I know that living with chronic un-wellness is really hard. I've been living with severe PMT and other menstruation-related conditions for many years. It's been a long journey, and I'm grateful to have come across some practices and frameworks that have offered support.
When I was studying pastoral care (spiritual care) at La Trobe University, I learned about illness narratives as described by Arthur Frank in his book, ‘The Wounded Storyteller’.
In our culture, the dominant illness narrative is the 'restitution' narrative. In this story, we are healthy, then we become unwell, we seek treatment, and we are restored to our previous state of health.
But we know that illnesses don't always follow this pattern. Sometimes we get sick, and we seek treatments, and none of the treatments restore us to health. There is no sense of control, and we become lost, overwhelmed and lose hope. There are no solutions to the problem, no ways to fix it. This is a 'chaos' narrative.
Sometimes we move between the 'restitution' and 'chaos' narratives. Something works for a while, then it doesn’t. Or suddenly another condition emerges.
And sometimes, we get sick and we seek treatment; we go to the doctor, the shaman, the healer, read self-help books and the latest research, attend workshops, and finally come to realise that this thing isn’t going to get ‘fixed’ as we hope. We need to learn to live with it.
And we also realise that the journey we’re on, triggered by the illness, has lead us to come to know ourselves better, to develop a new relationship with our body, emotions, thoughts, and soul. We weave new threads of connection in our communities, find rituals and connect with something bigger than ourselves. The illness is a spiritual journey.
This narrative is the 'quest' narrative.
The 'quest' narrative, is where we make meaning of our lived experience. The 'quest' narrative, where our illness offers us opportunities to grow and to heal – not necessarily the physical body, but into wholeness – can be supported and cultivated through skilled companioning, such as that art therapy offers.
In my own ongoing journey with PMT and Endometriosis, I've moved from 'restitution', to 'chaos', to 'quest' narratives, and sometimes back and forward between them. I've been able to dive into the experience that is presenting day to day, express difficult emotions and find meaning through personal creative arts practices including visual art, cartoons, journaling, sculpture, dancing and blogging.
Art therapy sessions with skilled practitioners have helped me to recognise when I needed additional support, like enlisting the support of an integrative GP, and to connect with inner resources to get through periods of intense negative thoughts and depression. Having a witness in the journey has been profoundly supportive.
I’ve come to learn that my illness actually supports my growth as a human being. My illness has led me to self-compassion practices, to deeply value rest, to work through trauma with a Somatic Experiencing practitioner, to anger work, and to studying to become an arts therapist, to name a few.
My illness continues to challenge me to grow. It’s taken many years, but I can actually say I’m grateful for its gifts.
If you’re living with menstrual disorder(s), and want assistance to tell your story through the creative arts and to explore your quest narrative, please get in touch.
I’d love to offer you support in your journey .
A Universe Inside Her Womb. 17/8/15
This image is part way through a creative process when I was pre-menstrual and grieving that another opportunity to birth a child had passed.
"Last Saturday I was weepy. I just couldn't get out of bed. Weepiness rolled into waves and cascades of tears. Sobbing. Thoughts of despair fed the tears and the tears fed the thoughts. At some point, still early in the day, an image arose in my being.
My universe. My womb a universe...
I fingerpainted, throwing colour across the page. Casting in the tears, that blood-full space, cradled by tender hands, encompassing arms.
She sheds the tears for me. This universe inside that will never be born."
Over the years I've immersed in a number arts challenges and have found that it wakes up my creativity every time.
My first arts challenge was a number of years ago. A friend in my songwriting group was starting a 30-day songwriting challenge, and I decided to jump on board. I wrote and recorded one song a day for 30 days... An epic feat actually! The songs were really diverse: soundscapes; standard format verse, chorus, verse, bridge, chorus; short chants; layered vocal improvisation; spoken word over music. They all counted as songs for the purpose of the project.
Last year I participated in a group 7-day online creativity challenge facilitated by Bravo Child. He posted a video each day and then offered a number of creative prompts that we could take inspiration from. Group members uploaded their creations to a Facebook group, along with notes on how the process was for us. I really love some of the works that came out of that challenge.
About a month ago, I was playing in my journal and created a mandala. That evening a friend, Jac Price, posted that she was going to create one mandala a day for the whole month in a challenge she called 'Mandalas in May'. I decided to join. I've loved the process so much that I've decided to continue.
I've found the following to be really supportive in my arts challenges:
1. Commitment and ritual: In an arts challenge, we commit to a practice for a period of time. We are choosing to show up to our inner artist and to our artistic practice. Rituals can support the practice. For instance, choosing to create at a certain time each day. Most of my mandalas were created in bed before I went to sleep. They were an opportunity to wind down and to reflect on the day. I was also flexible though and if I had some time sitting at a cafe, would whip out the journal and watercolours. If you miss a day, re-commit and begin again the next. If you find you're missing loads of days, perhaps re-evaluate if this is the best time to be engaging in this practice. You might also want the support of a creative companion or registered arts therapist if you're finding that the same things keep getting in the way of your practice.
2. Accountability: If you're going to be taking something on that feels like a stretch, it's good to have a team. In the 30-day songwriting challenge, my friend and I set up a Droxbox folder and at the end of each day would upload our new pieces. Having someone there who was engaging in the same process really helped in the moments where it felt like a stretch. In the mandala practice, I uploaded an image to Instagram and Facebook each day. It was lovely to share the works, and also to receive the cheers from others who were enjoying seeing them.
3. Curiosity: As an artist, and in life, emergence is a core value. Being open to the next step in creative process, particularly when I don't have preconceived ideas, is cultivated by an attitude of curiosity: What is going to emerge today? Some days I've followed an impulse to use different paper or sizes. Sometimes I've begun in the centre and created outwards, and sometimes I've started with a circle. I am delighted by the continual unfolding. I am curious about how long it will take to get bored with the practice. I am even more curious about what happens after I get bored!
4. Gently ask the perfectionist to step aside: Creative process thrives in a space of play, openness and emergence. For an arts challenge, it's best to be in the mode of 'morning pages' (Julia Cameron); just let it come through! That means there will be some work our discerning mind would consider 'good' and some that is 'not so good'. That's okay! Just stay with the process and keep creating. I know there was one mandala that my critic got quite nasty about. I finished it, uploaded, and continued creating the next day. Of the 30 songs I wrote in the songwriting challenge, I still play probably four or five of them.
5. Self-care and compassion: It isn't called a challenge for nothing. It stretches us. And it can also be deeply nourishing and fulfilling. Be kind to yourself and make the practice manageable through suitable boundaries. One night I was exhausted and really ready to sleep, I set the timer for 10 minutes and started with a small circle. I made sure the practice met my energy level. Make sure you're taking in inspiration regularly; go see a band, visit a gallery, jump on Pinterest. Invite friends to create with you. Also, when I did the 30-day songwriting challenge, I was on a break from work so had time to play for hours each day. I don't think I could engage in the same level of songwriting challenge in this phase of my life. I'd probably choose one song a week for eight weeks for instance.
6. Reflection: An arts challenge is a great way to notice more about your creative process. In the making, and afterwards, you might like to journal: How was it for you to make the art? What did you notice about your process? How was it to work with the materials? What is your relationship with each artwork? What does your creative process reveal about patterns in your life? What message do the pieces reveal to you?
I'd love to hear what challenges you've engaged in? What are you committing to next? And please, get in touch if you'd like support in your creative practice!
PS. Most of these mandalas were created using Koh-I-Noor Brilliant Water Colours and a waterbrush.
Last night, on the Autumn Equinox, I sat by a fire with a friend, talking about transitions in life. My current transition is from student to practitioner, and I described the difficulty I have in articulating what I offer as an arts therapist; 'How do I say to people, "come and make art with me"?' My friend, a copy writer, began to ask simple questions beginning with, 'what is your why?'
I replied that creative practice is my way of navigating life's challenges.
She asked, 'what does that mean? How does it work?'
Well, if I'm struggling with big emotions or unanswered questions, journaling, painting, or moving can really help. It's cathartic to express my experience in this way. But it also creates a form that is outside of myself, that I can see from a new perspective and have a relationship with.
I said that making art, in itself, is beneficial, but that having a companion in the process takes it to a deeper level. Making art in relationship with another, with a witness to the process, offers so much more.
The conversation continued, and we spoke about her experience of copy writing, launching her business, her current transitions, and the steps she took to build a client base. Then she asked, 'what if I can't draw?'
I'm embarrassed to say that I giggled a little at the question. I couldn't tell at first whether she was sincere or being in copy-writer-question mode, drawing me out. It turns out that her question was sincere.
It gave me the opportunity to reassure her that this is a really common concern, but that in arts therapy sessions, the focus is more on process than outcome, and that we use lots of different materials in a curious and playful way. We might begin with a blank page and simply make a mess. We might take a lump of clay and press it, just noticing how it feels, and waiting to see what shapes emerge. There is no right or wrong way to make an artform, or as we call it at Miecat, a representation.
She then asked, 'do you interpret me?'
I let her know that back in the olden days, psychologists and psychiatrists interpreted images, telling their clients what their works meant about their mental state, but that I don't work in that paradigm. In my sessions, you, the art maker, explore the meaning of your representations. I might ask a series of questions to help to uncover those meanings, or offer some personal reflections about what stands out for me, but it's always your meaning that matters most. What you discover brings you closer to your truth.
So, that brings me closer to my why.
I make art because my creative practice supports me to flourish in life. It helps me to regulate my emotions. It offers new perspectives and insights. It connects me to my truth. I make art with a companion because it's valuable to have a witness who can offer reflections and support in the process. And it's a joy to create with others!
I companion others in their artmaking because I know the value of this process, and it is an honour to offer a safe space for creative and personal exploration.
Am curious to hear, why do you engage in creative practice?
And if you don't currently, would you like a supportive space in which to begin?
Last year I completed my Masters in Therapeutic Arts Practice. I undertook a year long placement in community arts and health, gathering experiences in a variety of contexts.
I taught a group of artists how to eco-print and together we created many works and shared them in an exhibition. I co-facilitated a retreat day exploring the Hero's Journey. I provided administrative support in creating a conference. I facilitated an arts inquiry process, leading to a community arts project. I companioned individual clients as they explored their inner life and creative process.
During the placement, I came to clearly see my core values as a practitioner of creative arts therapies:
In the creative process, often we cannot know how something will be born, what shape it will take, or what we will experience in the making. This 'beginning in the unknown' offers such rich possibility. We can set an intention, and move from there, bearing witness to what emerges. We trust and allow the process to unfold in its own way, sometimes surprised by what is revealed.
Throughout the placement, we engaged with the arts to inquire into particular themes. The process and emerging forms offered new knowings. As a researcher, this is deeply nourishing. I now carry this value into sessions with individual clients. Bringing an attitude of openness and curiosity, we can explore our lived experience and find resonant meanings and new perspectives. How we respond to art materials or art works might show us long-held pattern, or a new way of being in our lives.
I have worked with different materials and modalities throughout my life, finding myself drawn to particular tools at different times. Some art therapists have researched the particular qualities of different modalities, describing what each can offer in the therapeutic space. Working multi-modally allows this to occur organically. We are simply drawn to work with string and paint, or clay, or to move spontaneously while sounding. Sometimes it feels challenging to work with a modality and we discover parts of ourselves that have been hidden. Sometimes a modality can be the perfect thing to express a feeling that we've been unable to verbalise.
At the core of therapeutic engagement is relationship. In arts therapies, we are present to the relationship we have with materials, the artworks, the process of creating, and our therapeutic companion. As a therapeutic arts practitioner it is my aim to be present with you, attending to your process and to my own inner responses, offering reflections and asking questions when that is in support to you. It is in therapeutic relationship that we learn to navigate dissonance, to experience rupture and repair, and to develop self-compassion.
The placement helped to clarify these values. They are not all the values that inform my work, but some of the most important. What values do you carry in your life and work?
Yesterday, I went to see an arts therapist. I'd noticed I was feeling a little stuck in a few areas and wanted a space in which to explore that stuckness. I could have made art alone, but felt that there would be new possibility and richness in the therapeutic relationship. I also could have seen a counselor, but know the value of the arts in the therapeutic space.
I've seen a number of therapists and practitioners over the years. Since my first counseling course at the age of 21, I've valued the therapeutic space and what it offers. I've seen (and learned a lot from!) a range of different practitioners - counselors, somatic therapists, somatic experiencing practitioners, process oriented psychologists, and arts therapists to name a few.
In the session yesterday, I opened with a verbal overview of what was happening for me. Then, when I felt the impulse, I moved into making art. I chose a piece of cardboard and began with charcoal, creating some distinct forms, and filling them with water colour paints. As the visual forms emerged, I continued to reflect on the scenario of stuckness, tuning into a particular felt sense that was present; a heavy sense of responsibility. I continued to work on the image, and through the questions and noticing of my companion, came to see new possibilities.
The image, or the art artwork, in arts therapies offers so much. Beyond what the mind knows consciously, and beyond the verbal, the art works offer different ways of knowing. As I create, I pay attention to the process and to what stands out for me, finding new metaphors and resonant meanings.
I left the session feeling brighter in the possibilities, and the heaviness I'd been experiencing had lifted. I was able to consider clear actions that would help me to move through the stuckness, and to realise that it is perfectly fine to dip my toes, or perhaps a little more of my foot, into the waters.
I am grateful to my companion for the session, for her reflections and questions, and the way she stayed with me through my process. I am also grateful to the image that emerged, for what it offered in the process of creation and its final form.
For me, the value of arts therapies is the emergent knowing, beyond mind, revealed both in the artwork and the context of relationship.
Recently, I was invited to write an article on creativity for Living Now magazine. As I was mid-way through facilitating a series of SpiritSong sessions, I let that be my entry point...
"We sit in a circle, the lights are low and our eyes are closed. A quiet voice speaks, offering the theme of ‘courage.’ A singing bowl creates a steady tone and one by one, we offer our voices into the space. In the deep listening each of us brings, sound rises effortlessly, interweaving in shifting harmony. There is an exquisite quality in the room tonight. It evokes spaciousness, expansion, wonder. I am transported. My earlier heaviness dissolves and dissipates in this sacred space, inviting gratitude in its place"...
To read more, please visit The Courage in Song - Living Now.
A client asked me recently, "How do I begin?" They were referring to their creative practice, noticing that the methods they have used in the past to access a creative flow state, were no longer working for them. They reflected that without a clear idea of what they're going to create, or when the critic is too loud in their head, or when they're alone in the studio, they feel unable to begin.
I've experienced similar struggles in my own creative practice. I've thought about painting many times over the past few months and I just haven't done it. I've felt frustrated in my process; that I'm not producing anything of worth, that I don't have an idea of what I should make, and that the pile of canvases in my shed shouldn't grow any larger!
Writing this blog is a reminder to myself to move past the thoughts that block my practice and simply make art. From early in my creative journey, I’ve been inspired by Julia Cameron who encourages regular creative practice. Her philosophy is to keep showing up to the page/canvas/instrument. But I feel there are some extra things I can put in place to support my creative practice.
For me the first step is to notice the critic and acknowledge that they have been running the show. I remind myself that I don't need to have an idea of what I’m creating before I begin. I remind myself that art is the territory of the Soul, and I can simply make space for it to emerge, in its own way and timing, paying attention to what is. For me, art is sometimes born of a passionate heart, exploding in fiery cathartic expression across the canvas or onto the piano keys. However, as an expression of Soul, my art making can also require a tender and safe space in which to emerge.
There are ways to generate a space of safety for this tender art-making. Similar to beginning a meditation practice, it is supportive to have a dedicated space to work in, particularly if that space is already set up and ready with materials that inspire me. As added inspiration, I can choose to keep my creative space alive by creating an altar with objects - bits of nature, clippings of poetry, soft material - that beckon the Soul to come forth through art making.
To help to open the creative channel, I can take some moments of quiet before beginning my practice. Sometimes I might choose to connect with my heart and ask, what is here that wants to be expressed? What wants to be given form now? Perhaps that decision that's been niggling at me wants a different perspective? Sometimes I choose to set an intention for my art making, and sometimes I come to the page with no plan or expectation. Over time, I develop deeper trust in this pre-reflective art making. No, I don't need to know in advance what is being created.
Recently I engaged in a short mindfulness practice before beginning art making, bringing my awareness to breath and sensations in the body, coming home to the present moment, noticing what is here, now. I found that an image spontaneously arose and I took that to clay, shaping and forming what I had seen within.
I can let my attitude be one of curiosity and play. What is going to emerge today? What happens if I bring together sewing materials, wood and clay? What would happen if this painting were to write a poem? What might this story look like as a dance? I can keep a journal of creative curiosities and small inspirations, bringing together what normally would not be brought together. I can re-visit the works of creative doulas like Julia Cameron, Pat Allen, and Natalie Goldman.
If it feels daunting to spend a lot of time, I can choose to set a timer. This can be a great way to bypass the critic – simply to fill a page with colour, or to work the clay continually, or to write stream of consciousness for 15 minutes can help to get the creative flow going. I can work with what is present. If the critic is still giving me a hard time, I can make a visual or movement representation of it, amplify it, or make it a caricature of it.
If I’m still finding it challenging to get started, I can invite a friend to come and play in a creative space with me. Sometimes I choose to attend an art therapy workshop or see an art therapist individually. This is particularly important when I don’t have capacity to hold a compassionate witness space for myself. Inviting a companion for my journey is an act of self-care.
So, a summary of how to begin:
The more I engage in creative practice the more I realise the value of following my own flow. I pay attention to my process, noticing what curiosities I hold, what feels important, and what impulses are arising. If I begin to doubt, or worry about the 'how', then I experience stuckness and frustration. If I am able to follow those promptings of my soul, then I feel in flow. I've come to deeply value the capacity to listen to my inner voice and to allow that to unfold. Sometimes it requires great trust and the courage to take a risk.
Recently, I participated in a two weekend immersion in eco-printing. In this simple method, natural materials such as leaves, onion skins or cabbage, are laid upon silk, then bundled tightly around a copper bar or tin can. The whole bundle is then immersed in boiling water for a few hours to activate the dyes in the natural materials. Particular intention can be given into the bundle. After some time, we un-bundle, paying attention to our own responses and experiencing through journalling and in conversation with others.
As someone who is not particularly textile-oriented, I find eco-printing to be an access point to working with material. In the workshop, I felt drawn to a pristine white wedding dress. After trying it on, cheekily calling myself a princess and prancing about, I realised I had somehow marked it with some dirt. I realised the dress was mine and that I had to work with it.
As the process of creation unfolded, I found myself experiencing cycles of curiosity, possibility, fear, stuckness, action, and excitement. During the process of making, the dress taught me about the gifts that are present when I am able to follow myself and take risks. When I follow my flow, it works somehow. Each new risk required a level of skill I didn't believe I had, however I continued to follow that impulse to see what would occur.
The flow on is that I can translate this learning into my life. I felt a strong emotional response to an experience yesterday and didn't know how to respond. I felt fear, and then was stuck. Eventually, I realised that I could take a risk through taking action. I initiated a conversation, and found my flow again.
This is the beauty of art therapy. It brings such rich awareness to our patterns. It shows up our learning edges and, with compassionate and open attention, we can begin to relate differently in life. What a precious gift!
My deepest gratitude to Jacqui Grace and Rebecca Funk who held this process in such love and trust.
For the past few weeks, I've been feeling blocked in my creativity. Apart from feeling generally tired from my new job and on the edge of a cold, I've noticed that the voice of the inner critic has been quite loud. It has been there whenever I've thought about being creative. It's been there when I've considered promoting my business. It's also been there when I've performed with my band.
The voice of the inner critic is harsh, it wants to keep me small and so it tells me that my painting will be crap, so why bother anyway? It reminds me of the things I didn't do so well last time I met with a client. It tells me my performance in the gig wasn't good enough; I should be more confident, more skilled, more perfect before I ever get on stage again.
It's a wonder I ever produce anything in the world!
I've been aware of it. I know that I can build a relationship with the critic and ask it in more depth what it wants, and what its role is in my life. I know that it's important to do this work. But now, I'm tired. I don't feel like doing the work.
So, in the meantime, I decided to make a critic-free space for myself.
I invited a friend over for a cup of tea and laid out a whole bunch of creative materials. And I decided that, today, nothing needs to be 'good'. I decided that I just want to be playful and curious, and enjoy the colours and the process. We both started on our projects, working individually but alongside each other.
I dropped ink onto a page and turned it in circles, watching the drips moving with gravity and the forms of strange creatures emerging. I used a thirsty type of cardboard and let the colour sink in, fading to pale. I loaded my brush with paint and sprayed it across the page.
In that hour or so, I made a bunch of images. But, more importantly, I made myself content.
And I hadn't heard a peep from the critic!
Yesterday I began a new research job across town (yes, I wear a few different hats!). I got home feeling exhausted, drained and dark. I ran a bath, cried some tears, heated some veggie curry for dinner and then pulled out my art tin.
I began with black soft pastel, creating spirals reflecting the darkness of my experiencing, radiating out toward the edge of the page. There was no need to make it look like anything, I just let the feeling guide my hand. Then I brought some red, dripping food dye (my new favourite art medium) into the centre, and then drawing that outward. Gradually I added blue and yellow, mixing the colour into the black. Somehow, the image wasn't dense enough and so I took up a thick paintbrush and water and began to blend the colour into the black, turning circles on the page. It didn't look pretty but I could feel my mood lifting.
I sang some melancholy songs and then began a new painting.
This one wanted colour. I used a wide brush and dabbed it over and over, turning it either up or sideways. There was no plan, just a meditative application of colour. God, it felt so good! The simple action of choosing colour, and then placing it on the page. I was able to rest into a new space, one of simplicity, following my inner impulse in the moment. It was a space beyond the busy mind, just simply being in gentle movement.
That gentle movement completely transformed my inner world.
I am so grateful for such a simple blessing!
Chelle is a practicing art therapist, researcher, and multi-modal creative. She regularly dives into the unknown to discover what is ready to be born, deepening her trust in the abundantly creative source. For Chelle, art is a means to inquire, express, and transform. If offers the capacity to soothe, making space for new perspectives and ways of being.