Monday, October 12, 2020

Outside the Box: How Words, Art, and Psychotherapy Helped Me Find Peace


Sitting in front of the easel that held a large pad of sticky notes, I felt awkward, uncomfortable and anxious.  I hadn’t created any art for 18 months. I was accustomed to having intense energy guiding my art, but now there was none. I was quiet inside. The paper was blank.

Sharon handed me a box of chalk pastels, a medium I had never worked with before. I opened the box and chose a yellow piece, noting its rectangular shape and powdery feel. These sensory cues helped me stay present and try something different.

From 1998 to 2008, I considered myself a mixed-media artist, exhibiting my work in galleries around Indianapolis and Noblesville. I sensed God’s presence when I was working on a piece of art. Art and prayer were synonymous.

I enjoyed art so much that I developed and presented a program to church groups. The workshop, “Praying in Color,” combined my interest in art and my desire to help people grow closer to God. I cherished the companionship art provided during those twenty years while I processed difficult times related to my past.

My present day had its own difficulties. In 2017, I lost 7 friends to cancer in a 6-month time period. Abruptly, in January 2018, all of my creative energy stopped. There were no more art projects coming from my hands. I was lost without the ability to make a visual expression of what I was experiencing emotionally. These losses combined with my own history of significant loss affected me greatly. I was not well.

I decided to see counseling to process my many layers of grief, past and present. A counseling practice not too far from my house seemed a good place to start. My family had a good experience with a counselor there nearly twenty years earlier. I arranged an appointment with a new counselor.  Joan and I worked together until January 2019, when she moved.

Prior to her departure, she arranged a meeting with another counselor in the practice, Sharon, who I met one afternoon. After answering a few of my questions, Sharon asked me, “Have you tried art?” I was intrigued how Sharon might blend art and emotional work.

Now, sitting in her office three times a week, I was learning how art might lead to my wellness. I looked at the paper and made a vertical line, then another line and soon the whole paper was covered with evenly spaced rows of multi-colored vertical lines. When I looked at Sharon, she said, “Name the picture and put the date on the back.” I named this first piece of art, “The Acceptance of Lines,” May 6, 2019. The lines accepted my awkward movements opening a new door to hope and possibility. I was pleased to walk out of Sharon’s office that day, thinking my art may be returning, even in a simple way.

For several sessions afterwards, I continued to sit in front of the easel and only draw rows and rows of lines. I didn’t know what the lines meant at the time, but they brought a sense of calm to my chaos.

Sharon and I talked about the lines. I noted how easy a line is to draw. A line is self-contained, straight, and requires one simple hand movement. A line has a clear beginning and ending, and with a dot drawn above it, a line can become a candle. Four lines joined together in a square or rectangles make a container for an object or emotion.

The easel took on different functions at different times. The large paper held a continuous horizontal line, a timeline of my life, beginning with birth, extending through every year and event through age forty. The horizontal timeline brought disorder, horror, surprise, sadness, and humiliation, while the vertical lines gave me a sense of order.

In our sessions, Sharon and I discussed the chaotic, dysfunctional parts of growing up as a child and adolescent in an unloving home, peppered with fighting between my parents, glaring favoritism toward my younger brother, and cruelty toward me.

Throughout those hard days, I was not doing any art at home or even in Sharon’s office. Going through the timeline was exhausting, draining, and left no energy for art. Regaining my composure to exit Sharon’s office, get my receipt from the receptionist, and make it to my car, were my only objectives.

One day, Sharon surprised me. She reached under her couch and retrieved an 8 x 10 blank canvas and said, “Every week, I will give you a word and an empty canvas. See what you can make. Your first word is “time.”

I took the canvas gingerly. Walking to my car, I wondered what I could make.

Initially, I felt pressure to get something on the canvas quickly. I only had four days before I saw Sharon and I was not in the rhythm of creating.

The next day, I took a few moments to reflect on “time.” I let God enter in with me as I explored the word. I googled a definition. Other words surfaced. The urgency to create left me and I was able to see “time” as an orderly way of moving forward.

I found my small box of fabric tucked inside a bedroom closet and cut thirty-six small squares, enough to arrange my favorite quilt pattern on the canvas.

Sewing the fabric onto canvas was challenging. I wasn’t used to the hard, textured surface, although I was grateful for the wooden frame holding the canvas secure. I recorded my thoughts so I could remember to tell Sharon everything going into my work.

When I returned to see Sharon the next Monday, she was delighted with my artistic interpretation of “time.” She patiently listened while I explained my process, offering occasional comments and asking a few questions.

Although Sharon chose most of the words randomly, when I googled each meaning, I often discovered a psychological component. For example, one week, Sharon’s word was “containment.” Containment refers to the atmosphere the counselor creates in his or her office of welcome and trust.

Containment also had a psychological meaning which deeply spoke to one of my great needs. “Containment is the capacity to stay present and hold our experiences/emotions in such a way that they do not overwhelm or scare us. Without containment, we feel out of control, emotions or thoughts threaten to bring us to our depths. We need containment to stay in relationship to our experience, to ourselves and not get washed away in the suffering.” (Gwen McHale, “The Power of Containment,” August 4, 2016)

Art became a container for an emotion. Art can be a safe way to release memories – they don’t have to stay locked away. A blank canvas is both an open space to receive, but also has boundaries.

Sharon has given me fifty words altogether. Her prompts helped restart my creativity. I have two boxes filled with artwork related to each word. I know now that my art can come from a quiet place, not driven by intense energy. My confidence as an artist has returned. Art can speak when there are not words to say. Through these many months I pictured the inside of my heart as ugly, bruised, and battered. Now I see the beauty of my own heart when I see the art that has come from it.

I still draw lines when I experience an out-of-control emotion or need order. I appreciate how a simple gesture can help me stay present and contained. I am grateful for those first lines and the opening toward wellness and renewed creativity that they forged.