Recovering from multiple bereavements through creative practice

16 April 2018

Professor Paul Crawford tells his story of how he was recovered while facilitating a Creative Practices for Mutual Recovery class.

It was during a two-day visual arts workshop1 that I found myself being part of the evidence for 'mutual recovery' in an unexpected and striking way.

Recovery in a traditional sense is when somebody identified as having a need or being 'ill' is recovered by whatever means – in mental health, this is often through creative practices. This approach often overlooks hard-pressed informal carers and health, social care and education personnel, who may also need to 'recover' or be 'recovered' in terms of their own mental health and wellbeing – this is where mutual recovery comes in.

As the leading researcher for both pieces of research into mutual recovery through creative practices, I did not anticipate any kind of recovery would happen to me! I was just the research leader, right?

I had recently endured multiple and far-reaching bereavements that meant I lost most of my family and I greatly empathised with the people with dementia and their carers taking part in our new study. Their personal struggle with memory, identity and day-to-day connectedness chimed with the void in my life.

The vortex

In an exploratory phase of creating art on the first day, I found myself picking up a piece of double-sided colour paper and gradually tearing it in a circular motion, watching it form a spiral reaching down towards the floor. At the middle I ripped out the last piece of paper and held it between my thumb and finger. 

I looked at it but didn’t quite know what it might mean. I gathered up the square of paper and placed it back on the table. Now the sheet of paper presented as a vortex with a hole in the middle. I looked at it and, once again, wondered what to do with the tiny scrap of paper that I held. I decided to place it to one side of the 'vortex', as if it were coming out or just escaping it.

I thought nothing more of this spontaneous and rather pleasing creation and continued with the rest of the activities.

In day two, we all visited the Djangoly Gallery at the University of Nottingham and participated in a discussion led by Chris Lewis Jones on Victor Pasmore's painting The Snow Storm. I did not know in advance that this painting, which represented 'vortices', would be the subject of the discussion. It seemed really odd that the day before I had pre-figured a vortex in my own creative work!

After the discussion we all joined together to continue making art that represented things we wanted to convey to the rest of the group. I returned to the 'vortex' theme and created a new work from a black and white square of double-sided paper.  Again, I ripped my way into the middle and placed the little piece to one side of the 'exit' from the main square. This was then mounted on white paper and exhibited alongside the works of all the other participants. I framed it and hung it on the wall.

Visual Arts Workshop

When I hung it on the wall, I began to realise what I had created – or rather, gained a sense of what meaning it had for me. I realised that the black vortex was the grief experienced in the multiple losses I had so recently endured – a great force pulling me inwards and likely to consume me or leave me in a state of denial. The hole in the middle was the traumatic wrench of myself from all I knew before and the little scrap just outside of the vortex was me making my bid for a new and changed life. I called the work Escaping the Vortex and it was a key part of my recovery.

Now I have begun to accept and live with the hole in the middle – it doesn’t go away – but I have chosen the future, I am moving away from the debilitating power of the vortex.

I will be forever grateful that in leading the programme of research into Creative Practices for Mutual Recovery that I had this curious opportunity to advance my own mental health and wellbeing. I hope people take seriously the potential for 'mutual recovery' through creative practices. The peer-reviewed science, social science and arts and humanities findings that support this are in place. Now I offer myself as a curious, albeit anecdotal, case of transformation.

Find out how different creative arts practices can be used for mutual recovery

1The visual arts workshop was from the Dementia Arts and Wellbeing programme, funded by AHRC and adopting the Creative Practice as Mutual Recovery Approach.