Autoethnography and arts based qualitative research

Autoethnography is the practice of generating knowledge from a researcher’s lived experience. Where the telling of an autobiographic narrative feeds into the framework of the research questions a person is asking. The medium in which the researcher tells the story is important – whether its written in prose, poetry; whether it’s danced or drawn – all inform the style of reflection and communication of the research itself. Graphic memoir is well established in narrative design as an affective form of storytelling to not only process how the author is feeling, but to encompass the political and social context of the author from a personal perspective.

Graphic Medicine in particular is seen to be a useful tool in communicating how the experience of a medical condition can play out on a personal level. Memoirs of people who have lived or are living with an array of medical experiences can aid others in their understanding of illnesses, beyond the scientific understanding of what various conditions do in the body.

Lived experience, as told in reflective art, has been useful in qualitative research in geography, history, education, sociology, medicine and political science. Where the subjectivity of the researcher must be described in order the study the histories of other people, autoethnography can place the plurality of experiences of certain events front and centre without pretending that the researcher(s) are some sort of objective outsider. However, the use of autoethnography alone in such research is reductionist. The histories of a sufficient sample of people are needed to ensure that the claims made by the research are valid. Autoethnography is a useful tool for reflection, and guiding the justification of why researchers ask the questions that they ask. It is limited in its way of knowing as a stand-alone practice.

Lived experience applied to planetary health

My first question I hope to approach for my thesis is How can graphic storytelling help heal the extinction crisis? This is separate from how graphic storytellers illustrate, articulate or challenge the extinction crisis – although all are valid approaches to take in resisting a “worst case scenario” Anthropocene. This question is about healing, and the first step in that process is reflecting on how I heal.

It’s well established that memory processing and the mind-body (somatic) response to traumatic incidents play key roles in the development and treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Exercises that connect the mind to the body, and the body to its surroundings are the first and most basic lessons in PTSD treatment. The tools that I use every day to manage PTSD include a lot of reflection on the way my body is a part of its environment. Things like:

  • The feeling on my face as I duck under a wave
  • The way my back feels resting on soft ground and looking up at a canopy of trees
  • The feeling of rocks, sand and leaves in my fingers when I play with them in my hands

They are all memories and embodiments I draw from when I am triggered. Recognising yourself and feeling present in your surroundings is calming. But these techniques are all about grounding – not healing. I find these approaches are good for orienting myself when I am in crisis, they are not what make me better.

Imagining and visualisation in my body are very useful for becoming aware of memories and processing memories in a way that isn’t stuck in my head. Dreaming and dream work, as well as the ability to imagine beyond traumatic stress, are key indicators that PTSD symptoms are lessening.

So how can this understanding work in terms of planetary health? If you think of nature based therapies as a grounding exercise, I think I could use the skills I have been taught in terms of reprocessing and reimagining my body and memories to work through complex environmental problems. Things like:

  • Accepting that I’m not going to be able to fully reason or rationalise what has happened
  • Using my imagination to ease the problem in a fantastic way, so that I can ease the path forward and think of more creative real-world solutions
  • Understanding the links between mind, body, community and environment and how finding balance between these is critical to ensure long-term healing

The exercises in graphic memoir then, is not about the knowledge generated, it’s the way I reflect on and accept my biases in my lived experience of healing before I apply it to something beyond my own body.

Art as therapy?

This idea comes up a lot in my reading. Arts and crafts are very useful for finding joy, for calming the mind and body and to build community around certain skillsets. Using arts-based approaches to illustrate traumatic memories, just like using them to illustrate extinction, can be a helpful exercise in truth telling and enabling the creator to articulate their concerns and feelings around a certain topic. However, and this is a big however – the often considered idea that art itself is sufficient to heal trauma (trauma related mental illness? PTSD? Complex Developmental Trauma? Traumatic injuries? Intergenerational trauma? WHAT ARE WE TALKING ABOUT HERE?!) is unnerving to me.

I think that’s because of the sheer volume of people who have self-diagnosed with PTSD and then told me that they took time off, did exercise and got into some kind of creative outlet. I mean, that’s great! Put your mental health first! But it’s not my experience of mental illness or physically traumatic injuries. When we fail to accept the realities of disability and complex mental illness, we erase the struggle of a vulnerable group of people.

Take, for example, what was identified as a traumatic injury to my left leg when I was twelve. My kneecap was dislocated, my femur, cartilage and growth plate broken. My ligaments ripped to shreds. That was healed with screws, bolts, rest and physio. That trauma cannot be healed with drawing. Neither can the way that my brain grew abnormally because of complex developmental trauma.

Arts are an important part of the healing process for me. They can enable me to express and see myself to find a way through an awful situation. They can allow me to feel a sense of purpose and occupation when I need to rest for months at a time. But they only help if they’re combined with community, environment and medical intervention. They are an element of a web of things that I do to heal, including:

  • Living near and keeping in touch with my family
  • Taking my meds every day
  • Going to therapy and my GP regularly
  • Getting enough sleep and not drinking much
  • Never doing non-prescription drugs
  • Not working full time, but staying occupied
  • Getting outside and moving my body
  • Keeping up with my physio exercises to prevent my legs from further breaks

I think that’s an important limit to keep in mind when doing autoethnography. I am not undertaking this exercise to find healing. I am undertaking it to illustrate and reflect on how I heal, and if I can develop exercises in imagination and storytelling that aid people in finding solutions in their bodies, communities and environments.

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