“Creativity is what helps me escape a lot of my inner demons.” – Demi Lovato
A friend and I were talking recently and we got onto the topic of mental health. Through our conversation we discovered that we both suffered from anxiety. She encouraged me to share my story, as we had both found comfort in hearing from others who also struggled with similar issues.
This week is Mental Health Week and I felt that it was an appropriate time for me to share.
I have always been a sensitive soul. I have always felt deeply and been easily influenced by the emotional energy of others around me.
I always felt that being sensitive was seen to be character flaw, so over time I learned to mask my feelings and not show my hurt, sadness and anger. This pattern of behaviour works well for other people, as they don’t have to deal with the discomfort of my emotional responses to situations. However, it didn’t work so well for me. The longer I bottled up my feelings, the more I seemed to lose more of myself and the worse I felt for having “negative” emotions.
I continued in this way for most of my adolescent and early adult years. I coped, I smiled and joked, I did well at school and university, I was successful in my job, I got along well with others, I even took two years off to live in the UK and travel. At work, I put in long hours (the first one there, and often one of the last to leave), was dedicated, extended my knowledge through extra study and courses, took on roles of extra responsibility, took everything in my stride and NEVER said “NO”. On the surface I had it all together and was happy. Or so it seemed….
It took four months of travelling and a stint volunteering in rural India for me to realise how unhappy I actually was with the life I was living at home. Spending time with incredibly poor, yet generous people made me realise how grateful I was for all I had and how I needed to simplify things in my life.
I returned home with a renewed sense of hope, a determination to make the most of what I had, and to live my life with more gratitude.
Unfortunately, this didn’t last long. The stresses and strains of my day-to-day life very quickly started taking a toll on me and my mental health yet again. I very quickly realised that I needed to go away again to “find my joy” and do something that made my life feel more purposeful.
This time I took myself to Nepal. I spent twelve months working as a volunteer with various organisations, living with very little and LOVING every minute of it. It was a trip of self-discovery. I really learned who I was, what was important to me, and that I was much more capable and resilient than I have ever given myself credit for. While in Nepal, I met my amazing husband, made lifelong friends and found happiness. It wasn’t that there were no trials or challenges while I was in Nepal, it was that somehow I had learned to have faith that everything would work out as it was supposed to. The Nepali people are quite mindful in their day-to-day lives. Things get done when they get done and “Nepali time” seemed to suit me quite well.
At the end of my year away, I came home feeling on top of the world. I was ready to go back to work, I was filled with a new energy and life was good.
It took only three weeks for me to fall apart. Again, on the surface I was doing well. I smiled, engaged cheerfully with those around me, got stuck back into work and my old life. Inside, I was an absolute mess. I no longer felt as though I fitted in to my old life, I was miserable and I was struggling. I didn’t know where to go or what to do to get help, so I buried myself in work and keeping busy.
My husband was still in Nepal at this time waiting for his visa to be approved, so at the end of each day, I was coming home exhausted and emotionally drained to a house of solitude and loneliness.
Work had always been my safe place when life felt out of control, but it had turned into a place of uncertainty. I was the victim of workplace bullying, I was floundering, feeling incompetent and lost (even though logically I knew I was good at my job) and so incredibly stressed.
I ended up at the doctors with what I though was a crippling migraine. She took the time to listen to what had been going on in my life and wrote a prescription for two weeks off work, good food, walks and beach time.
I returned to work with a lingering headache and a smile, positive that I was okay and that things would be better. They weren’t! Instead, I got better at masking what was really going on in my head and telling people that I was “fine.”
I occasionally said “no” when extra responsibilities were added to my plate (but not often), I had emotional outbursts of tears and anger, I cried on the way to work every morning, I started having nightmares, I was waking up feeling like I had run a marathon every day, and I was having regular panic attacks. To my colleagues, I looked a bit stressed, but was still doing “fine.”
It took three years of some serious messages from my body before I finally admitted that I couldn’t continue as I was. I was diagnosed with a plethora or stress related illnesses, depression and anxiety. It has only been recently that I heard the term “high-functioning anxiety and depression” and after doing some research, I realised that this was most likely how I would be described.
Thankfully, I listened to the messages my body was giving me, made changes and found help. I left my job of twenty years. I had a very understanding GP who was happy to provide whatever support I needed. I found a psychologist who was able to teach me strategies for stress management. My husband was able to help me remember what I had learned about mindfulness in Nepal and how to start living more mindfully. I had a small number of friends that I knew would not judge me and that I could call on for a coffee, chat, beach walk etc.
I also rediscovered my passion for art.
I had already completed my art therapy qualifications prior to this point, but like many things, I had not applied my knowledge of the benefits of art, to myself. Leaving my job gave me the opportunity to listen to my intuition and follow its direction. I made creating, a priority. I started drawing mandalas, making jewellery, hand lettering, painting and reconnecting with myself and my needs. Sometimes I was impressed with what I had made, other times I looked at it and cringed. The final product was not important though. It was the healing and self-discovery that was key.
Creating gave my brain the break it needed so that I could reconnect my mind, body and spirit. It gave me the space to just “be” without conscious thought or judgment. It gave the little anxiety pathways in my brain the chance to slow down, look around and realise that the world was not really the scary, dangerous place I had been led to believe.
Having experienced firsthand the health benefits of creativity, I began my art therapy business. Art and a strong support network saved me. I can’t say that my anxiety doesn’t raise its ugly head occasionally, but I now accept it for what it is- a friend who is trying to keep me safe from possible danger. I no longer allow it to take control. When I feel anxious, I turn to my art to help me focus on the present, stay centred and breathe.
Art really does have the power to transform and change lives. I live this truth every day!