The Secular Power of Coloring Books

Recently, I told a friend to buy some coloring books. Even to me it seems like an out-of-the-blue suggestion, and after I commented on her Facebook post I felt a little idiotic. Who tells a grown woman in a stressful, chaotic time of her life to buy a coloring book?

Me, apparently.

We had chatted earlier about writing, as she is a writer and a full-time caretaker who was worried about not having the energy to write. My responses mostly consisted of kind, empathetic remarks like “are you fucking kidding me? Of course you don’t have the energy to write! What the hell are you thinking??!??!?!”

By the time I got around to making a comment on her post, I realized I needed to be proactive and suggest actual solutions to the problem, as opposed to mere kind, empathetic remarks. So: coloring books.

Coloring books for caretakers. It should be a thing.

Especially for atheist/non-deist caretakers.

My own grieving was highly affected by the fact that I was the full time caretaker for both of my parents as they died. It was only about three and a half years, all told, but it was pretty traumatic. In fact, my therapist suggested that my PTSD and dissociation disorder stemmed more from those years than the actual deaths of my parents.

The literature on full time care-taking is pretty robust these days, and most of it confirms what someone like me already knows: it is catastrophic for our mental health. It is stressful both physically and emotionally. It is a financial strain, it is lonely, and it is depressing. And there I was, in the thick of it, basically alone.*

Again, and as usual, atheists and other non-deists usually have the double hit of not only being full-time caretakers, but not having a built-in support network that religious communities often provide. It’s not true that every church “family” helps their brethren, of course, nor is it uncommon from even the most devout person to insulate themselves from their communities of choice during times of extreme stress. They do, however, have the fallback of prayer and believing that they are being “helped by God” through times of stress, and we can belittle that all we want from a skeptical perspective but they find emotional solace in doing so. Hence the old saw, “no atheists in a foxhole” as most people think that a high-stress environment will inevitably lead to prayer as a coping mechanism, no matter how many of us claim otherwise.

Anyway, there was me, deep in the foxhole of in my early 20s with two dying parents and feeling like my own life was over.

Most things related to “having a life” were beyond me, and I am grateful I did not have to hold down any kind of employment or work on a higher education degree. I had my bachelor’s and my parents had my father’s retirement income, and that at least held us up so I could stay home full time. I call them the “house wife years” because while I was the daughter, I was totally married to that house.

But most of those memories are a blur. I was too exhausted to write or draw regularly, if much at all. I watched a lot of vacuous television, and late at night when my parents were asleep I would sneak out of the house like a teenager and go dance (but not drink) at nightclubs. It was my one of my only escapes.

The other was coloring books.

My mother had picked up the “adult coloring book” habit years before. I still remember the main book she used, it was a very thick book of mandalas, and she never finished it (I mean, it had like 100 pages of mandalas you could color, over 200 drawings). She would retire to coloring books during downward slides of her bi-polar cycles, when she still had enough energy and brain power to be bored but not enough to get involved in projects.

I picked up a copy of the same book when I moved home to take care of my parents (adult coloring books were rare, and variety a pipe dream), and while it was not a constant companion, I remember many mornings and afternoons where I would doodle out colors between the lines, feeling free in the choice of colored pencils and yet not stressed by the requirement of intense creative effort. It was a way to reconnect with myself without stressing about productivity, because there is something about the restrictions of the lines that allows for the colorist to focus on one simple task to the exclusion of other things, but it is not so monotonous as to become taxing.

Coloring books exist on that fine line between drudgery and creativity. Coloring in the lines gives me structure and security while allowing me to flirt with the edges of my imagination. It relieves me of the burden of accountability for my output. That, of course, is usually exactly what a creative person – writer, artist, musician – aims for, not avoids. We strive to produce in some form or another, even if what we produce is practicing our skills. “Write/draw/play every day!” is the mantra, with an assumption of progression behind it: do the thing, every day, responsibly and with dedication, so you can get better at the thing.

On the other hand, I’ve found that coloring in a coloring book is meditative in practice. Or, in lay terms: you zone out. The restrictions of “produce and progress” are lifted and I’m left only with the interaction between myself and the materials (pencils, pens, paper, design). This is a mini-satori in a way, a short brush with enlightenment that cannot be sustained, its value derived from the experience.

I needed those moments desperately. Alone in my own head I could easily drive myself crazy with worry, fear, frustration and exhaustion. Coloring was a way to “get out” of my misery and fear in a creative but not oppressive way.

We need more examples like this for atheist/non-deist care-takers, tools they can use that are not dependent on supernatural or paranormal validation. Care-taking is, in the vernacular, a “soul sucking” job, no matter how much you love the person you are taking care of. It’s a thankless task and very little makes up for the frustration, fear, worry, and exhaustion. As atheists and non-deists, we need to be providing answers to these kinds of dilemmas. Coloring books are an example of a secular tool that can be accessed across cultural, social, and economic lines to help people when they are emotionally burdened or compromised.

All power to the coloring books.


*Ironically, during the time I was a care-taker I was involved in the Episcopal Church. Or, at least, I was trying to be. As I’ve written before, it was more a “going through the motions” thing and not something I got any emotional benefit from. Even when I tried prayer, it didn’t do anything to change my situation (no surprise there) or how I felt about my situation. Neither was there a lot of church outreach to my family, certainly not enough to counter the incredible trauma we were going through, and in general we tended to rebuff people who got too close. We were loners by default, a family unit of three iconoclastic introverts who were, at best, agnostic.


Doctors and Grief

At Florida State University, there was a project that went on for a few years but seems to have dropped off called HEAL: Humanism Evolving through Arts and Literature. It was headed by a doctor out of the medical college. It’s mission statement is pretty profound:

HEAL acts as a platform where medical students share their growth and development, where faculty and staff impart their knowledge gained from experience, and where members of the community express how health and healing have impacted their lives, so that when viewed together, they may promote humanism.

HEAL has put together several journals worth of works, literary and artistic, by contributors who have written about their experiences both with the healing process, and the more grim process of dying. These are never easy subjects to broach in any medium, but the humanist approach (as opposed to the scientific one) that HEAL promoted is particularly fraught with emotions.

But that is the whole point.

It’s a beautiful, necessary thing for medical students, many of whom will go on to be medical practitioners with patients of their own eventually. The doctors I dealt with were all good practitioners and good people, but their jobs give them so much exposure to pain, suffering and death that their own coping mechanisms were broken.

My mother’s primary physician, particularly, made things difficult by refusing to let go. He loved Mother and had treated her for over ten years. The oncologist was pretty clear that Mother was going into failure, but the primary doctor, a hardworking and compassionate man, could not see what was in front of his face. He was grieving and in denial, acknowledging that her liver was failing and that she was rife with malignant tumors but simply unable to allow Poppa to “call it,” despite him having power of attorney and a copy of Mother’s living will on file.

I don’t know if a program like HEAL would have made the doctor’s reactions any different; maybe not. But it highlighted for me the emotional toll that being a doctor can have. I wish there were a lot more programs and outreach for doctors and nurses and other caregivers. There are some, I know that; but certainly not enough.


Meet Choco.

Choco the plushie totem

That’s short for “Chocolate”. A sophisticated piece of work, is our dear Choco; I made him when I was five, maybe. Really I don’t know for sure, and I certainly don’t remember doing it.

Like so many other projects I fumbled through as a girl, Choco became a fixture of our holiday trimmings, just one of many mutant plushies who kept the tree company until Santa showed up. I didn’t think much about him; he was another lame curiosity from my youth that Mother insisted upon clinging to. That is a parent’s prerogative, so I resigned myself to Choco’s annual appearance.

Then, Mother developed cancer.

I can’t say “she got sick” because heavens almighty, that woman was always sick. Born a century earlier, my mother would not have made it past thirty years old. In the end, though, one of her sicknesses was worse than the others, and so cancer killed her. Before that happened, there was a year and a half of bitter struggles, messy medical treatments, messier symptoms, and Choco.

Her last holiday season (1993), she pulled Choco out from the plushie menagerie under the tree and placed him on her bedside table, and there he stayed until her forever.

Mother was childish in a lot of ways, but I don’t put her affection for Choco in that bucket. Truth be told, though, I don’t know what he meant to her outside of the obvious, sentimental value. Lost youth? Her identity as a mother? A time of hope and optimism? Perhaps he represented something more grim, such as death or futility. Or maybe she just thought he was funny looking, and made her smile. I don’t know.

I don’t know because (like most of the important stuff), we never talked about he meant. However, I can tell you what Choco actually was, no matter the meaning behind it: Mother’s totem.

The official definition of a totem is an animalistic spirit that represents a group of people, such as a family or tribe. Over time that meaning has drifted (especially in the New Age crowd that Mother associated with) to become a representation of a person’s inner spirit, or in some cases their spiritual guide. I’m not claiming such esteem for Choco, who is about as animalistic as a rock. In some ways, though, he took on a similar spiritual significance.  He watched over Mother when I couldn’t, at night or in hospital; he was the holder of secrets and fears she could not share with me; he held some part of her in thrall, as guardian and confessor and friend.

Now, he sits on my bedroom chest of drawers like a sentinel to her memory.

For a long time, his presence bothered me, but I was helpless to relegate him back to the holiday decorations box. There was no question that throwing him away was not an option, because as mother’s totem, he symbolizes her very spirit. That was the source of my discomfort, actually: the idea that I was not moving on within acceptable parameters by not letting go of the silly, meaningless toy.

As mourners, we are often told by well-meaning friends and family to “let it go” or “move on,” but as advice it is lacking in specifics. What do we let go of? Memories? Things? Emotions? In that ambiguity I decided I was a failure for clinging to Choco. Wasn’t I supposed to “let go” and put him away? I began to feel like it was more childish of me to hold on to Choco than it was for Mother to do so.

But Mother did hold him, and looked for him, and needed him. He became an extension of her, during those dark, deadly times, and in the end he became the bridge over the impossible divide between me and my dead mother. Whatever he truly represented to Mother, he was precious to her, and that simply makes him precious to me. I’m okay with that.

Caretaking is Surreal

A friend recently wrote in her journal about having to take time off to be a temporary caretaker for her partner, who had not-minor surgery on his shoulder. I sympathized with her experiences, but she was careful to point out that the few weeks she spent caretaking in no way compared to the years I devoted to helping my parents die.

I disagree.

Caretaking for long periods of time is different, sure; and the cumulative effects of the stress is severe. No argument.

But I think any time you take responsibility for the life of someone who is physically or mentally unable to tend to their own needs, you slip into a surreal world of suspended priorities. In my book Grieving Futures I talk about “The Miserable Tolerance,” the point at which everything flattens out into two dimensions of importance: what needs to be done now, and what needs to be done later.

In that strange place, the caretaker’s next coffee is as important as the next feeding or wound care session or medicine dose: everything is so damn important that it becomes impossible to give weight to anything. It’s a blur of exhaustion and desperation. Sleep is planned for but rarely truly achieved. Worse, outside of the bubble, the world continues on without noticing.

It’s that part which causes the most dysfunction, even for short term care-takers. Life — your job, your social life, your car repairs — continues on as if nothing cataclysmic has happened. To be honest, although I don’t mean to sound cruel, this is one area where mourners have the upper hand because society at least allows mourners the right to be divorced from reality. That right isn’t granted to caretakers, who are expected to “work around” their obligations as if caretaking is the mental equivalent of walking the dog.

I sometimes get that “look” when I tell people I moved home at 22 to care for my parents full time. I know they are wondering why the hell I didn’t get a job, or go back to school, or something normal and sane like that. To be honest I planned to, at first. Then I sunk like a lead marble under the surface of trying to take care of two physically damaged people who were unable to take care of themselves or each other. Words cannot describe how exhausting that was for me.

So when someone says they have to be caretaker, even for a brief period of time, I remember those days when The Miserable Tolerance ruled my world, and I hope for better for them. I hope that every caretaker gets a chance to sleep at night. I hope they get to take off early from work or even just take off from their job for a while. I hope that their time in the surreal bubble does no lasting harm. I hope, anyway.