A Therapeutic Approach

Published in Better Mental Health Magazine January 2015 issue | Written by Polly Fielding

'I'm Terry, the occupational therapist. Would you like to come to the art room with me?'

Her calm tone was soothing but I was in no mood to respond positively. My abusive childhood had finally caught up with me when bullying at work resulted in a complete emotional breakdown.

The Stigma Of Mental Illness

'I'm no good at art,' I told her bluntly. My self-esteem was at rock bottom.

'You don't have to be,' she encouraged gently. 'Just give it a try. You can leave any time you wish.'

Reluctantly I accompanied her. If nothing else, it would make a change from staring endlessly at the bland walls of the psychiatric ward.

Terry showed me a variety of materials and invited me to experiment freely with whatever took my fancy. I splashed paint onto paper and used a few pencil crayons, before opening a box of brightly coloured pastels. I made a few marks on a piece of paper, rubbing at them with my finger, idly watching the colours merge easily together. To my surprise it felt quite satisfying and absorbed my attention until lunchtime.

The following day I returned with a get-well card my sister had sent me. It depicted a sailing ship against the backdrop of a richly-glowing sunrise. I began using the pastels to copy it. I didn't notice the passage of time, intent only on conveying the sensations stirred in me by this scene, totally immersed in the moment. Terry was generous with her praise for my efforts, but I could see only the bits that hadn't worked out and took no pleasure in the result. I did, however, ask her if I could borrow some pastels and continue working on the picture back in my room. At least while I messed about like this, the long hours seemed slightly more tolerable.

That evening, during visiting time, as my husband, Dennis, walked down the corridor towards me, I held up my completed picture. 'That's amazing!' he exclaimed. 'Did you really do that unaided? I must get it framed.'

His encouragement was just what I needed to explore this medium further and over the next few months I persevered daily, working from the many photos he brought in. Gradually I discovered different ways of working with pastels to create the effects I wanted. I began to derive true enjoyment from blending the vibrant colours until I achieved the desired results.

Dennis bought a scanner and produced copies of my art, which I used to brighten the bare walls of my small bedroom. And slowly, determinedly, I worked my way back to a somewhat healthier frame of mind, though it was a long time before I was able to appreciate any of my pictures the way others seemed to do.

Back home, Dennis, keen to build on the therapeutic effects my art was having on me and convinced of signs of a burgeoning talent, converted the tiny summerhouse in our garden into a miniscule art studio, complete with electricity. Twelve years further on, I retreat there to add to the hundreds of images I've completed to date - sunsets, landscapes, seascapes and poppies being among my favourite sources of inspiration. Wherever we go I take my camera, ready to snap any memorable scene. And recently, I've taken up portraiture.

At times, depression and negative emotions still feel overwhelmingly powerful and all-enveloping. Yet when I steer myself towards my little wooden haven, turn on relaxing music, fill my diffuser with calming oils and mindfully put pastel to paper, my world becomes a blaze of colour. My brain focuses on exploring and developing new skills with a medium that holds increasing fascination with the passing of time. At that moment, nothing else is important.

I've retained a childlike curiosity and excitement about pastels, the feel, the use, even the sight of them. Gazing at a vast array of every conceivable shade of each colour of pastel sticks and pencils in an art shop has much the same effect on me as a sweet-filled counter on a young child. Perhaps this is because I had never picked up a pastel before my breakdown, possibly it's due to the fact that people appear to take pleasure in my creations and value my humble efforts. Whatever the reason it's something I can usually manage, even at my lowest ebb. There are days when, unable to focus my attention long enough to read, write or hold any sort of coherent conversation, I stay at my easel from morning till night in a universe where nothing other than my craft exists. The ability to concentrate on a piece of artwork whilst in an emotionally unbalanced state remains intact. The task is visual, spatial and non-verbal, it does not involve interacting with other people and can be tackled unaided.

My son has set up a website for me and he delights in showing me positive feedback from people who know nothing about me and must therefore, he points out, have bought the work on its own merits and not out of pity as I've sometimes suggested. As I write, I have just received an email from a sergeant in the Royal Army Medical Corps, who was so happy with the 'Poppies In A Cornfield' picture she had bought and framed for a friend and colleague, that she is requesting another copy In an extremely moving account, she explains how she and her friend worked in the Trauma Teams in Iraq and Afghanistan, dealing with horrific injuries to British soldiers and local civilians. On her return to England she suffered frequent panic attacks, was unable to work and is receiving ongoing post traumatic stress disorder counselling.

The poppy picture, she writes, not only provides 'solace' for her friend but has become a 'shrine' for herself. Contemplating the scene, she finds a degree of peace and at the same time is reminded of those whose lives they were unable to save but whose names she is determined to remember. She describes it as a tremendous comfort and says it is helping her regain her mental health.

Packaging up a complimentary print to post off to her, I reflect on the important part art now plays in my life and the impact my picture is having on this brave woman's recovery. What started as my therapy has now become hers. And it all began with Terry's invitation to an occupational therapy session.

When I emerged from several months in psychiatric care I had no employment, having taken early retirement from teaching whilst in hospital. I also had no self-confidence. I wasn't even sure which planet I was on as I was still being highly medicated.

Eventually, though, I weaned myself off most of the medication and felt able to organise and structure my thoughts more clearly. That was when I decided to write about how I had reached this point.

My writing has invariably worked when I've drawn directly on personal experience. I once tried to write a short story about a woman trying and failing to conceive a baby; but with children of my own I could have no concept of how it must feel to be infertile and the result was totally unconvincing. I had, on the other hand, had success with writing about my experiences of living with haemophilia. Writing about this blood- clotting disorder had enabled me to finally come to terms with the condition in my own child and help other parents in the process.

What if I could now put pen to paper about my encounters with the mental health system? Perhaps it would go some way to dispelling the stigma attached to the diagnosis of Borderline personality Disorder that I had now acquired.

Whilst writing about my feelings did not solve my problems it did help me to clarify and understand them and develop a modicum of self-compassion.

And I did not hold back.

I wrote about my unhappy childhood and the self-harm that began at the age of twelve, I recounted my experiences over the years - good, bad and downright ridiculous - with mental health professionals. Then I recounted the painful process of letting go of the pain of my past and how I learned to cope constructively and mindfully with my powerful, often negative emotions and my self-destructive impulsive urges.

In part, I began writing about my emotional difficulties in an attempt to break my long-held taboo of talking about my emotional problems.

For so long I had felt compelled to keep my hurt hidden, my feelings of isolation, neediness, despair...locked away where no one knew about them.

I wanted other sufferers to know that they are not alone and I wanted to give them hope.

During the past two years I have also been part of in-service training courses for mental health professionals, speaking freely about my encounters with the mental health system and talking about the importance of the therapist/client relationship. My input includes a no-holds-barred question and answer session. I set out to actively engage my audience, creating a shared experience, using mindfulness exercises and discussions about what constitutes excellent and poor practice. I have been heartened by the feedback which indicates an increasing openness on the part of professionals to think much more flexibly when treating their patients.

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