S reflects on her journey through art therapy

Learn about the journey of S as she took part in mentalization-based art therapy (MBT). S talks about her experience with disassociation and how art therapy helped her express what she was feeling. S lived with a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder (BPD) and found that art therapy helped her make positive changes in her life.

Audio Transcription:

S: Okay, picture number one is a painting of me not looking very happy and, instead of being a person, I’ve painted myself as an octopus with eight legs and suckers on the legs. And the idea of this is to try and give a sense of not feeling real and not feeling human. And also, that the octopus legs are flailing about trying to catch on and latch on to the world around me and people around me, and I’m not able to do it. So, very definitely a sense of being alone and being isolated and feeling very alienated.

And in the words that I’ve used in the painting; ‘Gods and monsters’ are supposed to provide the feeling that we have with BPD, of the world being black and white. Everybody’s either a God or a monster, and there’s no grey in our world.

And in the top left-hand corner, a statement which says, “How do you construct an all-new façade, so it feels bedded in?” Because this is six months into my treatment and very definitely a sense that I need to reinvent myself.

And then we also have ‘Border country’ because I feel like I’m on the borders of things all the time, borders of groups, borders of families.

And in the left corner is our ‘cosy corner’ where I retreat to when things just get too much.

And I’m hoping for ‘miraculous conceptions’ which is in the right bottom corner because I hope that’s what this treatment will eventually give me.

But I’m also aware that as the other statement says, “Safety not guaranteed” and I have to work really hard to feel safe and get better.

At that time in the treatment, I was still experiencing quite a lot of disassociation. It’s very hard to explain, I really don’t feel- you feel like you lose time. You do lose time. Mild daydreaming becomes hours, sometimes even a whole day or even longer of not feeling that your surroundings are real, that you’re not real, and what’s happening to you is not real.

And I would even at times experience mild psychosis where things change shape, faces changed, very frightening. And I think that it what I was feeling quite strongly when I painted this picture, that I had quite a few episodes of disassociation, even with my loved ones, and my close partner.

And this painting came from nowhere, I didn’t plan it, but it basically summed up my sense of not belonging and everyday being a struggle, where you just don’t think you should be here, and you can’t- you’re trying to latch on to real life and you can’t do it.

Yes, and I wasn’t very good at describing my feelings. I would intellectualise and I would give you huge great details and use big, long words that upset a couple of people in the group. And at the time, when someone’s trying to get you out of your head and into your emotions, it’s very difficult because no matter how many different ways they try and explain that to, you don’t know what they’re getting at. You’re going, “Well, of course I’m explaining how I feel. I’ve just spoken for the last twenty minutes. Don’t you get it?” So, there’s a very definite sense that I’m always speaking one language and you’re all speaking another.

S: Yeah, in the second picture, this was just over one year into my treatment. And I had taken a rather brave plunge, for me, of joining a local choir. I enjoy singing very much and I had joined quite a few choirs in the past but never stuck at it. And it was always a reason why I felt I couldn’t stay because I felt I didn’t belong.

So, this picture is a representation of people who were at the choir on that evening. The yellow blob is the choir master. I’m the dark green blob. The pale green blobs are people who I had spoken to the previous week. I think I had only been at the choir- this might be the second or third session. And the red blobs are women, and the blue blobs are women.

And the reason why I’ve kind of chosen to paint it this way was as an example of me being in a group and feeling uncomfortable but comfortable. Because it was new, but I was determined to give it a go and nine months down the line I’m still going to the choir so that’s a big plus for me.

The pale green blobs are people I had spoken to before, who I’d also spoken to just before the choir started that night, and I found myself in a bit of a dilemma because they weren’t all standing together. And so, I thought, “Right, I need to make sure that I keep contact with these people.” I remembered their names and I tried my best to make sure that I spoke with during the evening.

And I was aware that actually what I was doing was mentalising. I was mentalising my behaviour, I was thinking about “Okay, you’re in a new group, you feel a bit uncomfortable because you’re not good in groups. You’re identifying the feelings and recognising the right heartbeat, and recognising the dry mouth, and recognising ‘oh what if I say something silly or stupid?’ Sitting with the feeling, acknowledging the feeling but moving through the feeling and talking anyway.”

S: Okay picture number three, we have a multi-coloured snake with a tongue but also a beating heart. This painting represents the shedding of skins. We have a snake in the middle and then we’ve got lots of different skins around the other- outside. And the fact that they’re muted colours is important as well because we associate extremes of emotion with- what I would associate with extreme colours. If you’re more in control of your emotions, you’re able to regulate your emotions more. So, I would associate that more with muted colours.

But also from spiritual terms, snakes are all about transformation and transmutation. And in the process of going through MBT as a therapy, the whole point of it is to change. And if I think about the skins that I shed, this painting is also about sort of thirteen/fourteen months into my therapy.

The things that I had shed were suicidal ideas. Haven’t felt suicidal at all for ages. Disassociation – I was no longer disassociating. Not taking things personally – it is very difficult not to take things personally, but I think by that stage in the process I had managed to be able to mentalise through comments or behaviours of other people and think, “That’s their stuff, it’s not my stuff and don’t take it personally.” Which is a huge achievement. And other things related to relationships with family and relationships with you know close loved ones, just better- the kind extremes emotions, the anger had gone.

Those of us that have lived with BPD live with fear all the time, constantly. We wake up with it and we go to bed with it. And I can also say that by and large the fear had gone by then as well. I don’t have days where I just want to stay in bed and pull the duvet over my head. I don’t think I’ll feel that ever again.

S: I definitely think, and I don’t know how it’s presented across- how it’s delivered across the country, but I definitely think that including art therapy in the process is fundamental. Because, for myself but also for some others in the group when I think back who were- when they came into group perhaps in a really bad place or determined not to communicate at all, and with gentle encouragement, even if they spent thirty seconds on their artwork, it delivered a huge amount to discuss and tapped in to where they were emotionally. So, I think it’s fundamental.

I think it’s absolutely vital that the therapists are very very well trained and experienced in what they do and that they have huge resilience, because you have to be extremely resilient to cope with what was on in that group. And that you try different ways of keeping people on track and making sure that they do come back to therapy. Because if Ann hadn’t tried as hard as she had, and Celia hadn’t tried as hard as she had, and you hadn’t tried then I probably would’ve left. But then you gave time to reflect so I wanted to leave because things were too painful that came up in group, and you kind of gave me that space to work it through myself and think. You know, you gave me a few weeks to think and actually I have to see this through. So, it wasn’t just about me being persevering, or having perseverance should I say, it was very definitely how you handled me at that time.