artist Charlotte Farhan.

It was her first big online sale and marks her growing success as an artist.

But more importantly, the piece represents one of the happiest and most peaceful moments in Charlotte’s turbulent life.

The Portsmouth artist’s childhood was marred by mental illness and at just 15 Charlotte needed treatment at a psychiatric hospital after years of self-harm and destructive behaviour.

It became a pivotal time in the teenager’s life because there she discovered art therapy and met one of the best friends she would ever have.

The painting Our Tree recalls a day when the two young girls ran away – in mischief not distress – and discovered that lonely corn field.

‘We were laying under the tree and it was sunny and peaceful. They must have been worried but we had a lovely day,’ says Charlotte, smiling. ‘She was the first person I felt I could be myself with. In hospital I didn’t need to pretend any more. I wouldn’t say I felt better, but I didn’t feel alone.’

Her friend was ill for many years and later took her own life, so selling the painting of their tree – which Charlotte artistically decided to bathe in moonlight – was extremely tough.

But as an emerging and increasingly sought-after artist, she’s committed to sharing her work.

The sale was also important because it represented a turning point for Charlotte, who for years has battled with a personality disorder and agoraphobia.

Happily married and finding success, she nevertheless can only leave the house with husband Mohammed or another trusted person by her side.

The 29-year-old hasn’t been able to work for many years, but is now supplying online galleries and selling her work across the world.

She’s anxious to reach out to others through her work and just as keen to talk about mental illness, which she feels can still be a taboo subject.

‘What is there to be ashamed about? I have diabetes and I don’t see anything different about the treatment I receive for that and the treatment for my mental health.’

But her life has been traumatic. At 18 and after a long period of self-harm and suicide attempts – the first at the age of 12 – Charlotte was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder.

Sufferers typically feel confidence one day and despair the next, find it difficult to maintain friendships and can harm themselves.

Charlotte became aggressive and disruptive. She says: ‘When I look back I actually feel embarrassed. People saw me from that perspective and it wasn’t who I really am.

‘Now I feel bad for that child and wish I could go back and give her a hug because that’s what she needed.’

The first suicide attempt was a sleeping pill overdose.

Charlotte says: ‘I think I saw the relationships my friends had with their families and wanted people to know I badly needed support.’

The half-French artist grew up between her mum Catherine Williams’ house in Petersfield and her grandmother’s home in Paris.

Catherine was working away a 
lot and suffered from bipolar disorder. The main symptoms are periods of excessive euphoria (a high) and extreme depression.

Catherine spent time in hospital and says life was extremely hard for her daughter.

‘I could be aggressive, not physically but verbally and I said many things I shouldn’t. She had a lot of responsibility, too much.’

Charlotte laughs when she says that as a child she loved her mum’s highs, which typically featured holidays, treats and once going out and buying a Porsche.

But she was constantly terrified Catherine would kill herself.

She says, though, that Catherine ‘has never really left my side. She has supported me too.’

The pair have both been receiving psychiatric treatment for years.

Catherine, who also believes more people should talk about mental illness, says she’s extremely proud of her daughter and loves her work.

Charlotte’s admittance to hospital at 15 followed a traumatic event unrelated to her family.

It was here that she benefited from art therapy.

‘It was expressing all that anger and emotions. At first it was all swear words and big angry brush strokes,’ says the talented artist

These days Charlotte’s work is far more considered and careful and she’s studying psychology, hoping to become an art therapist herself.

She is happy with Mohammed and has many friends. ‘I don’t know how he puts up with me. But I think we just had a connection that went beyond my problems..’

She says that with ongoing therapy and increasing self-awareness, she manages to control many of the symptoms. But she is in therapy for her agoraphobia.

Charlotte concludes: ‘I know I have to deal with this. I know that if I want to enjoy a full independent adult life I must keep having this treatment and trying.’

Charlotte has an exhibition at The Art House in Southampton from May 24-July 7. Visit her website at charlottefarhanart.com.

People who have borderline personality disorder are affected differently.

But symptoms may include:
Emotions that are up and down (for example, feeling confident one day and feeling despair another), with feelings of emptiness and often anger.
An unstable sense of identity. Someone with the disorder may think differently about themselves depending on who they are with.
Risk-taking or doing things without thinking about the consequences
Self harm. A sufferer might cut themselves or overdose.
Fear of being abandoned or being alone.
Sometimes suffering delusions or hallucinations.

The causes are unclear but factors are thought to include temperament and childhood and adolescent experiences.

Agoraphobia is a fear of being in situations where escape is difficult, or help wouldn’t be available if things go wrong.

If people with agoraphobia find themselves in a stressful situation they usually experience a panic attack and might only leave the house with a friend or partner.

Someone diagnosed with bipolar disorder experiences swings in mood from periods of overactive, excited behaviour to deep depression. Between these severe highs and lows can be stable times.

The charity Mind gives support and information to people with mental health issues. Visit mind.org.uk or call (0300) 123 3393.