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Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Art Therapy 4: Dealing with Illness

Today's blog is aimed at helping you to come to terms with illness. In the example blog, we have used Cancer, but you can adjust the details to fit your own diagnosis and experiences. We have deliberately kept the art aspect of this blog very easy so as to make it possible for anyone to attempt, regardless of your energy levels. We know very well that you often do not have the energy you are used to having and we did not want to make this a physically challenging one. Let us help you in finding ways to come to terms with your illness and to find ways to help you cope with an altered reality."
This blog is co-authored by Marietjie Uys (artist) and Melette Els (therapist).

I will do the project on a 12" x 12" white craft paper. As this paper is not intended for painting, I prepare it by painting a layer of gesso over it. This is not absolutely necessary as we will only be using thin watercolour washes, but it is always a better idea. If you do not have gesso on hand, don't bother with this step. It may be a good idea to prepare yourself mentally as well for this project. Although the activity is aimed at assisting you, it may leave you feeling slightly vulnerable, being confronted with some of the stark realities of your illness.

I then use a die-cut shape I have of a water tortoise and trace the outline on my paper. You can copy this rather simple shape by hand on your own paper, or search for your own stencil to draw the shape with. For the purposes of this blog, we will depict ourselves as this tortoise. The illness we have been diagnosed with has slowed us down and weighs like an embracing shell upon our shoulders, seemingly defining who we have become.
Take some time out to think about and answer the following questions. We suggest you write your answers down so that they become more 'real', to help you find your 'voice' in this matter:
In what way(s) did your illness slow you down?
How do you feel about the effect this had on your life?
How does this influence your day to day functioning?
How does it influence your relationships with others?
How does it affect your relationship with yourself?

The first thing I do when I take the stencil away is to limit the extent of the illness. I draw clear lines to define the shell of the tortoise. It ends at the tail, allowing the tail to be protrude at the back. It ends at the neck, allowing the head to protrude at the front.

It also ends at the bottom, allowing the stomach and feet of the tortoise to show. This may not be entirely true of tortoises in real life, but then it is not entirely true that we are tortoises either, so we will allow ourselves some artistic freedom here. Did you notice how I drew double lines to restrict the shell of the tortoise? This illness has not taken over your whole life, even though there are days when it may seem so. YOU still exist and we need to find a way for you to exist WITH this illness, not despite it.
Take the time to answer these questions as well. Write them down, or at least answer them out loud:
What restrictions has your illness put upon you to date?
Do you see yourself as existing only in your illness, or can you see that your illness is only a part of who you are?

In the next step we start to define the shell, drawing all sorts of odd shapes on it. You can go crazy here and do whatever you like. I kept mine very odd as these will come to represent the symptoms and issues I need to deal with in my illness and I find them to be unpredictable and strange.

There is one very important step to take before we even consider coming to terms with the illness, and that is to define ourselves. The stencil I used did not have any facial details and I now take great care to add these. I take my time to develop a pretty eye, complete with lashes and brows. I also add a huge smile, making sure to add some dimples. This illness will not beat me. It may leave me without a hair on my head, but my head has much more going for it than just my hair.
Make a separate list of characteristics that make up who you are, aside from your illness. For instance, define your sense of humour, or how good a listener you are, or what books you like to read, etc. What hobbies and interests make you who you are? If you struggle with this list, ask the people close to you for their opinions. What do they appreciate about you, or how would they describe you to strangers?

This step is an important one, though it may have little artistic meaning. I take care to erase the line that obscured the mouth and kept it shut. I have a voice and I will be heard. I still matter. And I have a say over what people, specifically professionals, do with, and to my body. I am part of the team dealing with my treatment!

Perhaps the most painful step in the process is this one where I add names to the shapes on the shell. I identify the things that I need to deal with in this illness. It took some time for me to write these down and to define them, but it was good to finally see them in words before my eyes. No doubt another week will bring a whole new batch to be added to this list, but I have made a start in coming to terms with this illness. Coming to terms mean to find words. I have found words and words have meaning and I can now make myself heard, because I have those words.
How does naming and writing these down make you feel?
How does it feel to see the words out there?
Acknowledging these feelings allows you to understand your situation better, and it assists in explaining to yourself and other people how to manage it in a way preferable to you.

I give you a close-up of the words I've chosen, but the important thing is for you to find your own words. Here are mine: Why ME?, Appetite, Sleeplessness, Nausea, Sleepiness, Irritability, Fear of Death, PAIN, Fear, Lack of energy, Isolation, ??? (representing all the questions I have), Treatments, Tests, Fear for my family, Sympathizers, HAIR loss, Weight loss, Where is God?

I use Derwent Aquatone pencils to paint my tortoise with, but you can use any watercolour pans to paint yours with. I will use these pencils like watercolour pans, anyways.

I select the colours I want to colour each of those defining shapes with. I pick the colour up with my brush and then I paint that identifier in the colour of my choice. Please take note that you do it in the colour of your choice. You have a choice! You also have a choice in how you view your situation and your life.

I may not have control over these identifiers, but I am in control of how they appear in my life.

Some things are easier to deal with than others and my choice of colours will reflect that. When yours is done, see if that is a true reflection of yours as well. If not, you can 'lift' the colour, by wetting that spot and dabbing at it with a tissue or towel. You can then paint that area in a different colour.

Some colours will repeat as I may associate it with more than one thing on my list. What do the colours you selected symbolize to you?

Sometimes a colour can hold both positive as well as negative connotations. Consider red being the universal colour of both danger and love.

I allow myself one defining shape without any words in it, but only three question marks. This one is important to me. This is where I allow myself to be completely honest with myself. I acknowledge that this list in neither exhaustive, nor complete. What is is, is a starting point in a long journey and there will be many more definitions to be added to this tale.

In the interest of complete honesty, I also allow myself that nagging question I've had ever since my diagnosis; Where is God? This illness has changed my relationships with people all around me. It has also affected my relationship with God and I need to find a new way of dealing with Him, just as with other people. These questions are permitted. We have an understanding God. Jesus, Himself, asked on the cross: "My God, my God, why did You forsake me?" This illness may be a challenge to your faith. If you are struggling with this, feel free to consult a religious leader and/or a professional therapist.

With all of the definers coloured, I choose a colour of my liking to paint the rest of the shell in.

With that done, I take great care to paint a contrasting colour in the restrictive lines around the shell. This contrasting colour will stand out clearly against the shell, making it evident that the shell has restrictions in my life and has not taken over my whole life.

I then deliberately choose to paint myself (or my tortoise) in a happy colour. The moment I started this journey today, I chose to find a way towards the restoration of happiness in my life and I will reaffirm this decision by choosing a happy colour to paint myself in. Happiness is never gone from our lives, however it may be concealed by challenges and negative elements. We can deliberately bring it back to the foreground. It is not a choice between happiness and illness. Both can be present in our lives at the same time. Now we get to reason why I chose to work in watercolours. When painting with colour diluted by water, you will find that the paint will leave darker and lighter patches/washes on the paper. This is not unlike the illness. At times it will be more intense than at other times. These shades will serve as a reminder that relief will follow on those intense moments and things will lighten up again.

I then take some more time to paint the facial features on the tortoise. I choose to see, smell, taste and be a partaker of life.

With every part of myself taken care of, I can now divert my attention to my surroundings. I CHOOSE to add a rock for my tortoise to stand on and clearly write the name of Jesus on this rock, more than once. He is so central to my mental wellness that I can not deny that He is the foothold I can not live without in these murky waters.
How do you feel when writing this?
Do you feel that you have a stronger foothold?

I colour this Rock a dark earthy brown, because I feel grounded when I am connected to God.

I then draw a defining line for my surroundings, where I draw the waterline well beneath my head and shoulders. These waters are painted a very dark blue. They are not clear waters and I will not deny the fact that this is a hard and troublesome time. We need to acknowledge this. It serves no purpose to deny the facts, or to diminish the effect that the illness has on us. Honesty is our friend in coming to terms with this.

I will, however, not allow the water to make up all of the background on my page. I do something that is artistically quite wrong. I paint the sky yellow. Yellow is my happy colour and to me it represents the light breaking through in my darkness. There will come days when all I will need to hold onto is this visual reminder, but then I will remember and I will survive.

For the first time, I now pick up a pen and write the name of my illness in the water under my tortoise. My illness is here. I can not deny it.

But I also write the word Grace in the sky above the water, because I have been given a period of grace. I do not know the future, but I am here now, and I shall be thankful for every moment of grace I have, however many they may be. Whether they are counted in days, or in years, grace is all any of us have. What word would you select to write here?

I then use the pen to add permanent definition to the areas I choose in my picture. This may not be the same for you as it was for me. I do not rewrite my definitions in pen. These are temporary and will be dealt with if and when necessary. There are things which are permanent and those are the ones I outline in pen.

Melette Els (Clinical Social Work) can be contacted via the webpage, or by email at, or by phone at 082 776 1536.
Melette Els B.A. (SocSc) M. (Th) 
BHF Pr Nr.: 089 000 00 28754 SACSSP Reg.Nr.: 10-17310

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