Arting My Way Back To Eating
I am a real fan of graphic novels, in particular graphic memoirs. This is partly because I have very poor concentration and so I am put off lengthy tomes, only accessible to me as audiobooks, for which I am so grateful. I envy those who can lose themselves into a good book for hours on end, but it’s no good wishing for the impossible! However, the discovery of graphic novels has been such a revelation, as I get to enjoy beautiful and diverse styles of illustration, which helps me creatively.
I am also immensely grateful to those who tell their story in this way as there is something uniquely moving about the combination of expressing oneself through both image and words. Sometimes words are discarded altogether. I am put in mind of the recently late and great Raymond Briggs and his beautiful and poignant book ‘Ethel and Ernest’, which tells the story of his parents’ lives and his formative years. The book explored themes that many of us find it hard to talk about, such as mental illness and death. The tenderness of his imagery somehow makes all of this so much more meaningful and digestible.
The most recent graphic memoir I came across (quite accidentally) is called ‘Lighter than my Shadow’ and tells the story of Katie Green and her experience of having suffered an eating disorder (ED). I ordered the book online and so my initial surprise was the weightiness of the book, which I imagine must have been intentional. I must admit to feeling some trepidation about reading this book, as I am currently trying to manage a relapse of anorexia and I am wary of anything that may trigger any unhelpful behaviours. However somehow, Katie has managed to create a book which is so honest. It can be heartbreaking to read, at times, because I recognise some of the experiences and feelings she so beautifully and eloquently conveys. Katie’s imaginative use of imagery really resonated with me and helped me form a new understanding and relationship with my own experience. Having read the book twice now, I feel far from triggered, but rather am left with a message of hope and I feel nothing but deep admiration and gratitude at Katie’s willingness to make herself vulnerable and in so doing, reaching out to others.
Illustrations taken from ‘Lighter than my Shadow’ (2013), by Katie Green.
Creativity can be so healing, and this has evidently been true for Katie too. Having discovered her creative identity, the power her eating disorder had over her was weakened. I have often considered about the relationship between my identity as having an eating disorder and that of being an artist. I am currently aware of a tug of war between the two, each demanding my full attention. Having anorexia is a full-time occupation and that can be part of the appeal, as it protects one from having to deal with life’s challenges, some of which can feel insurmountable. Whereas, being an artist feels so life affirming, in its willingness to confront those same challenges and find a way to create something beautiful from them, which can be shared.
In the past, when I have been in the process of recovery, perhaps having completed a period of day or inpatient treatment, art has come to my aid and help me find a language for things that there are no words for. I have attended art therapy sessions, which have been so helpful. I have even organised an exhibition with other eating disorder service users, as a means of raising awareness about this frequently misunderstood diagnosis. This was such a positive experience, as everyone who was involved felt a huge sense of achievement. Having allowed themselves to be vulnerable, they told a little of their story, whether that be through poetry or prose, painting or collage. I felt humbled by their willingness to trust me with such personal creations.
I would love to be in a position where I felt able to do something similar and yet whenever I try to go there, my mind goes blank and I get white noise. Katie’s scribble describes exactly what I experience. I think this is because the ED feels threatened. However, I am noticing that my creative ideas don’t come from approaching things directly, but rather by allowing my mind to wander, so when inspiration comes, I am often taken by surprise. So, who knows what will happen, maybe this blog is the beginning of something interesting and exciting.
I am kept on track and motivated by attending Core Arts, which is an art project for those who experience mental health challenges. It is a hive of creativity, with an atmosphere of such positivity. It is a very special place for me. I have noticed that, over time, I have developed and strengthened my identity as an artist. It is so good to be among other artists, with whom I can share ideas. Prior to this, my time working at the ‘House of Illustration’ had a similar effect. I had previously struggled to attach myself to any meaningful identity, other than a diagnosis I have been given, which is definitely not healthy. Prior to this, I was very attached to my identity as a nurse and it was a huge loss to have to let that go.
Now, if I am asked that dreaded question: ‘So, what do you do?’ I feel confident enough to reply that I am an artist. I even have a website and have sold some stuff, so it must be true! I am so grateful to everyone at Core Arts and H.o.I. for helping make this happen, as the more my creative identity is fed and nurtured, the less room there is for anorexia. Don’t get me wrong, in many ways I feel indebted to my ED, as earlier in my life, it saved my life. It enabled me to be seen and taken care of when I needed it most, but I was a teenager then and while the attachment is still very strong, I no longer have the same need for it; life is very different.
I am so aware of how the ED tries to undermine my creative pursuits and opportunities, as I struggle to nourish myself adequately to have the energy to give art my all. Or, I have exhausted myself with excessive exercise, which is also time consuming. It does this because it feels threatened. It takes a great deal of willpower, self belief and determination to keep saying ‘no’ to such an insidious and powerful voice. I am currently sitting with the guilt of not having walked to Core Arts this morning, having opted for the train as it was raining quite heavily. I know there will be attempts through the day to try and compensate, be that through food restriction or exercise. However, I also know, in my healthy mind, that the train was the right call and that it is encouraging I could permit myself to make that decision.
At present, I often feel torn in half as the anorexia is unwilling to let me go without a fight. However, to the regular positive reinforcement that I receive at Core Arts, I feel hopeful that I can have a future in which my creative identity will be strengthened to such a degree that my art will flourish and grow alongside my mental and physical health. Only the other day, I had arrived at a class having (misguidedly) weighed myself that morning, but that’s what the ED does. I was carrying a sense of shame and hopelessness, because there is no happy outcome in monitoring my weight. However, during a conversation with one of the teachers about Katie’s book, ‘Lighter then My shadow’, I shared an aspiration that I would one day create something similar. She gave me the feeling that this was by no means a pipe dream and that I could try just starting anywhere and then seeing what emerges. No expectations, no pressure, this felt achievable. So that is exactly what I did; first I let the paint and inks do what they wanted to do, this was my scribble, or my white noise. Then, the image came to me and it was the image from that very morning.
So, I have made a start. I don’t know if this dream will be realised, or if some other creative avenue will open up and draw me in. All I know is that I have a story to tell. It’s important not to make any absolute plans, but to allow myself to be open to the process. By relinquishing control in my artistic practice, perhaps this will then translate into letting go of control over other areas of my life. I think there is a need for some rough goals, outlines and ideas, but not to be enslaved by them, which would be to the detriment of play and exploration. I think balance is the key, as is so often the case. Not always easy to achieve, but that doesn’t mean we don’t keep trying.
By Naomi Elfred-Ross
26th August 2022
By Naomi Elfred-Ross (2022). Watercolour, pastel, coloured pencil and biro.