Art thinking

It seems that I spoke a little too soon when I got all over-excited and breathless over feeling better on Friday, as things have moved a little backwards since then.

I feel like somebody else is looking out through my eyes, and the things I see are only borrowed from them.  I feel as though I’m at a distance from my own body, and controlling what it does with one of those radio handsets you use to drive a remote-controlled car.  This is rather a clumsy state of affairs, as you can perhaps imagine, and I keep finding myself spilling drinks and walking into the furniture.  I put a good 10% of my dinner on the carpet yesterday because I kept missing my mouth.

It feels like there are hundreds of thousands of black butterflies crammed inside my head, all squashed up together and rustling their wings.  They’re being driven to distraction by the over-crowding, and they’re desperate to escape.  When they get the chance they’ll come bursting out of my mouth and nose and eyes and ears, and there will be so many of them that once they’ve escaped they’ll turn the whole world black.  This afternoon I watched lots of big black birds outside my window (I’m not enough of a bird-spotter to know what they were – rooks? ravens? crows?) and they looked like a threat of what’s to come.

This is a physical sensation.  I have a splitting headache, and I can hear the rustling, and feel the wingtips brushing across the inside of my eyeballs.  But I also know that my shoulder-muscles are locked almost solid with tension, and that, as well as the shooting pains in my arms, this is very likely giving me a headache.  And the same tension is making me clench my jaw very tight, which means I can hear a kind of creaking noise from inside my head, and this is probably what’s making me think I can hear ‘rustling.’  And I didn’t get much sleep last night, and when I’m tired my eyes always feel jumpy, so that’s probably what’s causing the ‘brushing’ sensation I have.  And because I’m so on edge, it would seem likely that I’ve created the whole over-imaginative scenario to express the fact that I feel as though there needs to be some catastrophic release of tension.

So, the men in white coats probably don’t need to be on standby just yet, although none of this changes the fact that I can’t get the image and the sensation and the idea of the butterflies out of my head.  But I’m going to try, and I’m going to do that by thinking and writing about art therapy.  Hence the ludicrously contrived headline to this post.

I had my initial appointment with – er…let’s call him Peter – last week.  It turns out that a lot of my apprehensions were way off the mark.  In particular, Peter was a decidedly elderly gentleman – he looked older than 65 to me, I don’t know if a part-time art therapist would be allowed to work on past retirement or not – which meant two things.  First of all, I didn’t find him cute, so the giggling like a schoolgirl issue didn’t rear its head.  Secondly, he was very calm and slow, and that helped me to relax.

It appears that the outpatient group is a very new idea, and is at the moment only running for a year on a pilot basis, and for this reason, although it would normally be a closed group, they are allowing new referrals to join at any time.  To be honest, I got the impression that they are pretty keen for new members, if only to demonstrate that the service is meeting a need, and therefore should be extended beyond its pilot phase.  Because I would be joining late (the group started running in early September), I would be allowed to re-join the group next September, assuming it’s still running, which would mean I would benefit from a lot more time than the standard 12 months which will be offered to most participants.

There are currently 4 patients in the group, working with 2 art therapists.  (I forgot to ask about the gender balance in the group – for some reason I expect there to be more women than men involved.)  They are planning to keep admitting new members up to a total of 6, or possibly 7, so things are going to stay fairly intensive – no opportunity for me to exist under the radar, which I had been rather hoping for.  Each session would last for 90 minutes, with about an hour’s worth of arts & crafting, and the last 30 minutes set aside for group discussion of the resulting artworks.

There was a wonderfully Pythonesque moment, when Peter explained that there was only one rule in the art therapy group – no judgements of aesthetic or artistic merit allowed.  Oh, and regular attendance was required.  Ok, two rules – no artistic judgements, regular attendance, and good timekeeping.  Alright, three rules – no aesthetic judgements, faithful attendance, good timekeeping, and not being off your face on drink/ non-prescription drugs.  Make that four rules – no artistic judgements, regular attendance, punctuality, not being off your face on drink/ drugs, and a willingness to at least try and engage with art materials.  Oh, now wait a minute, that makes it 5 rules…

Although the way they were presented was a little comical – I got the impression that Peter is the kind of person that doesn’t really like the idea of rules, and that’s why he struggled to remember them – all 5 rules seem to make sense to me.  I’m certainly glad of the no artistic judgements one.

I’ve mentioned already that I have zero artistic ability.  Most people seem to say the same thing, but then go on to produce a brilliantly evocative line-drawing of a ballerina with only three strokes of their pencil.  I’m not like that.  When I say I have zero artistic ability I mean that if I tried to draw a stick figure, people would spend half an hour twisting it round to every angle, then eventually hold it upside down and say ‘I think it’s supposed to be a one-legged donkey, but with an elephant trunk growing out of its forehead.’  The no-artistic-judgements rule means that oughtn’t to be a problem – I can always explain what the picture is supposed to be of, after all – but I think it still might be for me.

Most people seem to have fond memories of art lessons at school.  Even if they perhaps didn’t like it once they got to secondary school and it got a bit more serious, pretty much everyone seems to have enjoyed messing around with crayons at primary school.  Not me.  I hated it.  I always found those lessons an ordeal to get through – in fact, I used to get into trouble for wandering away to go and play with the water toys, or to look at the things on the nature table, instead.  I didn’t enjoy the process, and the result was just torture – some shit-like scribbling that the teacher either didn’t put up on the wall, so I was the only one left out, or did put up on the wall, so that everyone – other kids, the rest of the teachers, the head, passing parents, the caretaker, people who used the school at weekends for jumble sales – would get to see just how shit I truly was.

To say that I’m worried this is what the art-therapy sessions will be like is to put it mildly.  Even if they’re not actually like it, I’m worried that’s what they’ll feel like to me.  As he was showing me round the room, Peter showed me the notice board where they pin up everyone’s work so that the rest of the group can discuss it.  It looked exactly like the sort of place that children’s artwork gets pinned.  It was even down at waist height (i.e. head height for a young child).  That’s not the only thing that makes the room feel like a primary school classroom, either.  There are lots of shelves with plastic boxes containing various art materials, and they’re all labelled in that ever-so-careful and far-too-neat handwriting that only primary school teachers seem to use.  There’s even an ‘Ideas Box.’  They do have a potter’s wheel if I fancy re-enacting the scene from Ghost, although personally I can’t imagine anything less conducive to mental well-being than the thought that Patrick Swayze might be creeping up behind you…

There are other things that make me wonder if art therapy will be right for me.  When Peter asked me what I was hoping to get out of it, I mumbled something about getting to feel comfortable in a group, and that was obviously a right thing to say, because I got a little speech about how tackling social isolation was one of their primary aims.  But I also got another little speech about how art therapy was also useful for ‘expressing things that we can’t talk about.’  Now, I don’t doubt that’s true for lots of people.  I think before my 1-2-1 psychotherapy with Yvonne it would have been true for me too, but as things stand at the moment, I don’t think that there are that many things that I can’t express in words.  In fact, the start of this post is a good example – some fairly weird experiences expressed in words.  I didn’t need to draw a picture of a bloke with butterflies bursting out of his mouth, I put it into words instead.

There’s some practical issues that make me nervous too.  I won’t be allowed to keep my own artwork, and although I’m told it’ll only be shown to other people with my written permission, the issues arising from it may well be passed on.  Not being allowed to keep the work, and having the ‘issues’ it raises discussed behind my back, is making me feel rather itchy in a pre-paranoid kind of way.

Also, the sessions will be held in the occupational therapy rooms of the local loony bin mental hospital, and, in order to make sure we get to use them ‘undisturbed’ (i.e. without inpatients wandering in to see what we’re up to) we get locked in.  The idea of being sealed in a room with a bunch of people I don’t know doing something I don’t want to doesn’t exactly fill me with calmness and joy.  I’m pretty certain Peter only told me because he thought I might be worried about coming into contact with the ‘proper mad’ people from the wards, and so it would be a comfort to know that couldn’t happen.  I would guess, from the way he said it, that it had been a big issue for some other people in the group – probably particularly because the way into the OT room is via the inpatients’ smoking area – but that’s actually one of the few things that doesn’t freak me out too badly.  I’d rather have a ‘risky’ unlocked door, anyway, than be ‘safe’ but have no ready means of escape.

The other big practical issue is that the sessions will begin at 10 a.m., which means I will have to start my journey before cheap travel fares are available.  Also, as I like to have at least two or three hours footling around time to get myself ready for leaving the flat, that means committing myself to more than a year’s worth of pretty early starts.  It’s not just a question of getting up early on the one day a week, either, as in order to stand a reasonable chance of not feeling like complete shit on the relevant day, I would need to be getting up at a broadly similar time for a few days beforehand, which, given this will be a weekly event, would mean basically every day.  That might not sound like a big deal, but I know from experience that regardless of what time I get up, I won’t get to sleep until about 3 am.  Weeks and weeks of not enough sleep is likely to have a pretty catastrophic effect on my mental equilibrium.

So, I find myself with a whole bunch of reasons why I don’t want to start art therapy, or I’m scared to, or I think it might have a bad effect if I did start, and some of those are (to me, anyway) pretty convincing.  But on the other hand, I’m also aware that this is (at least in terms of the area where I live – I don’t know what it’s like elsewhere) a fantastic opportunity.  Up until now it’s only been available to people who’ve been hospitalised, and not to exclusively community-based patients like me.  I also think it probably does provide a very good opportunity to get me used to the idea of functioning in a group, and as Peter pointed out, I might even find after a few weeks that it was something I looked forward to rather than a chore I dreaded.

But I remain undecided.  I have a 1-2-1 ‘taster’ session booked so I can find out what art therapy involves before I have to do it in front of other people, and at the moment I’m not even sure I’ll make it to that.  Ho-hum.

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7 Responses to Art thinking

  1. david says:

    From the way you’ve described it, I think I’d run a mile. Mainly the “they keep your pictures” and “they try to form judgements about you from them” bits. I’d be too tempted to wind them up. But heck, it might be fun?…

  2. cb says:

    It sounds quite interesting but I can certainly understand the dilemma involved. I never really knew what goes on in those sessions..

  3. i don’t like the idea that they keep your work. I can keep anything i produce in art therapy. The rest of the rules make sense though and i do hope you give it a try. Good luck with it.

  4. Ron Peponis says:

    I went to art therapy once (rather I was sent from the ward – it would be good for me) and after an hour my page was blank and the therapist asked me what was the problem. No problem, I said. There is nothing on your page, she said. Thats because you have no power of observation – can’t you see the mother polar bear with her two cubs lost in one mother of an artic snowstorm surrounded by artic wolves closing in for the kill? One of the cubs will have to be sacrificed to say the other. If you had given me more time you would have been able to see the red blood at the bottom left of the page. She wasn’t amused, anal retentives rarely are.

  5. Alex says:

    The first rule of Art Club is: You do not talk about Art Club.
    The second rule of Art Club is: You do not talk about Art Club.

    Hope it’s helpful, though. You’re braver than I am to even be considering it. My attempts at art are… painfully bad, to say the least. I don’t even want to think what a MH professional would make of them.

  6. cellar_door says:

    I think it sounds…interesting. I can completely understand (well maybe not completely, but you know…) your concerns though. I wouldn’t like the idea of them keeping the art/stick figure blobs though either. Too personal. It would feel like giving a bit of myself away.

    However… I do think almost anything is worth a shot if it can help keep you off the meds longer (knowing how much you want to avoid that route). I’m not saying the drugs are inevitable of course, but hey, every little bit helps. The other thing in that area is that if you can show the doc that you are being proactive and trying new things to help yourself they are more likely to go along with your other wishes more easily. It shouldn’t be like that, but unfortunately, it is.

    Of course, if you’re dead set against it, don’t let anyone talk you into it :0) The world won’t end if you don’t go. Or even if you try it for a few weeks and then decide it’s not for you.

    Good luck deciding x

  7. aethelreadtheunread says:

    Thanks for the comments.

    david – yes, they’re pretty much the bits that bother me, too.

    cb – to be fair, i don’t really know what goes on in an art therapy session either, and i’m very possibly allowing my preconceptions about what might go on to colour my assesment of whether i want to be involved. I’m worried it’ll be patronising and childish, so that’s possibly why i saw a lot of infant’s school classroom echoes in the OT room.

    intothesystem – it’s not 100% clear, but i think i may get to keep the work once my involvement in the group has come to an end, which i guess would mean that they want to keep it more as a record of how my preoccupations have changed while i’ve been in the group than anything more sinister. But i am, i have to be honest, quite worried that i’ll have a major paranoid feakout about it at some point – i just don’t like the idea that something of mine will be outside my control.

    Ron – your story made me laugh. A lot. Thank you. :o) If i do go and find that it’s less than helpful i’ll be very tempted to nick the idea…

    Alex – this is a rather sad admission, but as a way of trying to ratchet down my anxiety in the early part of the meeting i was thinking about how i might blog it. When Peter initially said that there was only one rule i did immediately think of how i might be able to work a Fight Club reference in, but then he went on to mention more rules, and it quickly became clear it was going to have to be ‘No one expects the art therapists!’… ;o)

    cellar_door – the referral to art therapy came from Yvonne (the nurse specialist i was seeing for psychotherapy) rather than General Psychiatrist. To be honest, there seemed to be quite a lot of disdain radiating off him when he mentioned it, so i don’t think it’s all that likely he would see it as a valid alternative to meds anyway. I do take your point, though, that if i decided not to go ahead that could be interpreted as meaning i was trying to disconnect from MH services altogether, and that might cause some concern. As for whether or not they would go along with my wishes, well, short of sectioning me, they don’t have a choice. I’m afraid that i can be rather a stubborn little sod when i’ve set my mind on something, and i’ve already decided that i won’t be taking meds until i feel that i’ve reached the last resort, and they won’t be able to ‘persuade’ or ‘bully’ me into it, no matter how hard they try. :o)

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