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  • Writer's pictureSam Lloyd

Life Stories

Human lives fascinate me. In a review of a friend's autobiography, I once wrote: "Our lives are our greatest and most puzzling individual achievement. Their true meaning remains elusive to us".

Yes, life stories fascinate me - other people's, that is. Mine is a mess, or so it's always seemed to me; a confusing collage of false starts and dead ends.

Recently, I've gained insight into one aspect of my life story that I want to share, not because my life is especially interesting, but because it helps explain the art that I've made and the role that chronic illness can play in shaping a life. The latter is especially meaningful to me because I have two daughters with chronic or disabling conditions and as much as anything it is their stories that have helped me better understand my own.

In 1992 my life was in a settled and productive phase. I had married a few years earlier, we lived in a nice house, I had interesting work as a part-time architecture lecturer, and I was starting to exhibit sculpture and photography, having partially completed a fine art degree. Things were going well and my wife and I were planning a family.

Partial view of my installation 'Shelter from the Storm' at Deakin University, 1991

At the beginning of that year I fell seriously ill with hepatitis. I was bed-ridden for six weeks and off work for as many months. The university was very good about this, and as far as I remember continued to pay me. Feeling guilty about this, I turned up to teach in the second semester and made a fool of myself, an unwanted third leg to other lecturers whose classes had already commenced, with a puzzling lack of the energy and focus you need to deal with assertive young adults.

My contract was about to run out and with my health still not great, I thought I should take some time off to get a masters degree, so I applied for and got a research scholarship. This meant a significant drop in income, so I spied an opportunity to become caretaker at a nearby historic house that came with free rent. These decisions seemed rational at the time.

They were, and they weren't. Unknown to me, my mental and physical landscape had shifted: I struggled with making decisions and completing tasks; everyday activities were an effort; I became isolated and paranoid. I say 'unknown' because my mental state didn't allow an accurate perspective on what was going on; I was frustrated, but the cause was unclear.

I now recognise I was suffering from 'long infection', like the 'long Covid' that sufferers face, and which is now known to be an outcome of many infectious diseases. I didn't seek medical help because at that time there was no awareness of anything like this, or of chronic fatigue, brain fog, or the other symptoms now recognised. I just struggled on - as men, especially back then, were supposed to do.

The masters research became an unending slog through poorly defined topics; our first child was born and all my energy was taken up with her care (something I don't regret); the scholarship ran out and the work I found with an architectural publisher was disappointing; my wife found the old house we had taken on to be depressing; I committed to an exhibition with a couple of friends but couldn't complete the work. Our relationship, my life, my work started to fall apart.

The point is not to catalogue my miseries; rather to explain how an undiagnosed chronic condition can change a life. My story went from that of a confident, risk-taking creator to one of survival, of working around my bouts of fatigue, of avoiding complex decision-making. This was to continue for fifteen years, leading to a diagnosis of depression and the end of my marriage.

Since then I've worked my way back to a semblance of the person I once was. I did this through art. In 2018 and 2019 I finally held exhibitions that were worthy successors to that of 1991.

'The Mystery of the Missing Library', mim, 2018

'The Lost Photographs of Socrates Smith', MAC, 2019

These exhibitions express the progress I have made in my life. I still suffer from bouts of fatigue and have to carefully manage my mental workload, but through greater self-awareness - gained from therapy and the wise counsel of my beautiful daughters - I find I am able to complete complex and adventurous artistic projects again.

Then Covid comes along! Isn't life ironic? At the very least - or is it the most? - I have learnt that the most important thing is to laugh about it. As I had the character in one of my (unpublished) stories say, "Life is the one thing that makes you laugh and cry at the very same moment".


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