Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Survivors Speak: Using Art As a Bridge

Susan is my favorite kind of survivor - while juggling a family and her own healing she continues moving forward with tenacity despite the setbacks. She was not originally an artist, but now she uses photography, quilting and chalk pastels to help bridge the isolating PTSD gap between her and the rest of the world.

What, if any, relation did you have to photography, chalk pastels or quilting before using them as a therapeutic method?

Photography has always held a special interest for me. I love watching animals in their natural settings. I find the instinctive intensity in which animals live their lives inspiring. They live in the moment; they prepare for tomorrow and learn from past experiences. Photography helps me to capture that celebration of life and is a reminder that I too can share that life.

Working with chalk pastels started in the hospital. When it was first mentioned, I immediately said no. I knew I had zero talent in regards to drawing and had no desire to embarrass myself. Finally, after a lot of encouragement I decided to give it a try. And, yes, I was embarrassed by how awful the pictures were. But everyone was so encouraging that after a while I stopped feeling ashamed and really started to lighten up.

I started quilting during a very dark time in my life. My PTSD was in full swing. I had just started therapy and felt very confused about everything. I had been in denial for so long and was tired of trying to maintain what appeared to be a “normal” life. I saw a review about picture quilting and it sparked my interest. At that particular time, anything that could create even a little interest was worth pursuing. The quilts combine my love of nature and drawing.

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

I never considered my self very artistic, but love working with my hands. For years I stayed with pretty straightforward forms of expression like refinishing furniture. During a rough time in therapy, I was put in the hospital. One of the treatments was art. At first I was intimidated by all the natural talent around me and felt ashamed that even my stick figures looked awful. Then I found chalk pastels. Here was a medium that I could work with! I finally stopped worrying what others would think and just started to enjoy the process.

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

I think the most important way that art has helped me is in the area of confidence. I have always been very shy and withdrawn. I tried to remain invisible even in a room full of people, which is difficult when you are tall for a female. Art broke down that barrier. I started to meet others who shared my interest and no longer felt so alone. PTSD made it very difficult for me to connect with people on a personal level. How could I let anyone into my dark world? Well, art changed at least a part of that. I finally had something personal to share and that connection has been lifesaving.

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

Artistic expression has given me a different type of voice. When I simply cannot find the words to express what I’m feeling, my hands take over. Whether it is a photograph, drawing or a quilt, I can show it to someone else and they know what I was trying to say. Art forms a bridge between the hurt child inside and the outside world, something that words cannot seem to do for me.

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

Healing takes time. When I first start a quilt, there are hundreds of pieces. Each one has to be measured, cut and fitted into the whole scene. Once all the pieces are sewn together, they form a complete picture. All the individual parts are still there but are now united. I am literally sewing myself back together again, one piece at a time. Unfortunately, it is not a weekend project, but that’s all right, I have the time.

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?

The picture that best embodies what I’m trying to express is actually one of the first pastel drawings I ever tried. The picture shown above is of a lake with a rocky outcropping. The sky is stormy, rocks are scattered around and the water is choppy. The whole picture is very dark and gloomy. I started this picture after a difficult therapy session in which I was trying to express how I view my self. When the picture was finished I was shocked at how closely it resembled my own internal landscape.

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

My tip would be, don’t be afraid, this is about you. If at first you see a lot of dark and gloomy pictures, don’t worry, before you know it, brighter colors will start to appear. I would recommend to anyone who is shy or tends to isolate to sign up for a class on whatever modality you chose. It’s a great way to meet people and learn the little tricks of the trade. You will find some of the most kind and helpful people in the art world. Art seems to be a doorway that many trauma sufferers cross and there is always a helping hand on the other side. Welcome to the World of Art!


Anonymous said...

I can say that I had a major trigger last week. I call it "the perfect storm". My father had severe epilepsy uncontrolled by medication and I took care of him on my own since the age of 13 -14.
I was diagnosed with PTSD when I was 29, and nearly blead to death when I was having my son. So I have had PTSD for at least 16 yrs.
Anyway last week, the trauma unit called (my son was visiting with his school) however, my son saw a little too much, fainted and recieved a head injury that required 4 staples and was unconscious for a few seconds. I get a call from the trauma unit doctor telling me what has happened. Can you imagine what happened in me? Let's just say it was total panic. All kinds of cortisols and neurotransmitters are going off in my body, and I am immediately feeling like someone has hit me in the head with a 2x4. I am thinking "Oh my god, my son has epilepsy too, Oh my god that actress just died of a head injury..." amongst other things. I had not been able to sleep for 6 nights, and I feel totally on guard and exhausted (my son is ok-got his staples out yesterday and is doing fine). However, I did not feel fine until I went into my painting class yesterday. As soon as my brush and paint hit the canvas I literally felt my blood pressure drop and the terror and anxiety leave my body. I mean I FELT it. I have been a nurse for many yrs. and went back to school to help people with PTSD with Art Therapy...what I did not realize when I started, was that painting was saving my own life as well.

Rena Reese said...

This is a beautiful post--there is a lot of hope here. Hope for progress, Hope for Healing--Hope for a way to turn something that is unpleasant into something beautiful. What a lovely outlet-- Thank you for sharing.

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