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How Mixed Media Art Helps Me Cope With Chronic Illness

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In 2011 my life started to spin out of control. Literally. I was diagnosed with chronic vestibular migraine.

Imagine yourself being permanently on a boat in choppy seas with a high-pitched ringing in your ears, a foggy brain and an extreme sensitivity to light, smell, sound and movement. This is my world 24/7. On a good day.

Then imagine being in really rough seas with the ringing even louder and accompanied by headache and overwhelming fatigue. For days and days. This is what it’s like for me when I have a vestibular migraine episode. These occur, on average, about once a week.

Vestibular migraine (VM) is a variant of migraine in which vertigo is the most predominant feature. It is a neuro-otological disorder involving the brain and the balance system. VM is managed with a variety of drugs including calcium channel blockers, anticonvulsants and some antidepressants, along with vestibular rehabilitation and lifestyle modifications. However, for many such as myself, there has unfortunately been no effective treatment to date.

After my diagnosis I had managed to maintain my full-time job as an elementary school performing arts teacher by lying down in the walk-in cupboard at the back of my classroom in between classes and by going to bed when I got home and staying there on the weekends. However, by 2014 the relentless symptoms made it more and more difficult to sing and dance with 4-8-year-olds all day, along with fulfilling all the other demands of being a teacher, and eventually I had to give up my cherished job and take very early retirement.  

I found myself being unexpectedly forced to deal with the challenges that retirement brings many people, such as loss of identity, purpose, meaning, feelings of usefulness and having a source of intellectual and creative stimulus. I grieved the loss of my daily interactions and music-making with the children who brought such joy to my life and of being part of a wonderful school community.

This, combined with having to cope alone at home with a debilitating illness and the associated feelings of being completely isolated and cut off from life (I live on my own), plunged me into severe prolonged depression, and days and weeks and months just became one long gray, nauseating, exhausting blur. My wonderful family, friends and two cat companions were all that kept me going. I was later diagnosed with bipolar II disorder and so, in fact, was dealing with the challenges of two chronic and “invisible” illnesses at once.

During this time, social media and the internet were (and still are) an immediate means of being able to keep in touch with people and the outside world. I was craving nourishment and color and respite from the endless days of enforced solitude and illness, and somehow I came across the creations of artist Kelly Rae Roberts, whose mantra-infused, inspirational mixed media artworks resonated deeply with me.

amanda's mixed media artwork

Amanda’s artwork: “Finding Her New Wings”

Having never made any art as an adult, I decided to enroll in Kelly Rae’s online mixed media art course, which came in a series of videos I could watch on my own time. I immediately discovered such unexpected delight in playing with paint, pencils, paper, canvas, color and mess! I felt like a child in a sweet shop and found this new interest to be incredibly meditative, immersive and calming while also being a means of expressing how I was feeling in a tangible way – distracting me from the non-stop symptoms of my vestibular disorder and episodes of depression.

The beauty of mixed media art is that it is accessible to all. You don’t need to be able to draw or have any previous experience.

We are all born with an innate creativity and this opened possibilities for me I had never imagined. It was not so much about the finished result as the process of creation. It held me completely in the present moment and brought meaning back into the huge void in my life created by chronic illness. I also found that the physical act of putting paint and paper on canvas took me back to the playful joys of my childhood.

amanda's mixed media artwork

Amanda’s artwork: “Courage”

I subsequently discovered there is a worldwide, very nurturing online mixed media community with creativity, self-expression and well-being at its centre. Since then, my chronic illness has persisted, but I haven’t stopped making art. My days are still filled with vertigo, tinnitus, fatigue, migraine and sometimes depression, but they are also blessed with color, creativity, connection and richness I had never expected.

For more online mixed media art courses, I recommend Flora Bowley’s Bloom True course and Tamara Laporte’s Lifebook course, which sends you a lesson by a different mixed media artist every week for 12 months.

Originally published: October 11, 2016
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