Talk at OCDLA: Habit Reversal Therapy and Creativity

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With Elizabeth Kessel at OCDLA
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With two of the group participants from OCDLA – such a happy experience to meet others living with this disorder

IMG_0043 So I was privileged to meet a group of people currently in treatment with OCDLA. The group were a mix of those with Compulsive Skin Picking and Hair Pulling disorders. There was a small group in attendence, owing largely to Halloween commitments I think as much as anything else.

(Worth adding here that the Halloween celebrations are much bigger in US than in the UK, so much to my absolute delight, one of the women in the group arrived in full fancy dress as Batman, complete with mask! I think that might be a first for me – telling my story with a Batman in the room. That’s gotta be one to cross off the bucket list!!)

I knew this talk would be emotional for me – the largest concentrated group of people with the same disorder as me in one room! Extraordinary to have people nodding, smiling and being moved throughout my presentation. On their faces as I spoke I saw the recognition  and identification, the shared understanding, the shared pain and shame, the shared battle with a disorder many of those present have lived with since childhood, just like me! Some of the images in my talk clearly had a visceral effect, particularly the ones with latex being peeled away from my face, so It was valuable to speak about these with the group afterwards, to explain the artwork is very much my way of expressing how the disorder manifests itself for me.

I spoke for about an hour, sharing images as I had done at the other 5 talks, but this time, in close proximity to the group, I saw tears in the eyes of many as I spoke, and I too felt a huge swell of emotion towards the end of the talk. Once again I had the feeling that I am beyond lucky to experience and learn from so many here in LA. These individuals are able to work together to get better. The shame and isolation of Compulsive Skin Picking means that very few ever get treatment, or get treatment long after the symptoms and challenges of the disorder are fully embedded into their lives. It felt very powerful to meet people on their journeys through to health, supported by fellow sufferers in a safe environment, a collective experience of healing.

The conversations that followed my presentation revolved largely around the Habit Reversal Therapy (HRT) the group are working with at OCDLA to help shift the repetitive physicality of this illness. I never had formal treatment for Compulsive Skin Picking myself, but it has become abundantly clear that in my art practice, the repetition of touch and motion in the process I make my artwork, exactly mirrors the process of HRT. I talked a lot about the final slide in the series which is a close up of my fingers drawing with charcoal. The image holds enormous resonance for me as the fingers are in the position I associate with picking, primed and charged – but holding charcoal and making a mark outside of my body. The group really responded to this, we talked a lot about writing, needlework, drawing – other creative outlets that required the materials in our hands, directly with our fingers. A new way to engage our hands with something similar but painless. I also shared my experience of the parallel at work ‘in the moment’ with skin picking and art practice. The ‘zoning-out’ which is a familiar experience to a skin picker or hair puller – happens for me in the art studio when I am fully engaged in the act of making. It’s this that I have found to be the most remarkable shift in my journey to recovery, as for the first time, making art, began to provide a very similar pattern in terms of action and ‘zoning-out’, losing track of time when fully engaged moment to moment.

One young woman asked lots of questions about my creative process and clearly had her own tools to use when she explained she was an actress and writer, but she was struggling with the process of writing and the pressure she puts on herself to produce something of quality. We talked about perfectionism in the illness and how this might mirror her creative process. I talked about the phrase by John Cage ‘ BEGIN ANYWHERE’ and how I have it pinned up in the studio as a reminder that it’s ok to just start somewhere and to not feel too tense about making something ‘amazing’. All we need to do is show up at the page and allow the act of making to guide us. What are the individual things that drive each person? One mentioned gardening or tidying her home, another laughed about cleaning the house. A way to keep pesky fingers busy, but moreover a way to occupy our minds in the moment.

I found these conversations to be so rich and positive and I got the feeling other participants at the group did too

At end end of my presentation, I left with a number of the group, and got chatting in a nearby coffee shop to two participants. One of the women told me how her life had been dominated by the illness, and even now in her 60s she was wearing long sleeves and a long skirt to cover the wounds and marks. We cried together as we identified these feelings, but I hope that I was able to share hope and a way for her to investigate other ways of expression. She told me quietly that she writes poetry, and we agreed that this might be her way to start to get the illness into other mediums. Although it was emotional, I found our connection very powerful and I left full of hope that she might be able to channel the feelings into something for herself, just as I did with art.

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