art and reconnecting with my essential self

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As a person living with chronic pain, I’ve fallen into the rut of searching for the root cause of it. This means trying to glean answers from every possible source. It can feel like information indigestion sometimes, all of these words burbling away in the brain. But then occasionally a few pieces snap together and it pushes me forward a step.

Recently I was listening to Martha Beck talk about the essential versus the social self. Beck defines the two ‘selves’ as this: the essential self is who you are meant to be, your makeup, the innate talents and preferences that make you who you are; the social self is all of the conditioning and expectations we conform to as part of our culture and social environment.

I realised that for several years my social self had been withholding oxygen and nutrients from my essential self. As I had become less able to extricate myself from the emotional demands of my career, this had become full-fledged neglect. Beck insists that this disconnection is a sort of trauma. And like trauma it manifested physically.

The meat of this idea does not belong to Martha Beck, but I like her linguistic approach. It suggests that what is required to improve the situation is a type of nurturing rather than a maddening march towards unattainable goals.

I also recently started listening to a podcast called ‘The Creativity Habit. The host, Daphne Cohn starts every interview by asking the interviewee to recount their creativity story, beginning in childhood.

Listening to various artists recount their stories made me realise how important creativity and imagination were to me as a child. For the first seven years of my life I lived as an only child. I spent a lot of time alone, making up complex worlds. I loved to draw and paint and write stories and make fairy gardens in the back yard.

Finally, I’ve been working with my therapist to try to decipher what it is that is making my body shut down. My therapist is a proponent of going into a mindful space and speaking to your younger self. I’ve participated in these exercises with limited success. The mere mention of role playing enough to send me into a state of trembling. While I was incredibly imaginative as a child, my body shame has always made me shy away from acting.

When I left my job earlier this year I said to myself that I was going to take some time out, work on my novel. This project has been my creative focus for the last three years of my life. I think of it as the novel I have always been writing. For the first month of my unemployment I wrote furiously and feverishly. I had schedules for myself. I tracked word counts; I read about the processes of others; I attended festival workshops. And then the whole thing came to a grinding halt.

The thing is, ever since I was a kid I dreamt of being a writer, a novelist. I was good at writing, that’s what everyone said. So I translated the desire into an action plan. I went to creative writing workshops. I did a Masters in Writing. But that’s where it stopped. Apart from a few pieces I sent out in my early twenties I had never submitted any non-academic writing. I simply couldn’t cope with the rejection.

All this talk of becoming a writer, of telling people that’s what I was doing, meant that the practice was completely consumed by my social self. And yet the practice was a hundred percent reliant on the participation of my essential self. The disconnect became so fierce, the act of writing so infused with expectation, that simply thinking about sitting down to write caused a manifestation of physical symptoms. I would think of an idea for my novel and my hips would scream out in pain. And so I had spent the last several years avoiding creative time.

But about four months ago I started what would become a major breakthrough in my recovery. I was cleaning out some drawers in the front room of our house and I found a bunch of old illustrated books I had bought at a thrift store and squirrelled away. Flipping through them I had the sudden inclination to cut them up and turn them into something. My therapist had been encouraging me to start a worry journal and I had been avoiding it. Journalling was writing. Just the thought of it made my hand clench into a claw.

Instead I started cutting and pasting and posting small snippets of my worry to Instagram. I snipped through enough layers of paper that I started to find my essential self buried in there. My grade five art teacher was insistent that I was terrible at visual art, and so I had given up on it very early. Working visually had only ever been for myself, something I did secretly in the corners of pages full of more serious endeavours. Now, at this particular point in my life, the act of creating art and offering it up immediately for public consumption via social media was a freeing sort of rebellion.

Collage was an excellent medium for me to work in. If painting is the violin then collage is the piano. You can make it pretty with minimal skill. You can add complexity as you build your abilities. There was an absolute lack of expectation. I only shared the collages with strangers, the only person from my real life that knew about them was my husband. And so I was able to express whatever I wanted without fear of how I sounded or how I came across.

It was through this expression I was able to start communicating with my younger self. My essential self. The person I was before I got buried in stress and expectations and casual traumas. The person I was before the pain of life became corporeal. It was as if the smell of glue and the feeling of holding a pair of scissors was transporting.

Art hasn’t cured my chronic pain but it has given me a vehicle in which to travel away from it every now and then. It helps me rediscover parts of myself that I had neglected and to nurture them back into health. And it gives me a place to discard toxic energies and outdated beliefs.

Art allows me to reconnect with my essential self.