|Image from Lara Bardsley | Digging into the earth,
breathing into expansiveness. 2018, digital print.
When I finished my PhD, I fell into a hole, a descent that was unplanned, too long unwitnessed and incomprehensible for many (including myself), who expected the completion to come as a celebration.
I have been present to stories of suffering and transcendence in my twenty-two years as a psychologist and supervisor, but my PhD had offered me a unique experience: to turn my attention to my own stories and reflect upon them as an artist and researcher, using the language of film, life writing, photography and fine art.
Immersed as I was in the stories that emerged when I asked, “What does it mean to know who we are?” I did not expect that I would feel such a loss when it was over.
I delighted in the intimacy of the narratives I witnessed during my practice-led investigation, and the freedom to respond to them creatively. The narratives that emerged, most specifically my own, were painful but also clarifying and empowering. I encountered familial stories of loss, trauma, separation, suicide and genocide. I dug deeply, narrating as I went, forming and liberating stories that had been lost, overlooked or silenced. It was an honour to explore my ancestors’ stories, to trace the lives that had ended in the Jewish Holocaust, or were shaped irrevocably by the suffering and loss that it caused. Turning 50 during my PhD was a milestone that I gratefully celebrated. My mother had died when she was forty-nine, my grandmother, much younger. I first attempted a PhD fifteen years ago but I was ill-equipped to weather the storms that had emerged from my inner world. This time, I was nourished, not only by my life experience, personal work and relationships, but also by my supervisor who was willing to travel with me into the unknown, who respected and helped contain the practice-led process. My university and department offered me the financial opportunities to live, and helped me make a film and exhibit my work.
When I began my PhD, I was too ill to continue my role as a senior psychologist in a tertiary institution. Diagnosed with chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia and beset with chronic pain, I could not sit for long periods and travelling caused me to be overwhelmingly fatigued. My passion for human consciousness and transformation was undeterred, however, and I chose to undertake my research in a department that valued creativity, narrative, and the self-reflexive voice.
My home became a womb. I set up a standing desk overlooking my courtyard, where I placed a stone Buddha, the presence of which reminded me of stillness despite the wind whipped trees, rain, relentless heat or falling leaves. I worked when I could and rested when I needed to. I Skyped my supervisor fortnightly and gradually my health improved significantly, but not completely. I presented virtually at international conferences, welcomed opportunities to publish and engage with my academic community and I felt nourished. The flow of creative material that emerged during the investigation culminated in an art novel, a film, a myriad of creative works and an exhibition. The exegesis helped me find my academic voice. Then, suddenly, it was over.
I was overwhelmed by my fear of losing the net that had held me for the past years, providing the structure, containment, community and purpose. Into the spaciousness seeped the knowledge that I did not have the health to engage in a full-time academic career, nor to return to my role as a senior clinician. I had changed and the way I needed to engage with the world had been transformed.
In the past few months I have started a small private practice offering a safe space where therapists and other professionals can deepen their capacity to witness the stories of their clients and also reflect on their own narratives that inevitably shape their interactions as well. I wish to continue to research, publish and stay engaged in a global community of scholars.
If I could summarise the gift of my PhD experience, one I take with me into the void like a flame, it is the transformative power of witnessing our stories. Identifying mental illness is necessary; it can mobilize resources, make environments safer and destigmatise experience. What is also important is to remember that all human beings suffer at times, we are not necessarily “well” or “ill”; we all feel afraid, grieve, struggle to live up to expectations (most significantly our own) and, I believe, we all seek to be seen, to be enough, to be happy. In the rapid frame rate of twenty-first century living, to stop, to create space to compassionately witness each other, and ourselves, is not easy, but it may be the central way into our humanity.
This post originally appeared on the IABA SNS blog on 3 October 2018 and is reproduced here with their kind permission.
For the past 30 years she has pursued her interest in narratives of transformation through training in creative arts, Jungian and transpersonal psychology, Buddhism, meditation and mindfulness practice.
She is an exhibiting artist, filmmaker, published writer, practicing psychologist for 25 years and a registered supervisor of clinicians.
She has recently completed her PhD in Humanities, Creative Arts and English at La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia titled "Returning Home, a creative exploration of self". Lara has been awarded a 2018 Nancy Millis Medal. Lara's website is https://larabardsley.com