From Chaos to Catharsis: How my creativity gave me an emotional outlet
- March 01, 2022
Written by Celeste Josephine
In 1994 I was nine and living in a children’s hostel along with forty or so other children ranging in age from seven to eighteen. It was a religion-focused facility that provided stable housing and schooling for children who hadn’t had access to either for differing reasons. Some of the kids came from broken homes, some were from travelling carnivals and some had been in and out of the foster care system. My brother, sister and I fell into the latter category.
The hostel itself was split into male and female dormitories and split again into age groups. There was a big communal area between the dorms where we’d all eat our meals and do our nightly homework. It was quite strict and regimented; we had set times when a bell would ring to alert us that it was time to wake up, sleep, get ready for school, eat and do our homework.
Although this might sound quite cold and unpleasant, it was actually a settled time in my life, and I loved the routine after a chaotic and traumatic experience of life so far.
I have always struggled with my expressive and receptive language (although those closest to me will tell you they can’t shut me up!), and at that time in my life I felt I was living in a perpetual state of confusion. Words didn’t always make sense to me; people would talk too fast, and I would struggle to process what was being said. New or big words were hard for me to understand, and I’d often struggle to put them into context.
On the flip side, I had no idea how to express the enormous feelings swirling around inside of me. Trauma had made me feel the only way to be safe was to comply and not make a fuss. As time went on and adolescence loomed, this was a terrible combination and I started to act out at school. I was labelled stubborn, oppositional and difficult when really, I was incredibly anxious and trying to grasp some control in my life.
One day a social worker at the hostel suggested I try drawing. She gave me some lead pencils and some paper and told me to draw my feeling. Of course, my literal brain had absolutely no idea what she meant by that! How can you draw something so abstract? I could draw a chair or an apple but what did a feeling look like? I decided to assign each feeling a shape, so a triangle was anger, a circle was surprise, etc. I remember looking at the shapes and feeling so puzzled by the task, but at the same time something about shading each shape calmed me. I went on to start sketching other objects – animals, people, and the big gumtree that shaded the outside grassed area at the side of the hostel.
Fast-forward a turbulent ten or so years, my eldest had just been diagnosed Autistic (his two brothers would also be diagnosed in the years to come). I found myself frantically researching and trying to sift through a mountain of information. It seemed everyone had an opinion of what was best for my son, from therapies to parenting advice. It was exhausting. I was completing an art component as part of my degree at the time, and I decided to paint a portrait of my son for my creative submission.
Instead of using my usual lead pencils I decided to try acrylic paint. I had never worked with acrylic before or any paint for that matter. But I felt drawn to the vibrant colours (and my ADHD was craving a challenge!). As I painted and saw my precious son’s face take form, his deep hazel eyes looking back at me, I felt a wave of emotion and all the anxiety and uncertainty I was holding inside came tumbling out. The colours had captured his beautiful soul and inquisitive nature. It wasn’t perfect – the proportions were off and the colours weren’t realistic – but the imperfections were freeing.
I felt like I finally understood what the social worker had meant all those years ago when she suggested I paint my feelings. It was like I’d unlocked a beautiful form of expression without the pressure to use formal communication. I could say so much without saying a word!
Since then, I haven’t been able to stop creating. I love watercolour and splashy, vibrant acrylic paint. I love how every swirl and lick of paint tells a story and that story is different for each person. I absolutely love hearing that my art has evoked meaning or connection in others. And I love being able to share something that brings me so much joy.
Last year, I was diagnosed Autistic and ADHD and it felt like coming home. Everything fell into place and I am learning to love and embrace my neurodivergence. Part of that process of self-love and acceptance has come from connecting with my neurokin and feeling accepted within the neurodivergent community.
In recent years, I have had the wonderful opportunity of creating artwork for Reframing Autism and last year I teamed up with Reframing Autism’s CEO, Dr Melanie Heyworth, to illustrate her book Just Right For You, of which I am incredibly proud. Just Right For You is a story that offers a warm, optimistic way of introducing Autism to your child and embracing their differences.
I found the illustration process deeply healing and cathartic and I have to admit more than a few tears were shed thinking back to my own experiences as an Autistic child. I loved creating each character, with their unique and beautiful personalities. The friendly monster character acts as a safe presence to explore big feelings, something I wish I had growing up.
It means so much to me to be able to contribute to something that will help young Autistics embrace their neurodivergence and authentic Autistic selves.
These days, life is super busy but I try to carve out time to create and express. My sons love to create in their own ways too. They’re all gamers and they’re teaching me about a whole new world of online creativity. I absolutely love that creativity has no rules or constraints.
In a world that felt nonsensical I have found sense and expression in creativity, and I am truly grateful for that.
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