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.

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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?

Coping, Not Concentrating

The definition of “cope” is 1) to struggle or deal, especially on fairly even terms or with some degree of success and 2) to face and deal with responsibilities, problems, or difficulties, especially successfully or in a calm or adequate manner.

Facing problems or difficulties successfully means that I have an inner peace and a sense of calm. This can be challenging but I have found one of the best ways to cope is to have healthy distractions so I don’t concentrate on the pain so much.

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Creating my art is such a nice distraction, especially lately as my pain level has been higher than normal. It gets my mind off of the painful moments and onto something else I can focus on. I struggled for years to make any art. I didn’t want to have anything to do with it. I viewed it as too difficult and I had such a low self esteem that I believed I couldn’t create anything “good”. I would dabble in something but then loose interest quickly. Confidence would quickly fade. And when the anxiety and depression were at a high level I couldn’t concentrate on anything but the worry and pain. I couldn’t even take deep breaths. I still have worry and pain but now it’s at a more manageable level and I’m able to concentrate on something outside of that.

My therapy cat Alice is also a nice distraction. Some days I just stare at her and I notice my breathing is more calm and steady. It’s so nice to have her snuggled at my feet on the days I can’t move too far from the couch.

Having healthy relationships have also been a nice distraction. It’s helpful when you have friends and family you can talk to, someone you can turn to when you’re in distress. Strengthening my relationship with God has been a great distraction too. I can turn to my prayer notebook, journal, or my Bible and feel like there is hope and a path to wellness. I can listen to worship music and let the words sink in.

Nature is a beautiful distraction and I’m constantly gaining inspiration for my artwork. I painted a mallard duck after a few trips to the pond near my home. Being in nature is so good for the soul. And when I can’t make it out, I stare at my goldfinch feeder on the tree just outside. I have a perfect view from the couch and love watching the goldfinches visit.

Gone are the days of unhealthy distractions and the good ones are here to stay. I will keep adding more as time goes on and as I discover new passions and interests. What are some things you do to cope and not concentrate on your pain, problems, or difficulties? Are you successful in keeping your mind off things for awhile?

Writing an Artist Statement

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I have been painting more and thought I needed to clearly outline what it is I’m doing and why – not just for others, but for me, too. Writing an artist statement was the perfect solution. I needed to ask myself a lot of questions about what I’m expressing and where that motivation comes from. I had to really look at my artwork and the process I go through in creating it. Here is my artist statement in it’s final form – for now.

As an artist, I work hard to create paintings that depict the beauty in this world. I use firm, black line and spontaneous, spilling color to capture the beauty of my subjects and communicate their character and personality. I create art to cope with chronic pain and fight the anxious feelings and dark places that my mind sometimes goes into. I try to convey feelings of happiness, joy, hope, and peace in my paintings – ideas that I strive for in my own life. My art is a tranquil place to me. It is calming and optimistic. I am inspired by the wondrous plants and animals of this planet. I draw inspiration from other artists and old illustrations. I am attracted to images that drive a purpose, a vision. I use pen and colored inks to complete my paintings and experiment with transparency and intensity. I like the unpredictable nature of ink and find it to be a perfect match for the definite and certain beings of this world that I have come to find serenity in. As I devote my own artistic voice to earth’s creatures, I continue to work hard to express my own joy.

Letting Others In

It’s difficult to share your story with others. It’s difficult to explain your conditions. It’s especially difficult when your conditions are invisible and you look just fine. Feeling misunderstood by others hurts. Feeling judged hurts. But I’m finding it does help to let others into your world. There are people out there who are willing to listen, who care, and who want to help if they can.

It helps to share knowledge. I do my best explaining my conditions and I have found that sharing helps with isolation. It’s easy to withdraw from the world when you don’t feel like you fit into it anymore. I have been working on connecting with others who share similar conditions. It really helps me to know that I am not alone. But even people who don’t share my conditions can still be very understanding and supportive.

I have found that it helps to let others know how you are feeling. It can be difficult to find the right balance because you don’t want to share too much and you don’t want to seem like you’re complaining all the time. This takes constant practice. I find myself venting a lot. But communicating and staying close to others helps me cope.

I have a hard time asking for help or accepting help. I’m trying to get better at that. I realize that some people are very genuine when they ask if you need help with anything like a ride to a doctor appointment. I realize that asking for help is not a sign of weakness. But at the same time I don’t want to be a burden. People are sincere when they extend help and it’s up to me to accept their offer. I’m working on it.

There is always a huge uncertainty of symptoms with me and that makes it hard to plan things. I have to let others know that I may not be able to follow through on my commitments (if I even made them in the first place). Much of the time I try not to make any plans because I never know how I’ll be feeling when the day comes around. I’m constantly having to evaluate the effect activities have on my fatigue and pain. This can make it hard to let others in because it sometimes seems easier to just isolate instead of always canceling and not being able to participate. Why bother, right? This is a bad state of mind to be in and I try not to go there. I try to do what I can.

It’s important to create a support network. In order to do that you have to let people into your world. Even though not all people respond the way you may want them to, try not to take it personally. A full life can only be lived with other people living it with us. I have to remember that I need others and others need me.