My new studio

Today, I am happy, because I feel I am finally beginning to make friends with my new studio.

I have a new studio, in Port Adelaide. She is pretty, and old, and grand, with wonderful light.

I did not want to leave my old studio. He was grungy, forgiving, underground. I felt safe there, outside the ‘real world’. I didn’t have to measure up or earn my place. It was sitting by the campfire on the outskirts of town, running from Bradbury’s war. Simply turning up was enough. I adored the art on the walls and the holes in the floor and the green things growing in the light sink. It was full of romance. My favourite place became the communal art table, close to my spot. If I was lonely or stuck, I could sidle over to it in a pretend nonchalant way and test to see if the other artists seemed welcoming. They always were. Then I could sit and chat and let my mind forget what my hands were doing and stop getting in the way and somehow stumble into the art that was trying to come but all blocked and tangled. I hardly knew most of their names, no one came to my opening, but it was a start of community, belonging, acceptance, home.

I lost that, unexpectedly, at this start of this year with an email explaining the artist’s collective was closing. A storm drenched me inside, and I tumbled end over end in panic, feeling homeless, disembodied, hysterical. I reopened every option and explored them – shed in my backyard, move house and claim a spare room, converted cubby house, caravan, shipping container, mini van, room at a friend’s, back to back residencies, give up on art, shrink to a travel kit and storage facility… Trying to find somewhere else that felt like home, somewhere else my heart would open and let out art and nothing fit.

Even among the artists, I am odd, emotional, strange. The few I spoke to looked at me with kind bewilderment, trying to understand but not understanding while I hunched over too much embarrassing feeling, tears betraying my unwanted vulnerability. The other artists were disrupted, they made arrangements. No one threw themselves from rooftops or into the sea. I flew about the place at midnight like an angry ghost, stung with rejection and gathering my things.

I chose the space in Pt Adelaide, near the water and far from the city. It is full of beautiful studios but few artists present, and no shared table. I am on the second floor, up sweeping staircases and facing a wall of western windows and a balcony that houses my old comfy thinking chair. It is without a doubt beautiful. There is no art scrawled on the walls or graffiti to read in the toilets. It feels like work and real world in a way that terrifies me. It feels like the office of a Professional, perhaps an illustrator, pursuing their craft, one who arrives on time and leaves on time and never paints naked or gripped by psychosis. Wildness and madness retreat further to the edges and dim memories of my life. My heart beats in fear.

The first day after moving I try to come here and I find myself busy with sudden errands and needs for coffee down the street and realise after several hours I’m afraid.

I persist, each week, even if only for an hour, trying to draw the memory of the artists confusion at my distress out of my mind where it is slowly poisoning me, trickling under my thoughts and turning into sticky self loathing. So what if I am overly emotional, intense, strange, freakish? So what if I am the only one who feels this way, reacts like this, needs what I need? I am still okay.

I come to the studio and fuss over arranging things better and feel a little anguish lift.

I come another day and work on artworks I’d already started and some of the block eases.

I come at night and paint alone in the dark and feel a little magic stir and a little rage wash out. I see myself in the black window glass and I think of the terror of homelessness and the strange loneliness that has been gripping me at nights where I find myself scrolling endlessly through Facebook looking for a sense of connection in the crowd, scrolling on without finding it.

I bring extra things with me each time, repair my sewing machine, stash chocolate and sanitary pads in a drawer. Photos of my family, a kettle for tea. Inch by inch it feels more my space. My soul sniffs at the rafters, approves of the empty tower room, the cupboard in the stairs, the cool cellar.

Sometimes I dream of arches of tree branches dripping black fabric for walls and my face paints and music and with the stage set and the props vibrating with otherness, I can feel how I would come here like a supplicant and surrender the outside world. But I am afraid to draw so much attention to myself, to invest so much, to invite inquiry. So the stage stays in my mind and I come here and try to make friends with it, be less intimidated by it, to not need the trappings of poverty to release me from the fear of failing.

Drains used to have a pull on me, any shelter someone homeless might envy would catch my eye and call my name and I would yearn, the way I would yearn for knives, once, or food after a long day. It took years for the yearning to untangle itself in my journals, that I had come to crave a kind of failure that would free me from the possibility of success forever. I felt that at times, living in my caravan. A kind of retirement of hope and pressure. Sometimes I could simply feel alive, and that was sufficient.

I see a psychologist who tells me I’m choosing to be stressed and with practice and the right tools can learn to be calm in any situation. I can’t find the right words to tell her how heartsick that makes me feel, that calm and unmoved by the world are not why I have come to see her. I don’t return.

It’s taken me a long time to tell this story. I was not willing to be public during – I who was public during miscarriage. I’m still smarting with the sting of it, after so many years at art college and not finding my home, my people, a sense of safety or belonging except those rare mornings allowed down in the sculpture studio, I thought I was making progress.

It is entirely possible to be an artist with a minimum of self investment, creativity, or risk. It is possible to paint with no more open heart than a plumber choosing where the pipes are to be laid. There’s nothing magic about paint or charcoal that gives life meaning or bestows gifts upon us. It’s in the personal and symbolic that the magic happens. Deep underground in the soul. You can have that and be a plumber, or paint without a touch of it.

I still feel lost. I don’t have a Call drawing me on, a sense of my heart. I don’t want to create for the sake of it, without heart. I’ve been in the daylight too long and forgotten the sound of my wings unfurling. So I’m turning my face to the side, closing one eye, tuning in. Looking for things that make me feel alive, that move me enough to preserve as memories, saved from the wash of the day to day, the grey rain of the mundane world.

Last weekend we had a campfire, drank gin and ate baked bananas with friends. The weekend before we visited galleries and libraries and I didn’t compare my work to theirs and feel bruised. We stood in the feathers at WOMAD together and I thought “we will never see a sight like this again in our lives” and it etched itself in memory, swirling blue and purple like warm snow or tiny flying birds. Rose and I dreamed of our wedding some day, still went on date days, started to really, really look at each other again, touch fingers softly. Poppy’s hair smells of woodsmoke, of fire from the plum tree we cut down the year before she was born. I am asked in a counseling session what I am willing to do for my girls who are struggling, where the boundaries are, how far I will go. In another I am asked what I will do if they die. I turn the questions over and over in my mind like a river stone or a strange fish, and I don’t know exactly except that I’m not willing to die with anyone, to walk into death alongside anyone. I value my life. I value my art, but more than that the thing the art cloaks that can be under paint or under dishes – creativity, imagination, being present, connecting.

I take days off, to smell Poppy’s hair and sweep the floors and study the history of pigments in paint. I come to my studio with plans and drop them all at the door and do something else instead. I sit in it and blog on my phone, listening to the traffic and learning the smell of the building, of the water nearby and the road and the rain in the clouds. I look for friends to visit and finding none free, stand in the garden tearing out weeds as the roses tear my arms and run tiny smears of blood down my skin.

I am alive. I don’t know what’s next, what I need, where I’m going. But I’m here, and my life is beautiful, and I’m drinking it in. I’m reading books and borrowing ideas from other artists, Growing Gills was wonderful, I’ve just started The Artist’s Way and found the descriptions of god as an artist, and art as a spiritual act, move something in me that has been frozen for a long time, hiding deep in my heart while death and loss ravage the world. Tears are a good sign. I find myself longing for a life lived more creatively. Which isn’t just about my studio but my home days, my family, my 3ams too.

The book talks of affirmations, which I loathe, gently enough that I realise the mantra I’ve been repeating that’s made the new learning possible (“I can make it with any career or skill I choose to pursue”) is an affirmation, one that’s been easing my overwhelming fear and inferiority and allowing me to learn quickly and with joy, to follow what delights me without my inner critic setting fires. I think about the book I want to publish and I remember the books my Mother once wanted to publish and I realise that her stillborn children impact me too, her broken dreams are part of my world. There’s still few people who’s opinions I care about more, where my heart is so unguarded and yet our dreams are each so tangled by grief and fear.

I know some things, some small guides. I know I cannot live for anyone else, cannot save them, or recover for them, or make them want to live. I know that the heart of caring for another is keeping one eye fixed on my own soul so it doesn’t starve, that starving carers become the cage of the wounded who are neither free to die, nor to heal and be free themselves. I know that loving hurting people takes sacrifice, but that sacrifice in itself does nothing, and sacrificing the wrong things simply kills the children, salts the earth. That remaining alive yourself is the gift you grant those who love you, refusing to grant them or the things eating them the power to destroy you, and yourself walking the hard road of life you are wishing for them. If we suffer endlessly for each other, we force hedonism on those who would find hope, or equal bondage and despair to all. Only in being alive can we inspire life.

I have lost my way, but I have hope. I have been lost many times before. I will make new homes, I will listen and learn and something will emerge. I will feed my soul.

Hand made books

The most fun I’ve had in long while has been visiting a local book maker and repairer. I adore seeing people’s studios, learning so much about the skills and inspiration behind their work is a treat.

I was particularly taken with the design of several beautiful old books such as this gorgeous concertina-fold book of prints:

The ‘pages’ are actually a long strip of paper folded, with a print on the same colour paper pasted to each fold. I fell in love with this stunning book of watercolours:

Which also opens and reads as a regular book:

Because each of the beautiful double spread paints are actually a single page, folded down the centre and glued along both edges to each fellow page. There’s no spine or centre gutter or binding at all, so it opens flat perfectly. I adore it.

An ancient Chinese ledger made from rice paper also stole my heart, but I was too busy admiring it to take pictures for you!

My current book making project has been progressing. I was asked to explore hand made vs digital layout of the content – same format just different tools to get the job done.

I’ve been really impressed with how user friendly and accessible Canva and Desygner are. InDesign isn’t bad either, but for intuitive design and speed the apps are amazing.

In the end it was decided to go with the hand made approach, which makes me extremely happy because it means more time spent with my brushes in my studio instead of with my computer in my office, and a more handmade feel rather than polished magazine feel to the whole project. I’m really looking forward to the content being signed off on so I can get into making the final. πŸ™‚

Glitter Clitoris

An artist residency at a sexual health organisation can take your artwork to wonderful and unexpected places.

This is a 3D printed, anatomically correct clitoris, which I was provided with by a SHINE SA employee to embellish with rainbow paint and glitter. I adore it and am tempted to create a collection for exhibition. Or offer some for sale in my Etsy shop

It has been christened Dolores the glittoris.

Oil paint swatches

My freelancing group have reminded me that if I’m stuck with the downsides of freelancing, it’s best if I really exploit the upsides such as flexible working hours. So I slept in until midday today, worked from home for a few hours, then went into the studio for a bit. It was delightful. I cleaned and organised, and planned to do some gilding I’ve been needing to find time for. But I really wanted to play with my new restricted palette and I decided I’d done enough stressful things today and could reward myself. So I took this lovely print of a Waterhouse painting, and I mixed all these colour swatches as if I was going to paint it. This colour mixing process works brilliantly for me, I’m so pleased. I’ve decided to start talking back to my limiting anxiety and tell myself I can reach the heights of any skill or profession I apply myself to. It’s helping undo a lot of blocks in my head, I can learn better and think a little more clearly. Every moment of that is a blessing I treasure.

I’m also starting new classes this week, courtesy of Rose. Meditative wood carving lessons, which she thought might help my anxiety. Looking forward to it.

Holding ghosts

This is always a hard week for Rose, with anniversaries of miscarriages and other losses. In the past she’s grieved alone, with no grave to mourn by and no recognition of her loss. So today I took her to a cemetery.

I had permission from a friend – the mother of a lovely girl who died far too young, to sit under her memorial tree and remember Rose’s little ones and our Tamlorn. We sat in the shade her beautiful tree with Tam’s ashes, shared a birthday cake for the 7 children not with us, and cried.

It hurt. It was hard to do, many kinds of pain are shrouded in shame and a trick of the heart that says don’t look, don’t go, don’t feel it, it’s too big and dark and will destroy you.

It hurt but it was not unbearable darkness.

It eased the loneliness of loss but it was not epiphany or resolution.

It did not cure, but it had meaning.

We left roses beneath the tree. I made an ink painting to remember the day. Then we left to pick up Poppy from daycare, and held her tight, all the rest of the night.

Playing with colour

Kitchen table playing while Poppy can’t sleep. Didn’t intend to paint so much, so didn’t bother with getting the perspective right. Exploring how the limited palette works with watercolours – soon I’ll be back in the studio with inks and paint…

It’s helping a lot, colour mixing has always seemed mysterious and bewildering. Complex obscure formulas. I love it when you find something that clicks with how you think. So many hues from just 6 pans of paint. Now I understand the tiny travel kits of watercolour. Pigments are so interesting, and the way the paint itself is formulated. I’m looking forward to learning more about inks.

Through the night

Poppy is starting to recover. Rose is out at the markets getting us some fresh food, and Poppy and I are resting in the backyard, hoping the morning sun will do us both good.

I still feel horribly ill but the bleakness of a long night with a sick child is behind me for now and the world looks more cheerful and full of possibilities. The pepper tree is humming with bees, our tiny orchard of potted trees are bedraggled after a week of neglect, but still alive. The kitchen is full of dirty dishes I’m ignoring but the used tissues have all been cleaned away from the floors by the couch and bed. Not all the washing was hung out while wet, but we’ll live. The cats have food, I’ve had a hot drink, and no one has thrown up on me in many hours.

I recently discovered the generous online world of Mark Carder, who is the artist behind Draw Mix Paint and Geneva Fine Art supplies. He uses oil paint in wet on wet technique, and his videos are informative, unpretentious, and very accessible. His restricted palette and colour mixing technique is the least intimidating I’ve seen for starting out with colour theory. It was a lovely escape to occupy my mind.

My other recent discovery, which kept me occupied during hospital last weekend with Poppy, is Udemy. Recommended by someone in an Australian freelance support group I’m very glad to have found, Udemy again has highly accessible information and training as videos, this time for a small price. So I’ve been learning more about InDesign and book layout whiling away the small hours in ER.

It’s something I learned from years being sick. I need to do things that keep my mind busy, keep my hope for a loved project alive. Even if I’m barely learning or retaining things, having this whole different internal life helps me to not panic or despair when my day to day world is miserable. Yesterday Poppy and I even did a bit of watercolour brush lettering practice together during a better moment.

I’m booked for a fun workshop next week, zine making with a queer youth group, so I’ve been gathering my collection of zines and handmade books as inspiration. It’s quite wonderful to see them all together. I finally finished one of my own tiny zines (a zine is a handmade magazine, usually black and white, simply printed or photocopied and sold for a couple of dollars. It’s like a short, punk book, DIY, and anyone can do it) and got it to reproduce and fold correctly. It’s about chronic illness and identity. I’m thinking about taking the components of it and remaking it as a handmade book, similar in feel to Mourning the Unborn. Books are becoming more and more a part of my art world. I find them an interesting intersection of my passions, many art books are stunning in form but lacking in content, while cheap mass produced text based books are often entirely the reverse. Handmade books can be a place of harmony in both.

Currently one of my projects has taken me far more into digital than physical media and my heart is breaking being away from my studio for so long. I’m looking into a laptop and internet connection for my studio, so that at least if I’m stuck looking at a screen all day, I can paint in my break. I made it there for a few hours this week between other work and Poppy being ill and the difference in my mental health is tangible. I painted something horrifically dark and unexpected but that’s what I love about my art, not being in charge of it, letting it say what I need it to.

So I’m learning about colour mixing and scale and so many skills necessary for technical competence in oil painting and at the same time there’s questions in the back of my mind: is this what I want? Is this the skill I most want to develop? Is this what I want my art to look like? Does the process speak to me? Is it meaningful, meditative, or tedious?

Do I want to keep developing digital skills? Does it open doors I care about or take time from things I love?

The same kinds of questions about my work: Is this what I want? How do I make it less stressful? Where is the stress coming from? What do I find easiest? What’s reducing my overwhelm? Where are the opportunities? What skills do I need to be developing? What kind of working life do I want to model for my girls? How do I make that happen?

And in all cases I know there’s something else I want to pursue. Not instead of, but perhaps alongside or beneath these other skills.

Why do I want these other skills? Well, I want to earn money without being in so much pain. I want my girls to grow up thinking of work as something that contributes to their mental health, not tears it apart. And the art skills are partly curiosity and wanting to make something better and partly insecurity and wanting to be accepted. The art world has not been a very kind place for those feelings and I suspect no amount of skill on my part would entirely change that.

We only get so much time on this planet and there’s only so many skills you can chase. What I’m truly interested in isn’t a technique, it’s about where the art comes from. The muse, the altered state, the sublime, the creativity and individuality and unconscious mind and how we engage with it. It’s the ‘brownies’ (think ‘fae’) that narrate the novel the writer scribes. There are many different kinds of skills and the ones I’ve developed are perhaps less obvious in some ways, but still the heart of my work. Creatives range across many scales in how they work – Amanda Palmer’s “blender” of how transformed the output is from its inspiration, works that are carefully planned in every detail and those that are intuitive, art where the key is the final result and art where the process is more important… There’s such a huge range.

My art was changed by a single conversation many years ago. I was in an art program for women who had been homeless, and one of the visiting tutors looked at my little note book of ink paintings. I told her they were nothing special, just ideas and sketches so I could later paint them. She told me they were artworks in themselves and didn’t need to be rendered in paint to make them ‘legitimate’. (What is art? What is real art? How profoundly these questions shape us)

One of my favourite artists is Michael Leunig. He is highly skilled in the art of social and political commentary. He expresses his ideas in writing, poetry, ink drawings, and paint. His primary career (as far as I can tell) has been as a political cartoonist with newspapers. His drawings are deceptively simple and yet capture such vulnerability, absurdity, and brutality. They are highly skilled works in an entirely different way. I adore them.

If I shift my technique more towards realism or some other form, what, if anything, will be lost about the way I work now? How can I tell without trying it?

Into this soup is also the image of Stephen King’s desk; “It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around“. Something in that resonates, that’s hard to put my finger on. Something about authenticity and why we make art.

I paint and write because it helps keep me alive. I stop an artwork when I’ve captured enough of the feeling or thought that I can let it go. I loathe most of my own art at least some of the time. I have a collection of art merely because I’ve honed my skills at sitting with that loathing and not destroying the work. For all the randomness about what gets created, when, and how, it’s highly specific about which needs its meeting any I’m doing it.

One of my art tutors at college loathed the trope of the mad artist. As someone who is mad, multiple, queer, disabled, I’ve loved it. It’s my many coloured cloak, my rainbow cape, my book of a thousand faces, my acceptable disguise. It’s a role I can play and a way of fitting in to the world that excuses me a multitude of vulnerabilities and ideosyncracities. It’s a convenient lie.

There’s also a truth to it, somewhere in the muddy foundations. That my madness, my pain, and my art are bound up together in ways I still don’t really understand. That psychosis speaks with the voice of my soul when I’ve forgotten to listen. That the sublime also houses trembling terror. That the world of the interior, the felt sense, imagination, dreams, are just as real, powerful, binding, giving of health and life and death and darkness as our domestic world, consensus reality. That indeed even that binary is too gauche, that there are many millions of worlds, that we are rarely in consensus about our reality.

I once watched artists at work and saw split lives, split studios, split identities. The artist and teacher. The commercial artist and the tiny sacred flame of the art that really ment something to them. Pro Hart walking along the wall in some long forgotten documentary, painting trees on multiple canvases- three here, then three here, then four on the next one. His gallery in Broken Hill is bustling with art styles and subjects I would never recognise as his, passions I never heard of because all the world wanted was that red dirt and blue sky and the stands of scrub trees.

What do we pay artists for? The original? The image? The idea? How do artists live? Leunig by honing to a fine art his ability to draw something every week without fail that’s topical, pithy, insightful, and evokes emotion. Traditionally cartoonists used cheap materials and didn’t even bother to keep the originals. Now with collectors those works have become more valuable and precious. Pro Hart sold his ‘originals’ (my family owned several at one point, an odd payment for an old debt. We used to get paid in strange things at times, cartoons of eggs, once a whole box of fresh, prime cherries) with minor adjustments on the popular theme. What does original mean when the artist is walking along a row of paintings, adding trees with a dash of the brush?

We each try to find a living in an industry that ignores us living and fetishises us dead. An organisation recently purchased some of my artwork. I worried to a friend that I was an Albatross, brought in when hopes were fading, a long bet, and that while I thought I was doing good I merely killed whatever I touched. (such darkness lurking beneath the veneer of success) She laughed to me that I was instead an asset and frankly worth more to some dead than alive and perhaps should make all my chai lattes myself from now on in case of poisoning. I nearly fell off my chair laughing.

So I make art and sell prints and embellished prints and hide my originals safely away for the day I might have customers who value them. I barely let one work brush against the imagery of another, rarely paint series or sets, and get anxious when people tell me my art evokes someone else’s. My madness around ethics is woven through everything, my prints are an ‘honest’ way of reworking a theme or making an artwork more affordable. I wake up the morning after creation and am as surprised as anyone else to find what’s been left on my canvas. I keep the works like treasured relics, I also hate them and can’t bear to look at many of them much of the time. They are pieces of me, talismans from other worlds, my secret keepers and safe places. Glimpses into my mind. Messages from other selves. Things that keep me alive.

Depressingly Romantic and cleche and fitted neatly to an acceptable story about art that has shielded me but also strangles me and hides the reality of my own work and needs from me.

I make most of my money consulting, or painting children’s faces and arms. Being kind, welcoming their creativity, entering their imagination, exploring the power of masks and costumes. It fits so poorly with people’s ideas and the cultural narratives that I actually keep my face painting entirely separate from all the rest of my work : art, training, writing, and community development. I once tried to combine them and lost 2/3 of my customers over half a year. Even in my recent business development classes I was encouraged to cull the face painting as the redundant work that didn’t fit. We could sell the rest as a kind of package that made sense, but a face painter is not an artist, or at least, certainly not my kind of artist, they are a ‘children’s entertainer’. And those who hire face painters are not comfortable with people who work in mental health, share troubled inner worlds, or make art on dark topics. So I’ve just redone my face paint website to be simpler, more beautiful, answer all the common questions, and link to everything needed. This website is next but with the huge blog, it’s a much bigger task. And separate the two stay. You would think being multiple would make me more comfortable with this, but actually it makes me more uneasy. It’s been the work of my life to bring home keepsakes from other worlds and selves, to keep them safe, collect them, rearrange them, learn to bear to look at them, and try to understand what it all means. Who are we? What is this world?

Art as self reflection, investigation, meaning making, myth making, storytelling, catharsis, therapy, navigation system. Art as the way into other worlds, the way back from them, and the talisman to remind us it really happened. Art as transformation, changing who I am, how I see myself, how I live in this world.

This perhaps, is what’s beneath the myth of the artist as mad genius, troubled soul, person-who-still-feels. The artist as a philosopher who tests their beliefs in their life, and shows us the work in progress, the inner world, the little man behind the curtain. Art as vulnerability and the personal in public, coded and locked and hidden to greater or lesser extents depending on their ability to communicate and ambivalence about being seen. It is confessional poetry, and intimate sharing in blogs, it is painting the woman you love over as over again, it is mutilated self portraits. It is breaking the taboos about what we do not say, do not look at, and do not share. It is driven by altruism, ego, vanity, loneliness, love, pride, despair, hope. It is an investigation of what it is to be human. And to me, it sits perfectly comfortably alongside painting kids.

This is not the only kind of artist, nor is it superior to any other. But if we see types of artists as a range of archetypal roles, falling in and out of cultural favour, this is one. And in the same way, we are all, all of them, in some way; the craftsman, the artisan, the hobbyist, the maker, the storyteller, the witness… Most of us need to create in some way, have an artist of some kind within us. The mad artist, full of passion and prone to self destruction is real, in a way. And what’s interesting is that few of them make it as artists. I’ve met very interesting mad people who make incredibly interesting art, but unless someone validates it as real and keeps originals and opens galleries, few of them will be remembered as artists or known in the art world. Few of my favourite artists were respected or revered at college.

I wonder if we would know of the abuses of war if those artworks were made by someone other than Goya, someone with perhaps less technical skill, no name as an artist? Would we still care about them? All those split lives the artists were living, at least one had to be validated or have income for their artwork to count as real. Goya’s horror of war is validated by his career painting portraits of the rich. He was a real artist. The works we love him for most did not sell or were not publicly shared in his lifetime.

I found a different way to split my own work – I layer it instead. I don’t paint anything for the punters. I don’t have my commercial work and my personal work. I have my personal work, printed, embellished, framed or packaged, and sold to those it speaks to. It passes through my hands many times, physically and digitally, literally processed across half my system before it touches another person. Layers, each protecting the work of the other. The madman who splatters ink at midnight leaves a gift for the artisan who carefully applies gold leaf without a breathe of air to disturb it. Self destructiveness is honed instead into a pattern of embellishment, a willingness to see value even in what we don’t understand. Polished by much handling, what were scrawlings in the backs of journals attain life of a kind, are validated by own treatment of them. (art is whatever someone who calls themselves an artist claims as art)

There’s nothing inherently wrong with the splits. They are the diversification of a healthy small business in a difficult industry. They are a way to bring what your heart needs into the world without starving. They are a way to keep the market that thinks if it pays you, it owns you out of your inner sanctum, your mind, your creating space. We all need a way to not be driven mad by the pressures, to hold onto whatever is authentic and find a market for it. To define for ourselves what means, or original, or art. To get out of our own way without being crushed by the values and expectations of others.

I am growing something. Dreaming a new dream of work, what it looks like, feels like, its role in my life. Naming and untangling from the brutal sense of debt and worthlessness half a lifetime in receipt of welfare has left me with. Where to from here? I’ve spent the week sick, dreaming of my studio, afraid that I’d pushed myself too hard and lost my health, lost my chance at work. Work was a harsh master for many of my ancestors. I want something better for my children. I will dream of something better for us.

Fresh start

I cut all my hair today and I’m feeling much lighter. It’s been a hell of a week. Poppy got sick out of nowhere. I woke at 3am to find her spiking a huge fever and having convulsions. One ambulance trip and a day in hospital later the conclusion was it’s an unknown virus but nothing dangerous and we all went home. It’s taken a number of days for her to kick and in the meantime, Rose and I have come down too. It’s such a non specific thing (headache, stiffness, aches, tiredness) it’s been hard to tell if we’re sick, sleep deprived, or depressed.

Hospital involved taking Poppy’s temperature, checking her pulse and oxygen saturation, and wearing an ID bracelet, all of which she found extremely upsetting. So we brought home her used pulse ox set and ID bracelet to add to her toys for play, and Rose brought a new under arm thermometer that lights up green for normal temp, orange for elevated and red for very high. Since then we’ve been playing ‘What colour are you?’ with Poppy, Mummy, Mama, and sister, and Poppy is now quite happy to have her temperature taken and check out what colour she is. Hopefully if she needs a stay in hospital again these things won’t be so traumatic. Rose is the mastermind behind this, she’s a genius.

In the meantime, I’m resting as best I can and nibbling away at work, and hope to be back on my feet for real and less sore very soon.

Gourmet Meals with St James

A new project I’m working on at the moment is developing a fresh gourmet menu with St James Quality Cuts. It’s quite a wonderful change from the rest of my work, and I find it marvelously clearing for my mind to shift between such diverse tasks. This is a little trick many creatives use – let yourself recharge and brew on one project while working on something completely different.

St James is a gorgeous little family owned butcher – owned by some of my family in fact, providing a huge range of pies, desserts, platters, and take home meals alongside their meats, veg, fruit, milk, and pet treats. For such a small crew and kitchen they work hard creating an amazing array of excellent meals.

They needed a menu overhaul, and clearer, easier systems in place for storing ingredients, accessing recipes, and methods for preparing all these meals. So I’ve been in the kitchen creating pies, testing flavours, and investigating what great local produce is available for summer and winter menus for them. There’s definitely no complaints about this project in my house – tasting nights are a new favourite, and bringing home choice bacon and ham is never an unpopular decision either. πŸ™‚

It’s funny, at first I felt terribly anxious and out of my depth with this project, I’ve never done anything like it before! Then I realised I set up all the house cleaning systems in my home, the rotating menu, meal planning, shared shopping list, household budget, and have spent years adapting meals for various people who are dairy free, lactose free, gluten free, celiac, fructose intolerant, FODMAP, allergic to nuts, pepper, soy, or eggs. Like so many people, especially women, I have years of experience developing skills that I have few avenues to gain formal recognition in. Fortunately the wonderful world of freelancing cares much less about certificates and far more about competence. I’ve brushed up on safe food handling and current best practices, and the new, improved gourmet menu, recipes, and systems are making excellent progress.

Today I’ve been testing, among other things, sticky maple syrup lamb shanks with mashed potato, chicken korma, self saucing chocolate puddings, and pear and rhubarb crumble. If you’re local there’s a fridge full of these ready to go. Rose and I finished every morsel of the samples I brought home tonight. πŸ™‚

The prison project

I’ve been so looking forward to getting into prison. (Haha) There’s some fantastic work being done, in the UK they run hearing voices groups in prisons. Although I’m passionate about vulnerable communities and challenging circumstances, so far none of my projects or travels had taken me behind the wall of Corrections, until now.

Earlier this year I was invited to join an existing project by SHINE SA and Hepatitis SA that was being carried out in several local prisons. I jumped at the chance. A background check, some paperwork, and a recalcitrant retinal scanner later and I was holding my first art workshop and sexual health information session alongside my small team.

It was excellent! They were hungry for resources, for information, for a sense of hope and not being forgotten by the outside world. We provided accurate, non judgemental education together, and gathered a collection of submissions from them – art, poetry, stories, questions.

I’m now in the second phase of the project, curating the submissions and informational articles, and illustrating and laying it all out as a booklet. It’s a big wonderful job and as I’m pulling it together I’m finding certain faces come to mind from people I’ve met. I hope it will speak to them, usually in community development projects I have a much deeper understanding of who I’m speaking to, while I’m just getting to know these people and their circumstances. There’s huge overlaps in experiences though – common threads of poverty, trauma, mental illness, and hardship for many. Sparse resources, broken dreams, profound regrets, and lost identity I do understand. Sometimes peers can speak and sooothe and share hope in ways we simply won’t allow from others.

So I’m working on something beautiful, in the style of a handmade book that will go back out into the prisons. I can’t wait to show you when it’s ready.

Poppy is 18 months and Rose and I are dating again

At first it seems there’s no visible difference from the complete shift in your world from focusing on each other to wrapping yourselves around children. You check in, keep a wary eye out for signs of trouble but everything mostly feels smooth and unchanged. The lack of sleep, lack of adult time, debriefing space, opportunities to not be adult all add up but none of it seems to be costing closeness or connection. The relationship is getting almost no attention yet is still growing just fine, like an old rose bush in the yard.

Then somewhere you find yourselves without warning on the edge of a precipice, watching each other and seeing the pain in the eyes and the numbness in the heart, wondering which of you will let it go first and how many millions of pieces everything will break into when it smashes on the rocks below.

The world wears through the skin into bone and through bone into void. The foundations are strong but they cannot hold forever.

2 years now, Star has been with us, and Poppy is now 18 months old. We are still asking the questions, gently, what does love look like here? What do we each need to thrive, or when that’s out of reach, at least survive?

Rose and I have found ourselves at the raw edges, feeling worn. Parenting is an intense commitment built upon the strength of a relationship we’ve barely tended. So we’ve started up family counseling again, and set aside some hours each week, alone. Date lunch. Once a week soul time. We go someplace and talk, about us, our lives, our dreams, our hearts. Like the old days. We unpick and re-weave ourselves like old shawls. For a couple of hours we are the only people in the world. We sneak out of life and hold hands and talk about love.

Something that had withered, grows new shoots. Soaks up the sun and rain and hearts cracked open. Feels alive again.

How easily we lose one another, side by side in the same bed, working in the same kitchen. Yet how neatly the rift is mended, like a darned sock, the jagged edges drawn back together, the cold pushed at bay.

Darkness is all around us and our souls do not cry loudly as they fade. They speak the quiet language of loss, the ‘failure to thrive’ of the adult who so wants to thrive.

We run far out beyond the horizon, holding hands. And run home, hearts aching for our children, longing to hold them. Always walking both worlds, like selkies. Slipping one skin to show another, knitting our lives from the days and nights, the poems and the tears that lay in our hands, like pearls.

Dearest Star

Star, our beautiful teenager is much more difficult for me to share about discretely than it is for me with Poppy, but I don’t like to leave her out entirely, either. It’s been a hard year for her. The injury to her knee saw a huge downturn in her mental health, and a kid who has got back up after so many knock downs before, got knocked off her feet and lost some hope that life was going to work out. Some days she explains to me how unhappy she is and my heart breaks. I remind myself often that my job is not to pressure her to be happy, it’s simply to love her.

She finished school last year with straight A grades, despite many days off and a lot of distress. Anxiety and chronic pain are constant companions, but she is also vibrant when happy, courteous, diligent, and incredibly helpful. She is always gentle with Poppy even when she’s frustrated about her room being raided for interesting things.

She’s in contact with all of her biological family now, an excellent and challenging process. I’ve always firmly believed in the idea that we all need many parents – I remember reading Clarissa Pinkola Este’s Women Who Run with the Wolves many years ago and loving her assertion that all women need at least 5 different mothers to grow to adulthood. So we do not compete, or rank relationships by which are more ‘real’, or dismiss their importance. Star needs all her family to grow, and they are all real, important, and deeply influential. It’s not always easy but when there’s peace, she thrives, and she is patient beyond her years when there’s stress in those relationships.

Some days I feel so inadequate and overwhelmed, parenting a teenager I only met a few years ago. I have to make calls about her best interests and balance the needs of our whole little family and I’m certain I don’t always get that right. Some days the stakes feel high and I’m afraid I’m making the wrong choices.

Other days I see her growing, the kindness in her friendships, the quiet leadership, her blooming communication skills and I’m so incredibly proud. She has worked so hard to be different and she certainly stands out! I love our times in the car together on the way to school in the mornings, when she opens up and tells me about her life. I love being part of first experiences for her, like being there the first day she was taken for a motorbike ride and came home exhilarated. I’m glad to be there on bad days when she needs a hug.

Currently her joy is learning to drive. Many highly intelligent kids are restless to grow older and reap the rewards of adulthood and Star more than most has craved the freedoms of adult life. She’s rarely happier than behind the wheel, gaining hours of driving experience towards getting her licence.

We have been together over 2 years now, and adulthood is approaching so quickly. In the blink of eye this time will be just a memory, the stress of year 12, her first day at uni, the four of us crowded into our little unit. Among all the stress and sadness and difficulty, there’s such love, such joy. She is growing into a wonderful woman and I’m so proud to know her and have played a small role in the end of her childhood.

TEDx Talk & Art: Emotionally Safer Sex

Here it is at last. πŸ™‚

It’s big, it’s scary (for me, hopefully not too much for you), and I’ve only watched it once because it’s the mother of all vulnerability hangovers and makes me tremble for hours.

But I’m so proud of it. I hope it feels safe, a friendly invitation to think differently about things and see safety and freedom and pleasure as interconnected. We can take better care of each other.

Please share it freely as a resource anywhere.

Free – find more of my writing about Emotionally Safer Sex.


‘Haven’ embellished with 24 karat gold

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My Exhibition Sold Out

It was amazing. The feedback was wonderful. People really engaged. And I sold all the art on the walls and then some!

I’m wiped out today and hanging on the couch with Poppy.

There will be updates with links and pictures and all the wonderful things for you very soon.

But for now – wow. My first exhibition since Poppy was born, and my first sell-out exhibition. I am dazed and amazed and SO EXCITED!

I was trialling the idea of one night exhibitions, in a community rather than gallery setting, hosted by an organisation – in this case my wonderful place of residence SHINE SA.

It was great. Hard work but fantastic. I already have interest in hosting it again, and SHINE SA are looking into how they might be able to keep it on display longer. I’m excited about sharing it in different settings with different communities! (Sing out if that’s you)

My favourite part of yesterday was people taking me over to a work to tell me what they see in it, and why they connect with it.

photo courtesy of Janiece Pope Β©2018

Hearing that the ideas resonate, that the art speaks to people, that tricky topics suddenly feel safer to think about or talk about – music to my ears. This is a brilliant way of raising awareness, bringing people together, and exploring a topic in a rich, authentic, and ultimately liberating way. I’ve found my thing.

One learning is that I need to outsource sales. Rose is so much better at that side of things than I am, not because she’s ‘sales-ey’ but because she’s less flighty/fried on the night and more comfortable discussing people’s needs. (I forgot to even mention the work was for sale or how to buy it.) She’s come home with a plan to explore how we could offer payment plans to people who need to pay off their favourite work – something she does all the time with beautiful hand made kids clothes or quality baby carriers that would normally be out of our budget, so she’s very familiar with that side of things.

Guys, I sold a whole exhibition! I’m not even sure how to feel, I’m kind of thrilled, and a bit confused, and sort of anxious that it’s all been a big mistake or someone’s going to be really angry with me somehow, or that it was just a crazy fluke and doesn’t mean anything. (How much art do you have to sell before it’s not a fluke anymore?) Why do I feel embarrassed by it and embarrassed about my reaction because it’s not quite on script of just feeling excited? Why does life always look and feel quite different from what you thought it would be like? I don’t know.

Links, photos, good stuff on the way when I can move again, I promise.

And more art, of course. I’ve started a new collection while I was finishing up this exhibition, and it’s beautiful. ❀

Behind the scenes of the Exhibition

Here’s a sneak peak of the hanging space and gilded artworks. Preparations for the exhibition on Friday night have reached the point where it’s overwhelming and I hate all the art and want to set fire to it and pretend I never thought of doing one.

I don’t like this point terribly much. If I could figure out how to skip or at least minimise it, that would be awesome.

In the meantime I’m keeping on, juggling a couple of projects and missing my happy mood. I’ve navigated a number of challenges with hanging and framing and I’m generally just over all the last minute crises and feeling like I’m such a clichΓ© artiste with all the insecurity and mood swings and indecision.

Maybe if I was a better artist I would feel less anxious and vulnerable and destructive. Maybe it wouldn’t make any difference at all.

Last night I dreamed that Poppy died, I woke distraught at 6am and couldn’t get any more sleep. She was dragged from my arms into a drain too small for me to follow. I watched her sleep for the next few hours and tried to put my thoughts back together.

A friend, not a close one but someone I had created some wonderful projects with, has died, and her service is on Friday a few hours before my exhibition.

I’ve seen my TEDx talk finally. It’s good. I trembled for several hours after watching it, feeling all the fuses blow in my brain. When I stopped shaking and could drive, I went home to bed.

I’m realising that being a freelancer doesn’t mean I can schedule every hour to be highly productive. Sometimes you have to make time to shake. This seems blindingly obvious but also difficult to grasp.

I had a spectacular weekend, happy and excited and bubbling with inspiration. I snatched hours to paint ideas and explored new techniques on YouTube on my phone. There were board games and friends and feeling like I’d found my place in the world.

I know how this works, I’ll pass through the darkest hour and the project will come together. I wish it was easier for me. I wish I’d learned to hold back a little, give myself something left for the return trip. All this vulnerability in public gives me the worst hangovers. But the other side of it, the connection, that’s amazing.

Work, Failure, and Identity

My business mentor sent this amazing article to me and it made me cry.

So many quotes spoke to me:

Though driven and innovative, hypomanics are at much higher risk for depression than the general population, notes Gartner. Failure can spark these depressive episodes, of course, but so can anything that slows a hypomanic’s momentum. “They’re like border collies–they have to run,” says Gartner. “If you keep them inside, they chew up the furniture. They go crazy; they just pace around. That’s what hypomanics do. They need to be busy, active, overworking.”

I know that place! This is explored in much more detail in Exuberance: The Passion for Life, by Kay Redfield Jamison, which I found very helpful for understanding the intensity I bring to my work and creativity process. My favourite quote from her book is “If exuberance is the Champagne of moods, mania is its cocaine.”

Back to Bruder’s article: from a guy who put everything including his house on the line and only came through with hours to spare at the worst point in his business.

Afterward, he made a list of all the ways in which he had financially overreached. “I’m going to remember this,” he recalls thinking. “It’s the farthest I’m willing to go.”
…emotional residue from the years of tumult still lingers. “There’s always that feeling of being overextended, of never being able to relax,”

I know this place too. I over reached, just before falling completely apart several years ago. I went way beyond my personal resources to attend a conference, and at the end they invited me to create a network and be paid to do so and I came home to choirs of angels singing. Then they all went back to their lives and not one single person moved the plan forward. I waited and sent polite emails and my stomach dropped and my heart broke. As my confidence fell apart, so did every business opportunity I’d been working on. 10 unrelated arrangements with different people fell apart and so did I.

The alternative mental health community has not been a safe haven for me in this way. It has contained essential and valuable ideas, but also Tall Poppy Syndrome, a lot of lone wolves with no community capacity, and significant issues with poverty and hostility to those who make money.

Some make successful businesses and ventures from their skills and experiences. Some, like me, struggle and struggle, looking desperately for a validated way to a fair income. Poverty and all that came with it for me – inexperience with money, self depreciation, discomfort with marketing, had a cost that got bigger every year. At one stage an interstate org was arranging me to visit for a week long series of training and workshops. I was ecstatic. When they asked me for a bio I froze up. They knew I was bad at marketing myself, and good at what I do, but the freeze spooked them and they canned the project. I hated myself so much I wanted to die.

In my little world I hear often of others success. Those chosen to give keynotes at conferences, invited to overseas opportunities, paid consultants with the ear of people who can fund their projects. There’s so much failure and comparison and fuel for self loathing. The standards are impossible. The hurdles to be included and treated as a professional are impossible. Peer work is a nightmare risk, and hidden behind our inspirational heros are so many untold stories like my own of exposure, unemployability, and brutal failure. It’s a cruel trick and the stakes are exceptionally high.

I’m painfully, constantly aware that for many others, my own modest successes represent the same pain and lost opportunities. That people look to me and feel the mix of inspiration, envy, and sadness with which I regard my own role models.

So does cultivating an identity apart from your company… “Other dimensions of your life should be part of your identity.”… it’s important to feel successful in areas unrelated to work.

For me, who has donated thousands of unpaid hours to my networks, considered a tattoo of my own logo, and invested my career with profound meaning about the value of life, my identity, and my place in the world, this advice is profound and difficult to follow.

I am so tangled with my business and career aspirations it’s hard to tell where one end and the other begins. It’s been an incredible challenge to set up any kind of business model because I am the business. Having missed out on formal education and all the doors opened by validated skill sets and access to professional memberships, I have found a side road to my goals where that validation is irrelevant and the professional bodies are largely nonexistent. It’s the Wild West of consulting and freelancing. The clients are gun shy because of slick assholes who overcharge and under-deliver. And the contractors are unprotected from most forms of exploitation, have no minimum hourly rates, unions, or HR. Just this last week a client decided not to honour my invoice and paid me only the amount they arbitrarily decided I should have charged. I’m so glad to have found pathways that bypass the formal with all those issues, and yet I’m so poorly equipped to navigate them. The very qualities that have driven me to freelancing are those that leave me vulnerable. Upskilling is largely a brutal process of learning from my mistakes. The mental health costs can be significant.

I’m tired. Several psychologists over the years have suggested I simply sit back and enjoy my pension. I’ve stopped going to therapy with them after that. There’s meaning in work, inclusion. As Helen Glover put it, you attain citizenship when you pay taxes. I want to be a ‘real person’. At times it’s killing me. Sometimes I have to step back from this capitalist cultural fusion of work, money, and identity. I have to find a way to embed compassion and the context of a culture that is often not kind to those with illnesses and disability into my own understanding of the value of work. I’m starting to shift how I see it all, and transitioning to a clearer business model where I sell certain skills or outcomes rather than clients asking for anything they want I can do- it helps. It puts a small buffer between my business and my soul.

Let me finish with a recent poem I wrote:

My business is not
Who I am in the world.
It is not
My identity, my value, my self respect
Not the sum of me
My place
My impact
My legacy.

My business is a project
One project among many
A way to earn money
Make a difference
A way to be in the world.
It is not the only way
The one, true, right, way
The sum of every effort until now
Validation for all that came before
The reward for every tribulation.
It is just my business, one dream
Among many.

My business is not
Proof that I’ve ‘made it’, or
Evidence I’ve settled, given up, sold out, lost faith.
It doesn’t mean I’ve gone over to the other side
Become a success or failed a character test
It’s something to be proud of but not the only thing
It’s a part of me but I am not
A piece of it.
If it died I would still be here.
My business is not
Who I am in the world.

TEDx Video Launch: Emotionally Safer Sex

The video of my TEDx Adelaide talk is coming online! Happy dance!

SHINE SA have partnered with me to celebrate the launch, and everyone is invited!

There will be a screening of the video, and an exhibition of the beautiful artworks I created to illustrate the talk. There will be nibbles, wonderful people, and an opportunity to hear more about the topic and behind the scenes of the TEDx talk.

I would LOVE to see you there.

  • Friday, Feb 9, 5:30pm
  • SHINE SA, 57 Hyde St, Adelaide

Grab your free ticket here (to help me cater, I hate running out of lamingtons!)

Facebook Event here.

For those who can’t attend, I will be sharing the video online and popping some gorgeous prints up in my Etsy shop. πŸ™‚

“I believe that just as there are ways we can prepare for sex that make it physically safer for ourselves and our partners, there are things we can do to make it emotionally safer, too.”

More info:

Summary of TEDx video
‘Safer sex’ can be about much more than preventing unwanted infections. For many people, sexual experiences risk leaving emotional bruises, and sometimes our struggles and differences can make good sex seem out of reach.

Sarah K Reece shares personal stories, beautiful artwork, and practical advice about how seeking to make sex emotionally safer has helped her navigate challenges such as a trauma history, anxiety, queer identity, mental illness, chronic pain, and physical disability.

Art Exhibition
This intimate exhibition of 8 ink paintings explores our physical relationship with our own bodies and our partners. The artworks are hand gilded with 24k gold embellishments and show very human, diverse experiences of the joys and sorrows of sex.

*The artwork does not display graphic sex acts, nudity, or abuse and is suitable for viewing by children.

Sarah K Reece is an artist, writer, trainer, and community development consultant, managing or contributing to projects with a wide range of communities such as prisoners, rural carers, queer youth, and psychiatric inpatients. Sarah specialises in working with people who are vulnerable due to experiences of adversity or diversity, and has founded local and international networks that support more than a thousand people.

Art Print Workflow

As part of my business mentoring I have been tracking the time it takes me to do various tasks, and setting up workflows like this. It’s been illuminating.

One thing I’ve found is that some of my estimations have been far off. Gilding, for example, takes me literally 4 times longer per artwork than I’d estimated.

Another thing it’s brought to my attention is the stark difference between making art for the love or need of it, and making art as a business. See how many of those steps are not about making the art? Most of them. They are about inventory and stock management, sales and marketing, following up email enquiries and event planning.

These are not awful things, but they are not, as one might imagine an art business to be, mostly days spent in the studio with a paint brush. And they do make me question if this is a business model I want. I do get a great deal of pleasure from selling my prints and hearing where they’ve gone and why and what needs they have met. I like meeting people at openings and exhibitions and using my art to build communities and share messages. But a lot of this workflow is frankly, tedious and uncreative and time consuming. All of which takes me out of my studio, away from the creativity and connection I love most.

I haven’t stopped making prints. But it’s good to be aware of the model I’m using. I might be able to tinker and tweak it so it suits me a little better. Continuous improvement is something I am good at. Trying to build the business while also making the work continues to feel rather like sewing my own leg on while skateboarding, but stopping work isn’t a great option and many of the business skills are best learnt on the job anyway, and decisions best tested before committed to. It’s frustratingly messy and slow but things are emerging.

On the good news front I am working on a commission at the moment that I am very excited to share once I’m further into it. Having an artistic project again is delightful. There’s good news waiting in the wings so watch this space. πŸ™‚


I have lost my bounce back after too many crises this week. I am tired and angry and depressed. Every member of my family has been in crisis or the ER at least once, and my sleep has been badly interrupted.

Yesterday, Rose was cooking dinner with her broken/damaged ankle and using a chair to sit at the stove. She tipped a pot of boiling water and spaghetti into the sink. Some of the water caught in a bowl in the sink. Poppy climbed the chair like lightning and dunked her hand in the bowl of boiling water.

So, I sat in a cold bath in my underwear for 20 minutes with her, nursing and keeping a hose of cool water running into her burnt hand while she cried and fought me, screaming ‘no’ and trying to hide her hand from the water. It was very hard to hold her still without bruising her wrist or arm, and I found the best approach was to chase her hand with the hose and let the cool water run down her arm over it.

I hate having to do that, holding her down, no time to soothe her into complying, over riding her desperate attempts to protect herself. There’s a ball of pain and rage in me today that has nowhere to go.

Ambulance to the hospital for assessment and then home the same night. We were very lucky. She’d closed her hand so tightly the inside of it was barely burned and the outside was red and a bit swollen but nothing serious.

My nerves are shot. I want to cry, scream, shake, and throw up. I also want some quiet time to myself, maybe in a long bath, and about 6 hours more sleep.

I have nipple thrush again. Nursing feels like stabbing hot needles into my nipple. There was also a bit of a bacterial infection in one, it’s taking a long time to heal.

Some weeks are marathons, endurance tests. Can you get through them without discharging the stress in destructive ways? Eating everything/not eating/starting fights/self harm/insomnia/self medication… Whatever. The stress goes somewhere.

What helps reset when there are no reserve left to draw on, no spoons at the back of the cupboard?

Hand over the baby or walk away. Last night I was at the end of my tether with a worked up baby not sleeping at 1am. I dumped her on Rose’s lap with a movie and went to bed to sleep.

Connection and validation. We feel so alone in our dark hours. My future turns black and depression sets in. I feel trapped, doomed, and too miserable to even cry. I have to force myself to drag my focus away from my future and into now. What do I need right now? What do I need to do right now? Hang the washing. Eat something. Put out the fire.

Humour is an excellent remedy for self pity and taking life too seriously. A comedy or a mad friend are balm.

Sex or masturbation at the right moment can signal the end of crisis and a calming back to yourself or your relationship. Like a ship coming back to harbor or a bird to the nest.

Finding a way to scream. In my old life I would sometimes park somewhere undisturbed, wind up the windows, and scream. I’m crowded now and rarely have that chance. Finding a balance between discharging emotion without frightening the family – big feeling are normal. Write, draw, paint. Cry in the shower. Explain what’s going on and why, don’t make it a secret and don’t make them feel frightened or responsible for it. We feel the intensity of the horror ending whether it happened or not. Our bodies and minds react similarly to tragedy as they do to a near miss. Culturally we have less support for the time we need to process, but the feelings are the just the same. Denied, we will have to numb and discharge then in covert ways that often do harm. Set them a place at the table.

Yesterday I was calm, nurturing, pragmatic, and focused. Today I am rattled, angry, scared and despairing. It won’t last forever. This is not the future, not the new normal. Stay present in the moment. Listen to the pain. Be part of it.

My experience of self harm

Obviously this one is going to be totally unsuitable for some people. I talk about self harm frankly. I do not describe graphic accounts, but some methods are mentioned. There are no images. Please take care. 

I rea​d an article yesterday, called But Still, by Samantha Van Zveden. It reminded me of my own experiences, the fear, the ambivalence, the sense of compulsion, driving inexplicable need. It’s taken me most of my life, but it no longer has me by the throat. It’s an experience that bewilders people, and into the gap in our understandings pour myths, fears, and a kind of casual brutality that can still bring me screaming to my knees. 

They’re just doing it for attention. Doing it to be cool. Doing it for acceptance by other kids. Doing it to annoy her parents. Doing it because he doesn’t have enough to do. Doing it because it’s ‘in’. 

Falling far down the rabbit hole of trying to prove pain to people who do not believe you. Their belief, their compassion, their acceptance of your sincerity is an unwinnable thing. So many years and so much suffering poured out seeking it. Every day going down, deeper into self destruction, closer to death. I grew up in a world where pain was only real if someone else believed in it. Many people still live in that world. It took me a long time to escape it and reclaim my own mind.

Self harm is complex and full of contradictions. Something I often remind people is that it is common in the animal kingdom. Animals and birds experiencing inescapable pain – loneliness, captivity in an unsuitable cage: too small, too stressful, too close to predator species, overcrowded, or physically ill and suffering, many will head bang, pluck their own feathers, chew or lick off their skin, tear out nails and claws. On one level, self harm is a nearly universal response to certain kinds of suffering. This is the context, the broad picture. We are mammals, part of the world, nervous systems wired this way. 

Zooming right in, we get vast diversity in who, how, and why. Some find a single cause and many more a complex web of reasons, needs, struggles. 

Some harm to punish themselves. Some to break out of dissociation and stop feeling numb. Some to reclaim their own body. To mark important events, the way some cultures ritually scarify children becoming adults. To discharge suicidal distress and make it safely through the night. To trigger numbness when feelings are overwhelming. To push the boundaries of skin and self and rules of what is acceptable. To prove their pain to themselves or someone else who isn’t listening or doesn’t believe. To ease the screaming panic. To mark the empty days. To annihilate, piece by piece, every last bit of themselves. To get revenge on those who think they own us. To be ugly so we will not be desired and harmed. To make ourselves beautiful. To let out the badness. Because it simply, inexplicably, felt right. 

What it is not, and has never been, is the circle I hear so often. They self harm because they are mentally ill: we know they are mentally ill because they self harm. 

We self harm because something is wrong, because of pain, because it is the best way we’ve found to meet a need we don’t understand or accept or can’t express. 

I remember the first day I bought blades with the intention of self harming. I was suffering from severe PTSD and my world had become nightmares and panic and rage in a bed of grey, empty, exhausting apathy. I felt so utterly weak and damaged, all the time. Buying blades I felt powerful, defiant against all those who required that I show no sign of my suffering. That I should not be changed by my experiences. Breaking those rules felt like being true to myself. That link between owning my own pain and harming myself was powerful and took many years to understand and find an alternative for. Because for me, it clicked so strongly self harm immediately became an intense, consuming addiction. 

I experienced such relief from my anguish in self harm it was electric. Physical pain created an intense focus for my thoughts, it shifted me out of the mundane world into a deeply needed altered state and created a powerful sense of ownership over my body and proof of my pain to myself. It eased suicidal despair and sated my constant self loathing. For a short while the internal litany of how stupid, ugly, selfish, pathetic, and what a miserable freakish lonely failure I was would go quiet. It was peace. I felt strong instead of weak. I felt I’d proved something to myself. I felt like I could finally take off my armour and rest for a little while. 

The next morning I was drowning in shame, and the self loathing intensified beyond anything I’d previously experienced. The sight of the wounds would trigger rage at myself. Why was I so weak and pathetic? Such a drama queen. I sided with others brutal assessment of my character and motivation. 

Once the wounds healed and were less visible, I would feel panic. I needed to see them. I would desperately want new wounds. The longer I went without seeing my own blood, the more compelled I felt. I tried to meet this need in other ways, considering I have endometritis and adenomyosis and was bleeding heavily literally half of my life I couldn’t understand why that wasn’t enough blood, why it had to be this, too. 

So the experience, like all addictions, created the conditions to feed itself, becoming its own trigger and containing both the problem (shame, pain, self hate) and the remedy. Once inside the locked room I was trapped. The compulsion felt simultaneously too powerful to fight, and extremely minor, a mere suggestion that I was choosing to indulge. I could snap out of it anytime, stop anytime I wanted to. I felt divided.

When others reacted with intense anger, shaming, and minimising (you’re just copying someone else because you think it makes you interesting), I merely switched from my preferred methods of self harm to things that caused pain and distress but left no marks on my skin. They were a poor substitute for the rituals but not doing anything felt impossible. 

I read books and articles about it, talked to my doctor and shrinks. Nothing made the hunger go away. I tried ‘behavioural extinguishing’ where you simply refuse to engage the behaviour no matter what, and over time the urge will disappear. It did not. In 8 straight years of not harming at all I still struggled with the urge often. Some days it was louder and some quieter but always there. I often dreamed about it in terrifying ways, saw images of it unbidden in my mind when close to blades or while cooking, and when distressed or on seeing wounds or scars on others would intensely yearn for the release. 

I remember a friend confiding in me their teenage child had been self harming. I come home from the conversation to howl in bewildering agony – why do they get blades and not I? As if I was deprived of something essential to my survival. Part of my mind listening in, in absolute confusion and disgust. How could I be this messed up? 

I remember another friend confiding in me that they’d been to see a shrink and shared their awful compulsion to cut with them, and the shrink had brightly and inanely suggested wearing a rubber band on their wrist and flicking it when the urges come, to simulate the pain. It was like comparing a glass of water to a tsunami. I needed to scream so loud it tore my world apart, set the sky on fire, turned the rain to blood. I was drowning in unspeakable suffering, dying in plain sight, and the world of psychology offered a rubber band. My friend and I were mutually speechless at the gulf between our experiences and their understanding. The trivialising of the darkest hours of my life drove me further into darkness and further from understanding myself. What the hell is wrong with me?

I stayed away from medical care, aware that other’s responses fed the need on me, their callousness filled me with violent rage against myself, their compassion made me want to do it again to be treated with warmth and gentleness again. I listened to a young peer who turned up at ER one day, wild with pain and afraid she would self harm. They told her they would not admit her unless she had current wounds. So she walked out of the hospital and gave herself some, then walked back in. Then they admitted her. In that context, it was simply the admission fee for ‘care’. I noticed you often had to increase the dose over time to get a similar response from mental health staff. I called this ‘the language of symptoms’ and I fought not to speak it. With some peers, self harm was treated as the ultimate proof of your pain. It bypassed skepticism and got you into the club of people who had done it tough. I fought not to internalise this either. I read frightening books that made suicide seem the ultimate way to show other people you were genuinely hurting, and make them regret their indifference. I fought that framework too. 

I learned that for me, self harm was often about proving my pain, not only to other people in my world who were minimising my distress, but also to myself. It was a way of proving the suffering of the night before to whoever woke up the next morning. A kind of memo, written on my skin, that said: pay attention, we are hurting. Something that I could not ignore, could not find a positive light for or put a good spin on. Something animal and savage the intellectual part couldn’t explain away, something dark and forbidden the rule abiding part couldn’t condone or ignore. 

On bad days I spent hours in the bath, in self imposed quarenteen until I felt safe to walk past the knives in the kitchen. The longest bath like this I’ve taken was 9 hours. Letting out the cold water and adding more hot as my fingers and toes wrinkle. Waiting until the need reduces to manageable or the dissociation numbs it.

Substituting the need was my best approach. Less instant and complete, I learned to be patient with the alternatives and put up with partly met needs. It was by far the best relief I’d found. I developed Ink not Blood and discovered in a strange way that I was equally ashamed of simulated self harm as I was of actual wounds. The shame was more about the visibility of my pain than it was about the taboo of self harm. I felt deeply embarrassed I needed such a thing. Wrist poems continued to weave their way through my life as an alternative too. Talking to myself on my skin.

Psychosis resolved through body painting, full body art with simulated blood. Gold drips from my mouth, splashes of red across my hip. Simulated self harm and altered state on a massive scale with not a blade in sight. A wound in me heals, the need weakens. 

I read about the Bloggess, she discusses her self harm frankly, with neither pity not rage, simply that she ‘fell off the self harm wagon’. She dusts herself off and climbs back on. No one screams at her or takes her kids away. I can’t see anyone forcing her hands over to show mutilated wrists and dropping them with a lip curl of revulsion. I envy her. Self harm as a bad night, not a moral failing.

Then I’m pregnant and the proximity of children quietens the need. Star and Poppy arrive and it continues to fade away. The self hate stays, a near constant companion, the daily voice “I hate myself”. The nightmares of graphic self harm; dismemberment, self immolation, degloving, stop and don’t come back. The triggers lose their power, evoke a pang rather than a desperate thirst. I watch it drain out of my life with relief and confusion. I take less baths, wear less gloves and wrist cuffs, write fewer wrist poems. 

I still don’t entirely know why it’s gone, or if it’s ever coming back. Has it gone with some wild part of me I’m losing touch with? Is it a good thing that it’s eased? Has it been replaced by the depression, the sense of choking failure that haunts me? Health is not merely the absence of a symptom. Why didn’t it take the self loathing with it? What does it all mean? 

I don’t know. I’m glad not to be struggling with it, it was a many headed hydra that seemed to grow stronger the more heads I lopped off. Most days I’m glad my scars are so invisible. Some days I regret my restraint a little. I’m glad to have found that the symbol of harm, the imitation of it, has so much power for me, and learned that self harm is in itself a symbol of something else, a word in language you don’t yet speak but must learn to decipher. 

I don’t hurt like I used to hurt, stuffed full of secrets and bewildered by my pain. It’s in the open now and I have names for it (queer, trauma, multiple, altered state, creative). I’ve got other ways to scream and I don’t ignore myself so much. 

It’s such a victory, and yet, while the self hate remains it seems in many ways a hollow one. However far I go, it’s not enough. Have I won the war, or just stopped caring enough to bother fighting? Is it still a blessing if the screaming stops but the pain remains? I don’t know. I’m still working on it, feeling into it, trying to understand it. I’m glad to be out of the shame spiral, the snake vomiting its own tail. I’m glad my girls don’t live with it as a daily reality for their parent. I’m under no illusions though, I know exactly what it feels like to live with people who hate themselves and I try to be mindful of that, to decode it when I must and protect them as I can. 

I’ve come a long way. I’m not done yet. Self harm, for me, met a need. It also fuelled that need. Finding other powerful ways to meet it broke the spiral. (you don’t break addictions, you replace them) It’s nothing to do with the drug of choice, and everything to do with the environment. I had to make very hard, very painful choices to change my environment. In some ways much more painful than merely cutting myself. It was a substitute, a symbol, a signal of how trapped I felt in that life. 

I left. I severed relationships and found new ones. Came out as multiple, then again as bisexual, and again as genderqueer. Made art. Nurtured others. Found self compassion. Stopped trying to find my salvation in my own blood. Learned to live with the scars and the places where there aren’t scars. Go home and scream when people tell me self harm is attention seeking, but in the moment try to validate their bewilderment and anxiety, gently correct attention seeking to connection seeking. Try to bridge the gap and make the incomprehensible make some kind of sense, engender some kind of compassion. Try to make people rethink their instinctive revulsion, to question their belief self harm is always fundamentally wrong, that it deserves involuntary disgust of the kind usually reserved for rapists.

Our skin, like our bodies and our lives, is our own. It’s shame that kills us. Loneliness that destroys our lives. Love that saves us, that makes the pain bearable and heals the screaming wounds. It’s not always enough, but is always necessary for life. 

Darling Poppy

Her unblemished newborn skin is now a tapestry of grazes as she explores her world. She’s cheerful, fearless, and affectionate. Currently she loves throw things, climb heights, push a small trolley around the house, and swim short distances unaided. She has a terrifying habit of climbing up furniture then hurtling herself off it to be caught by unsuspecting people who walk past. She likes to try to stand on the handlebars of her little bike, and can climb a ladder with rungs spaced over a foot apart. 

She’s intensely social and becomes distressed and destructive if stuck home or with not enough people for too long. Awake at 10pm at a friend’s wedding she’s still exploring with excitement and charming the guests. 

She’s discovered she can scream and shriek so car trips can be interesting and we’re all suffering some degree of hearing loss when she’s unhappy. She frets when people cry and comes over to pat them on an arm. When she needs contact she follows us around the house tugging on clothes and asking for a ‘tuddle?’ or brings us a favourite board book to be read to her. 

She adores music and often sings to herself or us. The Pussycat song, a medly of mews, is very popular. Dancing is also her thing. 

The three of us, myself, Rose, and Star, are all tuned in to different things and care for her in different ways. Star still has the magic touch and can often help her to sleep within a few minutes. Star will pick up on a particular wiggle that means she needs a nappy change. Rose is so aware of her capacities with swimming and able to judge so well the limits of what she can do physically. I pick up on her sense of cabin fever, when she’s reached the limits of amusing herself and needs something new. 

Mornings in bed together are still my favourite time. She is very busy little person and mornings are quiet and content and precious. 

She is magic and I adore her. 

Poppy and Art

How jolly our Christmas has been. Good people, lovely food, thoughtful gifts. Poppy has some awesome new musical instruments.

I’m disconnected from work and being present. Playing games, making puzzles, cooking meals. Setting up my reading list for next year on my phone apps… One day I’ll read paper books again regularly but mostly I read one handed while nursing so ebooks are so convenient. 

Currently I’m half way through Growing Gills which has been full of excellent advice for a creative business person. It’s extremely interesting to see where other people get stuck and how they get unstuck, or less overwhelmed. 

I’m also still making art in little snatches here and there, using my travel kit. My recent addition to it was black ink filled water pens and I’m loving playing with my watercolour set. This is Poppy in the bath with her amber necklace. πŸ™‚ 

Hope you’re having a lovely break too.