Swimming the distance: mental health as a endurance pursuit

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If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you may (or may not!) know that I’m currently training for a long distance swim in June. I’ll be swimming 5K, which is just over 3 miles (not an insubstantial distance for a swimmer), in lake Windermere during the Great North swim in June. At the moment I’m a bit concerned that I’ll be pulled out of the water half way through as I’m a little slow, but I have a bit more time to train and have been putting the effort in. Last year I swam a 2 mile event in about 1 hour and 20 minutes so if I can up my pace a bit and keep it going I should be ok, but I have the nerves all the same. I am already fitter than I was for last years event, but the distance is longer so on balance I am probably not as far ahead of myself as I would like to be.

Over the last few weeks I’ve been putting in a session in the gym one evening a week after work, as well as the swims. It’s a bit awkward to swim before or after work as the timings of the appropriate swim sessions don’t quite fit with my commute, and I don’t have enough discipline to quite force them to work! I’m trying to build up my stamina in just being able to do the same uncomfortable thing, mostly on the elliptical machine, for extended periods of time. I am concentrating on building up endurance and stamina, not so much speed. That is a gradual game. Little by little I get a bit stronger. Little by little each time I go a bit further. While at the gym a few weeks ago I was thinking about how the same principle applies to many of the other things I’ve been doing. I’ve been making the same film for at least 4 years now, and slowly I accumulate new bits and pieces for that until suddenly it starts to look like something that makes sense as a whole.

I think that working on my own mental health has been a similar process. I have a stressful day job. In the past few years I had some considerable anxiety about a range of things, and a bit of depression tagged along with that. Living like that is really tiring. Getting physically fitter now is probably really helping with that, but that has come as part of a general effort towards a healthier way of living at home. We now eat predominantly (but not exclusively) healthy plant based food, and have been doing so for over a year, but it took some time to work out how to make that work for us. I started working part time last year, dropping one day to enable me to swim and make things, which was quite a big little step in the right direction.

I wouldn’t say that I now spend all my time walking around in a state of ecstatic energetic creative contentment. But little by little, I think my ability to endure for the less enjoyable stuff of life, and look past it to the next fun thing is growing. Mental health isn’t a sprint to the finish line, it’s a long distance game.

Putting things down, picking things up, starting again

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Over the last few weeks I’ve been making a slow return to working on two projects that I started last year. At the beginning of last year I took a course in documentary film making and I took two courses in play writing. I’ve been interested in the process of documentary filmmaking for quite a while. A lot of my formal training has been in research methods and in the social sciences, and have some frustrations with the way that academic work gets communicated (or doesn’t) to the wider world. At the time this seemed like a good thing to understand a bit better, and a good fit with my existing skill set. I took the play writing course because I was stuck with a novel I was working with and thought it would be helpful to look at it from a different approach. But then I got hooked and decided I had to write a play, obviously. And I did, sort of.

But there were problems. The film school that I enrolled with decided to change the dates of their course without really giving me much notice and I ended up trying to do both things at the same time, and have a full time job too. It worked for a while, but then I went through some crappy nonsense in my private life, and started a new job, and it didn’t really work anymore. Up until the beginning of September I’d not really worked on either project for 12 months and was not feeling great about that as I really wanted to finish something well enough to send it ‘somewhere’. I also have a film maker in my family, my dad, who kept gently reminding me that I should, ‘Work on my film’. And he’s right, I should be working on my film, because I got lucky with a really good story and could do something really interesting with it.

It took me a bit of time to work out what the blocks were on continuing with both projects, but I think I have a list now.

  1. Space – I was living with a friend of mine at the time and didn’t really have a huge amount of space. I’m kind of messy, and didn’t want to leave my mess all over his flat, so I ended up with a kind of squashed psychological space to work in.
  2. Teaching style – on the doc film course at least I felt a little as though I didn’t gel with the tutor. I think she’s great film maker, and loved talking to her about films. But she’s very much from the observational documentary style school. I wanted to work with other artistic things, like animation and set up pieces of film. I think I felt at the time that I wasn’t really able to make ‘my’ film so I did’t make a film at all.
  3. Time and Timing – the timing was bad, I was sad and exhausted. I was still getting used to living in London having moved from Cardiff, which is a much smaller, calmer city and one that I knew very well. I did’t have time to feed my creative self and that meant I couldn’t really put the work in that was needed.
  4. The fraud police – would anything I produced actually be as good as I thought they could be?

Above are some images I finished off yesterday that will part of an animation for the documentary. I’ve been writing new scenes for the play. So what’s happened? What has changed? I can think of two things that have really worked in ‘unblocking’. The first is that I cut out a load of things that I was doing, including socialising with some people that kind of drained me a bit, and carved out that time for doing creative stuff. Small, achievable projects first, at which step by step led me back to the ‘big’ ones. I’ve also come to realise that part of my creative process involves giving projects long ‘down’ periods as this enables me to come back to them with a new perspective. So not working on either project for a year doesn’t feel un-natural with hindsight.

Second, and I think this is the big one. I moved in with the boyfriend. We got a place together that gives me more space, and that helps. But I think the real key here is him. He’s constantly and consistently supportive, and frequently cooks the dinner so I can get on with something else. He’s such a tidy organised person, and yet he tolerates my creative mess everywhere, and he does it all with humour. He’s always happy to listen to my ideas, and talk to me about that, while never once said ‘you should do this’. I think that’s enabled me to regain some creative confidence. I had been told in the past that picking the right partner was really important, and I had been a bit dismissive of that, because at the time I was single and thought I could do it all myself. Turns out that advice was pretty good advice, after all.

You are here by Jenny Lawson

So being ill can have an up side sometimes. I’ve been unwell with some awful head cold [wo]man flu and haven’t been able to do much work. I’ve been mostly sleeping, drinking honey and lemon, and watching telly, with a little web surfing on the side. The web surfing turned out to be a little too exciting for my ill brain and I’ve had to wait a few days before I was able to form a coherent thought about this.

I came across Jenny Lawson’s memoir Furiously Happy, at least a year ago through one of those Amazon ‘and you may also like’ recommendations.  I loved it, having been bought up in the country with my own bunch of eccentrics, and from there I went on to read Let’s pretend this never happened, which I also loved. These books are very funny, and great books for anyone who has ever wanted to hide under a table at a public event (or regularly finds themselves taking a ‘time out’ in the office loo). Earlier in the week I wasn’t very well and couldn’t do much more than sit in bed and surf the internet. I spent some of that time diving into the Bloggess website and it was the first time I was able to have a really good read about her colouring book You are Here.

I really think this post is worth looking at for anyone who uses arty creative things as part of their efforts to manage mental health. Jenny Lawson writes vividly about her own arts practice (I have no idea if she would call it that, but her drawings are works of art) continually using drawing and doodling as a way of channeling negative or distressing thoughts or emotions. She is releasing a colouring book based on these drawings, alongside some short stories that work with the drawings, and what a beautiful thing it is (at least it looks that way from the pictures – the physical book won’t be available for a few months). Just go and look at the sweeping curves and swirling lines of some of these drawings. I really love how these drawings are intricate, and delicate, effective in evoking fairytale and myth. Somehow exciting and soothing to look at at the same time. I’ve ordered my copy, and I can’t imagine anyone not enjoying getting creative with this set of drawings. Or just owning them. Anyway, go and look. Now.

Don’t for a minute think about stopping you lovely bunch of creatives

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[EDIT: So I had a nice formal sounding title for this post, but then I went and changed it because this feels better in getting across what I want to say]

I was procrastinating before work this morning and read this article from George Monbiot on the Guardian website about neoliberalism and loneliness and mental health. I thought it was an interesting article and feel he has a number of valid points about how the two things are connected. I was particularly interested in the scientific work he referenced about the link between stress, pain and physical contact. Anyway it’s a good article – I’m not going to re-write what he says here – go check it out for yourself.

The article this morning happened to come to my attention just two days after I had stumbled onto the work of Prof. Paul Crawford from the University of Nottingham after I me him during a day job event. Paul has been suggesting some really interesting ideas about how we enable people to use arts, humanities and creativity in looking after their own mental health and in their recovery from mental illness. He has a particularly interesting ideas around some form of collective healing through arts and humanities. He’s recently published a book called Health Humanities on the subject with Brian Brown, Charley Baker, Victoria Tischler and Brian Abrams. I’ve not read it yet but I’ve downloaded it and will be putting it on the list.

Both Crawford’s talk and Monbiot’s article have lead me to thinking a bit more about our culture and the role of arts in it. I feel over the last decade and probably for longer there has been this odd political positioning of people who are ‘Artists’ who get to do the making of things, and the rest of us as consumers, who are consumers who are meant to buy things. And things have become very easy, and very cheep to buy. This feels like quite a different situation to the one my parents and grandparents grew up in. My grandfather would probably not have called himself an artist, but he could make anything, and it was common for people to make things for each other, like jam. I like jam.

When I was younger I think I had quite a dismissive attitude towards people who made things (unless they were one of those special, magical, serious people, a proper artist), especially people who made things in groups or clubs. I was a child of the 80s, and while I grew up in the countryside without much stuff, the prevailing political climate was one of stuff worship (and not hand made stuff either). I’ve completely changed my mind about this. For people to gather together to share their making, like a meal, or to make things together, like kitting or music, or in staging a play, is a profoundly creative act. To be connected to each other through our creativity is a profoundly human one.

I think there is a backlash towards this at the moment, and it is thrilling. The internet used to be full of cats. Now it is full up of people having a go at being artists. And crafters and cooks and gardeners and poets. And people making Jam. It is full of artists cheering on other artists. A community or creatives supporting other creatives. Brilliant. Don’t for a minute think about stopping you lovely bunch of creatives.

A bit more on ‘On not being able to paint’

I’ve been digging into Marion Milner’s book ‘On not being able to paint’ and have been really enjoying this. The book describes Milner’s efforts in trying to learn how to paint, and she takes a psychoanalytic perspective on this. I’m no expert in psychoanalysis and have definitely had to re-read a few bits and pieces to get a better appreciation of their meaning. Even so I have been enjoying the book as an interesting and thoughtful meditation on the creative process and what that can mean for the creative individual. This week I’ve been particularly struck by this quote:

“It now looked as if some of the spiritual dangers to be faced in this matter of coming to see as the painter sees were concerned with the transfiguration of the external world; in fact with a process of giving to it something that came from within oneself, either in an over whelming of a reviving flood. Also this process could be felt as a plunge – a plunge that one could sometimes do deliberately, but which also sometimes just happened, as when one falls in love.”

Last week I struggled to even begin to describe the quality of the light that was created through the stained glass windows of La Sagrada Familia. I think also I was  in complete awe of the sheer scale of that creative effort. I think in part this came from knowing the personal, internal effort that would have been involved in committing the vision of something on that scale to paper, and to see it built, and the vulnerability that would require. This is possibly why this quote has spoken to me this week.

Cool artsy stuff with Jade Herriman

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A few weeks ago I came across the blog of Jade Herriman. It looked like she was doing something interesting but it wasn’t until this morning that I had time to take a bit of a dive into her blog to see what was going on.

I really like her site. Jade is based in Australia and has set up an arts and mental health based business. The talented lady is also an arts therapist and a life coach. I particularly like a series of blog posts she has written about the effort and struggles it takes to set up a successful business, for example this one here.

Last week I wrote a bit about how, among other things, I’m not very comfortable with the current trend of calling colouring books or origami books therapy. They may feel therapeutic, but they aren’t what you would get from a skilled therapist. Turns out Jade has some similar thoughts, and can speak to this from the point of view of a professional.

Anyway, I really like what she’s trying to do, so go check her out.

On not being able to paint by Marion Milner

I’ve just begun to read ‘On not being able to paint’ by Marion Milner and I really liked the following quote from the page 6 of the first chapter. Marion Milner writes about her struggles in trying to learn how to paint, and relates these struggles to psychoanalytic processes. I think many of us who have an artistic practice will recognise experiences that resonate with this account:

On reaching home I had begun a sketch in charcoal, feeling that the mood to be expressed was a real aesthetic pleasure in beauty of the form, to be embodied in a serious drawing of artistic worth. Instead, figure 2 [a simple drawing of a relatively dour looking lady] appeared.

The book goes on to detail her ongoing artistic development and her use of free drawings to explore internal states of being. Of particular interest to those of you with an interest in art and psychology may be her attempt to paint as an expression of emotion, rather than trying to re-create the image in front of her.

This quote above reminded me of the importance of the ‘practice’ in artistic practice. In ‘practices’ such as yoga or meditation it is readily accepted that when you start, you will find things difficult, but through practice you begin to find things a bit easier, a bit more enjoyable and a bit more useful. I sometime feel that there is something about the idea of being an ‘artist’ which is off putting for people, it doesn’t encourage the idea of practice unless their is a pr-existing ‘talent’. There is sometimes a feeling that you can only really be artistic if every piece of work you create is good, as if only certain people can be artists. I’ve met many people who don’t engage in creative practices because they feel that they are ‘no good’ at making things or drawing things and so they effectively gave up, which I think is really sad.

I think some of the best creative experiences may not result in a beautiful product, or even a finished product. I’d like to believe that the act of being creative in itself is a really positive thing, and that over time and repeated efforts everyone can get better at what ever their chosen creative ‘thing’ is. These are the experiences that can be the most playful and the most experimental, and can lead to the most new learning. Each time you try something new, or delve back into the techniques that you know you enjoy, you build on the things and skills you learned last time. This is what practice is all about.

 

Creativity and Catharsis

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I’ve been blogging over the last few weeks about how an arts practice can be a positive thing for wellbeing and mental health. In my last post I was musing on how in the process of making things we transform one set of things (paper and paint, thoughts and feelings) into something else, something beautiful.

I’m interested in the idea that as part of the process of making something, it is possible to use thoughts, feeling, ideas or experiences as a raw material for craft. The concept of artistic expression as a cathartic process is not new. The idea is that the artist may not only use their practice as a medium through which to express feelings, but in the process may somehow expel or ‘purge’ negative emotions from their systems and in doing so would be relieved from them. For many people some negative emotions hold such power that it may be difficult to actually articulate them. A sweep of dark paint across a canvas, or beating of drums or moving the body through dance, may be the way in which a person may actually be able to give some form to those emotions. Once the paint is on the canvas a person may be able to ‘see’ what they are feeling externalised, and feel the emotion is no longer contained within them, but has been ‘set free’. I understand this reading of catharsis as a little like mental vomiting, expelling what is noxious to be rid of it.

A few years ago I was very interested in how story and narrative may have an impact on us humans, and I read the work of (and had the privilege of meeting with) Prof. Keith Oatley, who was very interested in the idea of fictional literature as a kind of emotional simulation. He had a slightly different reading of catharsis that drew on a different translation of the Greek roots. He described how catharsis could be interpreted not as a purging, but as a process of ‘clearing away’ or making sense of emotional turmoil. The experience of being in mental distress can be highly confusing. Some have suggested that through the process of creating art out of an emotional situation, it can be possible to make sense of it. The act of externalising emotion through that sweep of paint on the canvas may not really be effective in removing the emotion from the inside, but what it may be able to do is help make sense of it so that it is ever so slightly easier to live with.

Making and mental health: Arts as a transformative practice

img_0076-1I have been musing over the last few weeks in what has turned into a little blog series about how having an arts practice can be a positive thing for mental health. It certainly works on some level for me. Over the last few years I keep coming back to the idea art as a transformative practice in the projects I have started (and often not really finished – I have the multipotentialite problem of too many projects and not enough time). One of the characters in a novel and then in a play I have been (am still) working on was directly concerned with this idea, and I’ve often spoken informally to artists of have had similar thoughts about it.

The act of Making is one of transformation. We take all manner of things, objects, paper, paint and glue and in combining those things through various techniques we transform them into something new and possibly unique. For many artists one of those ingredients is feeling. The act of using good feeling or bad and channelling that into a project to transform into something else is an profoundly creative act. The idea that emotions can feed creative work has been around for a long time, as has the stereotype of the ‘troubled artist’, so I am doubtful that this is a new idea to many reading this. I think it is this ability of an arts practice to allow the expression of feeling that can make it particularly positive. It can be a way of expressing, and gaining clarity, on what is going on for a person without requiring them to directly verbalise it. Potentially for many, expressing themselves through visual means, or through music, makes far greater sense that attempting this through what can be the very limiting medium of words.

I’m not suggesting that all art is about this process, for many art can also be a restful or pleasing diversion. But frequently the art that speaks to me most speaks to me on this level. A really useful way of thinking about this for me came through reading Amanda Palmer’s Book ‘The Art of Asking’ (I really enjoyed this one, more on this another time). There are a lot of useful ideas in here, but the one that grabbed my interest in particular was the idea of the artist as ‘Sin Eater’. Traditionally the Sin Eater was a person who may live at the margins of a community. Their role was to take on the sins of a person who had recently died so that person would be able to pass on to heaven. In Welsh communities the Sin Eater may visit with a family and break bread and drink ale over the body of a loved one to ‘eat’ their sins. In ‘The Art of Asking’ Amanda Palmer speaks about the artist as the sin eater, as a figure who is able to take on the sadness, anger or distress of others and transform that into something beautiful, into art. I found this description particularly useful to think about, and in understanding the function art can play in helping us understand ourselves.