As you may know my current main project centres around creating abstract artwork based on how I feel in relation to my obsessive compulsive disorder and other psychiatric illnesses. I use the time as a mindfulness practice (something I’ll be explaining in more detail later) and a time to reflect on how I’ve been feeling that day. I use my time making art as a therapy; in fact, this is something I do this with the majority of my art. For years I have been using art as a way to not only explore how I’m feeling and to inform others about my illnesses, but to simply cope with them. For over 12 years now I have suffered with severe OCD and clinical depression, with my psychiatric illnesses worsening a few years ago when I also developed psychosis and generalised anxiety. Whilst I know that most people reading this will be aware of what these illnesses entail, I want to take some time to explain them, as I feel OCD and psychosis are two of the most misunderstood psychiatric illnesses that exist.
Firstly, both of these illnesses can take a variety of forms, so this is just a snapshot into what these illnesses cause me to feel/do. Mental illnesses affect everyone differently, so what is a problem for me might not be a problem for another sufferer. Firstly, OCD is not when people are just a bit clean, like to tidy or like to arrange things neatly. Yes, it’s true some of these things can be symptoms of OCD, but OCD is a serious psychiatric illness that can be severely debilitating and consume a person’s life. For me, OCD means countless hours of cleaning my house, repeatedly washing my hands until they are raw, cut and bleeding, intrusive distressing thoughts and worries that I can’t get out of my head no matter how hard I try and a never ending sense of fear around almost everything in my life. OCD rules almost every aspect of my life and makes it hard for me to go to certain places, to leave my home and at times it even impacts my ability to eat and drink without severe fears regarding contamination. It puts great strain on my relationships with friends and family, as they constantly have to help and reassure me. And now psychosis – another commonly misunderstood illness due to the fact that people often falsely believe that having a detachment from reality can mean you are a violent person, for me this couldn’t be further from the truth. For me, psychosis means during an episode I will become incredibly fearful and paranoid for reasons that, although are completely illogical, seem like the absolute truth to me. My worries become incredibly hard to rationalise and I begin to suffer from delusions as well as sometimes having auditory and visual hallucinations. For me, psychosis is a terrifying illness that also plays off of my OCD and renders me a very fearful shell of myself.
Due to my psychiatric illnesses, I have partaken in a lot of different therapies - EMDR, CBT and exposure are but just a few. But the therapy that I feel helps me more than anything is art therapy. Strangely enough, I have never actually taken part in a certified art therapy programme, as unfortunately there are no art therapies in my local area. This means I don’t actually know what people who take art therapy courses actually practice, but instead I have been using my own art as a therapy for myself for years. As I have stated before, art for me is a way to escape my often terrifying reality, and to put down on paper a spectrum of emotions that I could not explain verbally. At university I used my art as a way of tying to communicate to the viewer the anxiety and discomfort I was feeling in my mind. I tried to replicate this feeling by creating a sense of unease in the viewer, and by creating images that I hoped would establish a slight feeling of distress in order to show how I felt everyday. Whilst a big part of this was to help inform viewers about mental illness and to reduce the stigma that surrounds it, a lot of it was to purely put down, in a visual capacity, how I was feeling at the time. By doing this it almost felt as if I was getting some of my anxiety out of me and onto the image in front of me. Now, even after a huge shift within my practice, I am still doing this, but in a very different way. When creating my photography pieces, I often had to plan out what I was going to shoot, and then would spent a lot of time editing the image to help communicate a certain emotion. Whilst it helped me to see the finished piece and to create something, it was never really a direct outlet for my anxiety. When I switched back to painting I almost immediately felt the artwork I was creating become more honest. Personally I believe this is because it’s a more direct form of art, the paintbrush is the only thing between the paper and me and it’s as if my thoughts are going straight onto the canvas.
As I stated in my introductory post, I have a few rules regarding my daily squares. Firstly, I must create an abstract piece that represents how I have felt during the day, but with no obvious colour choices, for example, I must not go for the colour blue simply because it represents feeling down, however, if that truly is the colour that jumps out at me that day then this is acceptable. The reason for this rule is because I really wanted to explore colour. Another rule was to let the brush take me wherever I felt right and to not plan an image in advance. This rule, as well as most others, was created to allow me to use my time painting as a mindfulness session.
As I mentioned earlier, mindfulness is a therapy I undertake a lot whilst painting and is used by many people daily as a form of medication and a time to reflect. It’s fairly hard for me to explain, but what I personally believe mindfulness to be is a practice in which a person focuses entirely on what they’re doing in that moment. It involves acceptance of distressing or distracting thoughts, but the ability to try and let the thoughts pass without judgement. When I paint I try and focus on the action of the brush, the colours I am using, how they blend and interact with each other, but as well as this is really try and feel my emotions. If I’m feeling upset, I try and really experience that – I don’t try to make it stop or go away, I just accept it and let it pass. A great example that I used when learning about practicing mindfulness was a metaphor called ‘leaves on a stream’ – this metaphor gets you to picture a gentle stream with the water passing along at a leisurely pace and has you imagine that each thought that comes into your head is a psychical object. But when these thoughts come into your mind, you simply place them on a leaf and let them slowly make their way down the stream. You don’t try and push them down the stream faster, or even get on the leaf with them and continue down the stream your self, you simply acknowledge them, place them on a leaf and let them float away. I hope this made some sense, I find mindfulness a bit tricky to explain, but as I said, it really does apply to my method of painting my daily square.
Art really is the best therapy for me, whilst it lets me explore and express my emotions, I think one of the reasons I find it so therapeutic is simply because I love it so much – making art, viewing other people’s art and even reading about art, I think if you find something you love and enjoy doing, it’s always going to be of some help.
Thanks for reading what turned into a mammoth post! Let me know in the comments if you’ve found art helpful as a therapy, was it more or less helpful than psychiatric therapies?