Disability and Art

To me, disability and art goes hand in hand. When I struggled to communicate what I needed or wanted as a young child, I would draw pictures of it and then show my mum. When I felt isolated or misunderstood at school, I would walk around the playground, daydreaming about the different artworks and stories I could create. I had trouble understanding faces and emotions, so I drew them over and over to understand them better. I would go to the library and draw with my peers as a way of relating to them in ways I couldn’t with speech. I use my voice through art and I always have, because for me, art is about communication, from vague to complex ideas, for others and for myself.

Art has taught me things that I used to find hard to grasp and it bridged that gap between myself and others. My autism has informed my art in ways that I hope other neuro-divergent people would also understand. I used to be ashamed of my condition and how I believed it limited me, but now I’m proud of the unique insight of the world, its living inhabitants and complex topics that it has given me. Art has helped me to tackle the problems and trauma in my life that I hope makes others feel understood and validated too.

About a year and a half ago I went through my first psychosis episode that hospitalised me for nearly two months. A while later I was diagnosed with schizo-affective disorder which is a combination of schizophrenia and a mood disorder. It completely changed my life and this new disability has brought so many new trials. But art, like always, has helped me. During those days in the psychiatric ward, I would spend my time painting and therefore processing my reality and emotions. At that time I found it hard to communicate what was happening for me, even to myself, so I would dump my thoughts, hallucinations, fears, questions and feelings onto a canvas. Just like when I was a kid, art helped me connect to others and myself in ways I couldn’t without it.

Art has the power to let us process emotions and become more brave with each stroke, which can be difficult to accomplish with those unable to voice their truth in other ways. Everyone who picks up a paint brush or a pencil or anything else to make a mark is a leader. It means having the courage to convey your being to others, communicating feelings and thoughts that can change the world and the way people think and act. People with disabilities often are incredibly insightful and wise and so their art is vital in our society that goes against emotional intelligence. We are needed.

The heART Project

Hear, read, watch, play.

Those four words embody the massive project that I am creating called The heART Project – an experience that is a wholesome and honest blend of art and mental health. It will be expressed through many different mediums, creating a whole experience that you can hear, read, watch and play. It’s a love letter to art, a hand that reaches out to support people with mental illnesses and an experience that I am putting my whole heart into.

It will be an art book, show, game and soundtrack.

  • The book is filled with words, comics, poetry, short stories, art, puzzles, mindful and grounding exercises and more.
  • The show has episodes featuring animated stories, drag performances, short films, artwork tutorials, original theatre productions, etc.
  • The project will have a game that involves different kinds of gameplay such as a 2D adventure game, 3D puzzles, a RPG, therapeutic point and click, real choices that influence the story and more.
  • And lastly, the soundtrack will have songs about mental health and art, a podcast featuring different kinds of artists and activists, an audio book of The heART Book, grounding exercises, spoken word, meditative music and the list goes on.

This is not a tiny task. This is going to be worked on and created over many years as I grow as a person and artist. It will face scary walls, bumps on the road and many obstacles, but that will make it all the more valuable – at least to me. I really hope that someone will get something out of this project – my goal is to give my heart to those who need it, because two years ago I really needed someone to do that for me.

I want you to be part of this process, so I have put up the current first-draft version of my book here. You can read it, give me some feedback or just look at the pictures and layout concepts that I will gradually add more of over time. On The heART Project page you can see all updates about the project’s progress. After some thinking, I’ve also decided that I will create mini magazines that will feature the growth of the project, including things like concept sketches and journal notes. I am not sure if anyone would actually be interested in reading the magazine, but it will serve as an in-depth art journal for me and will be published digitally. (I might make physical copies one day)
I think it would be really valuable to see how the heART project progresses from the ground up! If you’d like to actually read these mini magazines, email me and I’ll let you know when a new magazine issue is out.

There is so much to say about this project and how much it means to me. I want to make it as spectacular as possible, but I also have to be realistic. This is going to be a fuck load amount of work and an incredibly massive challenge, but I need to do it. I hope you want to join me in the making of The heART Project, because I truly believe that one day it will be something important.

Stuck

I have been battling over what to write about, since so much has happened in the last several months and so much processing needs to be done. I currently have four drafts, each being picked away at when I have been ready to talk about the details within. I have noticed, however, that each time I write, at some point I reach a sign that reads, ‘Too hard to process any more – go back.’

I could be easily very frustrated about this, and I have been. “Why can’t I write anymore? Why am I so horrible with words?” I asked myself, unhelpfully. “I am stuck!” I yelled in my mind, thinking that not only can I not type up a finished piece of writing, but also it felt like I am stuck with where I am in my life. More than a month ago I spent nearly seven weeks in a psych ward and as of now, I do not have enough distance from the event to be able to look at it with some kind of “golden nugget of wisdom.” I have had a continuous fallout while I grieved my mental health, once again, and now I do not know what to do. What do you do when you feel like you are stuck?

After some thought, my answer to that was to focus on the passions and things in my life that bring me comfort and joy – something that brings me forward. For me, that is art. Art is so important to me, and it allows distraction and also the facing of my deepest thoughts, insecurities and worries. It has saved my life on many occasions and I am so grateful to it. Art is an odd thing to write about, since it is such a huge concept that is so ineffable. It can be found in all spaces and emptiness within life, death and any in between. It can be primal, accidental and completely raw, or methodical, elaborate and refined, as well as both or neither and on any part of the spectrum.

Art is magic. An accidental blob of paint may be repeated in the fashion of being accidentally on purpose. A planned line that goes crooked may be worked in the process of the painting itself; celebrated for its wildness and as a wondrous secret for the artist. I doubt you could find too many artists where the vision and the result is exactly identical to each and every detail, because with any medium, beautiful surprises may pop up. The thing about this and why I need the wonderful thing called art to go forward is that it does not matter about the outcome, other than the hopeful wish that it becomes aesthetically near to your idea. For me, I need art because it is therapy to me. With each stroke of wet paint, I am processing, thinking and visually depicting my thoughts about my past, present and future, as well as insecurities, the leeches that tell awful stories in my mind and my emotions. It allows me to do all of that when I paint and after a session, I often feel reenergised and hopeful. Because art is my love, when I take part in it I often feel like I am going forwards, towards my future.

However, not all the time, especially when I feel stuck, am I able to paint, draw or do some kind of art. Sometimes depression and anxiety is so painful that I cannot get out of bed. When there is nothing you can do, but be, it is important to be self-compassionate, despite all the leeches, or what I call windmills, that say that you are worthless, a waste of space or someone who is not doing what she has to do. And truly, those stories or windmills are never helpful in getting you to do what apparently “needs” to be done. People look down on being self-compassionate or gentle in times of pain, grief or feeling stuck, because they see it as some kind of laziness. But there is so much good that can come out of being self-compassionate for a while, weeks, a day or even just a moment. Which leads me to what Cassandra, my girlfriend, answered when I asked her the question, “What do you do when you feel like you are stuck?” I tried my best to write down her beautifully spoken answer.

Her answer focused on how she descends into her ‘rabbit hole’, so that she can work out what is making her feel stuck without too much pressure or pain. Her rabbit hole is her safe place, and it is an imaginary house where there is nothing harmful. It is hers and hers alone, and it is designed to be comforting and reassuring. Usually before going in the rabbit hole, she puts pressure on and she gets angry at herself, which doesn’t make her do the something she is putting pressure on to do. She realises an alternative approach is to be gentle. Imagine someone else who is stuck and whether you would talk to them in the way you talk to yourself. Look at yourself as if you are your own friend. Always, in enough time, gentleness results in being unstuck.

She also talked about how when she feels emotionally stuck, it feels as though she cannot write or draw and the more she insists on doing art, the more she doesn’t want to. The instinct is to do some kind of writing or drawing, because that is her calling and what she is good at, however, when she puts pressure on, the result and process won’t be as good. She shared with me a saying she wrote, which is, ‘The doing only has worth when the being doing the doing has worth.’ Just being is enough. We are raised to believe that our worth is bound up in our actions and that our worth is our merit. But it isn’t. Whenever you are stuck, you more or less need to take in, rather than to output.

I thought this was excellent, because not enough people realise that going to this ‘rabbit hole,’ or safe place is not being weak, but rather strong and emotionally intelligent. It allows processing to be done – which is another thing that is so important but undervalued – in a way that’s gentle and self-compassionate, which is a way that you can go forward. Yes, you can push yourself, force yourself to do things that are “good” for you, but in the long run, it can cause you to crash or fall apart. We are all human and we need to allow our own limits. It does not make you weak or inadequate. You are good enough, more than good enough, when you are just being. And when you just be and fully accept you just being, that’s when you are able to do the things that are good for you. That’s when you become unstuck and that’s when you can move forward.

Over this month, I have realised that I have needed to be gentle with myself, because I am still healing from my past. It is okay to be self-compassionate, and it’s hard to say, but I am an example of that. It was so hard to get out of the house or get out of bed for the first couple of weeks after getting out of the psych ward, but since I allowed myself some love and understanding, I have achieved a lot. I have painted almost every day for the last several weeks and two days ago, I traveled to Melbourne with my art lover, Cassandra. Being surrounded by art was the greatest medicine, but I need to realise that being there and getting there was the hugest feat for someone who has such high anxiety when it comes to going outside and being around people. It’s hard to say and I am writing this with tears in my eyes, but I am proud of myself. I have been self-compassionate in a time I felt stuck and because of that, I can move forward in my own way. I really do hope the same happens for you.

Testing Limits

I have known that I have needed to write about at least a slither of my experience in 2016 even while I was living through it. I could write a book on just that year alone, but as I struggle to even think about some of those memories, let alone speak or write about them, I know that I need to start at the first step, which for me is just writing something – to try to capture a moment, no matter how fleeting.

So many people have asked me the question, “How was it?” whenever I mentioned the fact that I spent three seasons in another country. I know that these people mean well, but I also know that they are looking for the “correct” response, which is the one I always give. “It was such a great experience! I really have learnt so much from it.” This statement is true, it was a good experience, at least partly and I certainly learnt and have grown from every moment I spent on Japan’s soil. I still fully stand by my belief that if you have the opportunity to go on exchange, please do it! It is honestly an experience that is quite unique and is something that could not be replaced by any other. I saw so many beautiful places, met so many wonderful and nurturing people and I have so many exciting memories. My exchange involved a lot of beauty, fun, excitement and happiness, so why is that every time that the topic of my exchange in Japan is brought up that I get a huge lump in my throat and I begin to tear up?

Recently I was cleaning out my desk and I came across an old notebook, hardly touched, that had several pages that 14 or 15 year old me wrote in. If the words were summarised it would be,

Living in Japan will be so challenging, so difficult and incredibly hard. But I will get through it, I have to, because I need to prove to myself that I can.

When I was 4, I believe, I was diagnosed with high-functioning autism, or Aspergers, depending on the year and what the doctor was most comfortable with, and ADHD. There are so many stories I could tell about my beginning years, how I was a horrible, tantrum-throwing brat and about my struggle with words, speaking, reading, writing and mostly understanding humans and what was socially appropriate. That will be another blog post, because I have a lot to say on the matter. However, when I was a bit older, I became so grossly ashamed of how hard I made it for my parents who raised me and also I became grossly ashamed of who I was as a person.

I believe when I was around 8 or 9, I made a promise with myself that I would be well-mannered, polite and most importantly, that I would try my best to be what I considered, “normal,” aka: neurotypical. I did not want anything more in the world than to be able to do what I thought everybody else could. I did not want my condition to define me, but by striving so hard to be “normal,” I completely rejected who I truly was and I simply did not accept any weaknesses from myself. I worked so hard on understanding what all the different facial expressions and body language meant, what was considered socially appropriate, to always think hard before I opened my mouth and essentially, how to act “appropriately.” I transformed from Satan’s loud and angry spawn to a quiet, polite, but constantly self-judging child. I worked hard on my studies, thinking I would dazzle everyone and become a doctor or lawyer, as I used to be a child who almost did not make mainstreaming education. I wanted to be perfect and I allowed no mistakes. But the most reoccurring thought in my mind was, “There must be nothing that I can’t do. And if there is, I will do it anyway. I will never let my condition stop me or tell me that I can’t.”

I have a lot to thank myself for, due to having that mindset. If I didn’t work as hard as I did basically “studying human behaviour,” and improving my reading, writing and speaking, then just maybe I would not have the capabilities that I do today. But this adamant goal I had to “pass,” was actually incredibly toxic and harmful for my self-esteem and acceptance of who I truly am. If I wasn’t perfect, I punished myself and made myself do it anyway. This mindset followed me way into my adolescent years and it was a reason, if not the main one, why I needed to go on exchange in Japan, that I had no choice but to. I needed to prove to myself that I could do something that involved going against almost every single one of my limitations and what I considered, “flaws.”

So when I got the response back from my application for an exchange in Japan, I was crushed and offended by the word, “No.” Their reasoning was that because I had autism, that an exchange would be impossible for someone like me – I would not be able to cope. This reinforced the insecurities I had about my capabilities and made my blood boil.

“They are judging me based on some meaningless words on paper! If they met me, they would know that I am more than capable and hardworking enough to be able to do this!” I would angrily tell anybody who would listen.

I still believe that an organisation should not judge someone’s applicability based on their condition, but even so, I have often asked myself, “Was this one decision the catalyst? Would my depression have gotten as bad as it did if I never went to Japan?” I admit that a lot of things that contributed to my mental health was because of my experience as an exchange student and I made certain decisions that had terrible consequences because of it, but I also am aware that my mental health became a problem years before I even considered going on an exchange. The jury is still out on this.

After they declined my application, my parents and I worked hard on changing their mind. And it worked! The organisation had several meetings and one day I got the response I was looking for – that I were to pack my bags because I was to arrive in Japan very soon. I was leaving one month after than originally planned, therefore cutting my 10 month exchange to 9, but I was so incredibly excited – the thing I worked so bloody hard to be able to do, was now a reality!

It is so interesting to reflect on this experience and through writing these words, I now understand that I must continue. Those 9 months in Japan was a rollercoaster like no other. The lessons that I learnt from it that I hold the dearest to my heart, are that I could no longer hide from who I am, that my condition is not something I should be ashamed of and most importantly, that it is okay to have limitations. Through it I learnt to shed myself from having to be “perfect,” or “normal.” I learnt so many things about myself and how that even though I am very capable, acknowledging my weaknesses does not make me weak. The only reason that I lasted the entire exchange was because I was running from the reality of these limitations that I had. Yes, I am now able to be proud of myself to have achieved something that was honestly really difficult for someone like me, but there was a lot that could have been avoided if I just allowed myself to be human.

Not only is it okay to make mistakes and to be gentle with your limitations, but it is also crucial for building character and to achieve true wonders…

The wonders of being human and therefore flawed.

This is part one of, ‘Testing Limits,’ as I want to explore with further blog entries my experience of the lows and highs of living in Japan and how I came to this lesson of teaching myself self-acceptance. Thank you for reading, (you are wonderful!) and allowing myself to explore a topic that I have struggled with talking about truthfully until now. Love and light and please always choose compassion.

Proud to be neurodivergent!

The Simple Idea

The next two weeks after a night of undiluted fear, would see my most extreme experience of change and growth. A few days before the fortnight ended, one drop of empathy and an added thought remodelled my entire outlook and dreaded story. As I reflect on this experience on its first anniversary, I remember details that I left behind in those confronting enclosed rooms of a hospital hiding as a home. The countless meetings with doctors who were only intelligent in their understanding of medicine, but not in humans, seemed to make my situation even more hopeless. Soon they grew tired of employing a bodyguard to eye an adolescent, so I was given a bed three hours away in Melbourne and there I arrived as a puddle in my boots, ridden with just more fear.

The teenagers there bore similarities to the previous patients, but the difference was in me. For the first time I opened myself to their offers of connection, because these people understood, and at that time that was all that mattered. And through sharing my compassion and empathy for their stories, I learnt to be compassionate and empathetic to mine. I drew almost obsessively in those unending hours, connecting to myself visually and therapeutically in ways I could not yet wrestle with words.

The most monumental moment was in the white sheets of a stiff bed, when my family visited me and I saw my sister cry in a too familiar fashion of defeat. This mirror did not shatter, but instead it did the shattering and I decided at that moment that if not for me, but for them, I will try my best to keep on living. And as though I was cementing this promise, I scribbled on my already defaced bathroom walls, the words, ‘It is ok to not be ok.’ This was an idea that was simple and obvious enough, but it took the weights off my shoulders. It allowed me to stand straight for the first time in my life, as I realised that my depression, my emotions, my state of being is not only allowed, but accepted within me.

Here comes the true struggle; a lifelong promise… My devotion to fill in the cracks.