Painting herself out of a corner

Nyulla Safi was born in France but immigrated to Australia when she was 15. Ever since she was a young child she wanted to join the Army, so that’s precisely what she did soon after leaving school. This was the late 1980s when very few women enlisted.

12 December 2019

I am free

But in mid-1993, after four and a half years, Nyulla was medically discharged because of severe posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and a bad back injury. Shortly afterwards she had her second child, and for many years was a single mum raising two kids while suffering from an acute mental illness. She says they were hard years and that she was, as much as possible, a recluse.

She had loved Army life and if she could go back in time she says she may still have joined, despite the decades of PTSD since.

It took her many years to do so, but Nyulla eventually reached out to DVA and sought psychological and rehab support. This helped, but she was still finding life difficult. She often struggled to leave the house and suffered from frequent night terrors.

But a transformation came in mid-2019 when she discovered painting.

‘I woke up one morning, my demons, the nightmares had visited [during the night] and I had really lost faith in humanity,’ she says. ‘And I was looking on Google to see if there was someone else out there who thought the same as me. And then I found this competition by the Mission to Seafarers Victoria.’

The Mission to Seafarers is an international mission of the Anglican Church that cares for the practical and spiritual welfare of seafarers. Its Victoria branch runs an annual competition called the ANL Maritime Art Prize.

‘So I thought, oh, painting, how hard can it be? I’ll enter the competition. So I literally went to a two-dollar shop and got some paints and canvasses, and got some brushes.

‘I didn’t know where to start. And then something happened. My hands, my heart, my feelings, everything just collided. I sent off that first painting and forgot about it.’

She carried on painting and found that it focused her mind and calmed her down. Nyulla describes her discovery of painting as a ‘Godsend’. She can’t force herself to paint, and often finds herself staring at the canvas for long periods. But once she gets going, the process puts her in a different zone in which her PTSD has no place. For instance, the number of nights per week she experiences night terrors has halved, and she’s getting out more, such as to buy painting materials or to seek inspiration. She paints every day and describes it as an ‘addiction, but a good one’. 

And not that it matters, but her paintings are by anyone’s standards, very good, especially given that she has had no training. The closest she got was in Year 12 when she was, ironically enough, thrown out of a lunchtime art class because her teacher felt she lacked any ability.

When she received an email from the Maritime Art Prize telling her she’d made the finals, she thought it was a joke. She went to the finals event, which was hard for her. One of the things that made it possible was the support from people at the Mission to Seafarers, in particular Cinda Manins who organised the Prize.

two women posing in front of a painting showing the moon reflected in the sea.

Nyulla Safi (right) with Cinda Manins at the ANL Maritime Art Prize finals night.

‘She’s fantastic,’ says Cinda. ‘I’m so impressed by her. She communicates beautifully, verbally, in her writing, but also in her painting. I’ve said to her that this is a positive way to redefine yourself. Become Nyulla the artist, not Nyulla with PTSD.’

Leanne Bishop, Nyulla’s rehab consultant, has a similar view: ‘She’s an amazing lady. It’s so exciting. The painting has played a massive role in her rehab.’

Nyulla is grateful to Cinda’s support and Leanne’s contribution to her rehab, along with DVA’s Stephen Blair and her advocate, Vietnam veteran Ian Hall.

She is also keen to highlight the role the department has played.

‘DVA has not once let me fall,’ she says. ‘They literally have so many people helping me. Each week I receive a call from different people from DVA offices to check on me  and see how I am. It feels as if they have my hand to keep me from falling back.’

Painting hasn’t cured Nyulla of her PTSD but it’s diminished its impact and provided her with a future. She is applying for grants, submitting her paintings to other competitions and her work will appear in a book being published in London. A gallery in Rome has also expressed interest in exhibit­ing her work. She is proud of what she’s achieved, and she has plans.

A forlorn looking woman wearing a red dress and holding a bouquet of flowers.

Nevermore.

‘I want to win a competition,’ she says. ‘And I want to tell people that I have PTSD and that I’m not embarrassed anymore and there’s nothing wrong with me. I’m still a person. I think there are a lot of veterans out there who are in my shoes, who maybe, like me, don't want to reach out. So I want to use it to get people talking about PTSD. 

‘I want to continue to paint. I’m determined to make it a realistic [future] because I'm finding a sense of solace in it – a sense of peace. PTSD does not have to define who I am. How many others are in my situation and probably don’t realise they can also discover a passion and hidden talent that will help them?’