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  • Writer's pictureMichelle Carlos

Respect Your Brain

Updated: May 6, 2021

How mental health affects your productivity and personal relationships as an artist.

a girl with a floral wreathe sitting on top of piled luggages and looking through a pair of binoculars and a boy standing beside her reading a book
"Luggages" | Watercolor and digital collage | 2020

And the wall came crumbling down

One thing I have learned is not to write a blog in the midst of a breakdown. You will spill all the beans and expose the unpleasant grey matter that you will need to collect yourself with a dust pan or worse just hose down the drain. So I back tracked and waited a few more weeks to tell you why I was not producing any new art.

Yes, I experienced stress-induced breakdown from the unexpected logistical nightmare of moving from one country to another. It took us nearly a year in limbo and another three months to finally settle down in Dubai. You think by now I would be an expert living as an expat but no. You will definitely encounter challenges and they will be different in each country regardless of a global pandemic. Possessing a Philippine passport does not make it any easier either.

Apart from the obvious factors, I was also becoming frustrated about my budding career as an artist. Can you imagine changing your plans (if you planned at all) each time you move? I found myself longing for my independence particularly on the financial side. No self-respecting woman of this generation would be content in living under anyone’s wing. I know my abilities and potential and I needed badly to spread my wings. Having a restricted dependent visa limits greatly my earnings—if I was allowed to earn at all. The fours years I gave myself to return to art and creativity was over and it is time to work.

But how to find work as an artist?

Exactly. I needed to painstakingly find the work and all the activities related to our relocation were delaying my career prospects. Apparently there are plenty of jobs and room for artists if you will do your part in researching about what your future clients need and want and then sending out queries and your portfolio.

A woman gardening
"Vertical Garden" | Watercolor and digital collage | 2021

My anxiety level increased even more because I had zero creative ideas to populate my portfolio. I was itching to paint or create anything—just get back to my routine of making a piece or two a day. I needed art therapy badly. I managed to make a few pieces while hopping from one hotel to another but the quality of my pieces were declining. Also my online course had already begun and I needed full concentration and a lot of time. Time was meager and so were my ideas. Instead of making art, I was making appointments with real estate agents. Instead of looking for a job, I was looking for flats and furniture. Instead of researching about publishing houses, I was researching about all things related to living and renting in Dubai. This entire out of Africa ordeal had been dragging for more than a year already.

Nowadays people are locked down inside their homes. I, on the other hand, felt like I was plucked out of my cozy pot and shaken off of excess dirt, then forced into a new pot, buried in fresh soil and doused with water. In our case, nobody forced us to leave our home. It is the life we chose, right?

Just think about the people who are having worse living conditions, a good friend pointed out. Should I also be worrying about the state of the world? I am not Mother Theresa. Also should I delight on others’ suffering?

Take your place in the world and don't wallow in self-pity, another good friend said. Are my own concerns irrelevant? Sometimes friends say the wrong things when you just wanted them to listen.

How about my family back home? I haven't been contributing much since I left my country. Every corner I looked here in Dubai, I saw Filipinos all hard at work for their families while I was house hunting. An acid reflux of guilt traced my throat.

"My concerns have become domestic and first world."

As I retreated from everyone into my cave, all of these thoughts and worries pinned me to the ground. Actually I was literally sitting on the rim of the bath tub frozen like a Gothic gargoyle, my face all wet from fresh tears while staring at the bustling city life 16 floors below our new flat. "Time doesn't wait for anyone," I heard an echo in my ears. As I stared at the rushing flow of traffic over the Sheik Zayed Road, I repeated the words.

a mermaid relaxing in a bath tub surrounded by plants
"Mermaid Bath" | Watercolor and digital collage | 2021

You Matter

I plucked myself out of my misery and refreshed. I wore a red dress. I carried on fixing our new home by adding pops of colors and pots of plants. I continued with my new studio by arranging my beloved books and hanging my own artworks on the walls. I cooked, drank lots of tea and minded my nutrition and did yoga everyday for 10-15 minutes at least. I took walks and boat rides for the simple joys it brought me. Every chance I had, I read, scribbled or doodled. I welcomed my poor husband, who had been the first-hand witness to my emotional seizures, with a wide smile and open arms when he comes home at 9. I communicated my troubles to him in broken German. All the while I had a single thought: "With you happier, then there is one less miserable person in this planet." I reminded myself of my mantra: take things one day at a time.

an alien talking to an astronaut while drinking coffee on a park bench on the moon
"Space Coffee" | Watercolor and digital collage | 2021

"Give yourself permission to cry, scream, curse, or retreat from everyone else and don't apologize for it. It's alright to not be okay once in a while. Then come out when you're ready. Time does not wait for anyone. At some point you will need to catch up with life."

A week after my long-overdue melt down, I have participated in an online conference, written two and a half picture book stories, illustrated a few, completed rough sketches of a series of fine art paintings, reached out to my Mom and have suggested to my husband to invite people over to our new place for dinner. I still continued to exercise daily and explore this transient desert city. More importantly, I now have longer hours to spend in my studio. I will enjoy this place as much as I can.

"Thoughts of the Sea" | Watercolor and digital collage | 2021

The importance of a breakdown

According to psychologists, a breakdown is a bid to become healthy again. Our subconscious brains are too lazy to process trivial matters because our daily more important business must run as usual. And so when we ignore the symptoms and continue to show up all bright and shiny, these toxic elements build up until we could no longer contain the emotional burden and then we breakdown, which manifests in various ways such as depression, physical ailments, anxiety attacks, paranoia, dysfunctional body parts or suicidal thoughts. There are quick fixes such as a medication or a weekend getaway but then the root of the problem has not exactly been addressed or maybe even diagnosed properly.

After days of living in the dark, a recuperated Vincent van Gogh got up, walked around his sanctuary and saw the world in a new light. He painted the details he saw in moving colors in a way no one has ever expressed before his time. Of course we all know what became of him eventually but the point here is that there is in fact light after the dark tunnel if you take the steps to reach it. In special circumstances such as van Gogh's, finding one's genius might be the ultimate result or at least, a breakthrough in your process.

You can choose to get out of the slump if you recognize that your primal responsibility is to yourself. Never mind for the time being the society, which is also comprised of individuals who have their own concerns. The brutal truth is, except maybe for the most intimate relations, nobody really cares about you because everybody is also having a hard time. Doesn't that take off the pressure of conforming? However if you choose to remain in your catatonic depressive state, then you become an unmoving, unproductive rock that becomes a nuisance to everyone else. The intelligent choice is to heal and find the balance within by any proactive means necessary such as taking care of your health or doing little things that bring you joy. Recharge and reboot however long it takes. Of course if you or someone you know is experiencing serious clinical depression then it will be best to seek for professional help. The hardest part is taking the first step.

a girl with flowing hair made of foliage playing a piano
"Song for the Sea" | Watercolor and digital collage | 2021

As an introverted artist, who is also highly sensitive, I am like a sponge absorbing everything around me that either nurtures or debilitates my creativity. Moreover I constantly had to make an extra effort in dealing with my excessive emotions while minding the effects of my behavior to the next person, which could be all consuming and affecting my productivity. That precious head space as well as quiet time are all necessary in order to gather our thoughts and create from those ideas. The health of our brains and our overall well-being is our best ally to continue making art. Naturally every artist is different. Some thrive in agitation, while others in isolation. Now that I do recognize my personality, I could make others better understand why I am content to be solitary not because I dislike people but because I simply require my own space. Once creative introverts are all rested and ready, we emerge from our cocoons and show our fresh colors to the outside world until it is time to recharge again.

a girl running down a grassy hill
"Spring" | Watercolor and digital collage | 2021

"With you happier, then there is one less miserable person in this planet."


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