I was seven years old when I figured out what I wanted to do for a living. I had no idea what it was called but I knew how it worked. I was raised by a single mom. She was never married. She was a young, white woman birthing a mixed race child and everybody had an opinion. Many judged her, few helped. She returned to school when I was seven years old to become a medical secretary. She graduated and we were able to buy a car, for the first time ever, thanks to her new salary. The college kept sending her continuing education brochures and, one day, she registered for a Human Relations course.
My mother was very shy. She spent a great deal of time alone. She had been shamed for being an unwed mom and she carried this shame around her like a cloak. I was a typical child, oblivious to my mother’s plight. Within a few weeks, I could see a change in my mom. She would come home and ask me, “Anne, if you could be any dessert, what dessert would you be?” I was shocked by her questions and her enthusiasm. The type of dessert you picked described you as a person. My mother was jello, “super simple and transparent”, she revealed with a grin. As the weeks continued, mom told me about the friends she had made in this class. She shared what she was learning about herself. She dared to say no to my grandmother (no one said no to my grandmother). She made connections between her current life and her upbringing. All of this fascinated me. My mother was suddenly lit up from the inside. She was blooming. I wanted to be leading these workshops, revealing people for the beautiful gifts they were, inspiring them to lead exciting, full lives.
In grade 13, my guidance counsellor asked me what I wanted to do for a living. I told her about the workshops that changed my mother’s life and she quickly phoned Ottawa University to sign me up for the BA in Psychology program. In my last year of psychology, I participated in a Peer Mentoring program at the campus counselling centre. I met with first year students every week to help them with issues that were interfering with their academic success. It felt official. I had an office, a supervisor and “clients”. Each week, I met with the same students. I realized that office work was not for me. I wanted to promote mental health, to do something interactive. Weekly interventions felt like applying a temporary band-aid to make people feel better until our next appointment. There was an opportunity to stay on campus and work for the counselling centre the following year but I had a vision for my work and this wasn’t it.
I went to the University of Montreal for a one year graduate certificate program called Individualized Studies. I applied to the Mental Health Promotion program but, since all my electives were in the Creativity Program, I ended up with a dual specialization-Mental Health and Creativity. I knew that I wanted therapy to be interactive and impactful. I found a two year graduate program in Toronto. I had read so much about the dynamic approach of art therapy that I applied to the Toronto Art Therapy Institute program. I was never into visual arts preferring theatre, poetry and dance. I needed to complete a fine arts portfolio in order to get into the art therapy program. I spent a year in the Ottawa School of Arts’ Portfolio program. I loved learning how to sculpt in different mediums, hearing about art history and trying my hand at drawing and painting. I was never going to be the next Picasso but I enjoyed the classes and the artists who were my peers during that year. Next, I was off to Toronto to become an art therapist. I spent time in class, in practicum, completing assignments, going for weekly verbal and art therapy sessions, as well as group supervision while working enough hours to pay for my expenses and tuition. I met more fantastic people and thoroughly enjoyed my work during placements.
My thesis topic was, “How to Improve the Quality of Life of Older Adults Living in Long-Term Care through Art Therapy”. I was offered a job at the very facility where I had completed my practicum hours. I was overjoyed. I found a local supervision group. We met on a monthly basis. I loved my work. I was responsible for 40 residents on a locked dementia unit. I was so busy innovating and transforming the lives of these residents and their families that I almost didn’t notice myself burning out. Luckily, the facility’s administrator was married to the coordinator of a recreation program at the local college. He had heard about my work and offered me a job teaching part-time. The course was called, Recreation for Older Adults. What I was doing was not exactly recreation but, what led to my success as an art therapist on a locked unit could be taught to recreation students. Just like that, I transitioned from art therapist to college professor. I was given more and more courses until a full-time position opened up. I applied for it and started my career. I taught in the Recreation program for 12 years in total. The students were very energetic and outgoing, challenging me to be more extraverted and dynamic. In those twelve years, I met my husband, we bought a house, got married and had two children and four pets together.
After our second daughter was born, I knew I needed to make some changes. I loved teaching but the stress of my two competing roles-professor and mother, was wearing me down. I decided to leave my career and work from home as an art therapist. This was a challenging choice for my husband and I. We both grew up with poverty and my career was a source of stability through my pension and benefits. This was a huge risk. I received some money from the college and used it to build an art studio in a barn on our property. While the barn was being restored, I decided to write for the local paper, The North Grenville Newsletter. I picked an older adult from our community every month and interviewed him or her for an article in the paper. When the monthly newsletter became a weekly newspaper, The NG Times, I was hired as their head reporter. The barn build was taking forever but it didn’t matter because I was out interviewing business owners, participating in local events and meeting really interesting people from my community.
Meanwhile, my eldest daughter was being bullied. I tried everything I could think of to improve the situation but nothing worked. I could see the impact it was having on her and I chose to move her to a new school. I started volunteering in my daughter’s grade to teach prosocial skills to children. My thinking was that, if I could teach children how to be friends, how to manage their stress and how to express difficult emotions in a healthy way, the classrooms and schoolyards would be safer. My workshops brought students together for fun and collaboration. I saw this as an antidote to the cliques and competitiveness I had observed. I wrote a book called Have You Hugged Your Alien? for one of my workshops. I have since used that book with students, teachers, mental health professionals and parents to teach children how to express their anger, frustration and hurt in healthy ways. The popularity of this first book led to a second book, The Story of Poobum and Pompom, which helps children who are struggling with the birth of a younger sibling (something I experienced with my daughter).
Once my studio space was open, I left my position with the local newspaper. I worked in schools, offering my workshops during the day. Then, I worked with children and teenagers in my shop after school hours. I started support groups for women who were recently divorced, or had been sexually abused. I also had two opportunities to work with the Military Family Resource Centre supporting families where one partner was diagnosed with ptsd. I worked with partners at a retreat and then with entire families at a summer camp. I enjoyed using art to improve communication and teach specific skills to family members. I have built many partnerships over the years-people who contact me annually to participate in their events. My individual clients come from word of mouth. I meet with men, women and children.
I have spent over a year interviewing women from all walks of life about their experience of motherhood for my book, Out of the Mouths of Moms. This project has helped me focus my work on serving and supporting moms. I will use some of the proceeds to provide support for local moms. The priority of my business is now “Helping Moms Connect”. It has been such a rewarding journey so far and I can’t wait to see where this goes. Onwards and upwards.