How Art helps soothe my soul
I have a mental health condition that I have had to learn to live with, which I can forget about for days at an end when things are going well, but it continues to limit my life and my career both as an artist and as a teacher. I face difficulties because I look and sound reasonably normal in conversation, I can do a lot, like teach 5 lessons in a day or paint a picture over three days. However, I suffer anxiety and I have difficulties with fear-based thoughts. I can also run into “brick walls” energy-wise. I have to have “rest days” in the middle of the week.
I need to sit at home and paint to restore my energies and spirits. The repetitive movement of the hand somehow calms me, as does familiar actions. I have met others who are going through traumas who cut up magazines for collages or build structures to occupy and calm their frayed nerves. I have always painted so this soothes me.
I am usually pretty shattered by the end of my third day of teaching. I cannot travel far because of limited energy levels and this has limited me to do exhibitions to within a 2 hours driving limit on A roads (I can’t do motorways because of panic attacks).
When I first developed PTSD 4 years ago, I was totally bewildered by the experience. I had been involved in a minor car accident and had briefly lost consciousness. This was the “straw that broke the camel’s back” and over a matter of weeks I came apart at the seams in way that that seemed as comprehensive as it was unexpected. Looking back I can see that I had lived under enormous stress in my personal and professional life for many years and an earlier traumatic incident when my dog had been killed on a busy main road provided the “crack in my psyche.”
At different times I shook like a leaf, cried most days, experienced the blackest despair, experienced flashbacks, had nightmares, and became very emotional at anything to do with death or war. I could not bear horror on TV and “The Walking Dead” gave me nightmares after I watched it once. Never again.
I was hyperviligient, I no longer felt safe; every car on the road was coming directly towards me. I flinched at minor accidents (I remember leaping out of my chair when someone dropped a cup on the floor in the staff room), and mis-saw things out the corner of my eyes (I mistook a hoverfly for a zeppelin in the sky).
I also felt utterly and completely exhausted.
Social interactions were very difficult, except with the kindest and most sympathetic people. I avoided people. I remember panicking when I saw a work colleague out in town and hid under a table in a cafe to avoid them!
I found it extremely difficult to trust people and felt very alienated from people who had been friends.
Painting was the only thing that gave me hope. I felt like such a failure and it gave me a tiny measure of achievement. It has been a Godsend and I can honestly say that I cannot live without it.
I remember experiencing utter exhaustion for about a year after I’d had EMDR therapy (which was extremely tiring in itself but thankfully it helped “plug in” the wire in my head that had become unplugged”). The following year I was just exhausted all the time, in the third year I improved to tired all the time and now I have days when I am not tired but I have to careful to marshal my energies wisely.
I went back to teaching after counselling but I could only cope with working three days a week. It has been a tremendous struggle and I was very proud that I managed to keep my job, even if it was only part time.
I have been devastated, recently as I have recently been given notice of redundancy. My union is very helpful and supportive but the future remains very uncertain. Painting is helping me cope on a day-to-day basis.
The popular perception of PTSD is that you have to be in the army or the emergency services to develop it, but I think that its more common than people realise; years of bullying as a child, rape, domestic abuse, living with an addicted partner/parent, even the distress of nursing a loved through a terminal illness can trigger the condition.
However, that’s not to say that everyone who has had trauma in their life will develop PTSD, I think it depends on how long they have endured stress and their sensitivity as a person. Two people may experience the same event and react differently.