Creativity as Survival

Creativity as survival

Second Story Dolls

–guest post by Nicole Wilkes Goldberg–


The Beginning…

In the summer of 2015 I was seven months pregnant with my fourth child. The pregnancy was considered moderately high-risk because my third child had been born premature and had multiple birth defects. Though my anxieties had been focused on the risks of my pregnancy, my stress was increased when my husband started getting sick. Initially, he had digestive issues, skin irritation, and trouble sleeping. He was anxious from work and over-stressed, but his symptoms were more severe than stress could explain. After our daughter was born in October, he could hardly sleep or eat, and he was mentally absent at home and struggling with everyday activities. One urgent care doctor told him, “you have a newborn; you’re stressed” and prescribed a hormonal anti-itch cream and sleep aid. He was itching so badly all over his body he used the whole tube of cream in a matter of days. He still could not sleep.

After about three months of chasing symptoms without a diagnosis, he became visibly jaundiced. His eyes were yellow and skin was sallow. Our primary care doctor ordered an ultrasound of his digestive system, suspecting gallbladder problems. He was scheduled for gallbladder surgery the Monday before Thanksgiving, a short procedure that usually only takes about thirty minutes. An hour and a half later, he was still in surgery. During the surgery to remove his gallbladder, the surgeon found a mass—a large tumor wrapped around his liver, pancreas, and hepatic portal vein. A biopsy revealed it was cancer. Because of the holiday, we were unsure whether the cancer was treatable or if the tumor would end his life within the next several months as the cancer slowly devoured his vital systems.

Fortunately, the tumor was found to be metastasized testicular cancer, which responds well to chemotherapy, rather than the chemo-resistant pancreatic cancer we had feared. My husband had undergone an orchiectomy in 2008 and had been clear for seven and a half years before the tumor began to grow. He was scheduled to start an intensive, four-cycle regimen of chemotherapy on a three week rotation. In his first week, he would get chemotherapy treatment every day for four to five hours. The other two weeks required a once-a-week treatment that would induce hallucinations and severe fevers.


“Caretaking is a lonely endeavor”

My oldest child was eleven. My sons were five and three, and my youngest was about two months old. My husband, who had been my partner and confidant, spent most of his time in treatment,  sleeping, or vomiting. He would try to engage in his work or family life, but he was too sick to be fully present. I continued to work, relying heavily on family, friends, and neighbors as much as I could.  However, caretaking is a lonely endeavor.  At the same time, my sister was out of state with her oldest son who had a failed transplant and was fighting for his life. Other problems plagued our families in 2016 from mental health crises to marriage dissolutions. My support system was strained.

After the fourth cycle of brutal chemotherapy, the oncologist nonchalantly met with my husband without looking at the results of the latest scan and left the country for a month, leaving us without direction or understanding of anything except the chemo hadn’t killed the tumor. A liver surgeon advised my husband to plan for the end of his life. We were discouraged but unwilling to accept this as the final say. Because my husband had family connections at MD Anderson in Houston, he turned to them. We were expecting an experienced surgeon to remove the tumor and a few weeks of recovery in Texas, but, instead, the oncologists in Houston drew up a five- to six-month even more intensive chemotherapy plan.

“Okay,” was all I could say when he called me from Houston after the appointment. After months of looking for an explanation for his illness and months of devastating treatments, I was not prepared for my husband to leave the state for half a year for even more brutal treatments. Our children were so young: the baby was still breastfeeding; our younger son would be starting preschool; our older son would be starting public school; and our oldest daughter would be starting junior high—all without him there. My heart and my will broke. I felt lost and hopeless.


“More than a distraction”

My dad and brother came over that night. My brother asked, “What are you doing for you?” I showed him some sewing projects I had done for my oldest daughter’s Monster High dolls. He said, “Do that. Do something creative.”

Creativity in process

During the most stressful, devastating time of my life, I discovered doll repainting as a creative outlet. I read every tutorial on repainting vinyl dolls I could find online. I watched numerous tutorials on YouTube about doll repainting. I collected images on Pinterest of other doll repaints to study the craft by experienced artists. My niece gave me her old Monster High dolls, and I bought some dolls on clearance to practice my new hobby. I bought supplies: watercolor pencils, chalk pastels, matte varnish spray, gloss varnish for eyes and lips, 100% acetone, and fabric remnants.

This was more than a distraction. I had always loved dolls and had hoped to keep and collect my childhood toys until they were given away, sold at garage sales, and broken by my brothers’ careless friends. I started a new collection in late high school and had continued collecting dolls until I was in graduate school. It wasn’t until years into our marriage that I started buying dolls again—this time as an artistic expression.


Tiny Details

After my teaching commitment ended in summer 2016, I packed up my four children and with the unending support of my mother-in-law drove across the country to be with my husband in Houston, Texas, for his treatment. Despite the limited space, I had packed up a handful of dolls and my inexpensive supplies, so I could begin my doll repainting adventure. My husband was in the hospital the first time I removed the factory paint from a doll’s face. He was going through apheresis to harvest stem cells the first time I learned to control a watercolor pencil on a tiny doll face to create an eye. He was being cared for by dedicated nurses the first time I sewed a simple black dress to drape over a doll to create a character.

Learning Creativity

My children, my mother-in-law, and I returned home for the start of the school year, and I continued repainting dolls. I was alone at home after my children went to bed. Instead of being held hostage by my stresses and worries, I found solace in the focused attention to detail of creating a realistic eye, even eyebrows, and full, expressive lips. Laying out tiny details had a way of consuming worries and easing anxieties. Sometimes I played music while repainting dolls; other times, I let the silence surround me. In those quiet moments, focused on my art, I felt a peace I hadn’t felt for more than a year.


The Second Story

After five months at MD Anderson and two stem cell transplants, my husband came back home, the tumor dead—no longer growing—but sicker and more worn down than most people survive. Even with the pain, exhaustion, and complications, he was immediately supportive of my repainted dolls, admiring every one of them and encouraging me in the hobby. He even came up with a name to use when I opened a shop and social media sites, Second Story Dolls. It felt appropriate. I was giving these dolls new stories and characters, yes. But, we also had a second story in our lives, one that survived a year of cancer treatments, loneliness, and heartbreak.
Even now, six years later, I find solace in creating new characters and new stories for old, used dolls. Allowing myself to “do something creative,” as my brother advised—despite facing the greatest challenge of our lives—provided the peace I needed then and still seek now.


For more about the value of Creative outlets and how to find your own check out the article on Creativity and Mental Health


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Creativity and Mental Health

Creative outlet--Glass Painting

Creativity and Mental Health


Humans as Creative Beings


Humans have never been the strongest hunters.  We have terrible natural camouflage.  We lack the brute strength of lions, the indestructibility of cockroaches, or the longevity of whales.  So why have we persisted as a species? Creativity.


Cave painting of hands, early human creativity

For every adaptation we lacked, creativity made up for it.  Our most ancient of ancestors were endowed by some form of imagination that tamed fire, invented tools, and sewed clothes.  They stamped their hands on cave walls and carved our likenesses out of stone as early as 30,000 years ago.  We have told stories around fires at night and buried our dead artistically since before we can collectively even conceive.


However, Creativity isn’t just about pleasure or performance.  It is a fundamental part of who we are.  We cannot ignore it anymore than we can ignore our hunger or need to move.


Creativity is also an essential part to a path of healing and wholeness.  I often tell my clients that if we can’t imagine, then we can’t imagine change.  If we can’t imagine a different world, then we can’t move toward it.

Why do we need a creative outlet?

Here is just a sampling of what we gain by being creative:

–Mindful Awareness

–Permission for our mind to drift

–Stretching the boundaries of what we are capable of

–Learning Flexibility

–Permission to let go of anxiety and perfectionism

— Gaining Mastery in a skill

–Observing your own learning and problem solving process

–A place to assert control, when everything seems out of control

Nicole Wilkes Goldberg writes about her experience in developing a creative outlet to cope with unimaginable life challenges.


So how can you foster creativity in your life?

We have gotten so consumed by consumption that many of us have forgotten how to be creative.  Creativity is not defined by what sells on Etsy, nor should it be your side hustle.  Finding your creative outlet(s) is something you do for yourself, and yourself alone.  It involves rejecting perfection and accepting mess, process and growth.  It is a lesson in humility that is not built on self-depreciation, but from a willingness to grow. A creative outlet can be just about anything that you are able lose yourself in. It doesn’t need expensive tools or a ton of time.


Several years ago, my oldest was a terrible napper.  We’d go on long walks to lull him to sleep in his stroller. I was then stuck on the porch, afraid to transfer him inside.  So I picked up his plastic Elmo Ukulele.  It sounded awful.  Honestly, so bad it was funny.  But it was fun, and silly, and hard.  I started downloading apps, eventually bought an actual instrument, and learned to jam for myself.  I’m still not great, but when I’m stressed it’s my go-to.  It hangs on my wall over my couch, ready for me to strum when I need to tune out the rest of the world for a while.  I walk away feeling far more refreshed than if I had spent the time doom-scrolling on my phone.


What are some examples of creative outlets?

The options for creativity are endless!  Here are some of the reflections of folks when I asked them about their creative outlets.


JW: “My creative outlet recently has been watercolor painting.  I’ll do paintings from trips I’ve gone on, or more recently I’ve started a series of paintings of leaves from native Utah tress as a way to get to know the trees around me”


KM: “I love performing in musical theater shows. The rush of working hard to learn lines, preform in front of a live audience and have them clap once you’ve done the best you can is one of the greatest feelings in the world. A similar feeling is performing in a wind ensemble but I find it more rewarding to sing/act because there’s no music blocking your vision of the audience 😉


MW: “I find water color the most relaxing or playing an instrument”


PA: “Freestyle dancing really lets me bust off the steam and the calories (haha)!  So I feel good about having danced to the music I like, and also gotten my fair share of exercise.  I feel light, energetic and happy afterwards”


NK: “I really enjoy running and playing violin.  I feel more calm and relaxed afterwards.  It’s also a great stress reliever”


RS: “I started working on stained glass and mosaics in 2020. I’ve always been artistic, and I was looking for a new and interesting hobby. I need to keep my hands busy. Otherwise, I tend to fall into unhealthy coping strategies (for example, binge eating, and mindlessly picking at my nails and skin).

I took a local stained glass workshop and instantly fell in love with the way I felt when I put together my very first stained glass sun catcher. Soon after, my husband bought me the necessary tools and I was able to set up a studio in my garage. I’ve made everything from simple sun catchers to advanced panels, pet portraits, and even a mosaic mailbox! When I work on glass, I feel like I am in my own world. I listen to music or a podcast, I’m able to relax, and I am able to take a break from the real world. This has been a healthy coping skill for me when I am feeling anxious or stressed, and I look forward to creating new pieces.”


VW: “My favorite creative outlet is playing the piano.  I get lost in the music–even if it’s working hard on one part and trying to get it just right.  I’ve found, however, that lots of day to day tasks can have that same relaxing, healing focus if I try to be very present in the moment.  Washing dishes if I’m concentrating on how good the warm water feels, how pretty the bubbles are, the satisfaction of changing a dirty dish into a clean one.  Playing with children, teaching, petting the dog, walking. The change is if I don’t try to multi-task but if I truly just enjoy the moment”


Close up of red leavesJR: “I often jokingly respond to people, “I don’t leave my camera at home because it gets lonely.” However, the truth is that I take my camera everywhere so that I can enjoy the differences in the monotony of each day. Every weekday, you will find me walking around with one huge dog named Moose, one camera, and one lens.

The lens I pick that morning restricts me on what kind of pictures I can shoot for the day. It can be a wide-angle lens, a manual focus lens, or maybe a macro lens to help me get very close to subjects. The gear of the day forces me to be vigilant on the walking path that Moose and I have walked on dozens of times. We are looking for interesting subjects, fantastic light, or great colors. In all honesty, today, we probably will not make any fantastic pictures. But, tomorrow we will choose another lens, leash up Moose, and walk another path.”


How can I find my own creative outlet?


Step 1: Reject perfection and embrace the process. Mistakes and mess are part of that process.


Step 2: Look back in your life to a moment when you may have felt more creative.

—Did you doodle in your notebooks?  Finger-paint as a Kindergartner?  Write poetry as an angsty teen?  Maybe you baked with a grandparent?

—Then ask yourself what did you feel like in those moments?  Were you able to immerse yourself in the moment?


Is there something you’ve always wanted to try?


Be creative

Step 3: Ask what has been stopping you?!

—Maybe you were afraid you didn’t have the time or talent.  If that’s the case, remember step 1!!

—Maybe you didn’t want to make the investment for an expensive “hobby” you won’t keep up?

If that’s the barrier, how can you scale it down?  It’s ok to use play-doh instead of sculpture clay.  Crayons are very underrated.  If you want to garden, use pots or tend to succulents on a desk?


Step 4: Just do it!  Shut up the inner critics for a bit.  Tell them they can take the afternoon off and you’ll pick them back up later.  For the next 30 mins just explore.  Let it be stupid or terrible.  Let it be fun.  Let it be weird or make you laugh. In the words of a certain Disney character “What if it didn’t need to be perfect?  It just needed to be?”


Still stuck?

Here are some places to get started!


Art Play by Marion Deuchars


Mo Willems Lunch Doodle Tutorials


The Usborne Complete Book of Art Ideas


Print off some free Mandala coloring sheet 


Pick a cookbook and cook your way through the recipes


Cut pictures out of magazines that “call” to you; glue them on a page either with a prompt (i.e. where am I today? thoughts about my future? My relationships) or no prompt at all.  Just play with the images.


Or head to your local craft store and peruse the shelves


Makeup, knitting, candle-making, doll make-overs, greeting cards, the possibilities are endless!


If it’s creative, it counts!


Take chances, make mistakes, and get messy!” – Ms Frizzle





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