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Art with Erika

the journey of an artist – painting life with purpose

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recovery

“12 Steps” – November 17, 2017

My newest drawing “Calm”, was going to be the introduction to a collection inspired by my own journey and experience with 12 steps of recovery for co-dependency, but I feel that my heart and spirit is telling me that this post is where this journey will start and where it will end. This is enough for now.  Still, I wanted to give a short overview of my experience with the 12 Steps.

There’s “The Bottom” and Then There’s “Rock Bottom”

“Rock Bottom” is what a person has to hit in order for genuine change to happen. There is a place called “The Bottom”, which looks like “Rock Bottom”, but it’s not.  When a person has reached “The Bottom” they might realize that something is wrong in their life, and they might even realize that they have a problem or that they are the problem, but they haven’t come to terms with changing and healing.  They continue on in their same lifestyle for the most part, getting caught up in drugs or alcohol (or anything they are addicted to, which could literally be anything), or they could lose themselves completely within other people.  Their lives have become out of control, but not so out of control that they won’t stop themselves from their patterns of destruction and abuse. This pattern of “false realization” might happen once, twice, or too many times to count, but for whatever reason this person continues to point the finger at everyone else while holding their self-proclaimed title of “victim”.  All of this is called denial.  This is also why people bounce in and out of recovery: they haven’t had enough.

A person who has hit “Rock Bottom” has gone so far beyond this point of denial that there is no more slack in his rope for him to walk anywhere but straight into recovery. This point is relative; it is different for everyone, and every person comes to this point in their own pace and timing.  A person knows when they’ve hit “Rock Bottom” only when they’ve hit it, and not a moment before. There is an internal shift, and the world around them looks different than it ever was before the moment. For some people this moment comes after chemical addiction has robbed them of their family, friends, and life. For others, the inability to control the people around them has caused them to lose control of themselves entirely and they collapse under the pressure. Everyone has a breaking point, but the most important thing to take away from all this is that you can’t force somebody to heal, you can’t fix anybody, and a person’s “Rock Bottom” can only be determined by that person and no one else. They have to be willing and able to change, and more importantly they have to want to change enough to do so. “When they are sick and tired of being sick and tired, only then will they will do what they need to do to change.”

What the 12 Steps Helped Give Me

After I pieced together that I was a codependent person who chose to be in relationships with abusive people, I sought help. For a very long time I thought of myself as a victim who kept falling in love with people who turned out to be abusive, later on. I kept pointing the finger at everyone else except myself, and it wasn’t until I pointed the finger at myself and took a good long look in the mirror that I realized that I was my own worst enemy. I was the only person who was in control of my life.  I learned that I was not in control of anyone else’s life, and no amount of lecturing, finger-pointing, blaming, or fighting was going to change anyone around me. It is not my responsibility to be responsible for people who are irresponsible. The only person that I am responsible for is me.

Through the 12 step program, I would learn how to build genuine self-esteem, confidence, and a healthy and realistic love for myself, for the first time in my life.  Most of all, this program helped me build a loving, balanced relationship with God.  (My version of God was warped by abuse)  And although all of this growth will always be a work in progress, I am much further along than I ever have been before. I feel like I am living a life that was meant for me for the first time, with God’s genuine guidance and love. I feel like I can say “no” to people without feeling guilty for hurting their feelings. (It’s still difficult, but I’m always practicing)  I don’t have to stretch myself too thin, or take on too much, and I have given myself permission to enjoy life, because it is meant to be enjoyed above all else. This is what the 12 step program gave me.  It gave me a sense of peace, freedom, and calm. It helped me center myself, it helped me solidify my spirituality, and it helped me set the stones to become the person who God had intended me to be all along, and maybe even a more whole and more compassionate version because of the adversity.

There are times when I look at friends who have been dealt a healthier life, and I do become jealous.  They were taught how to create boundaries, and they were taught how to say no.  They were taught how to value themselves, they were loved unconditionally, and as a result they had lived relatively healthy lives with minimal to no abuse.  I do not wish for anyone to go through abuse, but I understand that hard times hit all of us in one way or another.  Some of these things can be prevented, and some of these things we cannot prevent, no matter how hard we try. The only thing that we can do is to learn and grow from our trials and the brokenness that has been passed onto us by the broken adults in our lives. 

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Wholeness and Beauty in Brokenness

In Japan, broken pottery pieces are mended together using gold, so that their cracks are highlighted.  The Japanese people believe that the hardship that these pieces went through have made the pottery more beautiful.  Their stories and their trials have made them uniquely whole, and have made their journey more valuable.  I do believe that adversity needs to be present in a person’s life in order for them to become completely whole.  There is a certain knowledge and understanding that is obtained through the breaking and mending process, and maybe it is more of a form of compassion than anything else. Regardless, one person’s recovery story is a shining light for people who are currently going through recovery or who have not found the courage to start yet. This is why it is so important to be open about recovery, and to try to share our stories.

Our society in America is not one that is fond of mental health practices as a whole. I know a lot of people who think that psychologists are nut cases, and that the people who go to them are crazier than the psychologist herself.  The 12 step program is wrapped up in this malicious way of thinking. No one should ever be made to feel that they are stupid, or that they are less of a person because they are trying to better themselves.  Mental health is equal, if not, more important than physical health, and it does effect physical well-being more than people realize.  So many ailments and diseases (including cancer) stem from stress and a lack of mental rest and balance.

It would benefit every person to read about the 12 step program. I believe that everyone can walk away learning something either for themselves or for a loved one.  Everyone knows somebody who is an addict, or somebody whose life is spiraling out of control (or maybe just annoyingly unbalanced and subtly unhealthy), and it might be you, or it might be a loved one.  It’s great for everyone to have this information under their belt so that when adversity does hit (and it will), every person will be prepared for what comes next.

AA, Al-Anon, Co-DA, and every other 12 step recovery group follow the following guide (revised for each group of people dealing with different ailments – the list below is for Co-DA – Codependents Anonymous).  I do encourage people to look up more information so that they might help themselves or people around them.  Just remember that the 12 steps is a program that has to happen through the pace and willingness of the addict. 

The 12 Steps of Co-Dependency

  1.  We admitted we were powerless over others, that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and lives over to the care of God as we understood God.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being, the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  7. Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings.
  8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.
  9. Made direct amends to such people whenever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.
  11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood God, praying only for knowledge of God’s will for us and the power to carry that out.
  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to other codependents, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

Each step is to be taken at the right moment, and it is a process that cannot be rushed.  The more thorough, honest, and self-aware a person is, the more they will get out of the program.  Many times, individuals have decades of abuse to work through.  I have noticed that people who start the program in their mid life, which is usually the case, have exponentially more baggage than those who start in their 20’s or 30’s. (not all of the time, but most of the time)  As a result, a lot of people have to work through the program multiple times in order to get to the REAL root of ALL their problems: themselves.

A lot of people work through the program the first time continuing their finger-pointing victimization process instead of looking at themselves, and they can get stuck in this mindset for another decade or two over the course of their recovery.  There are a lot of people who stay stuck in recovery, forever pointing fingers and holding grudges.  A person will change when they are ready to change, and nothing that you do can push them to move faster.  But, understanding human brokenness, and practicing empathy and compassion, is something that all of us need to do if we are going to survive this crazy roller coaster ride. 

Some people never have to get on the roller coaster, and some people don’t know what the roller coaster feels like. Some people have been on the roller coaster and have ridden it enough times to know that they don’t want to ride anymore. And then there are people who think they want to get off the roller coaster who really don’t want to. It’s not our job to unbuckle the people from the roller coaster and force them down the stairs and off the ride. But understanding how they got on there to begin with, understanding the physics of the ride, and the passengers, and understanding what it takes to step off the ride can help those who need help when they ask for support.  So please, read through at least some of the program, because being aware and being conscious of other people and their battles, is what brings us all closer together. The compassion that we practice makes this world of much better place.

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“Calm” – 2017 – Digital Painting – Photoshop – Erika Robertson

“The Narcissist’s Family” – November 13, 2017

Note: This article uses male gender pronouns for “the narcissist”.  Both men and women can be diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, but it is more common in men. To read more about NDP click here. 

Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is a parasitical disease that affects those especially close to the narcissist.  His uses his suave and charming personality mixed with cunning manipulation in order to move around pawns in a game whose only objective is to glorify himself, the gamekeeper.  There are small moments when the narcissist’s mask falls off around friends, acquaintances, and family, usually in a spurt of anger or debate where personal offense has been taken.  But generally speaking, the only people who will see the real narcissist without a mask will be those who are a part of his innermost circle.

Who is in this innermost circle?  They are the people who he believes that he owns (this ownership can be conscious or subconscious).  His roommates and close friends rarely come close enough to experience consistent abuse because he can separate himself and take breaks from his act.  But long-term lovers, spouses, and children become the most valued pieces in his collection because he sees each one of them, especially his children, as an extension of himself.  He interacts with them frequently.

In a healthy household, parents will raise their children to become confident, independent, and healthy adults.  No household and no parent is perfect, but healthy children develop a balanced sense of self and their relationships evolve with the adult figures in their life.  This is not the case with a narcissist’s family.

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A narcissist’s only mission in life is to paint a grandiose representation of himself to the world.  And because the narcissist sees his spouse and his children as an extension of himself he trains them and uses them as a status symbol beneath the guise of a loving and caring family.  The most important thing to a narcissist is to maintain the image of success.  If you are part of his family you will be given a role to play and it will be your responsibility to act your heart out in public. There are only two rules in the house of a narcissist’s family:

  1.  the narcissist needs to always come first
  2. the image of the narcissist and his family must never be limited by the needs of the spouse and their children

Every spouse and child is assigned a role by the narcissist himself.  These roles include the golden child, the scapegoat, and the invisible child.  Over a period of time the children adopt secondary roles that include the hero/responsible child, the caretaker/placater, the mascot/clown, and the mastermind/manipulator.  Children may end up adopting one or more of these roles, and roles can switch multiple times over the course of one’s life, depending upon how the narcissist feels and how he measures that child against the others. He also weighs them with consideration to personal goals at any given moment.

The bottom line is that a narcissist would rather gloat about himself to try to impress a stranger rather than be loved by his own family.  All the while, his children, forever starving for love, bend over backwards to try to scrounge for breadcrumbs of his approval.  In public they wear the happy masks that he has made for each one of them.  

The Roles Cast by the Narcissist

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The Enablerthis role is usually played by the spouse (or a daughter). She does the narcissist’s bidding and plays nice in order to gain approval from the narcissist.  She orbits around when she is not helping him. Her life revolves around fulfilling every need of the narcissist. This is a role typically filled by a codependent individual, who grew up in an abusive home, and whose sense of self revolved around giving up herself in order to win love and favor from people around her. There are many cases where a codependent spouse realizes the error of his or her ways after being married to a narcissist for so many years. She comes to a breaking point and realizes the damage that has been done to the children because of her own irresponsibility and her own brokenness. But when that moment of realization hits, she can do nothing but sit back and watch her damaged children perform for her abusive spouse; she can only hope that her children will discover their own brokenness much earlier than she had.

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The Golden Child she is assigned her role according to her gifts and talents. This role could be set aside for the first or second child but as the narcissist’s children are born, or as his children leave the household, the role can shift to other children. This child is given special treatment and the narcissist seems to value this child the most. He will train this child so that she can act out the perfect masquerade of his perfect parenting. Most of the time the child will become a clone of the narcissist, adopting his beliefs, habits, and if this child stays in this role for their entire adolescence, it is likely that this child will also become a narcissist. But if the role ever shifts and the golden child is “demoted” (even if she is tossed in and out of the role) it is likely that the child will develop codependency, instead. Because the narcissist and the enabler put this child on a pedestal they also form a different bond with her than with the rest of the children.  Her siblings become jealous of the special treatment that she has been given, but in the long run this could be the most damaging role among the children. It will be harder for her, as an adult, to separate herself and find her true self apart from her parents. She becomes an extension of their relationship and the most puppet-like of the children.   Unless she is able to acknowledge the abuse and heal from it she will keep running in unfulfilled abusive circles, searching for love and fulfillment, but always falling short.

The Scapegoatthis child is the one who can do nothing right. They are labeled a “bad seed” and tend to be the most outspoken of the children with a “look at me” persona. The narcissist will use this child as a punching bag, and they will be the recipient of the most abuse among the children. The scapegoat and the golden child seem to be at odds with each other most of the time. The children understand that the narcissist’s affections are given ‘freely’ to the top performing child, so the scapegoat tries to dethrone the golden child in order to win the love and affection of the narcissist, unaware of the toxicity of the coveted role.  The scapegoat is most likely to develop a sense of self and awareness, but it will be damaged. They will probably be successful and independent later on in life, driven by a need to succeed and to prove themselves worthy of love, but they will still need to address the childhood trauma that went on in their household in order to heal from the abuse.

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The Lost Child/Invisible Childhe receives no praise and no blame from the narcissist. In the narcissist’s eyes, there is “no use” for him.  The lost child becomes very independent, isolated, and lonely. A lot of the time they do become self-sufficient but they fall prey to emotions of unworthiness and they constantly feel unloved throughout their lifetimes. These children are most likely to develop depression or substance abuse addictions.

The Secondary Roles Taken by the Children

The Hero/Responsible Child – most of the time this is the older sibling, but not always.  This child takes on a perfectionist nature at a very young age and develops a “responsible parent” role.  She is a true mask of a narcissistic family. She suppresses her emotions until she cannot feel them at all, she is extremely insecure, and she drives herself compulsively from one achievement to the next.

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The Caretaker/Placater – she is the emotional rescuer of the family. She manages and shuffles around the ever changing moods of the family by listening, supporting, nurturing, and counseling. She is a very sensitive creature, calm, and understanding in nature. Although she tries to fix everyone around her, she seeks no emotional support for herself. She doesn’t know how to take care of herself, she only knows how to focus on everyone else. She is a people pleaser. Her self-worth is defined by what she can do for others. She gives love but she doesn’t know how to receive it back. She is only comfortable giving she is not comfortable receiving and as a result she will push away love. As she grows into adulthood she finds that her job is to fix and save people from themselves. She turns into a ‘grade A’ codependent person, whose relationships become one-sided, toxic, and abusive. She becomes a doormat for people and will usually choose a career in the caring profession.

The Mascot/Clown – this role is usually adopted by the youngest member of the family. He is responsible for the emotional well-being of the family but through the use of humor as opposed to care taking. He puts on a comedy show to divert the pain in the family. He is usually a happy-go-lucky person and a very likable individual who can make others laugh but who finds it difficult to make himself genuinely happy.  He will usually suffer from depression. Because he is constantly putting on a show he doesn’t really develop any sense of authentic self and he struggles with feelings of emptiness and loneliness.

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The Mastermind/Manipulator – he is sinister, selfish, and abusive. Paired with the golden child the role, the mastermind and manipulator will turn into a narcissist. He is driven by entitlement and coerces people through manipulation.  He is sneaky enough to operate just below the radar and he uses the dysfunction and the rest of the family to his own benefit. He intentionally creates conflict among family members to get what he needs and what he wants. He knows how to put on the charms and can manipulate even the adults in the family. He can also take on the quality of a sinister jokester, echoing the words “What’s the matter? Can’t you take a joke?”

“The Narcissist’s Family”

My piece is called “The Narcissist’s Family” and it was important to me to try to capture the feeling of being a game piece in a narcissistic family unit.  Children will grow up not being able to measure feelings in a healthy manner, or they develop a numb persona.  Sadness and depression will develop later when they are aware enough to piece the abusive puzzle together.  The golden child is brought into the limelight alongside the narcissist, with help from the enabler whose eyes are finally starting to see the truth of her lifestyle and her role in the abuse.  She wonders if it is too late.  She wonders what will happen to her children and to herself.  She wonders if there is any hope for healing and happiness.  The rest of her children will shuffle around in the shadows and wait for the beckoning calls of the game-keeper narcissist that shift at a moment’s notice.  As long as his family plays each part perfectly they will be okay.  They just need to avoid any action or phrase that will tarnish the image that he works so hard to maintain.  

It is rare for a narcissist to raise another narcissist. There have been theories that have been thrown around about narcissists breeding people who are equally as abusive, but studies show that if you have been raised by narcissist you’re much more likely to develop codependency. A narcissist’s upbringing is centered on the idea of selfishness, and in his adult life he will search for people to aide him in building his grandiose pedestal.  A codependent’s upbringing is centered on the idea selflessness, and in her adult life she will search for people to pour out her love to, in hopes that she will be loved in return with that same sacrifice that she so foolishly gives.  When the two get together, it seems like a perfect partnership at first glance.  To onlookers they are glorious, beautiful, and perfectly balanced.  But, when one partner only gives and the other only takes, the fairytale love story falls into the cauldron and transforms into a poisonous apple…

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“The Narcissist’s Family” – 2017 – Digital Drawing – Photoshop – Erika Robertson

“The Codependent” – November 9, 2017

My newest piece is called “The Codependent” and it is my interpretation of the feeling of the destructive mindset that I had developed in my childhood.  My codependency reached its peak when I turned twenty and it continued along a steady path for ten years.  It is the reason why I didn’t draw or paint for over a decade.  It is the reason why I had jumped from one abusive relationship to the next.  It is the reason why so many people had seen me dive into one career and then turn around to venture into another.

What is codependency?  In a nutshell, it is the unhealthy reaction to the fear of not being loved.  Those of us who grew up in an abusive household (a parent with substance abuse, verbally abusive adults, neglectful ‘role models’) find ways to cope with the trauma and form unhealthy reactions and habits based on that abuse that help us during that moment, but the habits follow us into adulthood.  Many of us become caretakers for irresponsible adults (you would be surprised at how many nurses and psychologists are codependent). Or we become people-pleasers who try to win the love of parents through accomplishment, or we try to find ways to help or fix people in our circle who are struggling with their own battles.  But codependent people aren’t able to find a healthy balance between living for themselves and living for others and they end up developing an unhealthy relationship pattern.

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“The Codependent” – 18″ by 12″ – Digital Drawing – Photoshop – Erika Robertson

 

What was codependency for me?  I grew up in a very abusive home, and for me codependency was trying to reach perfection in order to win approval and ultimately love from the adults in my life.  In my mind, if I didn’t do everything perfectly, if anything was lacking, then they would love me less.  My young mind fed off of the comments and opinions of adults in my life as I searched to fill an impossible void.  Because I wanted to feel that I was enough, it became hard for me to say “no” to anyone even when I was uncomfortable, which would later become a huge problem when I started dating.  I learned to discard myself in order to blend in with them and please them (FYI it doesn’t work).  Their thoughts and opinions became mine and I sought out their approval for even the smallest choices even when it came to choosing a place to eat dinner – it sounds ridiculous but it is the truth – I didn’t want to do anything that would make them feel that I was ‘wrong’ or ‘less’.  It was a life that felt like a never-ending feeble walk on a trail of broken glass.

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What we learn in childhood follows us into adulthood and each unhealthy pattern of affection starts with a single horrible life-changing event (I can trace most of my unhealthy habits back to a single incident from my youth). When it came to romantic relationships (any relationships, let’s be honest), I couldn’t set boundaries for myself,  I didn’t know how to express what I wanted because I didn’t even know what I wanted to begin with, because what I wanted was whatever THEY wanted.  When making ANY choice one question came to mind “Will so-and-so like this?”  In essence, I became whoever I thought my significant other wanted me to be, because that is what I did with my family, for fear of rejection.

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Many codependents take on “giving” careers, and they are typically very nice and likable people, but they can be control freaks.  If things are out of place they freak out, or if people aren’t doing what THEY want, they freak out.  They are amazing planners, but burn themselves out because of a lack of trust for other people.  They are guarded but at the same time might be lenient with boundaries in other respects.  (For me, I was guarded socially, but lenient romantically).  They have a hard time saying NO to people and if they do they feel guilty.  They take on work-loads that might be too much for them to handle because they are subconsciously seeking fulfillment in the form of love and appreciation from their peers.  They worry about hurting other people’s feelings, at the expense of their own.  They are givers in relationships, sometimes to the point where they lose themselves (because they can’t say NO).  They are also controlling in their relationships because they feel that “if people just did what I wanted, then they would be happy and I would be happy, too.”  They can be manipulators who just want what is best for others, but who intrude in order to feel accomplished, to win love, or to keep themselves safe from harm.

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For me, codependency felt like I was putting on a show.  I felt like I was forcing myself to smile or to be the person who I thought everyone else wanted me to be.  I tried to control the way people thought about me.  I tried to convince people that I was good enough to love by turning myself into what I thought they wanted.  I thought that they tied strings to me and that they had been pulling at me when in fact it was me who had tied strings to them, and it was me who was vying for their love.  I didn’t know that I was in control of my own life, that these choices that I made were MY choices and not theirs.  I was the one controlling the strings all along and that this was my show played out for me…not for them.  (Though, some abusers would have you believe otherwise…)

It is hard for many codependents to release themselves from the “victim mentality” and take a look in the mirror to see that the root to all of their problems with intimacy, love, and personal fulfillment lies within their own reactions to the people around them.  It is hard to come to terms with the idea that your life is horrible because of you, and no one else.  Horrible things happen to good people, yes, but it is our reactions to those events that define who we are, not the event itself.  When I was being abused I went back for more, thinking that things would change, and that decision to go back and ‘fix things’ was my choice.  ‘Fixing myself’ was my choice.  There would be people who continued being abusive, but how I reacted to the abusive people in my life was my choice.

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Two years ago I pinpointed that I was codependent.  It took a year for me to get through a 12 step recovery program, and it was the most painful transition of my life, but it finally set the stones for me to travel down a clear road.  The last year of my life has been filled with so many challenges, breakdowns, discoveries, and so much healing, and I know that I am better for all of it.  For the first time in my life I have set healthy boundaries, and I have started to discover who I am.  I have started to state my truths instead of allowing people to walk on me and make decisions for me.  I have started to care less about people’s opinions and have started paving my own road.  I have come a long way, and feel that the worst is behind me because I can see clearly now that the fog has lifted.  I will always have more to learn but my mind has been re-wired and I feel that life is so much simpler and happier without the baggage.

Art has been the most difficult outlet for me to re-wire because my mind automatically asks “what would be popular and what would everyone else like me to draw?  Will people like this?” as if it will gain the favor of people.  It won’t. Most of what I had created in the last thirteen years had been because of my insecurities about the opinions of the abusers around me.  I hadn’t been able to pick up a pencil for ten years for fear of rejection and fear of a lack of perfection.  I didn’t even know what I wanted to create, anyways because everything I did was to make others happy at the expense of myself.  I think about it and become a little sad because I wasted ten years of my life, but at the same time anything that I would have created wouldn’t have been from me and for me, anyways.  And as an artist what is the point in creating if you can’t even stand by your own work with the confidence that it is a reflection of yourself?

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Someone told me recently “you should just draw what you want to draw” but it is easier said than done for me.  Every project is a personal challenge, but as I sit down and discard perfectionism, fear of rejection, and doubts, I start to discover myself for the first time in my life.  It’s uncomfortable, but it’s getting better.  I feel that I am at a stable enough place to start sharing my journey.  It starts with my codependency, but it is made into a new kind of more powerful poison when mixed with a special type of parasitic abuser.

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“The Codependent” – Digital Drawing – Photoshop – Erika Robertson

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