My process of creating is often intuitive. I usually don't have an established direction of what I’m going to create. I have a feeling and state of mind that worries me and I need to take it away.
Please introduce yourself and share a bit about your artistic background.
My name is Dorota Chioma and I'm an artist, although I’m a relatively new artist. I was perceived as a talented child and I could draw above average; however, I wasn’t allowed into art school so I abandoned art completely for most of my life. I am now in my 40s and rediscovered creativity after a massive mental health breakdown because I was directed to Art Therapy. In those art therapy sessions, something opened up in me and my creativity started to pour out. The facilitator of those sessions was so encouraging and welcoming so I started to create everyday to ease my mental health problems and I never stopped. Since March 2019, my art has started to emerge.
Could you share a bit more about your mental health journey and perhaps where you are now?
I have lived with depression since I was a teenager. Back then I was in another country - I’m Polish and was raised in Poland but have spent the last 15 years in the UK. When the first episode of depression hit me, the response was that I was just sensitive or going through puberty. Nobody really acknowledged what was going on with me. I was petrified and I experienced periods of insomnia and restlessness. I was afraid to talk about it because when I attempted to, I was met with ‘but you’re young, it’s the best time of your life, you should be happy, just embrace it.’ So I kept it silent.
Throughout my life the episodes reoccurred. There were good periods but also bad ones. Then I had my children and post-natal depression hit after my first child. However, because my relationship was very toxic at the time, people were saying ‘you’re just not very happy,’ and ‘it’s just tiredness.’ So there was no help offered and I suffered for years. I blamed myself and thought I wasn’t a good Mum.
My second pregnancy happened a few years later but it wasn’t planned. This knocked me down completely and the depression hit straight from conception. Again, everyone was focusing on my physical health and the health of the baby, rather than looking into any mental aspects. If I tried to express anything people just said that it was normal to be worried. I experienced awful trauma, including domestic violence and being a foreigner on foreign land without any help. There was another suicidal attempt then, but I was saved by a miracle really. Being a victim of domestic violence leaves an awful trauma, which I couldn't pick myself up from. But at some point it became a bit better and I met my new partner. I really wanted to experience motherhood in a loving relationship so we decided to get pregnant.
The pregnancy was fine and completely different from my two previous ones. However, I was petrified that the post-natal depression would hit me again. I was voicing my worries to midwives but they said it wasn’t certain it would happen again. Nobody offered any help so I was living with the anxiety that something bad would happen. There was also a factor of losing my child as the two previous pregnancies were endangered, meaning I almost miscarried early on. I was also a mature mum so I worried what might happen to my baby because of my age.
My pregnancy was full-term and I had a healthy little girl. However, after the delivery, I was voicing my worries that something was not quite right with me. I was not bouncing back and my belly was getting bigger instead of getting smaller. But I got told that it was normal that I would not heal the same way because I was almost in my 40s, so I got discharged home.
On day 8, I hemorrhaged. I went to the hospital and had blood transfusions. Imagine having a one week old child, having a labour induced on top of the cesarean scar to try to deliver the placenta. They don’t know how I survived. That trauma of a near-death experience and nearly losing my children left a huge wound in me. Depression hit straight away and my therapist later said that I probably suffered from PTSD.
I bonded with my child too much so I had trouble leaving her for even short periods of time. Normal day-to-day activities were non-existent because I was afraid that something would happen to me or to her if I leave. Separation was agonising and I was very low. All the drama with the hospital and procedure ripped me of time I should have spent with my partner, settling in and enjoying our baby. He had to go back to work so I was left all alone with a new baby and awful pain. I was on so many medications and had to do everything on my own. I was constantly in tears and feeling very low.
However, this time around, the midwives and healthcare professionals who were visiting me noticed I was in a bad state. One of the midwives made an appointment with the GP on my behalf as I was unable to do so. I don’t have good experiences with the NHS but I was lucky the appointment was made with a doctor who was brilliant. She went the extra mile, seeing me more often as she was very concerned about me. I was refusing medication at the beginning but I agreed to talking therapy. The doctor referred me to a wonderful charity called Mum’s Aid and there was a wonderful therapist who really connected with me. I had gone through a few other therapies in my life which didn't help but this one was really good.
Everything was fine until I had to go back to work when my daughter was 6 months old. I was only seeing my daughter 40 minutes in the morning and 40 minutes in the evening. I couldn't take it so I agreed to medication. However, about 5 weeks into the full-time job I almost drove into a tree deliberately. I managed to stop myself but from that moment I caved in to the illness and was signed off work. This was around the time my talking therapy was finishing but my therapist was very worried so she directed me to Art Therapy sessions.
I was very skeptical and thought it was nonsense. But there was also this fear, which I think every mother going through mental health issues experiences, that if I don't cooperate, my child may be taken away from me. For that reason I obliged and started to go to the sessions. I’m happy that I did because a few sessions in I felt a massive shift in my creativity and I’ve not stopped creating since then.
Could you share a bit about the inspiration behind the books you have written?
During the art sessions, I was encouraged by the facilitator to do a bit of artwork each day. So I started to reflect on how I felt and created images from it. I kept all this artwork based around my experience with postnatal depression and it was supposed to form my first book.
However, during this time I also had my first exhibition. Unfortunately, the UK went into lockdown only after a few days and the restrictions meant that the exhibition had to close and my Mum and best friend were not able to come over from Poland. But I felt I needed to share the experience with them. I thought about doing a video or virtual tour, but I didn’t think it would resonate with my mum the way that a book could. So when the lockdown was announced, I spent 72 hours pulling all the pieces and narratives together to form my first book ‘Mental Health in Pictures.’
The second book, which was supposed to be the first, is called ‘Notes from Postnatal Depression - Healing Through Art.’ This contains all the images I created during the early stages of my Art Therapy, with narratives and poems about the experience. It has an introduction with some academic insights into postnatal depression. I am very academic so I often explore topics that I experience to gain proper insight.
I also lost my Dad during the first lockdown. Losing someone is already traumatising, but not having the opportunity to say goodbye is beyond comprehension. So I wrote, illustrated and published ‘The Land of Eternal Hunts,’ which is a story for children. It is a reflection on life and getting older. I was trying to reflect what my Dad taught me during his life - that we are getting older but what happens in each moment is important. Although it is a sad topic, it is an affirmation of life.
Could you share some of the feedback you have received from your books?
The feedback blew me away. People say that my images really depict how they feel. Mental health is so abstract so finding words to describe it is very difficult. But we know people are very visual.
My process of creating is often intuitive. I usually don't have an established direction of what I’m going to create. I have a feeling and state of mind that worries me and I need to take it away. I often refer to the process as ‘trapping demons on the paper.’ So when it emerges and I put it on paper, not only do I have a form that I can grasp, but I can identify what the problem is and then I’m more likely to deal with it. It’s not a magical cure and my demons don’t disappear, but I gave them a voice so they can stop in my head.
People feedback that it resonates with them and reflects how they feel. The narratives that I provide with the pieces give a deeper meaning into it. People say “I’m feeling less alone when I look at your images because it really represents how I feel.” The feedback is overwhelming in a good sense.
I also find that art is a good starting point for meaningful conversations. People find images less threatening, even if they display a theme or topic that may be dark or worrying, it’s still an image. They don't even need to talk about the themes, they can discuss the colours or textures and then you can build a bridge into the theme itself. The conversation can be very meaningful because I'm not just telling you how I feel, you are looking at my representation of my feeling and you can also interpret it yourself and discuss it with me. For that reason, people welcome those images.
What lessons have you learnt from your artistic journey and practice?
The first painful lesson was brought to my attention by my therapist. For most of my life I didn’t create anything but now I create everyday, sometimes a few pieces a day. I spoke about it with my therapist and she said perhaps suppressing my creative urges for many years caused this - now it’s found a channel to get out and that’s why I'm so prolific.
So my first lesson is never try to suppress your creative urges.
Whatever form of expression, whether art, music or dance, it’s there for a purpose. It is there to help you deal with stressors or pressure. If you try to silence or trap your creativity, as I did, it’s likely to lead to a breakdown at some point. We need to talk about things that worry us. Some of us can talk verbally, but some of us use art and creative outlets to express ourselves.
When I started to practice art, I learned that as long as you don't create art for the purpose of it being a masterpiece sold in a gallery, you are your true self. I don’t sell a lot because my art is still controversial, it displays aspects that people are uncomfortable talking about. But I don’t care because I’m doing it for myself and for other people who could benefit from it. As long as there is at least one person who admires my art and finds it helpful, my purpose is met. Create for yourself. Create for your artistic voice to be heard.
Do you have any upcoming projects, exhibitions or events?
I am planning on having an exhibition that focuses on dealing with grief. It’s nature-based and inspired because my Dad was a nature lover. When I think about him I see trees and woods, which brings up memories of spending time with him in nature. The collection is called ‘Into the Woods,’ which I’m hoping to exhibit and then follow up with a book. I’m also working on another book for children about mental health but it’s still in the early stages.
I have also started to share the healing properties of art with another mental health artist based in Sweden. We run free workshops every month called 'Creative Release for Mental Wellness'. We present techniques that don’t require you to be an artist, you just have to be willing to get a bit messy and engage in the techniques. It’s going very well and we are hoping to publish a book together about these techniques that help to relieve stress and anxiety.
My most recent creation is ‘Oizys’, the goddess of grief, anxiety and depression. Her Latin name “Miseria” is where the modern term “misery” comes from. This emerged in a very intuitive way. I often just engage with a piece of paper and my resources and let it be, let it lead me. I was having a difficult time with a lot of sadness, stress and grief, trying my best to stay afloat. In one of the moments when I was just letting it all out, 'Oizys' was born. I started splashing ink and gold paint about and then started to see a face. I enhanced it and it merged. When things emerge like that there's something magical in it. I didn’t start with a direction, it just happened to be there. For that reason, I perceive art as magical.
See more of Dorota's work on instagram.