Serena's Story - One drawing every day

"But they now have a new friend. Her name is gratitude."

Image with illustration of three butterflies

Journaling is a daily practice that I have committed to for years on end now. I have always loved the safe, familiar, and cathartic space it offers as part of my nightly routine. No matter how mundane or demanding my day has felt, it always leaves me feeling grounded. Winding down with a cup of tea, pen in hand, and a blank page to express my thoughts. When it comes to gratitude journaling, there isn’t much I haven’t tried. Whether it be listing a few dot points, dedicating passages to special people in my life, or engaging in more of a ‘stream of consciousness’ type approach. 

But it wasn’t until I came across this particular gratitude journal at Officeworks a few years back, that I really felt like I began to understand why gratitude is so highly regarded as a practice to improve mental wellness. I live in Australia, so for those of you who don’t know, Officeworks is a department store overflowing with cute office and art supplies. You know, the type of place where you walk in intending to buy a pencil sharpener and leave with at least five other things you are oh-so-convinced you cannot live without. Well, yeah, this gratitude journal was one of those things. Adorned in a natural material cover with gold detailing, this simple yet unique bullet-style journal prompts users to draw one thing they are grateful for each day. The only other guidance is two writing prompts: Listing your ‘Favourite part of the day’ and a ‘Daily Affirmation’. 

Looking back, I bought this gratitude journal at a time in my life when things were pretty swell. Sure, the university was stressful and I was not immune to the daily fluctuations in mood that arise from traffic rage, sibling quarrels, or the sting of rejection after a (seemingly promising) first date. So at this time, gratitude journaling served as nothing more than a fun outlet for me. Some weeks I’d make one or two entries. Other times, this dwindled to no more than three entries a month. My daily gratitude often depicted as a ray of warm sunshine on my skin. Or a fun hang out with a friend. Always a quick scribble. Always drawn in plain black pen.

But somewhere along the line, life got in the way. And like most of my impulsive department store purchases, this gratitude journal fell by the wayside. Gathering dust as the newest addition to a towering book stack of mine in a cupboard I rarely frequented. 

That was, until only a few months back, when I was admitted to hospital after experiencing a harrowing decline in my health at the tail end of an intrepid traveling experience in India. I won’t go into detail here, but in essence, the immense culture shock and unsanitary dining experiences of Northern India saw me enter the Australian healthcare system as an inpatient for the best part of 4 weeks. While the unfamiliar bugs of India had knocked my body (and poor little tummy) around physically, my mental health was what had really taken a hit. 

In the haze of packing my overnight duffle bag on the way to the emergency department, I chucked in the essentials. Pajamas, check. Toothbrush, check. And on a last-minute whim, I grabbed that faithful old gratitude journal and a packet of colored pencils. Perhaps to act as some kind of pacifier to what I could only imagine the boredom of spending days on end staring at the four blank clinical walls of a hospital bed would ensue. 

Terrified, alone, and unable to sleep due to the bustling nature of the emergency department I had found myself in, I pulled out my gratitude drawing journal in the hope of alleviating even 1% of the paralyzing anxiety I felt on the first night of my admission. I drew my first entry. A picture of a pink stuffed felt heart that a healthcare worker had offered me earlier that day during a moment of utter despair. I was told it was called a ‘pocket heart’. The intention is to keep it close by (ideally in my pocket, would you believe) and to give it a squeeze whenever I needed to be reminded of hope, love, or a little dose of encouragement that things would get better. My daily affirmation read: Accepting help is brave. Hold on. Trust the feeling will pass and you will get better. My favourite part of my day: Speaking to my best friend on Facetime. That night was the first time I filled my gratitude drawing with color. 

As the days rolled on during my admission saw me spend over a week in a general medicine ward before being transferred to a psychiatric inpatient stay, so too did my daily practice of gratitude. Battling with the depths (and I mean deep, dark depths) of depression, panic disorder, and a discombobulated mind from malnutrition (which I’d later come to learn was a tortuous case of ‘Minnesota Starvation Syndrome’).

I dug deep and committed to drawing one thing each day I was grateful for. Gone were my piddly entries of cheery coffee dates and afternoon beach walks. Instead, the pages of my journal quickly became filled with what I can only describe as the beautiful nuances of human empathy, kindness, and the healing properties of animals and nature. I drew about a nurse who taught me how to tie a basic macrame knot. A set of acrylic paints a distant friend delivered. A pleasant interaction with a doctor who took the time of day to look me in the eye, explain my treatment plan, and comfort me. A visit from my sister's puppy that made me smile for the first time in days. The vibrant colours of flowers I noticed on my walk around the block. The skyline view of my hometown city from my hospital room as I lay wide awake at night. Anticipating the fate that lay ahead of me in the vulnerable position that being a ‘mental health’ labelled inpatient subjects you to. 

As I sit here writing this, a mere two months since being discharged. I am still very much in the thick of learning the (frustrating) lesson that mental health recovery is a painstakingly slow process. It is full of ups, downs, twists, turns, setbacks. And it requires a level of self-compassion beyond what my naive little pre-travel mind could have ever imagined. 

But on a more positive note, it has taught me the potent ripple effect that daily gratitude drawing has had on my overall state of mind and sense of hope and well-being on even my most uncomfortable days. I’m no neuroscientist, but I am convinced that practising gratitude as a daily habit has helped to rewire my brain to notice and appreciate the good in my life, in real time. I now know that no matter how crappy, horrible, challenging, or downright painful a single day can feel. There is always hope. Always small pockets of joy. A silver lining. And that dark and light can actually coexist in a beautiful way. Translation: colour always exists, even in the most dimly lit spaces. 

Upon sharing this newfound gratitude drawing practice during a conversation with a friend recently, they asked: How do you find something to draw every single day? My response: If you dig deep, you can always find something. The way I see it, there is a very distinct turning point in my gratitude journaling journey. That being, the days before I used colour, and the days after I used colour to detail my daily thank you scribbles to all of the wonderful things the universe has to offer me. I’m not implying that you have to go through a dark night of the soul to tap into that same level of gratitude depth. But I will note that oftentimes, we humans don’t choose to marvel in the light until it becomes our only remedy to find the strength to move forward. 

In a year's time, there is a high likelihood that I’ll be feeling mentally stronger, be employed again, move out of my family home, and have a loving partner to call my own. But I am also aware that some of the beautiful places, people, or things that make me smile today may no longer be around. It’s a melancholic thought. But it acts as a reminder to lean into the good feelings. Even when it feels scary to admit that I have good stuff I could potentially lose. Especially because it feels scary that I have good stuff I can lose. 

As for that little pink pocket heart. It has now taken residence on my bedroom window seal. Albeit, a little scruffier than when I first received it (from one too many tight squeezes, if ya know what I mean). I want to end here by driving home the fact that this is not a heroine story. I don’t want you to walk away from reading this feeling like doing a single gratitude drawing each day was the answer to my prayers and I am now a wholly healed human. I am flawed. I have good days. Bad days, too. And a long way to go on my odyssey of recovery. Anxiety and depression are still very much a part of my everyday life. But they now have a new friend. Her name is gratitude. 

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