do something small and do it most days

When I saw Mind asking “Has crafting boosted your mental health?” on twitter, my reaction was well yes, of course, what a stupid question!  But of course it isn’t a silly question at all.  We live in a society where so many people believe they aren’t creative and because of that would never think to turn towards craft as a hobby or way of coping with life.  As far as I can tell, a huge part of this belief comes from art lessons in school which focus heavily on techniques and reproducing things in life like quality.  For me, this isn’t my version of creativity.  For me, creativity is about expression.

art from the heart
Crafting has been a part of my life for a long time in various different forms.  As a side note, I have a chronic pain condition which is deteriorating and means I am not able to do all of the craft that I used to be able to.

Knitting has provided a therapeutic repetitive task which has helped to calm me and has given me an almost mindfulness experience.  When anxious, it has helped to slow things down for me.  When depressed, it’s helped me feel like I am achieving something – I am doing something useful.

I’ve scrapbooked photos, for example it might be from a trip you’ve taken or of a child growing up.  As well as the distraction and immersion of the activity, it can also help you to recall good memories.

I’ve done card making, candle making, cross stitch, sewing little decorations out of felt, you name it, I’ve probably had a go.  The one thing they all have in common for me is a sense of satisfaction, feeling productive and also acting as a distraction when needed.  All of which is really important for maintaining or boosting my mental health.

At the moment, the big one for me is art journaling.

Art journaling for me has been a huge part of supporting my mental health.  I was standing on a beach a few years ago, feeling the weight of depression grasping at my ankles.  Having been there before I felt desperate not to let it happen again.  It was then that I thought keeping a visual diary or journal might be a way of doing something productive and creative most days but without lots of pressure to complete a huge project.  I got myself an A5 notebook, nothing too big or too pretty, nothing that’d overwhelm me.  Most days I would do something in it, whether it was as basic as sticking in a postcard from somewhere I’d been that day or writing in a quote that I’d come across.  I didn’t want to put pressure on myself – it could be as basic as it wanted, provided I did something on a regular basis.  Soon I’d finished that notebook and I’d realised how important it was to me.

Being able to do one small thing helps me feel like I have achieved something.  And it keeps my creative muscles flexible.  I’ve also found that I go through the day with a deeper attention – part of me is looking for things to include in my journal.

In the last six or seven months, my art journaling has changed in response to my worsening chronic pain and I’m using different techniques and equipment but the essence is the same; do something small and do it most days.

Mind’s tweet was to do with their Christmas Crafternoon:

Crafternoon means getting together with friends, family or colleagues and holding an afternoon of festive crafting to have fun and raise money for Mind.

Make someone’s Christmas and help us make sure no one has to face a mental health problem alone.

[Edited to add: creating and creativeness have even helped me to open up my own little shop which is currently raising money for a local charity]

Meet me at the crossroads

Gougane Barra
I don’t have a photo of a crossroad…

So I’m at a crossroads in my life.  Or perhaps, more accurately, a dead end.  I’ve never had a great life plan or ambition or expectation but I think working full time was just always a given.

warning: this is unedited, apologies for errors

About a year ago it started to dawn on me that I wasn’t up to full time work.  By September-ish I had managed to externalise that, with lots of tears.  By March it was reality.  I had gone from 37 hours a week to 30.  Which might not seem a lot but dropping from five days a week to four days a week was terrifying, heartbreaking and agonising.  I’ve known for quite some time that my dregs of self-esteem are very much tied up with work and being productive.  And saying I can’t manage that stirred up some major issues for me.  I was essentially saying that I was worthless because I couldn’t work full time.  I was angry that my body had taken more things from me.  I was scared and it was a vulnerable place for me.  The way I saw it, I was having to put my hand up and say I can’t do this, I am failing at full time work.  What would people think of me?  More importantly, what did I think of me.  Hint: on the whole they were very different responses.

So it’s been almost a year since I told someone I needed to work less.  And a lot has happened in that time – I have started getting care, started using crutches, started using wheelchairs and my pain has increased considerably in the last year.

Which brings me to the present day.   I have taken more time off work because of pain in the last two months than all my sick leave from the rest of my career combined.  And the sinking realisation that I can’t work four days a week hit.  It hit with tears and frustration and anger and ranting texts sent to a very patient and supportive friend.  A week after I had this realisation, my manager asked how I was getting on with the reduced hours and were they helping enough?  No.  There’s no sugar coating it, the answer is no, I can’t work 30 hours a week.

And that’s why it’s less of a crossroads and more of a dead end – I can’t keep moving forward.  Something needs to change.  I don’t yet know what my hours will look like other than less.

And I haven’t yet figured out what those non work hours will look like.  When I first reduced my hours it was simple, I would work Monday and Tuesday, rest all day Wednesday, work Thursday and Friday and rest over the weekend.  That just about felt justifiable to me.  But I can’t comprehend the idea of taking more time off work and resting.  I think there is a need to do that to some extent because otherwise I still won’t be fit for work on the days I do go.  But, and this comes back to having self-worth tied up with productivity, I feel I need to be doing something.

And financially, I do.  Reducing my hours the first time was a huge hit to my bank account.  I’ve been supplementing earnings with savings and thankfully was approved for PIP just before my hours reduced so that has helped a bit.  But reducing my hours further will put me in a very vulnerable financial situation.  Yes there are other benefits which at some point I may be eligible for but (again, self-worth is raising its head) I don’t feel I deserve them (which is nonsense) and I find the idea of being reliant on the government quite scary and it feels like a vulnerable situation.  For so long, I’ve been financially independent and before that I was striving to be.

Anyway, to sum up the situation is more ‘free’ time and less money.  So surely I can find a way to make money which isn’t going to have a negative impact on my health?

So far all I’ve come up with is photography (with the help of a couple of friends).  But that is a scary huge thing to do.  So many what ifs and as far as I can see no certainties.  Or writing, which has the same risks.  The biggest fear is that I will be laughed at – people will look at my work and think why am I trying to sell it, it’s not up to standard, what right do I have to charge people for my work?

If it hadn’t been for my pain, I’d never be thinking about the possibility of taking a risk with the more creative side of me.  So maybe that’s the happy ending to this post.

Yes pain sucks, but maybe, just maybe, it means you do things you wouldn’t otherwise do.

“But I’m not creative…”

Firstly, if I can do it, so can you.

Secondly, art journaling is amazing!

Look at all those intriguing pages!

Art journaling really helps my mental health but I’ve had to really adapt my art journaling techniques and expectations as my hands are in a lot of pain and i struggle with fine motor skills. It’s been, and continues to be, a journey of trial and error, discovery and adaptations. Because of those limitations, my journaling has become more precious, more thoughtful and a slower process (in a good way). I have ended up adding a lot of depth to my pages because I can only do a little bit of a page at a time and this also provides space for reflection between layers. I definitely feel that some of my better pages have arisen because of my limitations.  In fact my latest journal charts my journey from “argh I can’t hold a pen” to “oh wait, if I do this very slowly, with lots of breaks, using layers and the right techniques I can still do this”. It’s been, and continues to be, a lot of trial and error. What I can do one day is not the same as another day.

Pre 2015

I think learning to work with my limitations, not against them, has made art journaling a worthwhile experience for me in itself although it is so much more than that. I do feel if I can do it then so can almost everyone, no excuses!


Technique wise, I do a bit of collaging, use photos I’ve taken, splash paint around, use found objects, stencils, inks etc. I can’t hold most pens anymore so words come from print outs, magazines, stickers etc. Again, working within that limitation makes it easier in some ways – having the world as your oyster, or the alphabet as your seahorse (or whatever is appropriate there) can be overwhelming to the point of freezing you. I try to journal something that comes out of the day which means I’m more tuned in to what’s going on round me. For example when I am out I might be looking for found objects such as feathers or if a particular quote resonates, I’ll pay more attention and make a note of it. It’s paying attention in a deeper way – if I wasn’t journaling, I’d miss the feather, I’d hear the quote and think yeah that sounds great but then it’d slip away from me.

What I can do varies from day to day.  Some days I just place cues; feathers, petals, a word ripped of a leaflet. These hold the place for me so i can return at another time when I am able to take the cue and roll with it. It might be a few days, it might be a few weeks but those cues fester in the back of my mind until I have time, have spoons or have a feeling about what the first or next step is.  I say feeling, I don’t generally have an image of what I’m wanting, it is much more something I feel my way through. I will look through my stash and see what speaks to me. I will move things around on the page. Or just get stuck in adding colour and seeing what happens.

Tools I have found I can use
  • Ink and ink pads (but not stamps, I can’t seem to use them without lots of pain so I use ink pads with stencils instead)
  • Stencils
  • Acrylics
  • Chalk or soft pastels – these are so gentle and a great way of getting a bit of colour for not much effort
  • Chunky handled brushes
  • Glue tape – I find this easier than a glue stick because it requires less pressure and it sticks much better. I find it better than pva because that involves holding a paint brush.
  • Paper – a variety of colours, craft paper, wall paper, wrapping paper, junk mail, any kind of paper will do! If you like paper, check out flow magazine
  • Photos
  • Other bits and pieces – tiny bits of ribbon, buttons, fabric, words ripped out of things…

Anyway, I’ll stop there because I could talk, or write, for hours about it.  If anyone has any questions or comments, please add them.  I’d love to know what other people are up to, especially other people who have difficulties with their hands as well.

2014, the year of travel. 2015, the year of ?

Last year, on Christmas Eve, I wrote:

So it’s that time of year when people are reflected on the last twelve months, offering round up blog posts and colourful infographics.  Condensing 365 days into a few headlines.

I started 2013 denying to myself that I was depressed.  I fought against admitting it for months.  I discovered the Women’s Holiday Centre, Horton.  I gave in to the part of my mind that couldn’t cope with the idea that depression had found me again.  I had one of the worst pain months of my life.  I hurt myself.  I summoned everything I had to contact the employee counselling service who told me I needed too much help for them to see me.  I limited my food.  I returned to Horton and time in the sun gave me what I needed to see my GP.  I was referred to mental health support who refused to see me because of my pain condition.  I stopped eating.  I was no longer crying in toilets at work.  I no longer spent my evenings sobbing into my sofa.  I had been denied the help I needed so I treated myself with starvation.  I was numbed, it worked.  I reached a point of no return.  I had relinquished control to the tool I was using to stay in control.  I let people know where my head was.  I returned once more to Horton.  I am here.  I am trying to fight.

I know that 2013 hasn’t all been about my mental health.  It feels like it has.  It feels like it’s been a shadow overpowering everything else.  I know there were picnics in the park and pots of tea drunk with friends but they feel like they happened to another person.  I can see images but I don’t recall being there.

Instead of looking back on the year that has passed, maybe we’d be better looking forward, to the possibilities that are ahead.

It’s a year later, and where am I?  I accessed support through the eating disorder service in May and since then I have gained a stone.  My head is clearer and I am managing to eat a higher amount of calories each day.  I am no longer quite so stressed by eating although it’s still not coming naturally.  I have also joined a peer support group which has been helpful – I enjoy helping others and being able to share my experience can do that.  They can also make suggestions and sympathise about the whole NHS system which can feel like it’s against you.  I have started, in the last few weeks, to feel emotions again.  This is terrifying.  They are not good emotions.  They are painful and I still have no way of dealing with them.  But I can’t address feelings without feeling them.

The theme of 2014 was travel:
• February – Bali and Lombok via Manchester
• April – Edinburgh
• May – Women’s Holiday Centre in Horton-in-Ribblesdale with York Feminist Network and Brussels and possibly Winchester (a key feature of 2014 is losing track of time and what’s happened when)
• June – Manchester, London
• August – Tanera Mor, off the west coast of Scotland
• November – London, Manchester

I love travelling and finding new places and I want to make sure I keep doing this.  I have booked to go to Cambodia in March and I would like to go somewhere towards the end of 2015 as well as maybe a UK break.  This sometimes feels like an extravagance to me but when it comes down to it, I won’t be able to keep travelling the way that I enjoy (off the beaten track, not in a resort) for much longer.  Which brings me to the other, unplanned theme of 2014: pain.

My pain has got significantly worse this year.  In June I tumbled down a flight of stairs and never fully recovered and in particular, my legs took a turn for the worse.  This has got even worse in the last three or four months.  I struggle with the 600metres to work and if I can make it, I end up in a lot of pain.  My hands have reached a point where trying to do almost anything is out of the question – I can’t lift things, I can’t slice things, I can’t hold a pen, I can’t type for very long, I can’t turn the pages on my kindle for more than half an hour.  All in all, I’m feeling quite low about the pain (but hey, at least it’s a feeling, right?!).  I’m frustrated.  I can’t do anything creative.  I can’t read as much as I would like.  I have hardly left the house other than to go to work.  I have missed out on seeing friends and I’ve had to ask for help cutting up food when I’m eating out.  It’s humiliating and frustrating and I know I need to figure out a better way of living for 2015.

I have spoken to my manager about reducing my hours by one day a week so that I can recover midweek and hopefully then be up to doing something at the weekend, other than laying on the sofa watching Netflix (not as fun as it might sound).  I have also made small steps towards applying for PIP.  I got a bus pass this year which has made a huge difference and in August I started the process of applying to Access to Work (which has taken until today to get an assessment so I have also written to my MP.  It’s a great idea but so badly implemented).  So I am asking for help and that’s not something which comes naturally.  I am fiercely independent and yet I can’t be anymore.  I also need to find a way to be creative which doesn’t involve my hands.  And ways of feeding myself which doesn’t involve cooking.  So I guess maybe 2015 is about reframing things, finding solutions and adapting.  Not quite as fun as travel but probably more important for my wellbeing.