Trying to find meaning in the dwindling of meaning.

In honour of Robin Williams and his passing, I am sharing this piece that I wrote 6 months ago, edited for today…

Depression whilst a trainee Creative Therapist – Trying to find meaning in the dwindling of meaning.

As I set out in January to start my clinical placement for the final year in my Masters, I was nervous, enthusiastic, building confidence, faithful, worried, but above all, passionate about what I was training to be – a Creative Therapist. The creativity of problem solving within the practice of creative therapy is what drives me. More and more and more and more, I see creative thinking as a reliable approach to managing one’s life, and creativity is an essential ingredient in so many of life’s pursuits, whether it is gardening or assisting a child with their homework. I need it like a reason for living. My children are the perfect example and product of having a creative pursuit – my ultimate creativity personified. They are their own beautiful, autonomous beings but they began as a creative pursuit – it was my desire to be a mother and experience parenthood that brought them here, responsibly, and share the joy of life with them. I am grateful to them and for them. And they are thriving!

But potential training with patients in a hospital ward was looming, weighing heavily in my head, heart and gut. Postponements ensued, and life became too complex to allow the contemplative time necessary for what was going to be required of me in my clinical placement. Low, dark feelings took me over and though I would rather not suffer them, they cast their hooks into the folds of my cortex, reigning in my intention to grow in a particular direction and instead forced me to question and doubt too much.

As the year progressed, problems arose, unexpected delays with my placement, red tape, a lengthy immunisation schedule, and no access card to wander independently around a secure hospital ward to feel integral. I had to endure remaining in a state of limbo, a trainee creative therapist with nothing yet to offer but linger in the corridors of an unfamiliar environment. The unlearning began, the lack of practicing all I had learnt and desired to experiment with, delaying the willingness to be beholden to the consenting signatures of groups of in-patients and individual out-patients put on hold, anxiety increased….and the days were passing. The year is passing and an unwanted state of being is threatening me!

My kids are getting sick because it is that time of year – their commitment to the first long term of school and my altered availability, is waning. Cancelations and repeat immunisations to enable me to safely participate in the ward are dragging on. Argh! Life goes on, complications continue but the sick kids and the well kids keep me grounded. They are my blanket but my barrier to training opportunities too. I need to be available and giving to so many. Friends and family want to talk so I listen, and I always try to listen well. My reputation may be growing as a wannabe therapist. But as I listen, I speak less. I tell less. I shut down to hold on. A sense of heaviness is lingering as I try keep it all together.

Since depression.….it…..began to rear its armoured head this crucial year – too impenetrable to deconstruct, no longer to be denied or ignored, mysterious – I have needed to continue with my research at my desk in the ward but only in Light Helvetica. Nothing else can carry me between the seconds* and through my studies with the promised lightness of being in the way that typeface can. But I was using it before I knew why. The meaning was hidden and when I realised why, I kept using it gratefully – it gave me hope that I unconsciously know what I need – there is a protective intuition that I rely on, like a mother-figure lost in the crowd but spotted at last and clung to whilst still wanting to explore and lead, up ahead, on behalf of all the fearful and doubting parts of myself.

My Jiminy cricket sits upon my shoulder and tut-tuts when I am being lazy, impatient, useless, resentful. My invisible jury of followers, with their closed-circuit cameras in every corner of my life, judge me about how I spend my time, on whatever I say, on whatever I think. They jolt me out of my nastiness and self-pity and remind me to behave myself or else there will be an indefinite sentence of self-criticism that will only be determined by me and my willingness to do good – to be a good listener, to hang in there, to care enough about others professionally to give them the time of day without risking my self. After all, I expect to get paid to do so one day.

As I merge with commuters on the treadmill, I resent that I have placed myself HERE but I fortify my soul with bravado by turning up the bass of a carefully selected song played loud, to feel it vibrate my chest through the driver’s seat – I have to feel it to believe it. As I approach every set of traffic lights, every intersection, I turn down the music to not bother other commuters with my boom, boom, boom. If they knew it was to keep me moving forward, would they be okay with it and commiserate or roll their eyes at my sapling-like lack of strength? I am at the wheel on a mountain range heading for the expansive city below and as I pass every turn off to a National Park, I want to be the lone artery heading away from the heart of the matter, to sit under a tree, a lone protest at the unsuitability of conformity and what I yet have to do to enable me to turn my qualified back on the veins leading to the pumping system that requires me to sit up straight, dress appropriately, smile invitingly in closed rooms, and support a sense of freedom and autonomy in secure wings.

But didn’t I want this? Yes, I do. But I so desperately want to be in my frayed shorts now, with my chin resting upon the knee of a bent leg, under dappled shade, listening intently to someone in need, comfortably, in my own costume and familiar environment. This is a training opportunity but it is also showing me what I am compelled to question. I also want to be with clients who want their hands in the dirt, who want the music up loud, who want to do creative therapy en plein air. I sometimes need more room than the unit can give me to express myself and guide others. I have self-expressions that require soil, large spaces, booming speakers, and canvases that run the length of a hall. So I will aim for that, for some day. New meaning has once again been discovered. Relief….breathe….

A tropical plant trying to thrive in a cold climate. As a child raised in the tropics in an isolated bush setting, is existing on southern suburban blocks for too long the root of my problem? My bush skills seem not transferable to suburban living but I lug bags of chook pellets on my shoulder and chop wood with a block splitter each winter to keep my family warm. It is the least I can do. The fact that I can run my hand along the corrugation of my friendly neighbour’s fence every time I park the car in the driveway is almost enough to make me shudder. On my 670 square metres of Earth, my chickens, orchard, vege garden, studio, rambling gardens, and small modest cottage, is sometimes not enough. I know every inch and I can extend its use no more. I tolerate the close proximity of my neighbours. I have my father’s wandering spirit but while he knows every inch of his 600 acres to caretake with a loving hand for generations to come – for my children – I envy the quiet contemplative time that must be his for the taking and nature’s ever-present model of timeless adaptation and expanse. I am realising what may be part of my struggle. It is an a-ha moment.

I want to run from the university rooms that remind me too much of the closed spaces of the unit where I am yet to be useful and the walls remind me of my limitations. I want a different breed of rooms to explore the alternative ways of being; a cave, a country hall, a rehab centre on a working farm. There, my identity may be in its rightful place, its natural environment. But I can only know this if I go through it. I am often surprised at how often I situate myself in a mismatched environment and only realise it in the midst of the confusion. But that is learning from experience, experimenting with a new way of being.

Patterns, ah, the joy and predictability and joy and predictability and joy and predictability of patterned artworks. I am finding that creating visual patterns, such as mandalas, doodling, repetitive symbols, to be a soothing way of calming the agitation, appearing to be busy, thoughtful, active while note-taking and as long as I am doing so, I am pursuing creative therapy, even while my mind is wanting to take a break from critical thinking and being present, to be mindful of the opportunities of the moment. So I doodle, and I doodle, and I doodle. Breathe…

 Doing trivial tasks well and making them last is suddenly appealing. If I am sometimes failing to be motivated and can’t see the joy in my training as a Creative Therapist, perhaps polishing the kitchen splash back or doodling to quell the questioning will be enough to keep me moving forward. I listen to Classic FM endlessly to enjoy instruments that have remained unchanged for centuries – exquisite musical pieces that have been appreciated for just as long. There is comfort in that. Whilst I flounder, classical music stays the same.

Ah, empathy.…for myself in these times. That talent I keep cultivating for others, to be the most authentic, non-judgemental, and warm vessel that I prefer to be. It is a gamble to be able to make a difference for another after all the training is done. But I know I can always respond to my own self care.

I am waiting with resolve, faithful that a new paradigm tailored just for me is going to reveal itself. One has to work towards clarity, not give up on it. As I sit on a rock and face a hard place, it is faith in my history and habits that keep me moving forward, dragging my feet, but inching forward. I am starting to rely on words, not quoted affirmations so much. Words I can say in a few syllables, own them, and place them where they are needed. Words like….critical thinking and problem-solving………invent, re-invent, and re-engineer………knowledge and innovation………perplexity and curiosity………develop and defend………transformative……….grit. These I borrow from what is recently shared out there. Then I add my own list of heavily recycled words such as determination, drive, passion, hard work, and resilience. They are effective enough but tired and age-worn — they seem less motivating than the first list associated with our contemporary, ever-changing world.

But when I care less (or do I care too much?) because of depression, I try to see it in the most useful light. It will surely benefit my clients to know myself so well. Some days I am having to cleave parts of myself that are not essential and then reattach them hurriedly on the days that count for presenting myself as the trainee Creative Therapist, representing it with integrity. I save caring more for the clinical placement where I try to put my best foot forward but vow to one day do it where I prefer, to be an authentic therapist when I am not restrained by the training environment. I will learn much this year and while meaning has been slipping, I determinedly try to replace it with something else. I am learning all the time while much may seem to be lacking. I look deeper and harder when the spirit permits it. If I have to sit on the edge of the bed often enough due to depression to be stubbornly unwilling to learn all the time, then that is ok. But I have not been willing to talk about it openly within my community. I didn’t want to risk that I may be seen as that depressed lady. I am not unsafe or sad to be around. I care so much. But as my depressive states are unpredictable, I have wanted to keep them to myself so I could determine how I want to come across, not be determined by others. Until now.

My writing has been an unexpected, creative compulsion to process the struggles that I now appreciate as part of a faithful pursuit in allowing for other unknown possibilities – more of a faith in my struggle through the unknown, than a fear.

My depressive phases are symptomatic of a loss of control but after I bear them, they usually herald a leap forward in my learning and I have to have faith in that. Depression is a sign that I either have no information on the present frightening situation or I find myself in a situation that I thought I had already figured out previously. Both feel potentially powerful enough to bargain with joy and contentment but have also revealed some vague awareness that I will often end up at a point where I know nothing or sometimes some things don’t change. Those unpredictable challenges threaten to lead me backwards, to a place of desired knowns and safety sitting on the edge of my bed. Moving forward risks living through fear of the unknown and consequential doubts take over. But I know this now. I have found meaning in the meanings that dwindled. So I do what I can, I do what I have to. I consider my Needs, my Wants, my Fears, and carry on, forgiving of my doubting and frightened self. With strategies in place, there is always sticking to driving in the slow lane, slowing my walking pace, selecting a car park furtherest from the unit, to allow the time I need to prepare, or inviting the kids to have breakfast for dinner. It’s fun for them and saves me.

*from Rectify by Ray McKinnon

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