Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Survivors Speak: Don't Say A Word

As a writer, I’m continually amazed at how other artists create and express without the power of words while I sit and change the order, use, and implication of the smallest three-letter combination to get what I’m thinking just right.

In the interview below you'll meet a survivor who uses sculpting as therapy, and a whole other world of communicating without words. This survivor says trauma and PTSD took away the words but pieces of art replace them. What magic….

What, if any, relation did you have to sculpting before using it as a therapeutic method?

I began sculpting clay and throwing pottery in high school. My passion for sculpture continued in college where I took several art classes. Art was a major focus although I was studying, and eventually received my degree in political science. My current mediums include stone and clay although I would someday love to incorporate metal and glass as well.

Looking back, I believe I began using art as “therapy” in college although I didn’t know it. I wasn’t diagnosed with PTSD, nor did I seek professional assistance, until two years ago at the age of 33 when my symptoms became overwhelming and I couldn’t maintain my professional facade any longer.

As a student I found creating art to be a complete escape from my thoughts and triggers. I had an after-hours pass to the art building on campus and would sometimes work all night long without realizing it.

The trauma I suffered for so many years, in combination with PTSD, took my words. While I’m a relatively articulate individual I couldn’t express myself or my emotions, using words. I still can’t. That changes when I create a sculpture. My voice remains silent but my pieces speak for me. Some sing. Some scream. Some cry.

What first inspired you to explore your trauma/PTSD experience in art form?

The first time I tried to actually “use” my art to explore and specifically express my trauma was two years ago at the age of 33. I began seeing a psychologist who acted more like a job placement councilor than a therapist. Since I could express my displeasure with my employment situation, he focused on that. He did ask about the abuse, but I couldn’t speak; literally I couldn’t formulate the words, so I’d just sit there and stare at him. He was the first to ask if I liked art and then suggested I use it to express myself. I tried but was unsuccessful.

When I tried to force my feelings into art … it didn’t work. My art isn’t something that’s forced. It’s something that is organic and free flowing. It kind of bubbles up and just happens more than something that is pre-planned, outlined and structured. When I tried to make art fit my needs … when I tried to use my materials to “fix” myself … I couldn’t create. I started and stopped several projects without ever finishing a single one. I was devastated that my artistic talents, my passion, my creativity, had seemingly left me. I came to understand later that that wasn’t true, things just need to come out when they’re ready.

In what way do you feel using artistic expression has furthered your healing?

For me, sculpture gave me an outlet. Without it I would have imploded. Looking back I can see clearly that I was transferring my emotions into my work, especially when I was in college. It was such a tumultuous time in that my PTSD symptoms were just starting, I was carrying a full load of classes, I worked 30 hours a week and, to top it all off, I was a member of the Greek community on campus and lived in a Greek house. The one place I felt secure and safe and understood was in the art studio.

In college I remember feeling so completely alone although I was surrounded by people. I talked but no one really heard me because I never said what I really felt. No one could have guessed I was circling the drain because I was a joke-cracking student with a perpetual smile on my face. The only odd thing was that I created dark and sad art pieces. People simply thought I was making a social statement, stood back and nodded their heads, like they “got it.” No one ever guessed that what they were seeing was a representation of self. A raw offering of my own emotion and feelings. They saw what they wanted to see. My art meant to them what they wanted it to mean. I guess that’s how it is for every artist … even if they have the words to explain their inspiration, motivation and perspective.

What's the single most important benefit you've discovered from expressing your trauma this way?

Finding freedom from my own thoughts. It seems when I create I get into a zone where everything falls away. It’s a good space … even if I’m focused on the boiling emotions deep within. It’s almost like I’m taking action through my art for things I stood silently by for in my past. Maybe, if only in my own mind, I find my voice … and that’s what healing is all about, right?

What have you learned about healing by filtering it through art?

I've learned that healing isn’t black and white. It’s not achieved in any singular method or style. I also learned that I wasn’t completely dead inside … even though that’s how I felt. When I used to create my pieces I was full of raw emotion and that spilled, like water over a dam, into my work.

After fighting and fighting and fighting it ... I ended up NEEDING therapy and after almost a year with my first guy, the aforementioned “career counselor,” I finally found someone who specializes in EMDR and trauma. It’s been almost a year since starting with her and my life has completely changed. I don’t simply wall myself off from my emotions anymore … I’m beginning to learn feel my feelings and I’m beginning to find the words to express them.

Art only took me so far. I needed professional help to truly embrace and understand healing. I look forward to creating new pieces – positive and happy pieces. It's going to be a whole new experience.

Do you have a single piece of work that you feel best embodies what you were trying to express? What elevates this piece above the others?

There is one piece that pops to mind instantly. It was a clay sculpture I created in my junior year of college. It appeared, to most, as a commentary on war and I didn’t do or say anything to change that opinion. Thing is, it was about war … my war. The conflict was internal. The battles raged in my head, heart and body. It was my hand reaching through the bars. The prisoner of war’s skeletal fingers were my own. I was the one trapped deep in a dark hole. It was my hand reaching out for help. I was the one seeking love and peace and freedom (the words on the cylinder).

The cylinder was intended to be a series of three. My focus was to be on birth, war and death. I created the birth and war cylinders but destroyed both before completing either. I never even started on death.

The only photos I have were taken before the "war" piece was finished. Now, I wished I hadn’t ruined them … but at the time it just seemed right.

What can’t be seen from photos are the bars that the fingers are reaching through. The bars represented the prison I felt that I was in. The place I could not escape from. The letters MIA were also used … who was “missing in action?” Me. For all intents and purposes I was the one missing, even though I stood right there in front of everyone. As a child, and then young adult, I was not seen, heard or understood. My pain was witnessed but ignored. I was invisible.

What tip would you give someone who is interested in exploring the idea of addressing his/her own traumatic experience through sculpting?

If they’re interested in art then they shouldn’t let anything stop them from trying it. People don’t have to take classes or buy expensive tools and equipment. I’ve found just as much satisfaction molding a hunk of Playdoh as I have in spending months on a cumbersome stone sculpture.

Most importantly is not to judge your work … or let other’s comments affect how you feel about it. Art is personal and even if you explain it … no one can ever fully get your emotions, feelings and perspective.

Creating art as a method of healing from PTSD is as personal as it gets. Whether you chose to fill a gallery with your works or destroy every piece before you finish them … it’s okay. It’s your journey. It’s your expression. It’s your healing. Most importantly, for those (like me) who can’t verbalize their trauma … art can be your voice. A chunk of clay, block of stone, set of paints or box of crayons can speak volumes and best of all you never have to utter a single word.

'Survivors Speak' is a weekly feature written by or interviewing a survivor and PTSD experiencer about some positive aspect of healing. If you would like to participate in the series (anonymously if you prefer), please email me thoughts, ideas, and topic suggestions: parasitesof.themind @ yahoo.com.

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