Andrews Journey

(How I went from corporate middle management to cutting intricate street maps from paper)

I’m Andrew and I make my living by cutting thousands of holes from sheets of paper to reveal street maps of interesting places. 

This was not always the case: Less than two years ago I was a successful middle manager at a multinational corporation, spending my life in workshops, boardrooms and airport lounges.

Back in the summer of 2015 I working on a particularly high profile and complex project when I got hit by a bout of anxiety and depression. These were not strangers to me as I have suffered from periods of both depression and elevated mood at separate points throughout my life. Until now though I had always managed to ride these periods out - sometimes only by the skin of my teeth - without making them known to anyone else.

This time, however, the experience was far deeper, darker, longer and more torturous than ever before. I had no choice but to let my employer know. Thankfully they reacted positively by giving me some time off and covering the cost of getting some expert help.

A period followed that autumn where I spent a lot of time speaking with a number of mental health specialists. A diagnosis was made: I suffered from type 2 bipolar disorder. I was stunned but it clicked into place. Finally, my moods, behaviours and experiences made sense. I went home happy that the problem was understood and that I had medication to fix it.

The next day I woke up and literally fell out of bed. I spent the day bumping into things, falling over, feeling very detached and talking in a slurred fashion. A few days followed where I continued to take the medication but I saw no improvement. It was agreed that these pills didn’t agree with me and that we should try another. Not to worry, though, whilst a very unusual reaction, the side effects would wear off as the medication worked itself out of my system.

So what did I wake to find the following morning? Light-headedness, a metallic taste in my mouth, memory issues, ringing in my ears, juddering vision and an aversion to bright lights. My head felt a heavy pressure like it was being squeezed in a vice. Insomnia followed that first night. I managed five days.

“Don’t worry, the effects will wear off” they said. “Third time lucky? The odds of another problem are vanishingly small”, I reluctantly agreed.

Dizziness. The shakes. Shooting pains stabbing at my brain which was now back in that vice. I had a loud screeching in both ears and my memory was absolutely shot to pieces – I could barely figure out how to make a cup of tea, not that I could enjoy it with that metallic taste ….

Enough was enough. I stopped it before the cure killed me.

I stayed on sick leave and off medication. The days started turning into weeks and I was seeing minimal improvement. Visits to specialists started. Could they help fix the ringing in my ears? The problems with my balance, coordination & fine motor skills? What about my poor memory and impaired higher-order thinking? They couldn’t agree on a diagnosis nor how to help.

The weeks turned into months. Things ever so slowly started improving and I found little tools to help return some normality to my life, like keeping lists to negate my memory issues. Oh, so many lists! Fairly early on I had also figured out that my situation was analogous to an injured sportsman trying to get back into shape. With that in mind, I had started training my brain. Memory puzzles, books, coordination exercise, art.

Art. I had always been amazed by the work of a papercut artist that has a studio shop in Greenwich and had bought a few pieces over the years. I figured that it might help both re-engage the brain and help with the problems I was having with my fine motor skills so gave it a go.

In the two months running up to Christmas, I continued to see gradual ongoing improvements to my health and paper cutting skills. Christmas came and I gave a few street maps I had cut from paper to close family and friends, receiving a very warm response in return. It was suggested that I might be able to sell them – a backup plan or ‘Plan B’ if my recovery didn’t work out as I hoped.

The spring of 2016 arrived. Whilst the high pitched screeching in my ears was permanent, the others symptoms had mostly subsided. I could cycle again and my brain seemed to have rebooted: whilst still foggy, I was now capable of critical thinking and problem-solving. I thought I was pretty much fixed and so time to get back to work, miracles do happen!

I was eased slowly back into the swing of things in the office. Simple tasks, working part time. A few weeks passed. It became apparent that whilst I had recognised that I had regained my higher-order thinking skills, I was oh so slow at it. If it used to take ten minutes to reach a conclusion on something it now took an hour. The penny finally dropped: my recovery still had a long, long way to go and we still hadn’t done anything about my depression.

Weeks continued to go by. In the end, a mutual decision was reached to let me go. As I had worked for the company for almost 10 years, they kindly put me on garden leave.

As spring turned into summer I spent my days continuing to exercise my brain. Seeing the paper cut street maps as a practical exercise. I finessed my approach and mechanised the cutting process so that I could get the intricate detail I was after but incapable of creating with my still shaky hands. 

Today, almost a year on and I’m still not 100% recovered don’t believe that I ever will be. It is okay though as I have accepted my tinnitus and other persisting symptoms. Moreover, I now have a little studio on my boat ‘Plan B’ where I make a living creating art. I spend my days making papercut street maps and watching the ducks float past my window.

It is a different pace of life, one more accepting of my bipolar condition. Looking back, I can’t help sometimes but think that maybe these things happen for a reason….