This is the story of how I made it through the worst of the pandemic with the help of a tiny pair of scissors.
I had a disordered childhood. A lot of things were unpredictable. Some of the adults around me had unpleasant temperaments. Some were unavoidably busy and others too self-involved. I remember that there were only two things guaranteed to go down like clockwork in my home: volatile arguments and vindictive gossip.
My way of dealing with both was making things. In a way, I was crafting my own oasis with my imagination. Creating kept me distracted. It afforded me some separation from the mayhem, and it helped me cope with the stress. While I was in maker mode, I remained out of the line of fire and things appeared pleasant enough.
I drew and cut, painted, and built artifacts at all hours of the day. I was constantly on the hunt for materials: used boxes, plastic bags, bobby pins, rubber bands, drinking straws, nail polish, twine, clothespins, or tape. I saw potential in every scrap of rubbish and my pockets were always full. Scissors in hand and with a hunger for discovery, I had purpose.
I still got in trouble at times for giving my dolls “make overs” consisting of black marker tattoos and weird haircuts. Or for dipping into my mother’s drawer and cutting up her best pair of stockings to fill them with rice and cotton balls (don’t ask me what I was trying to make, but it was fun). Plastic bag parachutes and cardboard pinball machines were my masterpieces. I stashed plasticine flowers, tiny paper furniture, newspaper masks and notecards for my school mates under my bed. If my hands were busy cutting and folding paper, tying yarn, and bending wire, I was doing alright.
I was still a teen during my first two years of college, and the time spent in class afforded me a little respite from the friction at home. I was, for the first time ever, allowed to venture outside on my own and I managed to make a few friends. I loved learning and I thought my path was showing itself more clearly then: I would become an artist. A professional maker of beautiful and meaningful things.
Still, hostilities at home were worse than ever before and I did not know how to manage my anxiety. I would leave the apartment and wander around the city for hours, sometimes showing up uninvited to a friend’s house to kill some time before returning home. It was no longer enough just staying on the sidelines by crafting or drawing. There were no sidelines. The whole house was a combat zone, and I was by now digging my heels and fighting back as any teenager would, though with little success. I was like a lab rat: constantly on alert, constantly looking for the exit and afraid of the next jolt.
In the end, I bolted as soon as it became feasible.
At the time, I thought about my new situation as an adventure, a journey full of possibilities and excitement. I was, in my mind, the protagonist of my own movie and everything was going to be ok. In actuality, I felt cornered and frustrated so I headed for the first available exit although I was not remotely ready to face the world on my own. The driving force behind my escape was the need to find a replacement home that would give me some sense of protection and safety. I just went about it in the most naïve and self-destructive of ways: I handed my power to strangers who did not have my best interest at heart. I relinquished control and squandered my potential as an artist and as an individual. I got lost.
I stayed in college for a couple of additional semesters after my departure but, before long, I dropped out and began to drift. Not yet a fully formed adult when I had left home, navigating the outside world without a roadmap turned out to be trickier than I had anticipated.
Life soon became even more disjointed and difficult than before. A career as an artist seemed like a mirage. Going back home was an admission of defeat and I refused to do that. I thought myself an utter failure and I spiraled down into depression. Overcome by dark moods, I couldn’t find refuge in making things anymore. This was real life now, and playing was not allowed, so, for years, I shouldered my responsibilities the best way I could. I struggled in every way and never found that home that I was so keenly looking for.
Time has a way of passing without making any noise. It nudges you forward without even feeling it. After a couple of decades, I had no expectations of ever being anything else than a drifting island. Untethered, unseen, unnoticed. The fear made me numb.
One day, I was looking for some school supplies to help my child with homework. In a junk drawer, among crumpled up receipts and dried up pens, I found a pair of small scissors. This simple household tool, this unassuming instrument, turned out to be the very thing that would keep me afloat from then on.
Without conscious effort, without a plan for recovery, I started cutting shapes out of construction paper. I would cut circles mostly, and focusing on moving my hands settled me instantly. It was effortless. I could have done it with my eyes closed. I suppose that I was mentally revisiting all those afternoons I would spend sitting on the floor making things and constructing my little refuge. Unexpectedly, the past had taken on a more benign feel. It was now “the good old days” although I rationally understood it still remained anything but.
I then started making little collages. Sometimes they would appear in front of me almost made, finished among the superimposed cut outs. Shy, tiny things that meant nothing to anyone else but me. Collage was welcoming. It was a grown-up version of my childhood creations. Collage seemed to be waiting for me like a faithful friend I hadn’t seen for a long time. These diminutive collages embraced me. They did not care about my long absence. They let me start all over, no questions asked.
Collage slowly carved itself a space in my life without judging me and without asking much in return. Soon, I became reliant on collage to placate my anxiety, and to get through the challenges that life had hurled my way, which were many more than I could have anticipated.
I must concede that collage does not magically erase my unhappiness. It doesn’t wipe the slate clean of the hardships, but it still is a gentler way of unpacking the suffering. It deconstructs it in ways that I can understand. Collage is a method of reassessment. A creative way of being kind to myself, which is a skill I was never taught growing up. It has turned out to be a way of finding self-compassion.
During 2020, the first year of Covid 19, collage took on an even more essential role. While I always felt somewhat on the fringes of life and I was an inveterate introvert by nature, the isolation hit me hard. Having collage as an outlet saved my sanity.
I am not being hyperbolic. Creativity is a bona fide way of alleviating pain. In fact, many studies show that creative activity dispels rumination, which is a whirlpool of destructive and self-sabotaging thoughts. No matter the magnitude of your fears or the intensity of your worries, research shows quite definitely that engaging in creativity allows you to better mitigate their effects. It helps you process the pain, physical or mental, in ways that no other endeavor accomplishes.
That’s when tiny scissors came to the rescue once again, bringing with them a measure of calm and security.
Because of my CPTSD, getting out of my head is critical to my recovery. When Covid upended my daily routine, I went into my mind, and I found myself witnessing a terrifying carousel of scary thoughts. Collage was able to diminish my tendency to catastrophize because it requires concentration and redirects imagination outwards. The tiny scissors not only cut paper, but they also sever the reel of depressing thoughts in my head. Collage creates a sanctuary, and I can refurbish my mind with more playful and gentle thoughts.
I’m still holding onto those scissors with a death grip, lest my mind starts playing tricks on itself. I remember that truism “don’t believe everything you think”, which could not be more suitable in my case.
When people ask me about my collages and where they come from, it is tricky for me to encapsulate a lifetime of struggle, learning and setbacks in a few snappy sentences. Collage remains the most useful tool in my arsenal of coping mechanisms, and scissors will remain my secret weapon against sadness and painful memories. Why not give them a try yourself? You have nothing to lose and lots to gain.
Get your hands on some paper, some magazines and scissors, and just go for it. There has never been a better time to try. You might find many interesting things about yourself in the process. I wish you luck and peace of mind!