From Social Anxiety to Artistic Triumph: Our Participant's Journey with Jez Dolan's 'A Moveable Feast.'


Having recently been through various stages of rehab to treat my addiction to alcohol, and moving into supported housing with fellow recovering addicts, I was eagerly anticipating this new and exciting sober chapter in my life. But perhaps one thing that was never going to be so easy to treat was my crippling social anxiety—something I have struggled with for most of my life, and only compounded during my heavy drinking years. 

I became aware of Portraits of Recovery during this sober phase of my life, now having access to my phone and being encouraged to venture out into the big wide world. Though it took me a while to finally bite-the-bullet and reach out, I was pleasantly surprised (if somewhat anxious) to receive a phone call from Mark Prest, and it was here that he told me about a series of workshops at the Whitworth Art Gallery led by Manchester-based queer artist Jez Dolan, which just so happened to commence that same week—what perfect timing. It turned out Jez had been commissioned by Portraits of Recovery to develop a new work for Recoverist Month that explored sober social provision for LGBTQ+ people in recovery. After the long conversation had ended, I decided that despite my anxiety issues, it was probably something that would benefit me in the long run, something that could help me develop and grow. Apart from a few visits to the LGBTQ+ AA meetings in Manchester, which itself was a daunting task for me, I had next to no experience in socialising with other queer people, outside of the typical drink and drug-fuelled nights out of years past, so I knew inside that this was an opportunity I could not pass up.  

Image: A Moveable Feast by Jez Dolan, at the Whitworth Gallery, Manchester, Recoverist Month 2023. Photo Lee Baxter.

I attended the first workshop and was pleasantly surprised by the low-key, somewhat relaxed affair – my prior and deluded sentiments equating all things ‘queer’ to ‘loud,’ ‘bombastic’ and overly ‘dramatic.’ This was not the case, and whilst my anxiety did stunt my communication and body language at times, I felt a small sense of accomplishment upon making my way back home that day. 

With each passing workshop I found myself becoming more engaged and growing in confidence, eager to share some of my own concepts and ideas as to how the final artwork (the conclusion of the workshop sessions) should take shape. Collectively we decided to exhibit a performance piece, supported and produced by Jez, and thus “A Moveable Feast?” was born. I was even asked to design the menu cards for the dinner tables, as he knew about my background working in graphic design and I was more than happy to contribute in any way I could. Just as I had anticipated though, my social anxiety would also have a part to play in this performance. 

Though I was genuinely (and somewhat nervously) excited at the thought of taking part, the week leading up to the event was all manner of excuses, self-justification and reasons not to; I didn’t have a suitable outfit to wear; I can’t even hold a decent conversation with myself, let alone strangers; the date and time conflicts with my AA meetings; the buses are on strike; the boiler in my house literally just blew up and I’m now in hospital on life-support; anything really. Then came the actual day of the event. Racked with nerves and the usual anxiety that by now had also begun to plague my sleep, I picked up the phone to call Mark, carefully rehearsing my scripted excuses, thumb hovering over the call icon, when it began to ring.

Image: A Moveable Feast by Jez Dolan, at the Whitworth Gallery, Manchester, Recoverist Month 2023. Photo Lee Baxter.

We must have spoke for at least half-an-hour. I got honest and told him my feelings and anxieties about the event, and why I probably wouldn’t be attending that night, much to my own disappointment. But through kind words and encouragement, I began to set aside my own insecurities and see things from a different perspective. Who’d have guessed that simply talking to another human-being could alleviate so much concern? Throughout rehab and treatment, I was lectured on a daily basis about the importance of honesty and connection–connecting with others–but my social anxiety usually got the better of this. I put the phone down and immediately started to get ready, and so it would begin… 

I am pleased to say that “A Moveable Feast?” was nothing short of an amazing achievement for me—conversating with complete strangers about living life as a queer person in recovery, with no holds barred topics of conversation including dating, drink and drugs, sober-living, keeping active and even sober sex, amongst others. Whilst it would be remiss of me to say that my social anxiety was miraculously cured that evening, I persevered and politely welcomed the next attendees to sit down and talk (chaperoned by the fabulously “Sober AF” Chanje of course) and found the process ever easier with each conversation. One person who shall forever remain anonymous even disclosed to me his own recent struggles with drugs and alcohol, no doubt prompted by the relaxed, intimate nature of the whole affair. I like to think that our open conversation affirmed his own determination to stay clean and sober. I later found out that I had also conversed with none other than John McGrath, Director of Manchester International Festival, much to my astonishment. 

I would like to thank Portraits of Recovery for encouraging me to step out of my comfort zone—something that can be a very challenging for those struggling with social anxiety—and allowing me to find the confidence within myself to take part in something I would have fled from months ago. Not only that, but using this experience as a stepping stone, I have since taken part in numerous other queer social events organised by PORe, which has helped me to develop new and healthier relationships within the LGBTQ+ communityand it’s about bloody time. 

That’s the thing, I’ve spent the last ten years of my life trapped within the brutal confines of a crippling addiction, hopelessly fleeing from everything – friends, family, relationships, responsibilities and most importantly myself, but taking part in “A Moveable Feast?” and trusting in the process of making art is just one more way in which I have finally begun to move forwards in my life again.