This week’s blog post comes from artist Liz Atkin, who was recently invited to exhibit her work in a solo exhibition at UCLA Medical Centre in Los Angeles and the University of California Santa Barbara. Her work concerns her own lived experience of Compulsive Skin Picking.
“I was invited to exhibit my artwork in a solo show at UCLA Medical Centre in Los Angeles (26 Oct – 10 Jan) and University of California Santa Barbara (from Jan 2016) by my friend, artist Ted Meyer (Tedmayer.com), who curates exhibitions at both sites to introduce medical students to creative approaches to recovery from illnesses.
These invitations came too late for me to apply for UK arts funding to support a trip of this kind, so I raised money independently on Kickstarter which was very successful! More than 140 people – friends and strangers alike – backed me, and it meant I had enough money to get my artwork printed and sent to Los Angeles for the exhibitions, as well as make the journey to Los Angeles in late October. I was invited to speak to medical students and staff at both sites about my lived experience of Compulsive Skin Picking, my artwork and recovery. I also took the opportunity to build a whole raft of research into my trip, to meet Neuroscientists and Human Behaviourists to learn as much about the disorder as I could.
It was a very significant, life changing trip for me. It enabled me to augment my knowledge meeting health professionals and experts treating Compulsive Skin Picking based in Los Angeles at centres such as *Trichotillomania Learning Centre, OCD Los Angeles and UCLA Semel Institute of Neuroscience. I have been making health contacts in California over many years, but this trip enabled me to meet them.
The trip deepened my understanding of diagnosis, treatment, and I was thrilled to hear of new research into this disorder. The Trichotillomania Learning Centre is about to begin a 7 year research programme, the Body-Focussed Repetitive Behaviour Precision Medicine Initiative – the first of its kind in the world I believe – into what is happening in the brain for those living with these disorders. This is phenomenal news. The new scientific research, connected to UCLA and the Semel Institute of Neuroscience, will enable a large and detailed study to be undertaken for the neurological functions at play when skin picking occurs. It was so thrilling to think that in LA this research is just about to begin! MRI’s, DNA samples and blood samples will be taken from a large study group of all ages, genders and ethnicities. There are also plans to run family studies to look at how Skin Picking occurs in multiple family members. I’ve learnt that the genetic link has now been scientifically proven.
I was delighted to meet with Dr John Piacentini, Professor of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Science at UCLA Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. In just an hour long meeting we covered a huge amount of information. He explained Habit Reversal Therapy to me which has been an active treatment since the 1970s for CSP, Hair Pulling disorders, physical tics and more. One of the things we both feel fired up about is finding the right treatment for an individual. The fidget tools and Habit Reversal Therapy techniques are only valuable where a patient finds they intervene in the behaviour sufficiently to stop it. In my own experience finding a way to be mindful and redirecting my hands through art has been a key strategy to keeping well. John will be working with TLC on the Body-Focussed Repetitive Behaviour Precision Medicine Initiative too. He’s a member of the Scientific Advisory Board for TLC.
One of the exciting conversations we had was about Compulsive Skin Picking in animals! A whole new realm of information for me. CSP is found in a multitude of animals – mice and rats, cats and dogs are known to skin pick. In the 1970s, John explained there was a study on dogs who displayed the Canine Acral Lick, repeatedly licking at a paw or part of the body! Similar manifestations of Skin Picking and Hair Pulling are found in birds too, some parrots repeatedly pull out their feathers. John is going to connect me to Dr Joseph Garner from Oxford University, now based in LA who is researching skin picking in animals. Dr Garner is studying the neuro-transmitters associated with skin picking and trying to ascertain how and when an intervention can be made to stop the picking from happening!
I was also thrilled at last to meet Jennifer Raikes, the Executive Director of the Trichotillomania Learning Center. Based in Santa Cruz the Trichotillomania Learning Center provides education and support for Hair Pulling and Skin Picking Disorders, not just in California but with a global reach. It was a strange feeling presenting about my work with someone so knowledgeable and inspirational on the front row! I felt so thrilled! We talked afterwards and I have been invited to deliver my talk as a speaker at next year’s TLC Global conference in Dallas Texas. Wow.
I was also booked to speak at University of California Santa Barbara, where I was privileged to have access to a huge projector, meaning the images of my artwork were shown dramatically large! The participants this time were a group of students training in dance, so I was able to speak about how I had come to understand and use the movement patterns of skin picking as a creative force and in doing so, had found a way to reverse it and transform the illness into art.
On the final day of my trip, I met therapist Elizabeth Kessel and a group of adult skin pickers and hair pullers at OCDLA. This was one of the most moving appointments for me to meet individuals working hard to come to terms with these disorders and get better. Ted Meyer, curator, interviewed me for ART&MED talking about my lived experience and recovery as an advocate for mental health and art.
I returned to the UK after just 7 days, brimming with new contacts, friends and professionals. I am fired up to continue this journey. My art practice will be enhanced by these new encounters and I shall continue as an advocate and to create new artwork. Every time I speak out about this illness and my own experience I am spreading an informed message, and hope to help those who might currently be suffering, as well and continuing to raise the profile of this disorder to health professionals and others.”
*TLC educates the public, provides information and referrals, holds workshops, hosts professional training and raises funds for research.