‘We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.’
So says librarian and art psychotherapist Patrick Byrne, quoting George Bernard Shaw.
Patrick, who is taking leave from his job as a librarian at UCC, is venturing into what he calls “the unknown”, setting up a practice as an art psychotherapist in Cork.
He is also currently ‘playing’, making colourful postcards with abstract designs which he is sending to friends, people he likes, people who have been good to him — and even reaching out to someone with whom he burnt bridges.
Patrick’s’ Postcard Project’ is his engagement in creativity, in response to the restricted lives we’re living due to Covid-19. He is encouraging others to do the same, saying that you don’t have to be an artist to be creative.
Cards in the post are always welcome as Patrick says. He knows how life-affirming it is to receive one.
“From my year-long recovery from a cancer operation, I know all too well how important a text, an email or a message on social media is. But to receive something tactile like a letter or a postcard holds more significance. It resonates that somebody really stopped to think about me.”
Now that our social circles are temporarily on hold, Patrick says that showing empathy “can be really helpful as we are in isolation”.
While social media is “transient”, a card is a physical mark of connection.
Patrick’s home-made cards are winging their way to friends in America, India, Spain and France. He has sent one to a Cork actor living in New York, a city that has been badly affected by Covid-19.
“I actually sent a card to a friend who I had kind of burned bridges with because I didn’t feel they were there for me. I decided this was a good time to make up and rekindle the friendship.”
Patrick has also sent cards to his local post office, shops and supermarkets in Ballincollig, “to say ‘thank you for being there.’”
Having been diagnosed with prostate cancer, Patrick’s year-long recovery in 2014 has stayed with him and made him appreciative of the support he got from friends.
“I was housebound after an operation to remove my prostate gland. For the first month, I had a catheter inserted and all kinds of tubes. My movement was somewhat restricted and it affected my sleeping. I was living with the fear that the catheter would become infected.
“It was very much entering a journey into the unknown as I didn’t know how my recovery was going to go. I also had to live with the possibility that when the catheter was removed, I risked being incontinent for the rest of my life. It was a huge fear.
“I tried to keep my head in a good space and I had some experience to rely on which helped me. I walk the Camino regularly which is basically walking into the unknown. I’ve done five caminos, in Spain and Portugal. I never brought any maps or books or software with me. I just walked. That’s the way I am.”
That self-reliance no doubt helped Patrick in his recovery. He has had a good recovery.
“Everything is in working order. Psychologically, I said to myself that I need to manage my own health. After the operation in hospital, the real recovery happens at home.
“It’s also an emotional and spiritual recovery. I’m a spiritual person. While I was recovering, I thought about my own mortality. I wondered what the future would hold for me. It’s very much parallel to what is going on for people at the moment. For some, there is the suffering and anxiety that I had.”
After his illness, Patrick encountered some people who came up to him and told him he looked great and that everything was wonderful.
“But that was more about them wanting to feel good than about what I really felt. So I asked my consultant how long I’d need to be with him. He said I’d have to continue seeing him for the rest of my life.”
Aged 56, Patrick is grateful that he is functioning well, adding: “I walk and I swim.”
But he says that, like everyone in this time of a global pandemic, anxiety is something he has to live with.
“It’s good to admit that we have anxiety. When I talk to neighbours, I can see them putting on a brave face. But I think we would all agree that at night time, when we sit down by ourselves, we worry if we have a cough or sneeze.”
To keep himself level-headed and at play, Patrick spends a couple of hours every day making cards.
“No two are the same. I put titles on them like ‘finding a path’ or ‘boundaries’. For me, they’re like talismans, good luck charms. I use pastel which is soft and soothing. My cards are quite small. They’re not like the work I did at the Crawford when I was studying art therapy. My work then was on quite a large scale, using lots of different materials.
“For me, doing art keeps me in the present. I don’t really have a plan. I just go where the materials bring me. The process is as important as the result. I’m not an artist but the cards are very vibrant and abstract. I send them out unconditionally without putting my address on them. It’s about giving rather than receiving.
“Someone sent me a card back. I didn’t expect that.”
Patrick has, in the past, worked with the Red Cross.
“I set up a lot of projects and initiatives with them. You kind of learn to pat yourself on the back for that.”
Last year, he graduated in art therapy with first class honours. He enjoyed studying the subject at the Crawford College of Art and Design.
“I just told myself to play and to let my feelings out. There was an array of materials to choose from when I was working at home, such as old newspapers, crayons, house paint and fabric. I allowed myself to make a mess. However, we’re now in a time where we have to keep everything very clean.”
Art therapy “is interesting but I won’t say it’s an easy journey. It’s very difficult. There’s a lot of deconstruction and reconstruction. It has given me a voice. It is very safe. I’m a client to myself first. So me making the postcards is for myself and it allows me to work with other people.”
Patrick says that trusting yourself is the first step when embarking on creativity.
“The process of making or creating something can be as important as the end product.
“People always presume that art therapy is for children or people with dementia or clients in psychiatric-supported spaces, which I have worked in.
“But art therapy has the potential to work for everyone young and old, families and communities.”
Art therapy, says Patrick, has “been known to respond to major situations such as 9/11 in New York where art therapists took to the streets and, more recently, in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower tragedy. For myself, it feels good to play a small role in the current situation.”