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HEALING THROUGH ART | MY JOURNEY OVER A DECADE

My recovery journey with art started when I was about a year sober. I was living in Berlin, looking after kids and cleaning houses (both of which I loved by the way!) but needed another income stream to support myself financially. I’d been wracking my brain for weeks/months but was coming up blank. One night, seemingly out of nowhere, the idea of face painting popped into my head. It was a sit-bolt-up-right-in-the-middle-of-the-night moment and to this day I have no idea where it came from. My google search the following morning yielded endless possibilities and I very quickly became a fairy (buying the biggest wings I could find!) and began my own face painting business.

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Me in Berlin, circa 2010.

Whilst face painting is often just associated with children’s birthday entertainment, it became so much more for me. It was an intricate art form, a way to develop my creativity and improve my painting skills, and a way to make my world even more colourful. I practised regularly on my friends’ faces and on my own arms, determined to improve and excel in the field. I’ll always remember a dear friend saying to me how beautiful it was that I ‘used to cut my arms, and now I paint flowers on my arms’. She was able to see what I couldn’t – the immeasurable catharsis of replacing my painfully destructive habit with the gentle repetition of tender brush strokes on my skin – now creating beauty, instead of destroying it. 

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Self-painted poppies on my arm & image mirrored.

Not only was the act of painting my arms a deeply healing meditative practice, it also taught me about practise and perseverance (values I had no real experience of). I’d always believed that if I wasn’t good at something immediately, there was no point in even trying. My sole focus was on instant gratification and so the very notion of practise left me recoiling in horror. I was impatient to the core. Learning the art of face and body painting therefore challenged me in many different ways. I learned that practise does indeed lead to improvement, I learned the value of setting personal goals and achieving them, and I started to learn about the power of patience and self-compassion. This seemingly frivolous career choice was teaching me so much more than I had ever anticipated.

Over time however, the years of weekends filled with children’s birthday parties began to take its toll. The snotty noses, the relentless noise, the incessant elbows on my table and sticky fingers in my paints, the absence of thank yous and the increasing disbelief that I was a ‘real’ fairy (!) eventually sucked all the enjoyment out the job for me. Plus four years of Frozen designs. I frequently joked about loving kids a lot less now than I did when I started face painting but I’d learned that persistence yielded results, so I persisted. It didn’t occur to me that hating something I’d once loved so dearly could actually signify my personal growth, and outgrowing jobs was a ‘normal’ and healthy response to consistently working on my personal development. 

Out of the darkness of my addiction I had created a job and a persona of sheer, unadulterated joy – all fantasy, colour and rapture – and in the vulnerability and rawness of early recovery it had become a true expression of the light I was discovering. I received consistent adoration and applause (at a time I probably needed it the most) and believed I’d found my calling. I adored being a fairy and the kids adored the fairy, but over time I grew less and less enamoured with dressing up, less and less fulfilled with what I was doing, and constantly wrestled with the futility of it all (I often struggle with the quagmire of nihilism). How could something that had brought me so much delight and joy now be such a source of misery? Why couldn’t I just love something forever? Accepting that this was all just part of my growth was therefore a bittersweet relief and I admitted to myself that I was ready for change.

In my eternal yet clearly unattainable quest to counteract the natural impermanence of life (and face painting) I progressed into painting canvasses, determined to create art that didn’t wash off. I had retained my teenage ability to produce almost identical copies of any given cartoon character, so I duplicated many a minion, countless Elsas, and various other Disney figures. I quickly grew tired of this uninspiring work (not to mention it is obvious copyright infringement!) but I felt stuck. I knew I wanted to paint but I didn’t know what to paint. Fear and self-doubt crippled me, the whispers of ‘you’re not good enough’  often crescendoing into a deafening white noise which I allowed to defeat me.

It wasn’t until I picked up my dusty copy of The Artist’s Way, gifted to me several years previously by one of my mentors, that something began to shift. I started to challenge my unhelpful, often vicious inner critic and the stories I was telling myself and within a few weeks of ‘going deep’ I produced my very first original painting – The Mushroom Fairy.

I had an image in my head of what I wanted to create but hadn’t given much thought to what it meant. It was other people’s comments and perceptions that encouraged me to contemplate its meaning and on reflection I believe it was my attempt to convey that beauty and pain can coexist. There is magic in recovery but also anguish, happiness but also despair, peace but also conflict. To be human is to encompass the light and the dark – you can’t have one without the other – and my painting mirrored this duality without me even realising it! She still sits on my mantelpiece to this day, as a reminder that self-doubt is really just an illusion and that anything is possible.

Whilst lots of fairies and owls and lovebirds kept me busy for a while I again grew restless and began to seek further inspiration. It was through devouring instagram for creative ideas that I discovered alcohol inks and it was indeed love at first sight. I was utterly captivated by the vibrancy of the colours and the fluidity of the compositions and spent weeks researching the inks, substrates and sealants before purchasing my first batch. These then sat in a drawer for months, as my trusty old friends fear and procrastination showed up the party (again)!

Throughout my life I have allowed fear to keep me constrained in a state of paralysis – afraid I won’t be good enough, afraid I won’t be perfect, afraid of criticism. I have surrendered my power to fear itself and instead of moving through it, I’ve floundered in indecision, inaction and pain. In recovery I have learned to embrace my power and move forward through fear, but it often takes me an excruciating amount of time to do so. Eventually I took the plunge and unboxed my inks, started to play and I loved it. I’d always been drawn to abstract art (as a kid I absolutely adored Kandinsky) but I’d never had the courage to create any. Now I was and it felt like home. I’d found my ‘thing’.

Creating with the inks (before I owned a mask & airbrush machine!)

Life for me though is anything but a fairytale. A part of me still longs for perfection, that happy ending with no problems, no issues, no faults – a plateau of euphoria with no peaks or troughs. But this is not my experience and deep down I understand the necessity of the yin and the yang. My love affair with alcohol inks has been tumultuous and for that I am actually grateful. The inks are a magnificent and surprising teacher and through working with them I have learned, and continue to learn, a lot about myself. Sharing this enchanting medium with others is my next step and whilst this still fills me with fear, I am also overwhelmed with excitement and gratitude at the prospect of doing so.

Me in my studio, 2019

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Celebrating 10 Years Sober | Sobriety Birthday Cards

On 26th July 2019, aged 39 yrs young, I turned 10 years sober (and abstinent from self-harm for the same amount of time). 10 fucking years! A whole decade. This felt like an enormous milestone for me and one I often thought I’d never reach. When I was ‘new’ and struggling I would frequently say that if I ever reached 10 years sober and still felt like shit I would drink again. And I meant it. Lucky for me, I no longer feel like shit and here I am, a whole decade later, still sober and self-harm clean. Which really is a fucking miracle. Getting sober was 100% the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Ever.

Until now I haven’t really spoken publicly about my past. It felt very private and sometimes precarious and I didn’t want to disclose my vulnerabilities. I’d worked hard at creating a very colourful, super cheery persona (my other job is a children’s face painter FFS!) and so to reveal my debauched history of drinking and self-harm felt in direct conflict to the character I’d created. I silenced my history and I hid my scars. I successfully compartmentalised the old me from the new me.

Now at 10 years it feels like the right time to open up. Art has been an immensely powerful tool in my healing journey and I’m discovering more and more ways to marry my art and my recovery. Designing a range of sobriety celebration cards is just one of them.

Happy Sobriety Birthday card – Click to buy

These sobriety birthday cards have absolutely been made with love. I wanted to create gloriously vibrant keepsake cards, not only to commemorate AA birthdays and encourage those still struggling, but also as little pieces of art in themselves – cards that people want to keep, not only because of the messages inside, but because they look beautiful on the wall too!

Celebrating sober milestones is SO important and showing your sober friends/ loved ones that you understand where they’ve come from, to get where they are today, is never to be underestimated.

Each card has a little message with a lot of significance. Some of my sobriety cards simply say ‘Happy Sobriety Birthday’ – three small words with so much power. Getting sober is a big fucking deal. People who do it, against all the odds, deserve all the congratulations.

Happy Sobriety Birthday card – Click to buy
Happy Sobriety Birthday card – Click to buy

Probably my favourite card, directed at every sober warrior out there, declares that ‘You’re a fucking Miracle’ ❤ Very few people who aren’t addicts understand addiction. Putting down the drink/ drugs/ self-harming is the ‘easy’ part. Staying stopped is what’s hard. Addiction is an illness, not a choice. Rebuilding your life without your ‘coping mechanism’ is fucking hard work, one day at a time. If it was easy, everyone would do it. Everyone I know on this journey is a MIRACLE.

You’re a fucking Miracle card – Click to buy

‘Don’t quit before the miracle happens’ still echoes in my mind today. These words were repeated to me endlessly when I was new and struggling and I clung onto them for dear life. I longed for the ‘miracle’ to happen and found some degree of comfort in ‘sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly’ because for me it was slooooow. The suffering felt relentless and unending and I wanted to give up so many times. These simple words kept me clinging on, one day at a time, and those days accumulated into weeks, months and eventually years.

Don’t quit before the miracle happens – Click to buy

‘One day at a time’ was also a fundamental tool in my early recovery and one I still utilise today when I’m navigating a painful situation. In the beginning it quite literally kept me sober. All those time I wanted to drink (and for 18 months it was every day!) I repeated this like a mantra. I only had to stay sober for that one day. Just one day. And even though that felt impossible and excruciating, it made it manageable. Now, it keeps me focused on the present day, reminding me to keep my head where my feet are and grateful for all the beauty in today, instead of projecting and worrying about the worst case scenario in the future. What I’ve learned is that most of the time, my fear is actually greater than the reality of a situation.

One Day at a Time card – Click to buy
Keep Going card – Click to buy

The last 10 years have hardly been a smooth ride. I harboured the illusion for a long time that the longer I stayed sober and abstinent from self-harm, the happier I would get. I held the utterly erroneous belief that working the 12 steps would result in a permanent state of euphoria, a plateau of fluffy feelings and a permanent jettison of all negative feelings. Oh how wrong I was! I would propose though that it was my expectations that were faulty, not any program of recovery. Like the Calvin & Hobbs cartoon so simply and eloquently puts it, I may as well have been holding a big fucking neon sign exclaiming “Happiness is not enough. I demand euphoria!” I wanted nirvana. I wanted enlightenment. I wanted complete and utter freedom from my demons. Realistic I think not.

Happy Joyous and Free card – Click to buy

What I’m still learning is that this isn’t possible and THAT’S OK! Happiness is just ONE of many many human emotions and somehow I (and countless others) have made it the sole (or soul!) destination. In sobriety I have experienced real happiness, joy and intense gratitude, full belly laughter and utter hilarity, and I have experienced deep sadness, pain, longing, depression, fear, loneliness and more. I have experienced profound peace and serenity, and I have experienced mood swings, irritability, anger and despair. With this in mind, my ‘Clean and Serene’ card should definitely say ‘Clean and Sometimes Serene’ instead! Next batch I promise!

Clean & Serene card – Click to buy

All my sobriety celebration cards/ AA birthday cards are available to buy in my Etsy shop. Click each photo to be taken to the listing, or click here for multi-card discounts ❤