The link between mental health and creativity

Heather’s Handmade Life is all about me building a creativity-filled life for myself and my family in order to fight through my own personal slog of anxiety and depression.

But as much as I talk about creativity and share my projects — and talk openly about my own mental health — I don’t make the connection as often as I should. The connection between mental health and creativity, and how it saved my life.

This is my story.

I was a super crafty child growing up — ALWAYS drawing and writing stories, occasionally messing around with pastels, watercolours, charcoals, etc. I even took private drawing lessons (with a teacher who would wind up teaching me oil-painting 25 years in the future).

My mom taught me how to sew on a machine, how to embroider by hand. We made wreaths, back when wreath-making was THE thing to do. I fancied myself quite the Claudia Kishi, except I wasn’t cool or fashionable. I was totally going to go to art school (NSCAD, or “The Nova Scotia College of Art and Design,” as I called it when I was a precocious kid).

I painted enormous murals of New York City over the walls of my basement bedroom. One wall was Central Park, another was the skyline, another was Long Island, and a forth (the wall going down the stairs) said “Welcome to New York City.”

My New York City bedroom circa 1998
My New York City bedroom circa 1998
My New York City bedroom circa 1998
My New York City bedroom circa 1998

I built a “Central Perk” nook under the stairs, complete with a ratty green armchair. I even constructed an NYC Taxi out of some metal from an old dishwasher. Creating that room (and adding to it) made me so incredibly happy.

Things changed at some point midway through junior high. I’m not sure why. I still drew, but rarely did watercolours. My bedroom was finished, and later burned down in a fire I accidentally started with walkie-talkies (long story) so I needed to move back upstairs. I got even more into writing, and would spend hours pounding out stories and spec scripts (pretend TV show scripts, always of Friends) on my mom’s work laptop.

This was taken right after I got my braces off. I was 14.

It was in junior high that I started to experience the first real signs of anxiety and depression, even though I didn’t know it by those names back then. I lit candles and burned myself with them. I toyed with cutting. I went through suicidal periods. I stopped drawing and painting entirely.

In high school, I still wrote stories, but not as much. My mental health wasn’t good, but it was slightly better than it had been in junior high. (Junior high is the WORST, isn’t it?) I opted for drama classes instead of art classes, since drama fit with my dramatic moods and I had fallen hard for acting. I was pretty good at it.

Ooh that BonneBell lip gloss tho!

I started thinking I couldn’t draw, wasn’t that creative — if I was, I told myself, I would have taken art. (Looking back, I truly think taking art in high school would have sent me down the path towards NSCAD, rather than down the path towards journalism.) I decided I was a writer and an actor, not an artist.

I met Darling Husband and we fell in love, which made me very, very happy. That first summer we were dating — the summer between Grade 11 and Grade 12 — was one of the happiest times of my life. We drove our parents’ cars and had our own money to spend, and even the simplest Friday nights with our group of friends (McDonalds, bowling, carnivals, etc.) were pure joy.

The first two years of university were difficult for many reasons. I was barely writing. I wasn’t creating anything. My moods were bad.

I remember digging out my beloved old Barbie houses and setting them up again, probably in an attempt to find some comfort. It was calming. I started buying new dolls and clothes, too, and sunk back into something that I’d loved for so many years.

That was a NYC-themed belt and I loved it.

Dollar Stores were a new thing then, at least where we lived, and I started buying packages of popsicle sticks, hot glue sticks, and felt so I could make Barbie furniture. Darling Husband (then Darling Boyfriend) helped me, and he was even better at it — using tin snips to cut the sticks neatly, and constructing little Barbie cribs and bunk beds that were so sturdy, they were practically made of wood and not just popsicle sticks. This is what we’d do on Saturday nights in his parents’ basement, while watching Trading Spaces. Seriously, we were the coolest.

I got my first car and painted it, inside and out. It was like my New York City bedroom again, except I got to drive it everywhere I went. That little car was my canvas for several years.

The Dollar Store came to the rescue again with small bottles of acrylic paint (for the ceiling, the doors, the visors) and a line-up of bobble-headed fuzzy animals for me to smile at in the rearview mirror.

It was photographed and written up for the newspaper long before I worked for one.

We moved into our own apartment while I was in my third year of university, and I delighted in having a new space to decorate. We painted all of the walls (some of them, twice). I bought Dollar Store canvases and painted them for the walls.

I cringe looking back at the pictures now, knowing more about decorating, but I was so very proud at the time.

I printed out pictures and painted frames. I starting writing a home decorating column for the newspaper I worked for at the time, and visited stores across the city to take pictures and gather inspiration.

I knew from watching so much Trading Spaces that it was easy to sew curtains, so we splurged on little $100 Singer Simple from the Wal-Mart across the street, and I re-learned how to sew. We bought cheap chairs at a thrift store so I could stain them and recover the cushions. I found mismatched end tables and glopped them up with shiny black paint (ugh) to “make them match.”

Yikes! Lime green and chocolate brown was a BIG combination back in the Trading Spaces days. I was super proud of this room.

When we bought our condo a couple of years later, I got to do it all again — and it was wonderful.

Our condo, when we moved in.

There was no such thing as Pinterest, but there was Google Images! We painted all of the walls, naturally, and I made new curtains for all of the windows.

The living room of our Bedford condo (before we sold it).
It, too, was photographed and written up for the newspaper.

We painted cabinets for the first time, and even did a daring painted countertop treatment in the kitchen. (It worked!)

Our DIY painted counters. (They were PINK when we bought the place.)

By this point, I had quite a stash of craft and sewing supplies. Darling Husband bought me a beautiful tilted art desk (which I still have) back when online shopping was brand-new (to us).

The start of something

I was sewing up a storm — mostly wobbly little quilts, in preparation for the babies I was already dreaming about (and then expecting!) — and having weekly Stitch-and-Bitch craft sessions after work with a good friend. We’d meet at Michaels, shop for art supplies, grab dinner, and head back to one of our places to watch America’s Next Top Model and make crafts. It was heavenly.

An early quilting project

There wasn’t much time for creating once our son was born, in June of 2010, but I was too enamored with him to care. I worked on scrapbooks displaying practically every moment of his young life, and occasionally did a one-off project like tie-dying (matching mother-and-son tees) or sewing him yet another blankie.

Life got even busier as my maternity leave went on. I started freelancing to see if I could really make it my career, and then we were wrapped up in the desire to move out of the city where we’d be able to afford a real house with a yard.

I was pregnant again, with our daughter, by the time we’d moved into our House of Dreams in the fall of 2011. The house was a blank canvas with builder-beige walls.

I had so many ideas, but not the money to execute them. I remember sitting at our kitchen table with Darling Husband, planning out when we might be able to spring for paint.

“Someday,” I told him, “we’ll remember the days when we were too poor to just go out and buy a can of paint.”

Bare walls, bare floors, Wal-Mart lamps, no money.

Our daughter was born in April of 2012, and my mental health took a nosedive. She came into the world angry, or at least that’s how it felt. She cried a lot. Constantly.

I didn’t have a maternity leave, since I was fully self-employed by that point, so I was back to work less than six weeks after she was born. I had to carefully time her naps and our one-year-old son’s naps to coincide so that I could have some uninterrupted time for interviews and writing.

I cried in the shower often. I was most certainly suffering from a raging case of postpartum depression that I didn’t really talk about. (Until years later.)

Darling Husband was working two jobs and we had one vehicle — neither of which I ever really saw.

Since the car wasn’t in the driveway most nights, I started to become convinced someone would break in thinking the house was empty. My anxiety was so bad that I would stand at the top of the stairs in the middle of the night, cordless phone clutched my hand, heart pounding, convinced I could hear someone outside and that I was going to have to dial 9-1-1 any second.

I’d only be able to sleep well after 4 a.m., since my sick mind was convinced that nobody would break into a home that late/early. When morning came and we hadn’t been robbed, I would be shocked. I’d really, really expected it.

I was not well.

Creating was the last thing on my mind — I was barely functioning.

Not longer after our daughter’s first birthday, things started getting a little better.

I followed a simple sewing pattern and made a dress that actually fit her, and suddenly sewing for her was all I could think about. We got a second vehicle so I was no longer housebound. I’d take the kids to the fabric store and reward them with one of those $1 rides outside.

The more I was able to work, the less depressing our finances were. We painted walls and bought secondhand furniture to refinish. Our house was a neverending project that could always use something added or spruced up, and I loved it.

Freshly-painted kitchen walls + a Cougar Town inspired DIY

But the house was not enough. Sewing little dresses was not enough. As our babies grew into toddlers and preschoolers, my mental health continued to be a bit of a roller coaster — and things got even shakier after an unexpected hysterectomy at 31.

Look at my sad eyes. I can’t even.

I started taking antidepressants that summer, after walking across a T-ball field, crying, feeling miserable that I didn’t think anything could ever get better.

I got tattoos, three of them.

A semi-colon to send hope and love to those who are struggling with depression, suicide, addiction, and self-injury. 

A tiny dotted bow on my left wrist, which I consider “a best friends necklace with myself” and a reminder to be kind to myself.

And the word “Create” in my own handwriting, as a nod to my ongoing “cure” of survival by making beautiful things.

But I knew the pills weren’t enough to make everything sunshine-y. I knew I had to focus on also doing things that would make me happy. Focus on creating something, anything.

This time, it was going to stick.

I doubled down on my sewing. I started buying actual patterns and teaching myself how to follow them. I even experimented with sewing for me, and for our son.

I messed up a lot, but over time I learned what fabrics were screwy and which ones would likely turn into something wearable. Eventually, I was making 95% of their wardrobes — and LOVING it.

I started dreaming up more involved house projects and executing them, often with the help of Darling Husband. I started going to Zumba classes — and never stopped. I started writing a newspaper column about the DIYs I was coming up with — a column I still write and love.

People, it seemed, thought I had good ideas. People thought I was creative. I was creative — I’d just gotten away from it for a while. It felt so good to make things again.

Each new project filled me with sparkles (and sometimes involved actual sparkles!) and to be able to do it professionally?!

I had fun with the fact that self-employed people don’t typically get Christmas parties, and now I throw one (a very popular one, at that) every single year.

I decided that even though I didn’t go to art school, I could make my own curriculum now.

I took three terms of pottery classes.

I took a class on how to use a serger.

I took two sessions of oil-painting classes.

I took a session of rug-hooking classes.

I entered a sewing competition at the provincial exhibition and won two ribbons. A piece of my pottery was on display in a student exhibition during an Open House.

I got my own set of power tools for my birthday and started woodworking. I learned that 2x4s aren’t actually 2″ by 4″ (they’re 1.5″ by 3.5″) and that you have to account for the width of the saw blade when you’re cutting.

I built stuff that fell apart and stuff that is still holding together. I started decorating other people’s houses. I started going on stage, talking about why I love to DIY and sharing my tips. I started expanding this lil’ blog, and working with sponsors to take my messages even further.

I even DIYed on television!

I was challenged to make new things and take chances, and I realized I could do more than I knew.

I got better and better at it, and last month I led a live event and taught 70+ people that they don’t have to be afraid of power tools because they’re AWESOME and can help them make so many cool things.

Now we’re heading into the summer of 2019. Our son is nine, and our daughter is seven. Darling Husband and I have been married 11 years, and together for 19! I still work from home, except now I work full-time hours.

I still take antidepressants. I have no plans to stop taking antidepressants, unless they stop working for me. In fact, I make a point of talking about them regularly (especially over on Instagram) to normalize taking them.

My mental health is something I work hard at, every day, because I remember how bad it feels when I don’t.

After all, I have these two cuties to think of …

… and this one! 😉

I try to make time every single day to do something creative, even if it’s a little hand-sewing or cutting out pattern pieces or sketching out my next woodworking project. I work a lot and I have a lot of responsibilities here at home, but this is a priority, too. It’s something I need to do for my mental health.

The best is when I have more time, though. More than a few minutes here and there. I love quiet weekend afternoons when I can dive deep into a sewing project and spend hours with nothing but the hum of my sewing machine and the din of Netflix in the background.

I love random Thursday evenings when I open the screen door in my basement studio and sit in the lamplight painting while the sun sets.

I love slipping away to the fabric store in the middle of the morning to wander down the aisles, stroking the beautiful cotton prints, dreaming what I would make with them, and then taking some of them home with me.

I try to follow my urges when it comes to my creative time. Sometimes there’s nothing more in the world I want than to put paint on a canvas, and other times I can’t think about anything other than a particular style of dress I want to sew. If I’m feeling strongly pulled in a certain direction, I go with it.

I work in a home office that I designed with soft pinks and golds, lots of white, and splashes of rainbow colours. I change things often because my eyes quickly tire of the same thing.

A collection of art supplies that was once a tiny package of Dollar Store popsicle sticks and hot glue sticks is now enough to fill our entire finished basement.

A way of life that was once ignored for years at a time is now mine again.

Yes, it’s been an investment, but I’ve invested in ME.

I know all too well what happens to me when I can’t — or don’t — take time to be creative. There’s a direct correlation between my darkest periods of depression and the times when I wasn’t drawing or painting or otherwise making something with my own two hands.

Once I fully understood the connection between my mental health and creativity, it changed my life for the better.

Maybe it could change yours, too?

xo

“I create because I love it, but also because I need it. Without it, I can’t breathe.”

Heather Laura Clarke, Heather’s Handmade Life

3 Comments on “The link between mental health and creativity

  1. I just came upon your blog, etc. (I don’t know where I started from) and I cannot agree with you more! I also am a crafty person with mental health issues. I don’t know which came first but at 73 I am still creating (quilting, art – watercolour, acrylic – english smocking, counted cross stitch, etc. etc.) It is a beautiful day when I can create something pleasing to me! — yes, I still take my meds — You are an inspiration. Is there any chance that you would be interested in contributing to our local paper, The Eastern Shore Cooperator? Let me know what you think. https://www.easternshorecooperator.ca/
    Have a great day!

    • Thank you, Victoria! It sounds like you have tons of creative hobbies, too! (I’ve always wanted to try smocking.) Appreciate the offer to contribute to the Eastern Shore Cooperator, but I’m likely unable to work for a competing newspaper as I’m very happy with mine. xo

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