How the Light Gets In: A Talk On Creativity and Recovery

Hello, lovely friends! It’s Monday morning, and I’m just back from the EllieBeth Designs UK Annual Event where I gave a talk called ‘How the Light Gets In’. It was about the role that creativity has played in my recovery from mental illness. Over the next few days, I’m going to be gathering and processing my thoughts about everything that happened this weekend (Spoiler alert: it was fantastic!) and will write a post (or posts) about my experience soon, but in the meantime, I shall share the notes from my talk below. Thanks for stopping by! xxx

~How the Light Gets In: Creativity and Recovery~

Hello, lovely friends! It’s really good to be here today … Thank you so much, Rachel, for inviting me to lead a workshop.

For those who don’t know me, my name is Natalie, and I describe myself as a Paper Crafter, Media Mixer, Memory Keeper, Bullet Journaler, Storyteller, Depression Survivor and Wellness Explorer. On a day-to-day basis, that means I art and craft in my she-shed or shoffice, and make lots of YouTube videos in which I share my creative process and talk about my recovery from mental illness.

Some of the things I make in my shoffice, I also sell, such as greetings cards. I also do design team work for various paper craft companies. I was actually on the EllieBeth Designs design team for six months last year, and stickerating my bullet journal is still one of my most favourite things to do of an evening – I guess we can all relate to that!

So, over the next 40-ish minutes, I’m going to talk to you about my recovery from mental illness and the role that creativity has played in it. On the practical side, we will be creating some journaling cards using simple watercolour techniques. Now, I don’t want you to go away thinking that creativity has been the be-all-and-end-all of my recovery. Being creative is not some magic pill that will make it all better. I could just as easily give a talk about the role that mindfulness has played in my recovery, or the role that bullet journaling, or medication, or family and friends, or hope, or the NHS has played. Creativity is just one of many facets, but it’s the one I’m focusing on today.

So, let’s start at the very beginning …

In one way or another, mental illness has been part of my life for the whole of my life. Not long after I was born, my mum developed Post Natal Depression, and she’s experienced more bouts of depression over the years. And when I was a teenager, my dad began suffering with anxiety and depression, and on two occasions he had to be admitted into a mental hospital where he needed treatment with Electro Convulsive Therapy or ECT to get better. My own first ‘official’ bout of mental illness presented as Post Natal Depression after my daughter was born in 2005. To cut a long story short, after six months on antidepressants and a handful of visits from my health visitor, I was beginning to feel a bit better, but in reality, it took me years to feel as if I were on an even keel again, and I never did feel that I got back to the old me.

My most recent dalliance with the black dog, came toward the end of 2016 in the form of severe anxiety and depression, which was triggered by a relentless series of very stressful events that my family and I were going through. My mental wellness and resilience hadn’t been great for a while – I’d lost my creative mojo, my sense of purpose, my love for life – so when these stressful events came one after the other after the other, I just couldn’t cope and, again, to cut a long story short, at the start of 2017, I actually spent nearly six weeks as an inpatient at a mental hospital.

Now, being admitted into a mental hospital might sound like the end of the world, but in fact, for me, it was the start of my recovery. In hospital, I felt safe, and I was given the time and space I needed to begin to heal. My consultant found the right medications for me and eventually got me on therapeutic doses. The psychologists there also ran workshops on mindfulness and wellness and how the brain works, which opened my eyes, just a crack, to the idea that there were things I could do myself to build my mental resilience and move my recovery on.

It was also in hospital that I started to get my creative mojo back. About a year before my mental health crisis I’d stopped creating – no painting, no drawing, no writing – I used to write short stories and had quite a few published, but everything just dried up. I now realise that  is one of my early warning signs. My creativity is one of the first things to go when my mental health starts to slide. But in a mental health hospital there are many empty hours in between meeting consultants and attending psychology workshops. It’s eat – sleep – medicate – repeat. One of the things my fellow patients and I did to pass the time was colouring. We’d sit in the dining room with a box of felt tips and a stack of grown-up colouring books and just colour. At first, I couldn’t see the point, but as I started to improve mental-health-wise, I started to get bored and decided to join in, just to pass the time – I had no idea it would take me anywhere but it did.

Over time, colouring-in, led me back to doodling, then doodling led me back to zentangling. After that, zentangling led me back to watercolouring. Eventually, I asked my husband to bring me in my paints, and once I was discharged from hospital, I started making and eventually selling greetings cards, and that has led me to all the different things I do now, to what I’m doing today, leading a workshop of my own at a day all about self care and creativity.

I’ve bought a couple of things to show you today.

A page from my bullet journal

I started bullet journaling in 2016 before I became unwell. I bullet journaled all through the start of my illness and only stopped when I was admitted into hospital. When I came out of hospital I started bullet journaling again. I call my bullet journal my ‘Recovery Companion’ as it charts, very clearly, the different stages of my recovery as well as being a tool to help me recover.

For a long time now, creativity has been part of my daily routine. I record whether or not I create something in my bullet journal’s wellness habit tracker. Early in my recovery, this was important because it gave me a sense of achievement at a time when I didn’t feel as if I was good for anything, and it’s still important today because, as I said, loss of creativity is one of my early warning signs, so tracking it, helps me to be mindful of the state of my mental health as well as reminding me of the importance of creativity in maintaining my wellness.

So, what’s all this got to do with journaling cards? Well, when I was mentally ill, I journalled a lot – you know, dear diary stuff. Sometimes it was helpful, but eventually it became detrimental, as all I was doing was ‘worrying on paper’. As I got better, though, and my creativity started to come back, I started journaling again, but more wisely this time. Rather than ruminating on paper, I’d just brain dump on paper. Often, I’d take something finite, such as a journaling card and limit myself to it filling it. That way I couldn’t spend hours writing myself into an anxious mess. So, I’ve created these for you today, four little finite spaces on which you can journal in any way you like. We’re going to decorate the fronts which leaves you the back to write on.

I’ve drawn some pictures on them and added some quotes to the front to hopefully make them uplifting.

We’re going to start with the Leonard Cohen quote:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There’s a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

Has anyone heard of Kintsugi? It’s a Japanese art form in which gold dust is mixed with resin and used to glue broken pottery back together again. In Japan, people actually break pottery, just so they can have it repaired in this way because the repaired piece is considered more beautiful and more precious than the unbroken original. That’s what this quote and the card I’ve designed means to me – the cracks in our lives let the light in. Although I’d never choose to go through what I went through, now I can honestly say that I’m glad I did go through it because so much light has come out of such a lot of darkness… I love the life I’m living right now. I’m really excited about the future. And I hope that my story has let a little light into your life too.

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More posts about mental health, recovery and wellness.

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