Tēnā koutou, e hoa mā! What a whirlwind the first half of 2019 has been. In my last blog post, I talked about holding a lot of hope for this year. It's been a difficult journey, but I eventually graduated from Segar House, and have started the next chapter of my therapeutic journey. Part of the transition included an eight week long Art Therapy group run through Hearts & Minds (formerly Raeburn House).
So, what is Art Therapy? Here's a short description from the Hearts & Minds flyer:
"Art Therapy is a form of expressive therapy that allows the individual to explore their thoughts and feelings through the creative process. In its essence, Art Therapy lends itself beautifully to uncovering emotional conflict, slowing down a ‘busy mind’, and calming anxious thoughts without the use of spoken words. The Art Therapy approach is also not reliant on you being artistic or having to produce a masterpiece – it is simply the process of creating that has been proven to increase mental wellbeing."
While Segar House also has their own Art Therapy group, I found that one hard to grasp as it was non-directed; we were given free rein to create what we wanted in the context of our emotions. The anxiety of a blank page would almost always consume me, and so I wasn't part of that group for long. Hearts & Minds' Art Therapy group was directed, which meant each week we were given some kind of prompt or exercise to further explore our subconscious, something I personally found a lot easier to work with.
While there are so many things I could update everyone on, I particularly wanted to write about my experience in this group because it sits so closely to something I'm passionate about.
cw // long post
Week 1: Mandala
For the first week we started off with something simple. Now, a mandala isn't the first thing I think of when I think of things that are 'simple', but the purpose of this exercise was to make it into something that resonated with us. We were asked to think about what brought us to the group, what we were feeling, what was happening in our lives, what we were thinking... our mandala could be anything we wanted it to be! Which was intimidating, actually. I remember sitting there staring at a blank circle for a good several minutes, afraid to pick up the oil pastels (a medium I never use - double intimidation!)
Eventually I began to play around with the colours and sensations of the pastels (right of the image); what did they feel like as they moved across the paper? What responses did the colours I chose evoke in me? What marks could I make and how could they represent my experiences and emotions? Yes, these were the questions I was asking myself.
What came out at the end was very much a visual representation of what I had been experiencing at that time. I was going through some emotions relating to saying goodbye to someone, which manifested in the pink of rose quartz, the blue of the ocean, some space between those bright, happy memories and the dark, spiky presence of abandonment and attachment. The colours soften around the edges, signifying the acceptance of this goodbye and these emotions.
(Writing like this about these pieces is giving me major art school vibes...) Next!
Week 2: ~Entering the Subconscious~
In our second session we ~entered our subconscious, oooh~ which sounds more daunting than it was. This exercise contained several stages. We started by picking one coloured pastel (those darn pastels). I chose a lovely orange. We were then asked to fill the page with lines and marks; starting for a few seconds, then stopping, then moving on to making other marks. This continued until the page was full.
In the second part we had to find symbols and images among the lines we'd drawn, and write down the words for those symbols. Mine were, flames, flowers, wind, dog, snakes and ladders, balloons, arm, and controller. Once we had gathered these words, we then had to write a sentence/story/poem using these words. This was the most exciting bit for me, I think. Poetry has recently become my 'thing'. This was my poem:
The final stage was to turn this piece of writing into something visual. I think mine speaks for itself.
If you're someone who likes to know the meaning behind things, then this was what I gathered from my poem and artwork during this session: I had been going through a huge transition. From leaving Segar House, to having to say goodbye to my therapist, to entering into a new kind of therapy with someone new... it was a lot, to say the least. A few weeks prior, I had dawned on the realisation that I hadn't made it through two years of intensive therapy to throw it all away with something like giving into self-harm urges (This is no longer a game), and that I was so much better than that. I had worked hard and I became better than that. Stronger than that. So, as I write this, I'm proud to say that I am almost three months self-harm free; the longest I've managed in a couple of years (My arm is proof / I am the controller).
I walked through the flames of my emotions; not without a few burns and scars to remind me, but it taught me that even the little things like milestones, and even managing to get up out of bed when your whole world feels like it's been turned upside down, are worth celebrating.
If I think about what my ~subconscious~ was trying to tell me, it might have been this:
"you'll be OK, e hoa. You'll be OK."
Week 3: Comics
Comics! Oh boy, oh boy! Usually this would excite me, but the last two weeks had seen me only just begin to let go of the strict control I'd been holding over myself in terms of my art. Comics, to me, had always been about planning and control, not about playfulness and spontaneity (something that's important in art therapy).
Since comics usually have a sequence, I thought over my mental health journey from the last couple of years. Before Segar House, I remember there just being darkness. As I progressed through the programme, this darkness manifested into what I named 'Dread', a physical/visual representation of the emotions that plagued me. Towards the end of the programme though, I began to learn that this wasn't a monster at all, but really my inner child crying out for help.
Rewind to a poem I wrote earlier in the year... "the story doesn't end with me vanquishing the monster / instead, I figure out that the monster was me all along". So interesting how everything comes full circle!
It's all a bit psychoanalytic, but the final panel shows the next part of my journey; the sign representing the different paths I could take, and possibly the question in my mind of,
"where to now?"
Fun Facts: the panel goes off the side of the page because my journey is continuous and not yet over! The colours in each panel are also continuous (the yellows/reds in particular) because that touch of flame and chaos will always be present with me, no matter how much progress I make. It will shape me, and hopefully become less overwhelming, but will always be an important part of my experience and recovery.
Week 4: Painting Emotions
Getting into acrylics was by far my favourite week. It was also the first week that I was able to fully let go of whatever was in my head, and just let my body take over to create something. During this week we were asked to paint our emotions. Once again, at the beginning, the intimidation of the blank page seemed almost too much, as well as the neat little blobs of paint I had sitting next to me. I didn't have an end goal in mind, but I went with that. Eventually I picked up a brush, mixed some paint, and let my hand do the rest of the work.
I'd love to be able to tell you what was going on in my head at the time; the correlations between the colours and emotions, the way I chose to make the marks on the paper... I think all of those things came afterwards, though. The individual colours themselves don't really represent emotional states, but rather the work as a whole represents how confusing the interplay of 'light' and 'dark' was for me at the time.
On the one hand, I was trying to hold all the positive memories and experiences I'd had with my wonderful therapist over the past two years, but on the other hand I was still facing unimaginable grief and sadness. You'll notice the continuation of the reds and yellows, as well as the light pinks (rose quartz) and blues (ocean). This painting is very much a culmination of everything - and I mean everything - going on in my head at the time. But creating this piece was the first time I had experienced some 'mental quiet', which was nice.
This is definitely my favourite piece I made over the 8 week course.
Week 5: Clay (Letting Go)
That's it. That's the artwork.
Just kidding. Clay is definitely not my chosen medium, despite growing up with the likes of playdough, and mum's homemade version with flour, water, food colouring, and salt (so we wouldn't eat it!) I was never good at it as a child, and as I sat there staring at this small ball of clay, I felt the same inferiority I felt all those years ago...
I think that's why this week's exercise was planned the way it was. We each had three balls of clay; the first one we weren't allowed to get attached to (haha), because this one we were going to put all of our current emotions into. We were allowed to squish it, flatten it on the table, get aggressive and throw it at the floor or wall. The first ball was all about release! I was hesitant to get up and throw it, but I had a lot of negative emotions (mostly anger) that I needed to get rid of. It was satisfying, to say the least! Once we had put everything into this ball of clay, we cast it back into the bag it came from; 'letting go' of what we were carrying.
The second ball of clay was to be shaped into something we wanted to let go, while the third was to be shaped into something we wanted more of. The thing we wanted to let go was intended to be discarded somehow, whether it was released it into the ocean, put into the garden, or destroyed; literally letting it go and returning our representation back to the Earth.
I sat with mine for a long time. See, I knew what I needed to let go, but how could I represent that in some kind of sculpture? I went through a few failed ideas before I settled on something that I had done all the way back in my first week - the rose quartz and the ocean. Specifically, I was thinking of an illustration I gave my therapist featuring both, and this was the relationship that I needed to let go. It seemed only fitting, really.
The clay versions weren't as good as the illustration, but even so, the fact that they existed was difficult for me. I refused to take them home that week; I could barely look at them. I still find it difficult, but my plan for them now is to release them back to the Earth, letting them settle with Taupō-nui-a-Tia (Lake Taupō), a place that I feel very spiritually connected to.
Finally, what did I want more of? The last formidable ball of clay sat before me with only 20 minutes of the group left. The only image that came to mind was that of smooth stones sat atop one another. One of the therapists at Segar House had gifted this image to me when I graduated, and was one I picked up during a mindfulness practice once. So, that's what I made.
Week 6: What Brought Us Here?
In the sixth week, we were asked to think about what brought us to this group. What was it that we needed? What were we looking for? What was this group intended to do for us? And finally, what things make us feel the answers to these questions? With these questions in mind, we had to create a 'design' or an emblem that embodied symbols of these things.
If that's confusing, here's one of my examples: one of the things I needed was comfort. My symbol (thing that made me feel comfort) for that was a blue blanket, or just the colour blue. Some other things I needed were things like, to soothe my inner child, love, compassion, strength, an outlet, and to let go. Each of these had a correlating symbol; something that helped me feel those things.
Honestly, I wasn't feeling it during this week. I was one week out from having to say goodbye to my therapist and face our final session. There was one point during the group where I had to leave the room because everything was overwhelming. I couldn't think about anything other than that final session, so to try and come up with a design/emblem seemed near impossible. All I needed was a break, really. I took some time to gather myself, had a lovely conversation with the art therapist who came to see if I was doing OK, and then I was able to come back to it. In the end, I decided to attribute colours to each symbol and use those instead; something that seemed to be a theme from all of my previous pieces.
What came out of it eventually was this patchwork of colour surrounded by space. Sometimes it resembles an amethyst geode with a core of colour. The final work isn't very literal, but then again it didn't need to be. Nothing done in art therapy needs to be anything other than what you make it. So as difficult as this week and this artwork was, I was pleased with how it came out, because I realised that I had everything I needed at my disposal to give me what I was looking for.
Week 7: Group Artwork
So it's Week 7, the second to last week of the Hearts & Minds Art Therapy group, and I finally figured out that you can mix the water colour tabs (as you can see above, I made a mess of them). As we walked in the door though, we were met with several large sheets of paper taped together. I knew what this meant immediately and I was instantly terrified: group work.
The aim of this exercise was all about challenging boundaries, and becoming aware of what happens when they are. It was also about relating to others; up until this group, we'd been working mostly to ourselves with sharing time at the end. What would it be like if we challenged each other's boundaries on paper? What would happen if we entered their space? What would happen if we made conversation?!
For the most part, everyone pretty much stayed within their space. It wasn't until the end that the work started to expand and come together as a whole. I started flicking paint across to the other side, so someone on the other side started doing the same, and the art therapist said, "look what you've started!" By that time a few of us were laughing and a lot more comfortable crossing into each other's territories. At one point I noticed that as I was splashing paint, I'd gotten a drop (literally a drop) on the person's paper next to me, and my anxiety skyrocketed. I let it go, though. Because that was the point, right? I was even able to talk about that at the end, and found that other people had similar experiences.
What we also noticed was that each individual brought a lot of what they'd been working on the past several weeks into this work, including themes, colours, and imagery. I'd never done anything like this before, but I thought it was a beautiful way to relate and connect to others in the group.
Week 8: Reflection
Before I started this group, I thought 8 weeks wasn't that long. But you know what? I got really emotional about leaving when it came to it. This group became a place where I could share my pain about saying goodbye and letting go, often with sighs and nods of understanding (someone else in the group had just said goodbye to their therapist too). It became a place where I felt welcomed and supported by people from all walks of life. It became a place where I found some strength when I doubted I would find any ever again. Not only that, but it pushed my artistic limits, and showed me how I could utilise art for therapeutic benefits. I paint at home now, and it's the only time I get a bit of peace from those pesky intrusive thoughts.
Looking back over my work, the one thing that stood out to me was the amount of colour. I honestly thought it would be all black and grey; doom and gloom. But it wasn't. Two years ago - before Segar House - maybe it would have been. But my world is no longer in black and white. I can see the soft pinks and the ocean blues, the fiery reds and mellow yellows. There is so much colour in my life, and my work through this course is a visual representation of that.
Despite having to face some of the most difficult emotions I've had to date, I could still see the colour. I learned that letting someone go didn't have to be filled with darkness. But what I value most of all is that I was finally able to tell myself that I would be OK, because these works came from something deep within me; something that I wasn't conscious of until it was right there on paper. Deep down I knew that I would be OK, after saying goodbye and moving forward and starting a new chapter. I will be OK.
Who knew a bit of pastel had that much power, eh?
So, that's it! If you're interested in doing this Art Therapy group (or any other group that Hearts & Minds offers) you can find term 3 start dates and group information here. Be sure to search locally as well, as there are bound to be so many art therapy groups on offer.
Now, I'm not an expert. My experience is my own. But feel free to leave any comments or questions and I will do my absolute best to answer them!
Special thank you to the group facilitator and art therapist, Sally Legg, for being so present, kind, and encouraging. (And especially for telling me that I'd make a great art therapist one day, it meant the world).
That's all for now, here's hoping it won't be another half a year until my next blog update!
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