Reprinted from "Recovery" issue of Visions Journal, 2013, 9 (1), pp. 21-22
It is August 2003 and the nurses at Willowview mental health treatment centre in Vernon, BC, are scurrying around taking pictures off the walls. And they are pinning up photocopies of paintings I had done over the five weeks I’d been a resident there. I watched them as I sat in their office chair, with tears streaming down my face. I couldn’t believe how much value they were putting on my art.
The pictures had emerged out of the hours I had passed on my bed over those five weeks. Hours of exhaustion. What the nurses there referred to among themselves as “riding the bed.” There were no planned activities at Williowview. The only thing we had to do was come to the table for lunch and dinner. For those of you who have a mental illness you will know this, but for those of you who don’t: mental illness is physically exhausting and you can become ‘bone tired.’ I felt like gravity had increased a hundred fold. A walk around the block was out of the question. And so, our beds became
Up until that point, I had expressed my inner world through poetry. But depression took my words away. I used to love dancing in my living room but there was no energy for that. I used to play the flute. But couldn’t remember where to put my fingers. So, with no previous experience, I started drawing—copying things and colouring them with some old pencil crayons that I found at the facility. Then I would pin the finished drawing on the wall and marvel that it had such colour and life.
A year earlier, my mother had attempted suicide. My sister and I found her lying on her bedroom floor. The daily visits over the following three weeks to see her in the psychiatric unit was one more demand on my already hectic life. With full-time work as a counsellor in private practice, three teenagers and an emotionally abusive relationship, I was stretching myself as thin as I could. I just couldn’t make myself do one more thing. I was exhausted and depressed. But it was “smiling depression.” No one knew because I wore the “I’m fine and I take care of others” mask. That’s where I found my value.
Until that August, when I woke up one day and knew I needed help, because I could barely move, let alone smile.
Within days I was admitted to Willowview, thinking I would use my two weeks holidays to recover. After all, I thought, “I’m a counsellor and understand how to recover from mental breakdown. I’m not really like the other residents—they actually have a problem.” I really didn’t think recovery would take me long at all.
What I didn’t understand then, but am quite clear about now, is that our intellectual understanding can be quite separate from our emotional understanding. So, intellectually I knew about self-care—before my breakdown I was going to the gym, getting massages and taking holidays: all external self-care.
Internally, I was in emotional pain and denied I felt anything. Refusing to feel, of course, affected my thinking. My thoughts were and still can be quite self-critical. The phrase “Depression is anger turned inward” is true for me. Once I left Willowview, and started to have enough energy to begin counselling, I became aware of my thoughts that were screaming abuse at me. It was hard to accept such malicious thoughts but there they were. Seeing them led to shock and anxiousness. Therapies like acupuncture, meditation, cranial sacral therapy, and yoga have helped to soothe my anxiousness somewhat.
I realize now that my drawings have been essential in my recovery because they contradict the darkness of my thoughts. They do this when I am actually putting the colour on the page, but also once they are finished and I look at them and feel reassured that I am not all dark crags and hidden pain. The paintings reassure me that I, as a spirit and soulful person, do exist. That my thoughts are not all of who I am. In my recovery, my pictures are life buoys that keep my nose just above the sea of dark, abusive thoughts. And slowly, I am feeling safer to feel.
You see, though I was expressing inner angst, pain and suffering, the paintings would come out quite hopeful. I never sat down telling myself, “I’m going to paint a hopeful painting to make myself feel better.” It was more, “I’ll paint anything to distract myself: a candle, a tree, a turtle, a flower—just to lighten my mental stress.” And then, I was surprised to see how they turned out—the colour so vibrant or the content so uplifting. I found solace in my own images.
Dear reader, I am not unique. We all are creative. But, because of negative childhood messages, many of us do not have a sense of our own creativity. In fact, many people believe they have no creativity at all. And this can lead to a deep sense of loss—the kind of loss you can’t quite put your finger on. But, it is there nonetheless.
Whether or not you believe you are creative, you can engage in creative acts: restoring an old car, setting the table, growing a garden. Whether we admit it or not, “human creativity is the driving force inherent in the human organism from birth.”1
Like the emergency lighting that comes on when all the lights go out, our creative energy can offer us solace during depression. It may be the one bridge that remains standing when all the other roads have washed out.
And now, it’s not the Willowview nurses putting my paintings on display, but the warm-hearted people at the Canadian Mental Health Association, who have taken my paintings and put them on the Internet!
The therapeutic nature of my art has thrown me a lifeline—first to myself, and then to others who relate to my images. Art has been a welcome and surprising antidote for my depression.
About the authorSuzan lives in Vancouver. She has a private counselling practice and volunteers for the Canadian Mental Health Association. Her video and ebook, Responding to the Call: The Sequel, can be seen at cmha.bc.ca/suzanmilburn. Suzan’s art is featured on the cover of this issue of Visions
- Gaylin, N.L. (1974). On creativeness and a psychology of well-being. In D.A. Wexler and L.N. Rice (eds.), Innovations in client-centered therapy (339-365). New York: Wiley.