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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