I'm Using Painting as Therapy to Treat My Seasonal Affective Disorder

I'm Using Painting as Therapy to Treat My Seasonal Affective Disorder

Kenya Foy
Jan 7, 2017
(Image credit: Africa Studio/Shutterstock)

Kenya Foy is one of six people tracking their resolutions with Apartment Therapy in real time.

A few years ago, a particularly rough emotional patch forced me to face the fact that I become utterly depressed during the fall and winter seasons, a condition otherwise known as Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD. Just like the rest of the 10 million Americans who suffer from SAD every year, my mental state doesn't give a crap about the cooler temps, the beauty of multi-hued foliage, or how I can finally flaunt that leather jacket I bought during an off-season sale. I'm a Texas girl whose heart sings during those hot, steamy summers that make other people miserable. Pit stains, sweat moustaches and humidity hair? Bring it. Facing yet another round of gloomy wintry weather? Do not want.

The summer prep is simple enough for me: Drink water, apply sunscreen regularly, and avoid strenuous outdoor activity between noon and 3pm. But fall and winter are way more high-maintenance, and every year I have to think of new methods of coping with SAD for the times when my tried-and-true tools prove unsuccessful. So in the coming New Year, I am committed to trying to beat those winter blues off with a paint brush, starting in January 2017.

My History With Painting to Cope with SAD

My previous attempts at painting my way through a seasonal depressive episode taught me two things: One, I'm something like a Picasso —of stick figures, and two, I haven't ever really given my personal art therapy project a fair shake. The most recent time I tried to soothe my blues with a brush happened a few weeks ago when I sat down to recreate one of my vacation photos on canvas. The image was simple enough even for a shaky-handed novice such as myself. How complicated could an empty beach scene be? Combine a couple different shades of blue for the sky and sea and a brown shade diluted with white paint for sand—it didn't sound like the most labor-intensive undertaking, particularly for the invaluable reward it offered: a picturesque product of channeling feelings of deep-seated hopelessness and despair in a healthy way. Yay, painting!

Except... no. I abandoned it before the paint from my impostor artwork could dry because I was far too impatient and overly consumed with making sure the final result was frame-worthy, which was an obvious set up for failure (please see: my stick figure specialty).

But since I'm a stickler for making New Year's resolutions, I figure there's no better time to raise the bar on my self-care routine than when my spirit needs it the most.

Why I'm Taking This On

The short answer to why I'm participating in this challenge is because permanently relocating to an oceanside residence in San José del Cabo is not in my budget (yet). And even if I proceed with my plans to book an Airbnb pad in a warm, sunny oasis for a temporary escape from winter, I still have to come back home to the promise of arctic blasts, thick fog (mental and meteorological) and the overall ugh feeling that accompanies this weather, hanging on my shoulder and taunting me like a relentless pest.

"Past experience has shown me that facing my funk head-on and being proactive about how I deal with it is far more beneficial in the long run."

The long answer is because I don't have a choice but to do something about how I feel around this time of year. Whenever the inevitable despair starts to creep in, my instinct is to deny, suppress and ignore. But past experience has shown me that facing my funk head-on and being proactive about how I deal with it is far more beneficial in the long run. In previous years, I waited until I was so mentally exhausted that I couldn't manage myself in a healthy way. Before I sought counseling for depression, I resorted to drinking my way through the emptiness, lashing out at people around me because I still felt lonely and disconnected in their presence, and honestly, some of the time I have no idea how I made it through.

(Image credit: Aimée Mazzenga)

My Rules

Just paint something, for crying out loud! Seriously, that is my main rule. Pick up the brush, dip in the paint and let those feelings flourish on the canvas. The final piece doesn't have to look good (odds are it won't be hanging in the Louvre in my lifetime or anyone else's), and whatever winds up staring back at me doesn't even have to make sense. If it sounds like I'm telling myself and other SAD-afflicted individuals that what basically amounts to fancy, aimless doodling is a perfectly acceptable method of dealing with our winter blues, I absolutely am. My main intention is to take action before I get to a point of paralysis because that's extremely difficult to recover from, and sadly, for far too many people who deal with depression, bouncing back is literally impossible.

More specifically, I'm not committing to painting every single day in January, but I do fully intend to use the activity as a way to extract my feelings and manipulate them into something that I can view from another angle. Also, if I'm completely transparent, I plan to use painting as a distraction from the voice inside me that tells me I'm alone, I don't matter and that I shouldn't even bother trying to pull through. If I have to be tactical with my own my mind to keep myself on a positive trajectory, then so be it. Plus, I have some creative output to show for my efforts, so I'm determined to paint through the pain.

My final rule is to give myself credit for whatever I manage to produce, even if it's a dot in the middle of a blank canvas, which depending on how awful I'm feeling, might require monumental effort.

What I'm Expecting

People say artists create their best work in the midst of emotional turmoil, so I expect this resolution commitment to work in my favor because the miserable weather should provide plenty of artistic inspiration. I'm also hopeful that painting through the pain will spark other creative ideas and finally give me the much-needed motivation to explore other artistic endeavors I've been putting off, like writing a book, practicing photography, songwriting and taking voice lessons (watch out, Mariah Carey) (but, not really).

If I stick to my rules and take it easy on myself in the process, I expect to navigate the first month of the New Year with a lot more ease than I have in the past. I desperately want to be able to go about my daily business and not have my membership of the Get Shit Done club revoked because I can't, in fact, get shit done because the weather is draining the life out of me.

If I'm successful (and I shall be, dammit), I will feel wonderful and more empowered by staying focused and seeing this special form of seasonal self-care through at least the end of the month, even if the results aren't aesthetically pleasing. Right now, the weather outside is absolutely frightful and honestly, whatever I create can't possibly look any bleaker than that.

Kenya will be checking in mid-way through January, and again at the end of the month to share her journey with painting therapy. Until then, follow along with our other writers' resolutions.

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