My sketches were always faint lines in pencil. I loved sketching trees in a wide diversity of their structures. Their trunks solid, firmly rooted with the most beautiful textured surfaces which my pencil would try to recreate on paper. Close hatches, very tight hatches showing texture or broad ones showing expanse and more light on top. But generally my trees would be barren. Strong branches but no or very little leaves. They were strong but barren. The landscape would also usually be sparse with cold stone benches around. Or an empty courtyard. I recently found a lot of them in an old folder. They were all dated between 2007 to 2014. These were my most difficult years as a caregiver to my mother then diagnosed with aggressive brain cancer. After her death I immediately became the caregiver to my father who had Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
A close friend who takes ample liberties and has given herself the right to grab my art file and sketch pad whenever we meet, asked me, “Have you noticed your old sketches? All in pencil, very light strokes. Almost as if you drew faint lines so that you could erase them any moment you wanted? And look now! You’re a compulsive doodler! A lot seems to have changed. Strong black lines. You’re using more colour. Do you see it?!!”
She got it bang on. Something I hadn’t noticed. Now I’m a compulsive doodler. Style has changed and so have the themes of what I like to experiment with. The lines in my sketches are darker and more confident. I use a variety of HB pencils with different tonalities to bring out the reality better and the nuances of the interplay of light and shadow. I also noticed I moved beyond my little sketch pad of handmade paper. Over the years I’ve challenged myself to try and work on larger spaces, A3 size and 18 inches x 24 inches canvases. Over time, I also didn’t realise when more colours seemed to have made their way into my mind and heart. Black and white sketches are still my favorite. There’s an incomparable honesty and simplicity in them. And colours are beautiful too.
The change is in my mind. Down the years, my heart and mind have healed. I feel healthier than before, no extreme acid reflux that caused me severe indigestion and loss of voice. Emotionally I’m secure, confident, without any regrets of the past. There are some devils I’m still battling but I’m definitely not threatened by them, as before.
I realized that ART gives the body a chance to speak and the mind a chance to listen. Throughout my recovery between 2015 to 2018, I found art to be an essential tool in my healing because it gave me another form of communication when I thought there was no way of expressing my deepest feelings.
I’ve never studied art as a subject and don’t have any formal education in it. But it’s always been amongst my closest silent friends. We understand each other without words. Pretty much like mind reading. Through my most traumatic and difficult days, it took care of me, spoke into my ears to pick up the pencil and express on paper through the barren trees. Don’t store the pain, anger, confusion in your heart it said. Whatever I was feeling in those days, I let it find it’s own way to express my internal experience.
Through my days in therapy, I realized that my and physical and emotional wellbeing and recovery seemed to have a direct correlation ‘how’ my sketches and their expression changed over time.
That’s when I realized that all through I had no clue of art as a therapeutic tool. I was subconsciously using it in the same way! That’s how I found my way of Self-Care! It was only after this change, did I realize that Art therapy is in fact practiced formally as a tool that involves art media to translate the verbal processing of the image created. This process is used to help people resolve, release, or understand various struggles and is used as an alternative means of communication for those who cannot express particular mental health conditions with words. Or may feel trapped in certain mental patterns and with art as therapy we can learn some very simple yet valuable lessons from our own lives.
I wasn’t aware and hence found my own solution through art doing all of it by myself, until my therapist urged me to continue. But if these therapies are taken in a group, the resulting environment is very empowering and supportive, with each helping the other to imbibe useful learnings to find respite.
So when my friend and therapist Shraddha volunteered to take an art therapy session for our long term family caregiver group, we agreed without argument. The session had beautiful moments of childhood scribbles with crayons on paper. No rules, you’re the boss! Anything you’d want to make, any colour you’d like to use, one hand, both hands – every decision is yours alone.
But it wasn’t just your sheet you worked on. We exchanged with our immediate neighbor and learnt continuity. We learnt to trust the other to take over from where you’d stopped. We allowed sharing of responsibilities as we completed someone else’s drawing. Through the easy, fluid movement of the pastel on paper, at times slow, drifting and fast at other times, our fatigue oozed out of our minds and muscles. Passing on the sheet to the other to add their bit, often without speaking a word, the final outcome on each sheet was simply amazing!! Each had its own beautiful story. And with different people contributing to each one.
Simple yet beautiful truths of trust, continuity, discipline, willingness. Courage to take on and wisdom to let go. Many life lessons for a caregiver to use in daily! Each trusting the other to continue, without judgements, giving the other enough space! As caregivers to loved ones, the journey is definitely both gratifying and daunting. But with a supportive and empowering fraternity of like-minded people, the journey can also become enjoyable!
So feel free to reach out to us if you would like to experience the peace and fun of destressing through art. Or guide your friend or family member to us if she / he is a long term family caregiver and has been going through a tough time!
This is how creative expression has personally helped me through my most challenging family situations, where doing art alone or with other caregivers has felt so safe and less vulnerable. It’s the feeling of total calm, liberating yourself and experiencing the sense of control, that’s most powerful which remains with you.
Malini Roy, Founder of Illuminating Lives – A support group for family caregivers of terminally ill patients. Based in Mumbai, India
Illuminating Lives is founded by Malini who has been a caregiver for her parents who passed away with cancer, dementia, Alzheimers and Parkinson’s Disease. Beginning with the initial experience of knowing little about the medical conditions of their patients, she too underwent phases of denial, growing frustration, fatigue, stress, the innumerable daily challenges faced while taking care of her loved ones – with very little assistance around. Her role as a caregiver, added with domestic responsibilities and often failing physical and emotional health, made her realise that as a caregiver, YOU need to take care of yourself too. If not, it leads to burnout and other related emotional or physical challenges.