Mental health, Creativity & the Crown Jewel with Harriet Robinson
Spotlight: Harriet Robinson
Welcome to the first Creativity Corner of 2023, featuring Harriet Robinson.
Harriet and I met ten years ago at her home (in Ca, at the time), where I attended my first ever Big Island Writing Retreat with Beth Bornstein Dunnington. Over the years, we’ve reunited for retreats at various locations. Harriet is an accomplished actor and writer, but only recently did I realize that she also paints. I can’t wait to share the important insights she has related to creativity, mental health, wellness, and coping.
Harriet and I spoke over Zoom last November. This is our conversation, edited for content and readability.
More About Harriet Robinson
Tracey: I didn’t know until recently that you paint. Have you always painted, or was it an outcropping of your other creative endeavors?
Harriet: I painted when I was very young. I remember doing a painting that my father thought was good enough to take to an artist that he knew for an opinion about my work. It was one painting in particular that he thought he saw something in. I think I did it when I was 13 years old. I never did anything in school with regard to art. It was mostly acting. That’s what I did professionally. But I rediscovered painting a couple of years ago.
I had been doodling hearts my whole life. It was something that came from the subconscious. I think lots of people doodle things that they like. It’s something your hand just does. I was at a friend’s house and I started painting and I painted a heart. Somebody saw it and said, “Wow, that’s really good.”
It made me feel good to paint. That was the first thing I noticed. Calm came over for me. I was relaxed. And so I started a habit again. I got some paints, some canvases, and I started painting regularly. Then, I started posting them online, and people liked them. At that point, I made a pact with myself that I would give away these hearts, because it was just before Covid. During Covid, people needed inspiration. Something about the hearts spoke to people. So I said, if anybody’s struggling, anybody’s ill, anything like that, especially mental health, but any physical elements as well, I’m just going give that person a heart.
Creativity as Prompt
Tracey: That was generous of you. Have you noticed that engaging in non-writing forms of creativity changes your relationship to writing in any way?
Harriet: Yes. It gets my mind in a different place. In other words, because I’m in a different creative space, I think differently and I see differently. And those things affect my writing. It’s opened up and now I think sometimes about my writing in a more colorful way, in a more visual way. Sometimes, if I see imagery, I can write directly from that. In a sense, it’s like a prompt, but without the words. I really love that. I think that the painting has definitely helped my writing.
Because I’m in a different creative space, I think differently and I see differently.“
Tracey: I love that, and I completely agree. I’ve experienced that with my writing, too. In large part, I think because I’ve had to confront my perfectionism. When I’m able to work on letting go in my art journal, I’m also able to let that go in my writing, at least a little bit.
Harriet: I feel the same way. There’s something when I paint. A different energy comes over me, and once I feel that energy it’s easier to put something on the canvas. It doesn’t have to be perfect.
Tracey: I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but it seems when we really sink into creating at a deep level we are expressing our being. That’s a whole different experience.
Harriet: And it flows. I get out of my head.
Tracey: You mentioned your parents, your dad specifically, when you were younger. I’m just curious to know if your parents were supportive and if you can expand on how that helped you have a creative lifestyle?
Harriet: I wouldn’t say they were supportive, but they didn’t get in the way either. I think they worried about what I would do after college. When I got my first couple of acting jobs, they were shocked. A bachelor of fine arts in acting, what the hell does that even mean? (laughs) I just plowed ahead. I never really thought about the rainy day or what if this doesn’t work out or anything like that. I was determined. They didn’t get in the way of it, but I wouldn’t say that they were jumping up and down.
Creativity for Coping
Tracey: This column is about the intersection of creativity and healing. How do you think writing about your difficult early family life has helped you? Can you say more about creativity related to that?
Harriet: I feel that writing about personal things, because it’s mostly satirical memoir that I write, has helped me in therapeutic ways. I wasn’t able to talk about a lot of things, and therapy only went so far. Somehow, the creative process of writing puts those experiences into a different context. Suddenly, for better or worse, the writing brings things back to life that you can then expel when you need to. Also, there’s something about using those experiences for creativity that transforms them into jewels in my crown rather than the trauma remaining stuck inside me.
The process of writing puts experiences into a different context, transforming them into jewels in my crown.”
Tracey: That’s fascinating. And it’s one of the reasons why I wanted to ask the question, because the healing aspect is different for everyone. Yet, the underpinning is the same. It’s the whole idea that bringing our life more into focus through the creative process, examining it more closely, we can change those old stories in ways that help us heal. To me, this is the crux of the matter. Is there more you can add to that?
Harriet: I think I can. Some things can hit a nerve for our family members, friends, or whomever we’re writing about. We’re sharing because we’re trying to work through something ourselves. The important thing to know is that their response is not about you, it’s about them.
Tracey: I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the shortcuts in language, the gaps in understanding. Or misunderstandings. They’re why communication is so tricky, because everybody makes their own story out of what they’re hearing, and often those stories have inaccuracies. That’s where conflict comes in. One of the things my creative practice helps me do is think about the gap between the stimulus and the reaction, which helps me remember if I’m having a big reaction, it is about me. Do you feel your creative practice has helped you work with this aspect of communication?
Harriet: No, to be honest with you. But the art aspect of it, the painting, I feel, is a secret place that I go where I can’t be judged. I’m realizing this just right now. I can be judged by what I perform and what I say. Somehow, my art is for me and that helps me.
It’s a purer expression. Writing is pure in a different way. It’s honest and it’s creative. But it’s not the same from the standpoint of feeling safe in what I paint. I feel like I’m in a bit of a bubble, a bit of a cocoon. I can’t be hurt.
Creativity and Mental Health
Tracey: That’s really interesting. One of the reasons I’m endeavoring to write my book is because I think judgment is killing people. Judgment is a reason we stay silent. Judgment is full of shame. One of the things I want to happen when my book comes out is to help people refrain from judging one another. It’s incredibly toxic.
Harriet: Very. And mental health in this country from insurance companies to doctors to family to friends, people are still afraid of coming out and saying, “I’m clinically depressed” or whatever. At 57 years old, I had an experience here in Colorado. It was after I left LA and came here, which after 21 years in LA, I think had something to do with it. Shock, a delayed reaction.
All of a sudden, I had a series of unfortunate events. And it was like a domino effect. I was very stressed out. It was like being on a train that was going too fast and it caught up with me. One day, I was in my house and out of the blue I had an allergic reaction to something. I got a rash all over me and I couldn’t breathe. I called the ambulance. My pulse rate was high. I thought I was going to die.
To make a long story short, they put me on prednisone. I didn’t react well to it, it seemed to exacerbate my racing heart and a whole series of events followed. My body was overtaken and I couldn’t beat it. I couldn’t put it down. It was like having a high fever and having no control over it.
The fear was so intense. I felt like my chemistry changed, including my brain chemistry. I had to deal with that, which I did. And you know, adopting two kids in midlife, I was 43 at the time and they both had some health issues. But I got through it. Then, all of this happened and I thought, I just can’t take one more thing.
I developed tachycardia and I couldn’t function. For five, six months, I was bedbound. I wouldn’t leave my house. I couldn’t take care of the kids, couldn’t do anything. My fear overtook everything. My fear was paramount. It was like something else was in the driver’s seat of my life. And if you allow your brain to do that, the brain is powerful. That’s what I learned about this. It’s powerful in a creative manner, and it’s powerful emotionally. I got extremely depressed and my anxiety was acute. It was palpable.
It sounds ridiculous now.
Tracey: No, it absolutely does not sound ridiculous. I have a daughter who struggles with depression and anxiety. I want to say, and I don’t want this to come across as combative because that isn’t how I mean it, but I bristle at the word “allow,” like “allowing your brain” to do something. This, to me, is a misnomer. Your brain and your body were reacting to a series of events. When you say, “if you allow your brain to” it sounds like you’re saying that if you were just a stronger person this would not have happened.
That’s not how it works. I’m so grateful that you’re sharing this experience. I get that people are afraid, because if we feel we can’t control our brain or our brain can do things without our “permission,” that’s scary. It could happen to anybody. Which, of course, it does. Every day.
If you could, tell us a little bit about the healing. How you got into healing and what part creativity played.
Harriet: The initial part of the process was trying to cope with the “new” me. It was like I was on another frequency and everybody else was over there and I was here. And I couldn’t get back. That was very, very frightening. It froze me. Then I realized, okay. There’s no way around this. I was getting into therapy and then I had to let the doctors intervene. I got medication. I had to deal with the depression and the acute anxiety because they were running the show.
I wrote a number of stories. I tried to have perspective, because without perspective I was having a hard time coming out of it. Finally, I started becoming a little removed from the incidents. I could then have perspective and that’s when my writing helped tremendously. It was the first creative aspect of myself that actually helped my mental health, because it distanced me from what happened and allowed me to have a sense of humor about it, reflect on it.
First, I had to get over the disassociation from my body, but once I got over that I started to come back down to earth. Then the creative aspects helped.
Writing was the first creative aspect of myself that actually helped my mental health.“
Tracey: You make another good point there. Many people walk around not realizing how dissociated they are. We don’t realize how unconsciously we move through our days. We’re not connected to our body, because we’ve not been taught how to do that or why it’s important. Connecting our brains back to our body with meditation, mindfulness, and creativity is healing.
When we’re in the flow of being, we’re not dissociated. It’s very confusing how to make the distinction with words, but you can feel the difference.
Harriet: That’s right. Your body feels different.
Tracey: This leads to my last question. I don’t normally ask people about their creative process, concretely. Can you share a little bit about what your process is like?
Harriet: I love good light and good space. The best room in my house has been my bedroom, because it’s up from the ground. I have a tremendous amount of light coming into the room. The flow was great and I felt positive, happy, good energy.
But recently, I decided the basement front room made more sense. It’s bigger, and I can make a mess without worrying. So I started painting down there. What was the question, again? (laughs)
Tracey: Process. Light is a big thing, which I totally get. Do you feel like you have to be in the mood to create or do you get in mood as you start?
Harriet: Both. If I’m in the mood, that’s best. I feel like something comes over me. It’s fun. It taps into the younger me. But there are other times when I feel I should paint. I might not be in the mood. I think it might not end up being good, but then I stop. I say, “Oh my god, I’m judging myself.” And, I haven’t even put brush to the canvas! I get down there and get to it. And sometimes, when I’m stressed or tense or upset, that can also be a good time to create.
There’s no bad time!
Harriet can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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I love this post, Tracey. Creating art is healing and inspiring. I absolutely LOVE Harriet’s hearts! OMG