Way back in the 90s I was going through a tough time, finding myself getting severely depressed usually after Christmas and well into the New Year.

As a way to try to get to the bottom of this yearly decent into darkness I started to go to counselling sessions. The sessions were good, at times I felt like I had been run through a wringer our to the depth of emotions that were being exposed, but there was one problem.

My councillor named it one week as I was sitting there, she said, ‘Maria, you are a very articulate person, and you have told me so much, but I have yet to see you really engage with your feelings’. This was true, although it took me some soul searching to see it.

The stress I was feeling after a session was really more related to holding my feelings down, and not giving my emotions a true outlet. I could see just how exhausting this was, but how could I overcome my ‘logical and articulate’ brain, and allow the feelings to come to the surface?

My counsellor had an idea and suggested that I try using art as a means to an end. Each week I would sit on her floor with paint and canvas boards, and I would talk a little about something that was bothering me, and then start to paint.

Eyesight to the Blind

I painted in colours and shapes, and my feelings of hurt and anger all came bleeding out through the paint brush.

Because I was not engaging my ‘logical’ brain, it seemed to override the ‘safety brake’ in my head, and it opened the floodgates to both the feelings and emotions and to a deeper understanding of just why my depression was recurring. Each session I would paint 2 pieces, firstly a piece reflecting a negative event or emotion and then something more positive, based on a memory, or on what was currently happening in my life.

When I would leave the sessions, I still felt wrung out, but somehow lighter, as if expressing these ‘forbidden’ negative emotions was allowing in the sunshine.

I came to understand much during my time in counselling, and I found that the root of my depression and of other negative feelings lay far back in my past, I was carrying a lot of emotional baggage into my present. It was very scary to take out these events and emotions and look at them, but somehow when they were confronted they deflated and they didn’t take up so much of my being, leaving space for the good things to shine.  

I do think a lot of us struggle with negative emotions, we fear to give expression to hurt, anger and sadness preferring to bundle them away in an attempt to forget them. But they keep trying to explode into our consciousness, and it is truly exhausting to push them back down.

Today I still get that feeling of depression, particularly after Christmas, but now I understand the root of it, and I recognise the signs. I am kinder to myself then, sometimes I allow myself a few days just to sit with it, and then I proactively do the things that I know will help me to cope and get back to normal. Simple things, like taking a shower, changing the bedsheets, taking a walk, cooking a nice meal, and being creative! Creativity is key, it still helps me to express those thoughts and feelings that words just cannot convey, and it enables me to create beauty at a time when before there was only darkness.

Before you ask what happened to the paintings I did while in counselling, I brought all of them home with me and lived with them for a while, switching them out as I processed the emotions behind each one. Then one evening in the autumn I gathered up all of the darker pieces and ceremoniously set fire to each and every one of them, symbolically letting go of the past and moving forward on my journey. This is one of the few I kept over the years, and it always reminds me to be aware of my mood, and to keep on swimming, even when things are tough.