Illustrator Johanna Basford explains how drawing helped her cope with divorce and losing her father

·11-min read
Photo credit: Liz McAulay
Photo credit: Liz McAulay

Some people meditate, others find inner peace tackling the ironing pile. Self care looks different for each of us, but for me it looks like pencils and pens. Creativity is a daily practice that helps lift my mood and allows me to process tough things; it nourishes my soul, calms the chaos and generally makes me a better human.

I’ve been championing creativity as a tool to boost wellbeing for years. Back in 2013, I published Secret Garden, a colouring book for adults. I loved the somewhat crazy idea that grown-ups should take a few minutes out of their busy days, put down their smartphones and pick up the colouring pencils. Being creative seemed to melt stress and boost smiles. Eight years on and I’ve published 10 books, which have sold 21 million copies around the world. I receive messages from people in all walks of life, telling me that rediscovering their creativity has had a positive effect on them.

The deep irony of self care is that it’s super easy to implement when life is easy breezy and you don’t really need it so much. A bubble bath here, a long lie there....simple. But when your world is on fire, then, when you really need to care for yourself, you can absolutely bet it’s the last priority.

In 2020, I was determined to find a self care habit that I’d stick to. It was a tough year for all the obvious reasons, but also because my Dad was in his 10th year of cancer treatment. I flirted with baking, bullet journalling, growing my own vegetables and nothing stuck. So, I decided to improve an existing habit – creativity. I draw almost every day for work, of course, but I wanted to rediscover drawing and colouring purely for my own enjoyment.

Instead of trying to make a masterpiece, I told myself all I had to do was draw for 10 minutes. And if it was going well, I could continue. Some days I’d spend the entire time doodling zigzags, unsure of what to draw. So then I made a list of prompts, things like ‘world’s best robot’ or ‘quote of the day’ and I’d pick something off that list and draw it.

I didn’t need any fancy kit, just my notebook and pen. Each day I completed the 10 minutes, I crossed off the date on a little calendar. Some days I drew at the kitchen table with my kids, other times it was a quiet moment after they had gone to bed. Those crosses became a chain as day after day I picked up my pencil and drew. Even when the house was a disaster zone or the kids were wild, I’d draw in my notebook and keep the chain of crosses growing – it felt like I was achieving something. Even if the win was small, it was still a win. Those mini digital detoxes were a welcome respite from scrolling the news and social media feeds. A spa break for the brain.

Failed marriage and chemo

Then in September 2020, the universe sent a curve ball when my marriage came to a sudden end. This floored me.

I was scared and confused, angry and sad, distraught and in denial that my relationship of 13 years to the father of my kids had ended, while at the same time, trying desperately to keep things normal and calm for our daughters Mia, who was three, and Evie, six. I accepted I couldn’t save my marriage, but swore I’d do everything in my power to get the kids through this as best I could. Making that decision was empowering. I couldn’t control what was happening, but I was determined to control how I responded to it and how my reaction impacted them.

I think it’s important to acknowledge that many people go through break-ups much harder than mine. I was lucky. Whilst the marriage had ended, things were civil and I was financially secure. Also, we had counselling. So much counselling. This was a huge privilege.

Photo credit: Liz McAulay
Photo credit: Liz McAulay

As the denial ebbed away, I knew it was time to tell my parents. They were devastated. To make matters worse, a few hours later, they heard from my Dad’s oncologist who confirmed his cancer had spread again. A failed marriage and chemo - it wasn’t the best day.

I’m a very emotional person – I cry at Disney movies and ads for the RSPCA. But in a crisis, I’m good. My way of coping is to keep a level head, be practical and seek out the positive, no matter what. So that’s what I did.

I’ve always valued my independence and I’m so thankful for that now. Some eyebrows were raised when I went back to work fairly quickly after both girls were born, especially as my husband was a very successful businessman, but it was important to me to continue doing the work I love and to have my own income. The upside to this, and the fact that my husband travelled a lot for work, was that when he left, it didn't seem the devastating end that I fear so many women experience. The kids and I were used to being a threesome and I found the day-to-day life of being a single, working mum do-able. There were tough times, moments when the girls asked hard questions, times when we all missed being a family of four, but we muddled through. I wanted my girls to see a mum who was strong and capable of looking after things, including herself.

The first few weekends the kids went to stay with their dad, were rough. The house was so quiet, their little beds so empty. But I decided to embrace this solo time and see it as an opportunity rather than wallow in self pity. I began to remember the person I was before I became a wife and a mum. I climbed hills near our home in North East Scotland, went wild swimming and I deep conditioned my hair (the wholly grail of uninterrupted shower time).

Photo credit: Liz McAulay
Photo credit: Liz McAulay

We made it through the first Christmas, something I had been particularly nervous about. I struggled at times that we wouldn’t have the ‘happily ever after’ I had expected. But it wasn’t doom and gloom either, it was just different. Also, it was a Covid Christmas, so nothing was normal anyway.

Dad’s terminal diagnosis came in Spring 2021. He’d been ill for a long time and, whilst we all knew he would never be cured, it was still a shock to think he’d soon be gone. I tried to be positive, and was possibly a little in denial. I visited with the kids, baked cakes to tempt him to eat and ordered jigsaw puzzles to help pass the time. Dad had always been a champion of my work and had encouraged me to pursue art as a career. Not all arty kids have that support from their parents, I knew I was one of the lucky ones. He helped me move studios and flats multiple times, hung exhibitions, came to opening nights and stuck down a few hundred square metres of paper to a gym hall floor so I could break a Guinness World Record.

Last May, we said our goodbyes. I was numb, but functional. The following days were a blur of arranging the funeral, phone calls and dealing with the almighty piles of admin that accompany a death. Whilst I was desperately sad, my grief was balanced with a sense of relief. We’d watched him fade those past few weeks and I knew things were only going to get worse. I didn’t want to watch a man so full of life and laughter diminish in a painful and harrowing way, so when he did finally slip away, I was at peace knowing he was in a better place.

Refusing to crumble

I kept up my self care plan through all of this, which at times felt indulgent. Prioritising workouts, turning off my phone and doing something creative every day. I got the girls involved and we’d make fairy houses in the garden or grab pens and paper to draw at the kitchen table – it was lovely way for us all to connect, spend time together and talk through the big emotions everyone was feeling at the time. It was playful and imaginative and allowed me to switch off from the chaos and focus on them. Creative play gave us moments of connection and joy amidst some pretty gloomy days.

We decided to have a garland of Scottish wildflowers on the Order of Service at the funeral. My Dad was a country man and loved nature. I spent a few quiet hours in the studio with my pencils and paintbrushes. It was the last gift I could give my Dad and, in hindsight, the very act of making something for him was the perfect tribute – it also helped me to prepare for his funeral.

I was learning to accept challenges with grace and to understand that things don’t remain constant for long. I also learned that I needed to put boundaries place to protect myself and the girls. Divorce is never easy to navigate. My priority remained protecting my daughters, the wider family, and to get myself through it. I didn’t know how to react, but I knew I needed to step back, make sure I was ok, then go from there - the old, ‘put your own oxygen mask on first’.

Throughout the entire year, I’d known that if I crumbled, I’d be useless. The tougher the chapter, the more I focussed on things that nourished me. One of the things that helped me the most was that daily dose of creativity. It was a chunk of time that I wasn’t scrolling through Instagram stories or speaking to lawyers. Creativity became a little daily life raft, allowing me to zone out of the immediate chaos so I could process things, like when your computer goes to sleep, but it’s still doing a back-up behind the scenes!

The kids have been the heroes of this tale. I look at them now, aged 4 and 7, and see two curious, flourishing wee girls who I am immensely proud of. They’ve weathered this storm well. There are still tough questions, big emotions and tricky co-parenting situations to navigate, but thanks to a huge team effort they are happy and settled.

As I look forward to 2022, I know there will still be challenges, but I also know that I’m resilient. My friends kept telling me, ‘You’re stronger than you know’ – and it turns out they were right. But strength doesn’t come from simply enduring hard things, it comes from caring for yourself. A bit of self-compassion has undoubtedly helped me become the strongest, most positive, productive and loving version of myself.

I also have far more joy in my life these days! At one time I was so busy being busy, trying to fix everything – even things that weren’t mine to fix – that I had no time left for me. These days I make sure I see my friends, we schedule dinners and coffee and even the odd night away. And I remembered how much I love the great outdoors. I’ve tried paddle boarding and have my sights set on a few more Munros to bag, and I want to take the kids wild camping and explore more of the beautiful Scottish landscape with them. I’ve realised that I need to be creative to feel anchored and calm, but that I need time in nature to inspire me. The two go hand in hand.

For me, being creative is as natural as walking or singing. Regardless of what’s happening in my life, it soothes me, reminds me who I am and anchors me when I feel adrift. This past year could have been a catastrophe, but I feel sure that embracing creativity allowed me to not just survive, but to flourish.

How to start drawing

  • If inspiration doesn't come naturally, try some of Johanna's tips for getting started...

  • Keep a notebook, not a journal or a sketchbook, just a little book where you can doodle, make lists and offload your mind in inky ways.

  • Set yourself a small daily challenge for a week. For example, doodle a flower a day, for 7 days.

  • Turn your phone off or leave it in another room. Don’t look online for inspiration, you’ll only get distracted! Embrace the digital detox and put the screens away for 10 minutes whilst you create.

  • If the blank page scares you, make it smaller! Instead of trying to fill an entire piece of paper, begin drawing on post-it notes instead, they are much less overwhelming!

30 Days of Creativity: Draw, Colour and Discover Your Creative Self by Johanna Basford (Ebury) is available to buy now

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