When Recovery Looks Like Art

I have PMDD, a condition that can cause a variety of uncomfortable physical symptoms as well as create disruptive mood dysfunction anywhere from a few days up to two weeks every month. I do many things to manage it, including allowing myself extra time for rest, taking certain herbs and vitamins that have reduced my symptoms, and some months I get any associated pain treated with acupuncture at a low-cost community clinic. (You can read more about that here.) In addition to this, I’m recovering from some emotionally traumatic experiences I’ve had in my life. If you understand a little about trauma, you know that even if you are mentally “over” something, there are physiological changes and changes to your brain that affect how you might respond to certain kinds of stressful situations, even those that can seem commonplace. Through cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness, I’m learning how to repair what’s often described as the “faulty wiring” caused by trauma, as well as manage the mood changes I experience from PMDD.

A big part of my healing process has been teaching myself new things and giving myself lots of little, quiet hobbies. It’s what has worked for me in the past and seems to be just as true now. I was going through some difficult transitions and changes in my late teens and early twenties. During that time, I took up jewelry-making, not so much as a business but because it helped fuel my other, more cerebral creative pursuits (I’m an actor and writer) and gave me something to do to decompress. Beads and making beaded jewelry were very popular at the time, so I was able to look for supplies in lots of different places. The determined task of hunting for just the right supplies gave me a sense of purpose, but with low stakes. I had a mission to focus on, without the pressure of the kinds of things I might focus on at my day job, where my tasks came with bigger responsibilities. The tactile nature of the hobby was very soothing, the repetitive motions of assembling a new piece gave me a sense of creative flow, and sorting and organizing all of the beautiful little beads and components gave me a sense of order and control. The rewarding feeling of completing a necklace or bracelet was near-instant gratification. My hobby was my happy place.

Today, things are a little similar. Slowly, and awkwardly, I am learning how to play the ukulele. My experience with musical instruments is minimal, and until now I never attempted a string instrument. The size of the ukulele is excellent because it’s portable, and easy for my small hands to manage. It’s also easy to play the chords very softly, so as not to make too much noise. It was also fairly inexpensive. I found a deal late one night on Amazon several months ago. It was a closeout package that came with all of the necessary accessories, easily worth a hundred dollars, that I scored for $30. I spent a few bucks getting the strings upgraded, which was absolutely worth it. When I sit with the instrument and work my way through the new finger placements and the sounds they make, I get out of my own head. I gradually become more alert.

I listen to a lot of podcasts and radio shows. This can be a somewhat passive hobby, and I find anything other than music to be too distracting when I’m writing, so if I’m not doing household chores or cooking, I like to do simple crafts while I’m listening to talk shows or performances. I’ll color in an adult coloring book, do some sketches or doodles, I’ve even completed some paint-by-numbers for fun. I used to enjoy making small macrame pieces for much the same reason I made jewelry, so I’ve tried to start that back up again as well.

Tending to plants and container gardens is also a calming task for me. Plants may be quiet, but in observing them even a few minutes every day, there is something exciting about seeing all of the changes that take place in a plant. I’ve had various flowers and plants most of my life, but until last September, I had never been present the moment a flower was opening. At the time, I had a small pink jasmine plant in the window above my bed. I happened to be home reading that evening, when one of the branches shook a little on its own. I then watched over the next hour as three blossoms in the little plant gradually popped open, filling the air with perfume. It was exciting, and also rewarding because the little shrub had been a scrappy, dried-up reject – an end-of-season rescue that I got at a discount at a florist’s shop and brought back to life with some tlc. Plant care involves a little problem-solving, a little luck, a little science, and once again, the quiet joy of working with your hands.

Of course, these are all things I can and do enjoy on days when I’m feeling great, but on days when I’m feeling bad, whether physically or mentally or both, I can focus on some of my small hobbies for an hour or two, and afterwards usually feel much better. I regularly devote a few minutes every day to them, just as a matter of developing healthy habits and a sense of routine, and I relish the days when I spend larger amounts of time with them, whether it’s just out of joy, or to get out of my fog or find a sense of accomplishment when I’m in too much pain for much else. If I make a mistake while drawing, or I don’t make a lot of progress learning music that day, it’s okay. I can make all of the messy mistakes I want with my art, and I still feel better for having spent time with it.

Learning how to manage difficult symptoms and be a better person is sometimes a messy process. It doesn’t always look pretty. Recovery can look ridiculous. I wonder if people think I look kooky or childish, getting excited about these seemingly insignificant hobbies, that they aren’t real work or even my real art. It takes a lot of work to be well, to be able to feel more like myself. I do that work for my own well-being, not for recognition, but sometimes I wish people understood that it is its own job. Sometimes, that job looks a lot like play.

What are some hobbies you enjoy that also help you feel better and become more productive and focused on other areas of life? I would love to hear from you!



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