'How I became an Artist'
Few of you, I suspect, will have seen a work of art in London's Tate Modern entitled 'The artist formerly known as Triona Holden from the BBC'. It was shown a few years ago and was on display for only an afternoon, tucked away in an obscure room. It didn't prompt much criticism, good or bad. But for me, it was the most significant work in the whole place. It represented a victory against the pernicious disease that had almost killed me, wrecked my family life and robbed me of my hard-won career as a broadcast journalist. As the name of the work implied, this was my renaissance. I had lived to tell the tale. My journey to the Tate was a long and tortuous one.
Fifteen years ago, if you were to tell me that I would have aspirations to become a serious contemporary artist, I would have laughed until I fell off my Chanel stilettos. After all, I was pretty well at the top of my trade as a BBC TV news presenter and correspondent. When would I find the time to put the microphone down and pickup a paintbrush? I can pinpoint the day my world came to a grinding halt. I was 39. I was filming a piece to camera in a supermarket. Normally I did these in one take. Not this time.
I had become unwell the previous week while filming in the wretched orphanages in Romania, but I'd ignored my aching joints. Now, I also had pain in my eyes, which was getting worse. Under the powerful lights it felt as if someone was thrusting a knife into them. Concentration was impossible. The only thing I could think about was how to stop the agony in my head. It got to the 20th take before I accepted defeat and was whisked off to accident and emergency. I knew I was in trouble when things began to happen so quickly.
In my 20 years or so as a correspondent, I had been in numerous life-threatening situations. I was caught under fire from scud missiles in the 1990/91 Gulf War, got mugged in the Brixton riots, was fired at in a military coup in Southern Africa. I was undercover in China after Tiananmen, and walked through minefields in Northern Iraq. But I had always been either too intent on getting the job done or just too plain foolish to be scared. This was different. Suddenly, I found myself in the firing line, under the scrutiny of strangers in white coats.
They spoke among themselves about a possible brain tumour, tutting and shaking their heads. That was the moment I began to understand real fear. This time I was the headline; the story was about me. The 'good' news was I didn't have a tumour. But this was eclipsed by the 'bad' news. I had a rare condition known as 'Posterior Scleritis', where the white part of the eyes become inflamed inside the socket- recognised as one of the most painful conditions known in medicine. I can vouch for that. Sadly, it didn't end there. I became more and more unwell, as my whole body went into meltdown.
It took two years of tests to discover I was suffering from something I had never heard of - Systemic Lupus Erythematosus, or Lupus, for short, an auto-immune condition where the immune system attacks your own healthy body tissue. Although it is quite common (there are more than 60,000 cases in the UK), there is a great deal of ignorance about Lupus, both among the general public and the medical profession. But when it has you in its grip, your life changes irrevocably.
Because it involves the immune system, it can attack any part of the body. Like the majority of sufferers, my joints became swollen and inflamed. I also suffered from a crippling tiredness. With the right treatment, though, it is possible to control these symptoms and you can expect to live a relatively normal life in between flare-ups. The key is to get the diagnosis, which can help sufferers to enjoy a normal lifespan. The worst case scenario is if it starts to attack your major organs.
My two daughters, Tallulah, then nine, and Aurora, just four, travelled this difficult road with me. My partner at the time did not, and our five-year relationship crumbled under the strain. He'd signed up to a relationship with a successful, healthy TV babe, not a sick woman who could no longer hop on and off planes, or even read the Autocue. The BBC, on the other hand, was wonderful,especially my boss Richard Sambrook, who tried to organise a desk job for me.
But physically incapable of doing much more than breathing, I was retired on medical grounds before the age of 40. I was given a pension, which helped to make ends meet, thank God. But I was still an ailing, unemployed, single parent. A sorry state of affairs. I metamorphosed overnight from a tough, working mum to a ghost-like figure languishing in bed each day. Being so unwell left me devastated. Who was I? For years, I had been 'that girl from the BBC'.
My happiest times were spent in the BBC newsroom chatting with the people who had become my family. Now, all that was gone. At that time, a raging anger and sense of injustice grew inside me. They are emotions I live with still, and they frequently come out in my art with a motif I often return to - that of a screaming mouth.
Worst of all was the havoc my illness wreaked on my daughters' lives. They found it incredibly distressing. Tallulah stepped up to the mark, took over the domestic chores and became a mini-mum to Aurora. She was wonderful. But I am sad that my illness robbed her of her childhood.
The first inkling that I had an artist buried deep inside me came when I was confined to my bed in St Thomas' Hospital in London, having a blood transfusion after a near miss with the grim reaper. My daughters brought in some watercolours to stave off the boredom of visiting time. Excruciatingly bored myself, I began to paint some of the huge bouquets of flowers that made my room resemble a florist's shop. A nurse asked to have a look. Like a schoolgirl, I protested and said the work was rubbish, but she got quite excited by what I had done and called over the rest of the team.
The ward pronounced that I had 'talent'. Whether I did or not was another matter -but a little bit of encouragement went a long way. From then on, painting became what I did to hold myself together. A few months later, I was well enough to attend a book launch for my friend and former colleague Kate Adie.
It was to be another life-changing event, as there I met Ian Palmer, Professor of Military Psychiatry and that rarest of rare phenomena, a genuinely good man. The Prof and I were married less than a year later. Our wedding at St Bride's in Fleet Street was exactly what I never dreamt I would want, with the white-frock, whistles and bells. It was the happiest day of my life. Lupus was an uninvited guest, but it behaved on that occasion.
This was the first step on my road to reinvention. It was The Prof who knitted our little family together and brought colour back into my world. He nurtured my love of art, as well as taking the pressure off Tallulah. To this day, I carry a deep inner guilt that my children were so badly affected by my poor health. I know I didn't make myself unwell, but I would do anything for it not to have hit them so hard.
As I headed towards my 50th year, I felt a new lease of life. I booked into my Primrose Hill hairdresser and announced I wanted to go red. And not just any red: think pillar box. The only welcome side-effect of Lupus was that it had turned my formerly straight hair wild and curly. When I stepped out of the salon, looking like Ronald McDonald's deranged sister, I immediately started to attract attention. Little children pointed and said loudly 'Look at that lady with red hair' as their mothers tried desperately to shush them. Even the army of paparazzi who hang around this patch of North London waiting forJude and Sienna to show took a few shots of me, just in case I was 'someone'.
But while my husband was delighted with his 'flame-haired temptress', Tallulah was so shocked she didn't talk to me for days. The next step was inevitable. My boring, staid, middle-aged woman wardrobe had to go. Out went the old newsreader jackets I used as a correspondent. Out went the pastel colours, twin-sets and smart patent leather court shoes. As for the pearls, I reunited them with the sea by flushing them down the loo.
I discovered the edgy clothes shop All Saints and charity shops. In came a world of colours - electric oranges, bright greens and purples - jagged this and roughly stitched that. Fearing that my metamorphosis might upset Tallulah and Aurora, now 21 and 16 respectively, I have taken them on many shopping trips, but they wrinkle up their noses at my penchant for Dolce and Gabbana see-through lace dresses teamed with leopard-print wellies.
I know that my transformation into 'uncomfortably cool mum' has been embarrassing for them at times. Confronting my own mortality has given me a new confidence. Once you've almost died, there's nothing left to lose. The Prof encouraged me to concentrate on my love of art, and I did a course at Camden Working Men's College and then a degree at Chelsea College of Fine Art and Design.
At Chelsea, my rebellious antics - like making a huge picture of Tate director Sir Nick Serota in the style of Edvard Munch's The Scream - often got me into trouble, and I only scraped a degree. Despite my poor result, art is my passion now, and I spend all the time I can in my studio, painting.
It would be sheer fantasy to say I had won my war against Lupus. After all, it's an incurable, life-threatening disease. For me, each day is a lottery. As I go to bed at night, I never know how I will be in the morning. After writing this piece, I will have to rest for a couple of days. Pills help with the pain, but it's the damn fatigue that is the worst part. Still, I do have good days and make the most of them, especially by spending as much time as possible painting. I put the pain into my work.
And this rollercoaster ride has taught me something exceptionally important. I may not yet be up there with the famous YoungBritish Artists (in my case, it would be Middle-Aged British Artists), but I see myself as a success story. I did lose an awful lot; but I have also gained. I met and married my true soulmate, am closer than ever to my daughters, and have discovered my true calling as an artist. I can live with that.