The process of creating transformative art; a backstory
The big painting has been stuck for a week, almost. I have been gazing, staring, willing it to move. Even dabbing it gingerly with a brushful of transparent red iron oxide. All to no avail.
Until, as so often happens, when I start to focus on a new painting project, the deepening experiences start piling up. When I was in Scotland, re-experiencing Crimson Circle’s SES workshop, I wondered a bit that my mother and my relationship to her did not come up. Ah well.
This week on my birthday, my mother called me. I hadn’t talked to her in three months. At eight in the morning, she was drunk. I listened to her slurry, wobbly words, as always wondering at how the alcohol could completely deprive them of meaning for me, despite her telling me that I was a beloved, expected child. As she talked, I was revising my plan for the day. Usually, when I am in touch with my mother these days, deep emotions may start arising and spread outside my control.
That day I was supposed to lead a core art workshop in drawing. These workshops are intense and require my deep presence as well as all my abilities. I was already in Rastila, waiting for my core art students, scent of coffee in the air. The open art studio was starting in an hour and the first student would arrive any minute.
I suggested to my mother that we meet, but she said she was injured some way and could not move. Alarmed I asked if she needed help and became even more alarmed when my proud mother said yes. Again, thoughts racing, planning, moving the components of the day this way and that, I asked if she needed help acutely and if I was to come to her. When she laughed resentfully and said no, I asked if I could call after work and said I’m here for her. Grating some more piercing laughter, I heard in her voice, this was not good. I ended the call as swiftly as I could.
Diving into the challenge
“Well, happy birthday to me.” I thought bitterly right after the call.
Then I noticed the oozing touch of self-pity and asked myself what I needed. Eating a bit, drinking something hot, doing some deep breathing, I did what I do well; I carefully compartmentalized the little girl inside of myself and the art teacher part of myself in different boxes. While I knew from experience that I would later pay the price of this, at that moment keeping my promises and taking responsibility for all different roles and parts of my life seemed to be of utmost importance.
Although I felt sad and worried during the day, momentarily distracted, always bringing myself back to the present, the core art workshop was gentle, flowing and even fun at times. Once again I was amazed at the power of art, self-made or enjoyed, to transform anything. What I was less aware of, was the automatic mode I was in – I can carry anything, I can pay this bill, I can afford this, I will carry this [for you] because I can.
During my breaks I was in touch with the Engineer and with my dad, so I could get the necessary information and organize the rescue mission of the evening. After work, I and the Engineer went to my mom’s with two bags of groceries to see what kind of situation she had. In the car, I could feel emotion swirl around in my body. Old, familiar poison. My mind was full of thoughts I recognized. I told the Engineer that voicing those thoughts would only increase the emotion and drama I was aware of inside of me. I felt helpless. When we came to my mother’s apartment building I was relieved to see the building door was open, because I couldn’t get a hold of her on the phone. We rang and rang the doorbell. She didn’t open the door. Her neighbours said she hadn’t been home for days. She still didn’t answer her phone. We left the non-perishables behind the door and got into the car.
In the car, my body started trembling. I asked the Engineer if we could stop at a drive through, so I could have a sugary drink and something to eat. That would bring some balance and stability into the moment. The kids were waiting at home for night time stories and the rituals of going to bed. I cherished each bite of the hamburger, sitting beside my husband, each ketchup filled bite. The junk food fit my inside state.
The next morning when I woke up, I had a text message on my phone: “Thank you for the food. Very kind. Give me your account number and I will reimburse you. I am not available tomorrow, I am at a retreat. Hug.”
This is when I snapped.
The visible effects of emotional radiation started. I felt my shoulder blade area shut down completely, as if someone had stitched iron wire throughout my skin and muscles. The thoughts of self-hatred started gushing forth in a never ending stream. Anxiety made it hard to breathe fully. Deep currents of self-doubt ran through my mind, doubting everything from my skills, to my life choices, to my right to exist. Tears started flowing at unpredictable intervals. I staid in bed, lifting any part of my body felt like an insurmountable task.
While I rationally knew that this was an automatic reaction to the interaction with my mother, based on deep patterns unresolved, it was hard to keep on breathing, keep on functioning. In these situations I would love to be able to be calm, collected, instantly healing myself in some deep mystical or instant way. Instead, in the midst of the considerable inner pain, concepts of self-love feel abstract and unreachable. So I attempted to just be aware of what was happening inside of me, not trying to change anything, concentrating on breathing, letting the painful emotions move through me like weather and tried my best to not hold on to any of the venom that was flowing through me.
When the Engineer came home at five p.m. I went to sleep and slept through the night.
What was different this time?
For someone who has never lived with an alcoholic, this reaction may seem way overblown. For me, it’s automatic. Through the years, my needs have had to wait and the needs of my mother have come first. Still, one day a year, on my birthday, there is the expectation that it is my day, something for me. Instead, I spent the whole of my birthday, trying to help my drunk mother, calling forth the emotional reality that was my norm for so long.
Discerning between self-pity and self-compassion has been a challenge for me. Yesterday, someone said: “I wish you would always feel appreciated and loved.”
That moment I realized, the only person who can give me that kind of stability is me. Today, after another twelve hours of sleep, I think the biggest difference between self-compassion and self-pity, for me, are boundaries. After experiencing her twenty years of full blown alcoholism, I have still longed so much for a nugget of love from the mother I once knew, that although I have put my children’s needs before her needs, I have always put myself aside.
I have never said: It is more important that I love me and care for me than that I please my mother and father. Not for my children, for my family, for my relationships. For me. Just for myself.
The practicality of loving self
In conclusion, I am here, sitting with the part of myself who resists the thought of drawing boundaries. Life is clearly showing me the need to do so. To say a clear yes and no to how I choose to be treated. The little girl part of me is saying: “But I want myself to love my mother, the way I used to love her. But I want us all to be friends. I want love to be the norm. I want to be gentle, kind and smiling. I am afraid of what will happen if I am not.”
And I ask in return: “Who am I to think I know what other people need? Who am I to say that the minuscule connection I have to my mother is wrong? Who am I to judge how other people create their lives, to criticize what they choose? The only thing that IS my responsibility is choosing whether I want to participate, to choose how I am willing to be treated. And THAT is done by learning what my boundaries are and then expressing them.”
Self-pity is allowing myself to be badly treated, and complaining, heaping on blame and suffering afterwards. Self-compassion is saying: This is not okay.
From life to painting to life again
What I’m learning, already, from this painting project is that loving myself actively doesn’t make life easier, exactly. It doesn’t decrease my sensitivity, or remove the pain from a difficult experience. What it does is increase my sense of being alive, of having a right to simply experience what I do, as I do. With support and love, whatever comes next. When I allow myself to get lost, in my life, inside myself, I find areas and solutions that I haven’t found before.