This essay is part of our month exploring the theme of Self-Care. Follow along with us all January for more stories on the theme, and be sure to check out another piece by Carmiel Banksy on writing and self-care.
What is an artist—a whole artist? And what does it mean to look at an artist as an entire person with very real needs?
Questions of this nature are the foundation of the Women’s Center for Creative Work. The Los Angeles-based not-for-profit is a co-workspace (with a print studio and library), artist residency, and educational facility that “advocates for female-led creative businesses and projects.” Their calendar is packed with artist talks, comedy nights, self-care workshops, and events with titles such as “AWESOME BOUNDARIES: for Empowerment, Safety, and Really Good Sex!” They have a non-hierarchical business model and an open call for workshop proposals from the wider community.
The WCCW serves artists holistically: rather than view artists solely in the context of their craft, they serve them in the context of society, financial concerns, and mental and physical wellbeing. Artists require community and resources not limited to run-of-the-mill craft talks and studio visits. The WCCW asks larger questions, like: how does one maintain both a feminist practice and an art practice, and how can we allow these to inform each other? In what ways can we take care of ourselves and respect our bodies as we grow our craft? To serve the needs of the LA creative community, the organization tackles these questions directly with a wide-angle approach.
HOW DOES ONE MAINTAIN BOTH A FEMINIST PRACTICE AND AN ART PRACTICE, AND HOW CAN WE ALLOW THESE TO INFORM EACH OTHER? IN WHAT WAYS CAN WE TAKE CARE OF OURSELVES AND RESPECT OUR BODIES AS WE GROW OUR CRAFT?
These values guided a WCCW event I attended, called “The Health and Dental Resource Discussion” led by Tricia Smith, a medical social worker at the LGBT Center. Tricia guided us through a discussion covering the basics of public healthcare programs. Tricia began and concluded the discussion with a brief mindfulness practice—a four-count breath in, a four-count hold, and a four-count breath out. Indeed, the system is so complicated that it can cause anyone anxiety, and a little grounding is necessary before diving in.
The message that Tricia stressed, and which underlined her whole workshop, was this: the system is frustrating and often rigged against you, but you are not alone. The small group in attendance nodded. We all felt it. On either side of me were women who were undiagnosed and misdiagnosed. Some suffered from invisible diseases and were made to feel invalidated by practitioners who didn’t believe them. Some had also been through years of erroneous treatments.
THE SYSTEM IS FRUSTRATING AND OFTEN RIGGED AGAINST YOU, BUT YOU ARE NOT ALONE.
My own story of pain management and experience in the public health system has been proof of this overly complicated system. I consider myself highly computer literate, but I still had trouble navigating the Covered California site. I accidentally signed up for Medi-Cal and submitted the wrong material to prove my income. If I hadn’t found my health advocate, Mark Kahlen, I don’t know how many more mistakes I would have made on my way to finding coverage before the deadline. I offered this story to the group—including the fact that I only figured out I ought to seek help after I’d bungled the form—and discussed how the other women could find an advocate themselves. Health advocates or certified agents are available to anyone, for free. They are knowledgeable about Medi-Cal and Covered California and have a treasure trove of secret phone numbers to get through to an actual human on the other end of the line. They cut through the bureaucracy so you don’t suffer any additional mental health issues from having to navigate these treacherous waters on your own.
Tricia then covered the full scope of public health care programs, including the differences between Medi-Cal and Covered California, dental coverage, transportation options, and mental health resources. One helpful lesson Tricia offered was to be vigilant when it comes to finding a dentist. Many undereducated dentists accept Medi-cal, and there is little or no accountability, so she recommended using Yelp and being cautious. Another insider tip was that insurance language was recently changed from “Primary Care Physician” to “Primary Care Provider.” Tracie mentioned Nurse Practitioners are a great way to go when choosing a Primary Care Provider. They are often more available to take new patients, and their approach is different from that of a doctor. Physician Assistants are also an option.
As alterative medicine is an every-changing animal within the insurance system and most practices are not covered, Tricia also suggested a few low-cost, out-of-pocket solutions. There are a few clinics that offer a true sliding scale, including Universal Family Wellness in Silverlake—a comprehensive facility with acupuncture, chiropractic care, blood testing, and other services. She also mentioned Every Body—a gender-nonconforming health and fitness facility (sans binary locker rooms) that will open soon on the East Side, founded by and for LGBT individuals.
The mood in the room became somber as the discussion shifted to psychiatry and therapy resources—from university facilities to counseling centers to emergency clinics—and how vastly different these resources are. Although many only offer short-term counseling, it was heartening to see how many places offer a sliding scale or free treatment plans.
NAVIGATING THE PUBLIC HEALTH CARE SYSTEM IN ITSELF CAN NECESSITATE THERAPY AND SUPPORT GROUPS.
Navigating the public health care system in itself can necessitate therapy and support groups. A couple people in the room had experience with Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), a type of cognitive-behavioral therapy that includes mindfulness and self-soothing techniques helpful to users of the health care system or with discouraging health issues. “This moment and this body is perfect as is, in its imperfections, just because it is,” Tricia said to illustrate the mindset DBT encourages. This therapy helps patients to break down big goals into manageable steps and offers language tools to confront any given problem: “I’m sick, I’m broken, and no on can help me” can be reframed as, “My body is fatigued right now.” DBT focuses on how that subtle shift in language can alter one’s perspective.
“The health-fold of WCCW happened organically,” said Sarah Williams, Managing Director. It was spurred by an event with activist and artist Johanna Hedva, who is known for her “sick woman theory.” When Black Lives Matters was just springing up, Hedva was unable to march on the streets and protest because she was ill. She wanted to be involved but couldn’t physically join in. That’s when she began to think of her sick body as a radical place. A political place. A place where art can happen. The event she held at the WCCW, entitled “My Body Is a Prison of Pain so I Want to Leave It Like a Mystic But I Also Love It and Want it to Matter Politically,” drew a larger turnout than anyone expected. The huge crowd spoke to the necessity of this conversation. From there, The Sick Club, a group of individuals with chronic, undiagnosed, or mysterious illnesses, began to meet at, network, and share resources through the WCCW.
THAT’S WHEN SHE BEGAN TO THINK OF HER SICK BODY AS A RADICAL PLACE. A POLITICAL PLACE. A PLACE WHERE ART CAN HAPPEN.
The organization was then approached by an anonymous donor asking if they would facilitate a health grant for artists. $36,000 was given out in two- and three-thousand dollar increments to artists who had a health emergency, experienced chronic pain or illness, needed help with medical bills or rent because of medical bills, or other health-related concerns. Hundreds applied to the grant. The WCCW was clearly tapping into a need that too often goes unaddressed.
With this grant and their holistic programming, WCCW challenges the triviality with which the dominant culture regards artistic practice. Being unable to practice one’s art due to a health issue is not seen as comparable to being unable to go into an office job due to the same illness. It isn’t easy to find financial or institutional support geared toward this concern. The WCCW, however, will continue to find ways of dealing directly with medical concerns through the “lens of operating as an artist,” said Williams. It is an ongoing practice and tenant of the WCCW to take the “whole person approach” when serving their network. To so many of us, including those in the room with Tricia that day, our artistic practice is just as—or more—vital than our day jobs. To be taken seriously—for an artistic practice to be seen as part and parcel of a whole life and body—is to be empowered.
Before concluding with another mindfulness breathing practice, Tricia summed up the talk by recognizing the value of our experience: “It’s a horrible, frustrating system. I want to normalize those feelings of frustration.” She emphasized that no one is lacking in intelligence or grit if you feel defeated by any aspect of the system—the online platform, navigating office visits, the many phone calls and wait times, the necessity of explaining yourself and the difficulty of describing your experience. No matter what aspect of the system you’re confronting—disability, chronic pain, undiagnosed illness, finding correct coverage, or, in my case, needing a service like an MRI that you simply can’t afford—it will likely prove difficult, but there is no reason to face that difficulty alone. Health concerns and attempting to resolve them through the health care system can sometimes overwhelm the more important aspects of one’s life, like an art practice. But organizations like the WCCW can act as a reminder that a body of art and the physical body are not mutually exclusive.
Dialectical Behavior Therapy covered by Medi-Cal:
Hollywood Mental Health
- 1224 Vine Street, Los Angeles, California 90038
- (323) 769-6100
- Preferred (but not mandatory) that patient live in Hollywood area
- M/T/Th/Fr 8am-5pm for walk-in intakes, will then be channeled to DBT through case manager/psych
- 11080 W Olympic Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90064
- (310) 966-6500
- Must call to set up mental health screening triage appointment, linked to social worker (potential waitlist) and screened for appropriateness for group
Downtown Mental Health Center
- 529 Maple Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90013 between 5th and 6th
- (213) 430-6700
- Must be SPMI with hospitalizations
- Walk in screening between 8am-5pm, assessment scheduled and patient will be enrolled in crisis intervention program for 60 days. Then, if needs persist, patient is transferring to extended wellness program where they can access DBT