By Zita Collinson
When Tracy Henham was seven years old, her mum walked out of the family home. The now 46-year-old tells Zita Collinson how art became her salvation as she battled depression and learned to forgive the parent who left her behind
WHEN Tracy Henham's parents emigrated from England to Australia, they dreamed of an idyllic future for their family.
Tracy's father was a handyman and initially settled in Adelaide before moving to a remote mining town with his wife and young child.
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But their happiness wasn't to last and Tracy's mum and dad eventually separated.
Her mother Maureen Olafsen, walked out of her home, taking Tracy's younger brother Colin, with her.
Maureen's decision meant that Tracy, then aged just seven and left living alone with her dad, didn't see her mother for more than three decades.
Maureen, aged 67, eventually relocated to Canada with her second husband but kept in touch with the daughter she'd left thousands of miles behind.
She wrote and sent birthday cards. In return, Tracy posted pictures and drawings.
Because by then, Tracy was already showing artistic promise.
In fact, art was what she increasingly turned to as she battled her childhood demons. It was a way of expressing herself through her teenage years, after Tracy and her dad returned to England.
It was what ultimately brought her to Stoke-on-Trent, too. She enrolled on a design degree at what was then the North Staffordshire Polytechnic, although she didn't finish the course.
At the age of 21, Tracy had a complete breakdown. She split up with her boyfriend and, by her own admission, she couldn't cope. She never went back to university.
It was the start of a deep depression that still bears its scars.
Even today, Tracy can be plunged into episodes of profound hopelessness followed by manic highs where she doesn't sleep for days on end.
Nevertheless, it is during these periods where she is most creative.
Look around the walls of the BAD EDIT Gallery in Burslem (formerly The Old Post Office gallery in Wedgwood Street), and the scope of her creativity is in full evidence.
Earlier this month she staged an exhibition there, and hopes to shortly return to put on another showcase of even more of her work.
It was the first time she'd put on her own event, although she has previously submitted entries to an open art competition at The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery.
But in her first headline show, her range and talent was clear to see. There were portraits using acrylic paints, abstract photographs, realistic-looking historical scenes, surface patterns and highly-stylised, whimsical cartoons.
She doesn't stick to one theme, subject or even technique.
Instead, she takes inspiration from everything around her – as well as the trauma she went through as a child and beyond.
"I've always painted and drawn," says Tracy, who now lives in Abbey Hulton. "I think I was drawing from when I can first remember."
Born in Hampshire, Tracy went to Australia with her parents when she was 18 months old.
"We went to Adelaide first before moving to a remote mining town," says Tracy. "At first I had happy memories. Fantastic.
"I still don't know what happened with Mum. She wasn't happy and moved on.
"One day she left me outside a shop while she went and talked to my dad. She sort of went, 'Bye Tracy' and that was it. I was seven.
"She took my brother and I was left with my dad. She thought that he would look after me, whereas he wouldn't look after my brother.
"It wasn't really explained to me. Dad just got on with life."
Her experiences made her question whether she'd ever want to become a mother herself.
"I don't have any children," says Tracy. "I think it left me feeling so unsettled that I couldn't believe in myself enough to take on the responsibility of a child.
"There's an advert isn't there? It says 'Stop the child abuse'. Well I did the same. I stopped it by not having children because I thought I might end up doing the very same thing and leaving."
When she was 10, Tracy and her dad returned to England.
"The mine was closing down and Dad had to make a decision about what to do," she continues.
"He wanted to come back to England where the family was, so they could support him.
"I can remember being 11, and not wanting to exist anymore. I didn't want to be dead but I wanted to not exist.
"I lost all my confidence. I lost my personality, everything.
"Part of it was to do with coming back. England is so closed in and in Australia I had space and freedom. It was a big culture shock.
"People used to bully me because I was different. I talked with an accent although I don't really have one now.
"I was incredibly, painfully shy.
"I got to about 21, 22 and I had a complete mental shutdown.
"My dad had married again and I wasn't really part of their family.
"I met a man who was my whole life. When we split up, it just devastated me.
"I asked my dad if I could come home and he told me no. I had a breakdown in the middle of my course at university.
"It has been a regret, not doing my course, but then again college can be quite restrictive. It gave me time to think about my own ideas."
Tracy has since gone on to have therapy for her mental health problems. She has never been formally diagnosed with bipolar disorder, but she suspects she has it.
"I couldn't even tie my shoelaces," she says of her first breakdown. "I actually don't think I ever got over it. It's something that I've had to deal with.
"With extreme highs it's as though my brain is working so fast, it knows all the answers and I can do anything. I don't sleep.
"It's followed by crushing lows. It's awful.
"I can spend days in bed."
Tracy suffered further unhappy relationships and is now single.
Art was the thread that she continued to follow throughout the unhappy times.
"I've got artwork all over the house," Tracy, who also writes poetry, continues. "I have to do something every day."
"I do use art. As long as I've got an unfinished painting, I've got something to live for because I've got to finish it.
"If it wasn't for the depression, I wouldn't have written the poetry. If it wasn't for the highs, I wouldn't have done my art."
The one person Tracy never thought would see her exhibition at the BAD EDIT Gallery was her mum.
But in 2007, Maureen left Canada and was finally reunited with her long-lost daughter – more than 30 years after walking out.
Rather than being the emotional meeting of fairy tales, it took some time for the pair to mend their damaged relationship.
"We'd always kept in touch," says Tracy. "I got letters and cards but I never physically saw her.
"She's tried to explain it to me since. She met a Canadian guy but in 2007 she looked at her life and found she just couldn't live with him anymore.
"I met her at the airport. It was Manchester.
"Because I'm bipolar, I didn't allow myself to be elated. I couldn't think to myself, 'Oh wow, Mum's coming back'. I'd hit the high.
"More to the point, if it didn't happen, I would have gone into a real low.
"It's almost as if I didn't have any feelings about it at first. She came to live with me because I had a spare room. She now says I barely spoke to her, but then again I wasn't well."
Tracy says she was able to put aside her feelings of resentment a long time ago. She's forgiven her mum.
Maureen eventually moved out into her own accommodation, but still lives around the corner.
"We've taken it day by day," says Tracy. "We're close now.
"I'd say that I'm the mum and she's the daughter though!
"She relies on me because a lot has changed since she was last in England. She doesn't understand the systems.
"I know what it's like because I was 10 when I came back and I didn't understand either.
"I think it's quite remarkable when you're in your 60s, to decide to leave your husband and move back halfway across the world.
"She says she's never achieved anything but that's something.
"I needed her to come back into my life so I could know what I was or wasn't missing.
"I've had a better life. If I'd stayed with her, it would have been different. Of course I have questions but it's so long ago now that it doesn't really matter.
"She did what she had to do."
Maureen, now aged 67, is grateful for a second chance. Tracy's musician brother is still in Australia. Her father Alan is currently living in Bristol and the two are in contact.
Maureen says: "I feel guilty about it now. At the point I don't know if I did. The marriage wasn't working out.
"Looking back I wouldn't have gone but hindsight is always 20/20.
"I couldn't take two children. I thought her dad would take better care of her.
"The boy was just a tot. I could hardly leave him. Trace was a little bit older and more responsible. It was a hard decision.
"I sent Tracy cards but when she got to about 13, we started writing to each other.
"I had a breakdown in Canada. I married again and I wasn't really that happy.
"I came to England to sort myself and decided to stay.
"It was wonderful to see Tracy again. Emotions weren't running high like they would normally have done because we were both in a bad position.
"I do feel grateful that I've been given a second chance.
"I think we've made peace but more she had to make peace with me and forgive me, and I think she's done that.
"A lot of mother and daughters are fairly distant. I feel personally that we're more like friends. We can talk about anything with each other and discuss everything.
"I'm proud of her. In the five years I've been here, she's achieved so much."
Tracy says: "At the moment I'm doing really well.
"I know it's difficult because I have been in that dark place where there isn't any light.
"It's as much to do with the physical reaction of the chemicals in your body as it is to do with you telling yourself that it's not going to last forever. The chemicals tell you that it is.
"But I'd like to say to anyone reading this that you need to keep going. You can come through it.
"I get a lovely sense of achievement, seeing what I have done.
"From now on, art is going to be fun. I enjoy it. I don't need it to keep me going and afloat.
"I have resented Mum in the past.
"Every Mother's Day I refused to send her a card because she walked out. Then I got to 30 and I forgave her and my dad.
"I let it all go. I had to. I was so angry. If you just hold on to that anger, it only hurts you."
Tracy runs an open poetry and music group at BAD EDIT Galley, Wedgwood Street, Burslem, every third Wednesday of the month, between 8pm and 11pm.