The Healing Power of Art

Last fall, I had the opportunity to be a featured speaker at a day-long conference on suicide prevention in Milwaukee. Prior to my talk, there was a panel discussion on suicide.  The panel included four people who had attempted suicide, and a moderator who asked questions and kept the conversation moving. One of the panelist was a woman in her late 30's who had attempted suicide 20 years earlier. When asked, "what do you think saved your life - why are you still here?" The woman replied "art. Art saved my life then and continues to save my life every day."

To which one of the women in the audience sitting behind me shouted out, "Amen to that sister!"

Something I'd been thinking, but didn't say. I too,have experienced the healing power of art. 

I'm not sure that art saved my life, but I do know that it gave me a new lease on life when I needed one,and  a new way to communicate with myself and others.

In 1986 I sustained a traumatic brain injury in a car accident that resulted in temporary left-side paralysis, severe short-term memory loss and other cognitive deficits. The moment my head hit the car windshield, I went form being someone for whom many things cam easily - college, athletic endeavors, writing - to someone whose brain no longer remembered who to remember.

Through three years of intense physical, occupational and speech therapies, I recovered the ability to walk, talk, read and write again. However, when I was released form treatment, my neurologist and medical team designated me as 30% permanently disable, and told me it was unlikely I would ever function beyond a 6th grade level again.

During rehab and after, one of the most challenging aspect of my 10-year recovery was not being able to access the words I wanted. I think this is what - in the end- led me to art. I had periods where I stuttered, and times when I was thinking something that I wanted to say and it somehow got lost between brain and mouth and nothing but gibberish would come out. The frustration and embarrassment of it all made me want to hide form the world and never speak again.

My college degree was in creative writing and communication. Words were my calling, my passion. So I really struggled with the questions: Who am I? What am I - without words? Without the ability to communicate what I want to communicate? What is my value? My worth? My purpose?

My brain trauma happened during an era when very little was known about the brain's ability to continue to heal. and it was also an era when art therapy or just doing art for art's sake wasn't a common healing modality - at least as far as I knew. In fact, no one ever suggested that I do art to express my post-trauma fears, confusion and frustration.

But somehow my heart - my intuition - led me to art. And through art I learned that I had a vast second language that I never knew about - an inner language of imagery full of colors, shapes and symbols. If you believe in accidents, you might say that I discovered this language by accident. but I don't think it was an accident. I think it was my body-mind's primal desire to be whole, heal and communicate that opened a door that had always been there - I just didn't know it, until I needed it.

I first became aware of this inner language right after I was released from rehab. Suddenly, every morning I began waking up with brilliant colors, shapes and symbols in my mind's eye. What I found rally curious was that the colors, shapes and symbols were contained in a circle. So I bought some crayons and drawing paper, and whenever one of these morning circles popped up, I would draw it. And it felt good. So I kept doing it.

Eventually, I began to notice that whatever was contained in the circle seemed to reflect an emotional state or feeling. So I started to write down what those feelings were beside the circles. And that felt good, too.

10 years after first starting to draw my morning circles, I came upon a book on self-expression and mandalas in a used bookstore. Paging through the book I discovered that my morning circles were, in fact, mandalas - mandala meaning "sacred circle, a symbol that reflects self and wholeness." It was such an intense "aha!" moment that I practically started dancing in the book store aisle! "So that's what I've been doing - I've been making mandalas!"

For the past 13 years, I've had the joyous opportunity to teach hundreds of mandala and other healing art workshops, 1-on-1 sessions and classes at various wellness centers, churches and teaching institutions as a way to share with others, the healing and peace I have found through art.

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