New Pages Added

I have been busy with updates to this blog. I have added a Links page and an Art page in the top menu. I have added links to the Suicide Prevention Lifeline, NAMI, NoStigmas, and others. I will keep adding to this list as well.  Suggestions are welcome; please contact me using the form above.

On the Art page I have included two galleries to start with: one of art therapy related paintings and drawings I have created and another of feathered creatures I have drawn and painted. I will add to these galleries and perhaps create more as time goes on and I make more work. I seem to make art in “waves”. The urge comes and goes but I seem to always have art on my mind, whether it be new supplies I want to try out, a new color to experiment with at some point, or a new painting to begin when I’m feeling better. I have recently started working on projects in an art therapy for traumatic stress book and hope to add those creations to a gallery as well. I look forward to seeing what I create this winter as I spend more time inside. I would love to start a “faith journal” and create some interesting, mixed media pages with journaling, prayers, Bible verses, song lyrics, etc. That is next on my list!

I hope you find the new pages useful and enjoyable.

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Caution: Holidays Ahead

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Only a couple weeks left of my fall table. 

Soon people will be gathering for Thanksgiving and then everyone is thrust into the holiday season. This time of year seems to get harder for me each year. I’m very apprehensive about this year because of my chronic migraines and fatigue that have been worse. Right now I feel like I need a lot of rest. The anxiety has been hard to get under control lately. And now that the time has changed, I have a more difficult time with my depression and sleep schedule. I have been experiencing Seasonal Affective Disorder for years, along with everything else. I just don’t know if I can handle “gatherings” right now. I had a very rough time last year and I vowed that I would “never do that again”. I just overdid it and my body and mind paid for it. I committed to too many gatherings (yes, only a few can be too many). And I was in a bad season of panic attacks and had many doctor appointments. I still had to do essential things like grocery shopping and staying on top of paperwork. And I just didn’t feel good in general. It was not a good time for socializing and going places.

So this year I have decided to just wait and see how I feel much, much closer to the time. I’m not committing to anything. If I can go, great! I will likely still limit my time there. If I can’t, I’ll still make plans to see people at some point…later, when I’m feeling better. Maybe I can meet one-on-one with some people. So far, everyone has been understanding. I don’t feel bad for being what some people might say is “selfish” because I have learned that self-care is not selfish. I have neglected to put myself first in too many situations. Now that I have learned how much stress affects my pain level, anxiety, migraines, etc. I just have to put myself first and manage this season correctly. And I simply must stick to my usual routine and sleep schedule. I have seen what happens when I don’t and it’s not pretty.

I still plan to get in the holiday spirit. I have already begun planning some gifts and I’d like to make a charitable donation before the end of the year. I love putting up my little tree and setting out my angels and trying to keep my cat away from everything. I just picked up two angels to add to my collection today. I like baking, as long as I have the energy for it. I like the music. I like to invite people over for tea if I’m feeling well.  And the Christmas story, of course! I have held onto the tradition I started when I was little of reading about the birth of our Savior in one of my Bible’s, late in the night on Christmas Eve.

I know many people in the chronic pain and illness and mental health communities will be making modifications to their holiday plans too, even if it means staying home or scaling back who they spend time with or how long they stay at gatherings. I know I’m not alone. Are you doing anything to prepare yourself for the holidays? Are you making any changes this year? Have you found that your friends and family are understanding of your needs?

I hope you all have a blessed holiday season and remember: self-care is not selfish.

2 Thessalonians 3:16 Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times and in every way. The Lord be with all of you.

So, What Do You Do?

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Today I am sharing with you something I’ve struggled with the last few years, an ongoing struggle of personal identity: how to answer the question “So, what do you do?”.  This used to be an easy answer. Cut and dry.

“I’m a waitress.”

“I’m a student.”

“I’m a substitute teacher.”

“I’m an art teacher.”

Now my life has taken a different path and it’s not so cut and dry anymore. Someone asked me this question over the weekend and I actually found myself replying, “I don’t.” (Can you tell it was a rough week?)

I look just fine for the most part so it’s easy for people to assume I would have a paying job or career. People like labels and titles. I don’t think they have malicious intent and I honestly think they are just trying to get to know me a little better. But it can be really hard to explain, especially with limited time, what I actually do if I don’t have a paying job and why.

I don’t know how I can tell someone I work very hard to take care of my mental health every day. I just haven’t been able to vocalize that well, perhaps because of my own stigma. Would they want to know exactly what that means? I don’t feel like I owe them a huge explanation. I don’t know how to tell someone I can’t work because of chronic physical AND mental conditions. What will they think of me? Will they compare me to so-and-so who has this too? Will they suggest treatments for me? Will they pity me? Will they think less of me because I don’t work? Will they judge me?

The truth is I do a lot and it is extremely difficult. You could say I have many job titles. Everything from homemaker and artist to manager and accountant. I do all this while managing my various symptoms from multiple conditions. This involves a lot of self-care and following prescribed treatments and therapies. I won’t go into all the reasons my physical and mental conditions limit me (that list is very long), but I will say everything is a balancing act that takes constant work. Some days I feel I just can’t even stay on the teeter totter. My thoughts alone are exhausting. That’s when faith in God and a good support system comes in handy.

I will be working on summoning more courage and just being honest with people when they ask me this question. Maybe I should even practice a few standard responses that I could have ready to go. I will take each situation as it comes, considering the person, setting, and the time available. It could be a great opportunity to be a mental health and invisible disabilities advocate.  But I will remember that I can’t control their responses, only how their responses affect me.

I shouldn’t feel ashamed for what I’m going through. Invisible disabilities are real, and a person’s worth isn’t measured by what their job title is. God says I am acceptable and valuable. Jesus paid the highest price for me. I am loved by God and He knows the plans He has for me. I am just trying to live well, one day at a time. I am a child of God. That title is most important to me now.

Do you struggle with this same question? Have you found ways to respond that you are comfortable with? How do you handle unexpected responses and questions? I would love to hear your comments.

John 1:12 Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God –

Colossians 3:17 And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

The Story Behind the Painting

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Make it Stop! by Susan Montgomery, 2013

I have been thinking a lot about this painting recently. First, I have been feeling like this lately due to several factors (pain, moods, etc.). Second, I have been thinking about it as I get back into doing some art therapy. It has brought back a lot of memories.

I painted this in 2013, what I commonly refer to as “my year of hell”. It’s when everything fell apart due to all my medical issues peaking at the same time. I had been having a lot of ear issues and could suddenly hear the sounds of my eyes moving in their sockets. I was extremely sensitive to sounds and pressure changes. I had been having terrible headaches. I was anxious and depressed. I was so frustrated! And when you combine all those physical symptoms with what I had to go through to survive, it was just all so much to deal with.

One night I was just beyond overwhelmed with everything going on. Something drew me to my art supplies and my camera. I took a few snapshots of myself in intensely frustrated poses, covering my ears like I so often had to, pressing my hands against my head really hard like I would when I got really angry. I printed a couple photos out and dug out some drawing paper. This was the first time I had really created any art of my own since graduating from college. I had been so busy planning and teaching art to children. And I surely hadn’t thought about creating any art lately during this turbulent time. I was instantly drawn to my bottle of India Ink. It was dark and black and moody. It seemed perfect for this. I sketched out the drawing and just painted on some India ink. I remember it being a fairly quick process. I didn’t stress out about details or mistakes like I had in the past. (Perhaps because I knew I had more important things to be stressed about.) I just used small amounts of water to wash on the various grey tones and a couple different brushes to make the sketchy black marks.

Once it was completed I felt such a sense of accomplishment. I had never done anything like this. I had painted self-portraits but only in oils and that was in college. And I had never NOT stressed about mistakes or details in my own work. This time I just went with the flow, just like I used to teach kids. I embraced what I created. I was finally practicing what I had preached. And I felt like the painting really did show how I was feeling. It looked raw.

I ended up making copies of this painting and putting it in the clear cover of my medical binder that I took with me to appointments. I would sometimes show doctors this (if they hadn’t seen it already) when they would ask me about certain symptoms and how they made me feel. I would start describing the symptoms and then finally show them this painting if I couldn’t quite articulate things. Then they would get it! I remember one of my ear specialists having quite a strong reaction to it. She loved it.

As I think back to that year, I realize that painting this was just one of many things I accomplished. I pushed and pushed through all the challenges. It was me who made endless calls to doctors and insurance companies and various agencies. It was me who figured out ways to get to all these places for tests and treatment. It was me who endured the exhausting travel. It was me who survived months of homelessness. It was me who figured out how to find a place to live. It was me who got into mental health treatment. It was me who did never-ending paperwork. I never gave up. But I was tired, exhausted, depressed, anxious, suffered through panic attacks, and was just generally completely overwhelmed. But I never gave up. And I couldn’t have survived without help along the way. Friends became like family and I even met new people through my newly diagnosed conditions. And I will never forget the kindness I was shown by so many people during that time. And God was surely with me. He was giving me strength, even though I didn’t recognize it at the time. He already knew what was ahead for me. He was guiding my steps. And he still is.

Now I look at that painting and it’s a symbol of many achievements. I could pick up my supplies and create art, even during an extremely tough time. I could try something new. I could get beyond my perfectionist ways and learn to go with the flow, embracing any mistakes and messiness. I could convey how I was feeling through art. I could push through all the challenges that came my way. I could fight through all the symptoms and still survive. I could make countless calls and fill out never-ending paperwork and see that it achieved a purpose in the end. I could make a new beginning for myself. I could keep going! Even now when I feel like how I look in this painting, I know I can keep going!

Isaiah 43:2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. And when you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.

My Spiritual Breakthrough

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One night I changed how I approached my prayer binder. Instead of writing a journal entry for the day and writing my prayer to God, I made a list of items to pray out loud about. Praying out loud is something that is still completely new for me and I thought this might help me get more comfortable with it. So I just started talking to God, in my own spoken words. It was a very powerful experience for me and I wasn’t expecting to feel so moved by it. I heard the authority in my voice! Among other things, I prayed for healing, both physical and emotional. I loved the spontaneity of speaking my prayer out loud to Him. I told him exactly what was coming to me, as it was coming. Afterwards, I vowed to keep praying like this each night, making my list and bringing it all to him out loud and not forgetting to thank and praise Him.

Later that night I had a huge breakthrough. I was suddenly able to bring into focus issues that had been buried in years of deep denial. Repressed memories were suddenly brought out. Feelings were identified. Experiences were named. I couldn’t believe what was happening! I had to get all these thoughts out on paper and as I began a long night of journaling, I flipped back to the previous night. I saw that I wrote about being ready to let God help me make sense of my past, that some of it was difficult to remember, and that I needed help with that. I wrote about all that I’m ready to let God do in my life. I wrote about what I’m ready to hand over to Him. This must be it! My prayer was being answered! This is the emotional healing I have been searching for.

Then it was beginning to all come together for me. There were people and experiences that touched my life recently, each in a different way, that encouraged me to search myself bit by bit, piece by piece. I had found a church, I started connecting with people, I journaled, I went to Celebrate Recovery meetings (a Christ-centered 12-step program), I read articles, I read the Word, I prayed, I talked and listened to mature believers. I was starting to think more about the past, as hard as it was. I was building a relationship with God. There was so much buried pain. I have been on my mental illness recovery journey for a long time and can now fill in some missing blanks. The picture is suddenly much clearer.

God led me to this point. I was told once that there are three answers to prayer: yes, no, and not yet. Well, God must have said, “It is time”. It is time to begin the healing. It is time to break through this wall of denial. It is time to remove all the feelings of guilt and shame. God must think I’m ready to do this and that I am strong now. I will keep seeking him faithfully in prayer as I continue on this journey of recovery. I have never experienced such a powerful answer from God and am looking forward to all that he continues to do in my life!

Matthew 7:7 Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.

Change of Pace

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I am shifting the focus of my artwork for the time being and beginning an art therapy journey. I have been going through a lot right now with my migraines. I deal with a lot of pain and am stuck at home much of the time. I need a creative outlet. And I just don’t feel like painting pretty birds right now. I have too much in my head. I feel like I need to get the emotions out on paper that this pain brings. I’m also on a mental health recovery journey so I would love to start incorporating art therapy into some of those breakthroughs and goals.

When making art as therapy, what the finished product looks like is not important. It is about the process. I’ve read that both creativity and art therapy are about solving problems and finding new solutions to old ways of being, thinking, feeling, and interacting (Cathy A. Malchiodi). So I think it can really help me establish a sense of well-being and peace.

I plan to work with intention and have a plan or purpose in mind before I begin a piece of artwork. It can be as simple as, “I want to play with my watercolors today” or “This pain feels like hot pokers in my eyes; I think I want to draw what that feels like” or “I’d like to depict what this breakthrough feels like in colors”. I’d like to explore a range of materials and subject matter, dealing with the body, mind, and spirit. If I still manage to paint a pretty bird in between all this…..great.

Some days it’s really hard to make it off the couch so I plan to always have a sketchbook nearby to jot things down. Yesterday I did some thumbnail sketches and wrote down some feelings next to it. Now, on a day when I feel like I can work with my materials in the kitchen, I can go back to those ideas and work through them. It is a little difficult for me to let go of how the finished product looks in the end with my art background. And it’s hard to let go of perceived judgment from others. But something Malchiodi suggests is to ask yourself “Is the process satisfying for me? Do my images express my feelings and thoughts?” That’s all that should matter in the end. And I know sharing with others isn’t required, but it’s nice to hear people’s response to the art and what they notice. I think that can be enlightening as well. And I also think it can inspire others.

In 2013 when I was having a really hard time with medical issues, I turned to art therapy. It was very helpful to deal with some of those issues and it’s nice to look back on those pieces. I’m looking forward to this new journey!

Summertime Sizzle

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Cookouts. Lightning Bugs. Ice Cream. Sunflowers. Bright green grass and leaves. Sunshine. Thunderstorms. It’s the little things that make me smile.

I really do love summer but it’s become more of a challenge to enjoy it like I used to. I can’t handle the heat or humidity anymore. Before chronic pain and fatigue it was never a problem. So it’s a little frustrating when I can’t just go out and walk when I want to. The best time to go out is in the very early morning. The weather for July so far has been relatively mild but the heat and humidity are returning for the time being. That seems to be bad on my joints and muscles just like damp and cool weather.

I have had some bad days with pain the last few weeks. I’m still amazed that I can have “manageable pain” one day and can barely move the next day. I do have to remember that I need recovery time after events and plenty of downtime to recharge my batteries. I’ve ignored that at times and my body rebelled. I need to keep doing things to make life easier on myself, like prepping meals in the morning or even better: using my crock pot.

I have taken a short break from making any art as I’ve been on the couch most days and can’t stand at the counter to work on it. But I’m still thinking and planning what I want to paint next and how to start selling some of my work. I guess I’m recharging my art batteries too.

There have been some fun times this summer already like cookouts and learning how to fish. And I hope I can remember to appreciate the small things and also continue to learn new ways to enjoy the summer. For example, maybe I need to find some more things to do inside my air conditioning while I’m on the couch. (Writing is one of them.) And maybe I can start taking walks more first thing in the morning when the sun comes up so I can get more exercise in, depending on how the body feels about that. I could sit outside at the end of the day and drink a tea. I am determined to still enjoy my favorite season and make the most out of what I can. My conditions aren’t going away so the sooner I learn some things, the better off I’ll be.

What keeps you busy and sane in the summertime? Do you like the heat? Does it affect your body?