Art as Therapy

I am, for anyone who doesn’t know it, disabled. Some of it’s an array of muscle injuries, but largely it’s mental health issues that leave me crippled; none of it’s ever going to go away completely, regardless of how much and how many medications I consume to combat it all. It’s a situation that, 15 years into psychotherapy and psychiatry, I must admit isn’t ever likely to improve or change. Likewise, I live off a small disability check, and I’m largely very miserable.

Rather than dwell on any of that, though, I’d like to go into detail about something that’s made a world of difference in my life- something that’s helped keep me alive through all the madness and despair. If I had to put my finger on a lucky discovery that really has saved my life and given me a fair degree of purpose in life, I’d say it’s something I found totally by chance. It was in some kid’s mixed media visual arts kit that I found collecting dust somewhere in my parent’s house.

I think I was twenty or so at the time, and I had been on leave from work for mental health reasons; two or three months unpaid leave with permission to return from the industrial kitchen I worked at while I dealt with a nasty psychotic episode that wasn’t going anywhere. I was mostly too anxious to go outside; I couldn’t read, could hardly listen to music if at all; couldn’t do TV or film or videogames, really any of the other media drugs and entertainment we like to gobble up to stay sane in a wicked world. So, I was just stuck there, reeling, hallucinating, delusional, and experiencing constant panic attacks. Amidst that endless nightmare, I opened that art kit and changed my life forever.

Maybe it was hiding in the watercolor paints, but I think it was really in my picking them up and putting down a really grade school level purple sunset scene on some scrap paper with them. There was a tree, a hill, the sun, the pastel sky; I’d pin it at about third grade level. Totally unremarkable, except for the fact that in completing it I experienced a moment where I finally felt whole, for the first time in years. All that pain, anxiety, and psychosis went up in smoke for a brief period of time; it stayed that way for an hour or so I suppose. Then slowly it trickled back into my life, and before long, it was going full blast again. Today my madness still comes and goes; maybe a little less frequently overall than in the past. But somehow I’d found something; a light to stave off the darkness, even if I had to work at it to fuel it.

That sort of thing is generally called a peak experience, but regardless of how you want to think of it, I had a spiritual epiphany and I found hope in art, and in making art. They come and go of their own will; you cannot force one to happen, and they’re timed rather curiously. In pursuing further such experiences, I tried, for a year or so, to become a watercolorist on the side of whatever else I was doing; despite constant setbacks, I kept at it, working on and off as I got overly frustrated. I tried to pick up drawing as well; I had some successes with that too, but again, I hit a plateau I couldn’t get past. When I was phasing out of them I made two happy discoveries that kept me in the fine arts game: the writing of fiction, and my father’s largely unused digital camera that was collecting dust.

I always told myself I could never write fiction, and would absolutely never be a poet, but thankfully I’ve proven myself wrong. At some point I wrote a short story, then quite a few after it. Poetry manifested years later, and still happens. I still work at fiction and poetry, and I’ve found if I write a few pages of new fiction, or do a page of poetry, I get relief from mental health symptoms for a few hours at least. You wouldn’t think telling a story would make hallucinations die down for a few hours, but that’s the reality I live in; flow, concentration, and creativity make me more whole, at least temporarily, and help me to survive. As for the camera, that was where I channeled that visual arts energy I had from my failed attempts at being a painter. I took what I knew of composition, and my self-taught ability to perceive beauty in most anything visual, and learned to paint with light. That, too, gives me a release and tranquility when I’m working at it; whether that’s behind the camera, or more creatively tinkering with images in Photoshop- something I can stay absorbed in for hours on end- I find a strange sort of bliss and solace in the work. Later when I share it with others and they love it, there’s a joy in that, too.

In both media- writing and photography- thanks to who knows what I have in terms of unearned gift and learned skill, I’m better at executing my artistic vision. Simply put I’m just better at working in both, so I work at those more often than I draw and paint, which is a rare thing as of this writing, but hopefully not forever. A large part of me wants to be a digital painter too, and perhaps a musician eventually, but for now, it’s the camera and the pen that keep me modestly sane, so they’re what I focus on. Any way you look at it, the fine arts- and it doesn’t matter which of them are being practiced- are intensely therapeutic.

Which is to say, if you can find an art therapist, great, but if you’re on a budget, picking up a pencil and some paper can really save your life if you keep at it for a few hours. To be sure you have to find your media, and that’s a process in and of itself, but you don’t have to even become a great artist in your chosen medium; the key, I think, is to express yourself nonverbally in some fashion (unless you’re writing of course, in which case the trick is to express with words in story and verse what cannot be said in so many words streaming from your mouth). All the arts- dance, the martial arts, music, poetry, fiction, painting, photography, not to mention any not mentioned here, and any activity elevated to an art form- are therapeutic.

But if you think about it, they really can keep you alive; I feel they strengthen your spirit and release energy that otherwise has nowhere to go, and can make you either crazy, or crazier than you’d normally be. For others in my boat, of the things I would recommend for therapy and simple peace of mind, the fine arts were my first breakthrough. They still are one of the more awesome tools I’ve assembled for maintaining sanity in insane circumstances, amidst the fairly constant heartbreak and broken dreams that assail myself and others.