CHWA Stories: Oriana White

How has engaging with arts/culture/heritage improved your life?

Through creativity we can begin to think differently.  Nurturing your soul through expression leads to a growth in confidence and wellbeing.

The nature of the arts and creativity - writing, theatre, film, painting, drawing and crafts have always been a way for me to feel safe and included.  Working in a group or alone, I was able to experience a deep connection and understanding of myself and the world around me through the experience of art. It gives me a sense of purpose.  Arts workshops enable us to connect with one another through the language of creativity and has no bounds, so even when there may be language barriers, we are still able to feel included and safe communicating in an art workshop.

We are able to build a resilience to life’s challenges. Creativity is a wonderful way to fight depression, anxiety and high levels of stress.  It allows us to be present and take notice of where we are on that day. As humans we are constantly shifting, our mind and body (physical and mental health) doesn’t always feel the same every day, so being able to have a space to be creative offers routine, structure and with this comes confidence that grows over time.  I enjoy being able to explore new techniques and express myself through art and poetry.  I found it difficult feeling silenced for so many years, so art gives me a voice that I may not otherwise be able to communicate.  Having sustained abuse and violent assaults due to domestic abuse and stalking, having a safe space has been so important to me.

Sometimes I forget to breathe or sustain a natural relaxed breath so being part of a creative arts and wellbeing workshop enables me to find some balance, breathe and tune in to my mind, body and spirit.

Part of life is to nurture our creative needs.  This has also become a coping mechanism and a self-soothing technique which has been extremely helpful during times of difficulty and now perhaps even more so with the Coronavirus lockdown. Though lockdown and isolation are not new to those of us living with long term health conditions – it has been extremely challenging. However, we have perhaps been better equipped through our own knowledge and expertise.

I was diagnosed with Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in 2016 having lived with the effects of trauma for many years. I’m not keen on labels, though, having a diagnosis enabled me to learn how to manage the experience I was living with.

I was already living with Crohn’s disease since I was in my late teens after becoming homeless as a teenager in London, which had a profound impact on my physical and mental health.  I had survived childhood trauma and navigated my way to safety so finding ways to work with my health conditions and manage everyday life became frightening and frustrating at times. I am not even sure I realised the struggle at the time, I was just going through the motions.

I would function for periods of time and have high paid jobs with huge responsibilities, but the long hours and travelling across London on transport further impacted on my health. I would join theatre groups, art workshops and writing courses to slow down and feel.  Healing isn’t linear so I would fall into crisis or need to be hospitalized due to Crohn’s related illness.  Crohn’s effects the body’s immune system. It is related to the gut and known as a IBD (Inflammatory Bowel Disease) it impacts your muscles, skin, eyes, joints leading to rheumatoid arthritis, and mental health.  More recently I have been diagnosed with Osteoarthritis.

Living with CPTSD is life changing without the other health conditions and this can be challenging. Years of hyperarousal to all my senses, sensitivity to my surroundings, dissociation, living in fear, difficulty to trust others with even the best intentions can be overwhelming and exhausting when you feel unsettled and on constant high alert. Stability, routine, sensory work and wellbeing are all key to continued recovery. 

The nature of my life long health conditions are invisible illnesses – until they aren’t. When I am physically challenged or mentally exhausted I often isolate from others and have found it difficult to mix or integrate socially. It leads to feelings of exclusion and further isolation.

Being able to be part of a creative arts workshop is so important to be well and to stay well.  To enable me to continue with my recovery journey, I found it important that I was able to stay in this environment.

Through my own lived and now academic experience, I have developed Trauma Informed Creative Arts for Wellbeing workshops. I found it so important to offer safe spaces for those living with long term health conditions to have a place to connect with themselves and others through creativity. Creativity for wellbeing workshops have enabled me to become unsilenced.

 

Why do you think that culture and creativity are important for wellbeing?

Recently I visited the Tate Modern with my step mum to see the Rodin exhibition – the first thing I said when we left the building was that my ‘soul felt content’, it was a natural response. It was like I could feel love in my heart. I felt rich from the experience – I immediately felt an urge to ‘do some art’ myself. Just by being in the art space I was nurturing my creative need. I was overwhelmed with the feeling of peace I felt.  There was an immediate calling from my spirit to the art space. It is a familiar atmosphere, location, smell and reached deep to my senses. Even though I don’t visit the Tate that often, even without covid lockdowns, you are immediately emerged in the cultural experience, the signals of art are around you. It is peaceful, a gentle murmur of voices, the occasional bleep from the cord that surrounds the art when your knee or shin bumps it, we become focused, we begin to think about the artist, the works, the display and we begin to ask new questions about art, the background and life of the artist, the time they lived in- you don’t have to be an expert in art to appreciate it.

We are sensory beings. Culture and creativity enables us to tap into our senses. It gives us time to breathe, to slow down and to focus our thoughts and mind. It is a distraction from our anxiety and stressful experiences; a welcomed distraction.

Whilst we are practicing creativity and calling to our senses to be in the creative space, we are not worrying, feeling anxious, confined or dissociated. It allows us to be in the moment.

 

What advice would you give to someone who might be nervous about getting involved in creative and cultural activities?

I would encourage everyone to be open to the possibilities. Let go of self-critical mind and have self-compassion. Allow yourself to embrace new memories, new ideas and they may even be inspired. There is no right or wrong way of being creative – you can be free to explore textures, colours and art mediums without judgement. Keep breathing and do what you feel able to do. Nothing is compulsory and you don’t have to have experience to get involved. Everyone starts somewhere.  Whenever you feel like your mind is wandering – bring yourself back to your breath. Stay connected to your body and breath – let go and submit yourself to the creative process – who knows what new adventures await you.

 

Biography

Oriana is a multidisciplined creative and works as an art for wellbeing tutor, writer, keynote speaker, drama practitioner, mentor, coach and film maker in London. Her practice focuses on trauma informed workshops in the arts enabling those living with long term health conditions to feel inspired, to find their voice through gentle guided art exercises.

Oriana was awarded with a high commendation by the festival of learning and is a learner ambassador. She has written for the Learning and Work Institute and is a keynote speaker.  She was invited to be on the panel at the EAEA final conference (European Association for the Education of Adults) in Brussels, 2018 and went on to hold a seminar to discuss Trauma and Safe Space solutions at Dublin University. Oriana has continued a relationship with the Trauma Stress Clinic (TSC) in London since her trauma treatment completion.

Oriana continues to work in mental health and wellbeing, arts and trauma education with adults. Oriana’s projects continues to grow organically enabling women only spaces.

Her foundation is still in progress as she navigates her way through the complex system of business while living with disabilities. Her aftercare service for trauma survivors ‘A New Dawn’ honors her mum with the name sake, who sadly took her life in 2008. She worked as an art director and art illustrator for many years during her own journey of recovery and addiction.

Read an article about Oriana's contribution at The EAEA in 2018 – IMPLOED Conference - Outreach, Empowerment and Diversity here  

Read a blog piece written by Oriana White  for the Learning and Work Institute here