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.

 

What say you?