Art therapy has helped me defeat the voices that tell me I'm not good enough to be alive
In honor of World Mental Health Day, we’re highlighting stories from voices that deserve to be heard. These voices remind us that we are not alone. Never alone. #WorldMentalHealthDay
When I was young enough to cold-shoulder the world’s opinions of me, I was a pint-sized, self-proclaimed artiste. I white-knuckled my briefcase art set wherever I went. My mom knew better than to try stopping me from finger painting the underside of every countertop in the house. My class notes were peppered with curly q’s and gel pen scribbles and ambling doodles. But then the colors dulled, the brushstrokes faded, and I walked away from the proverbial easel for over a decade.
My delusions of artistic grandeur were dashed when I was rejected from an honors art class in elementary school. I’d spent weeks poring over a portfolio of horse sketches and landscape paintings and mixed media collages, all to be spurned from the exclusive club I most desperately wanted to be part of. Delivering the final emotional haymaker was a ruthless “queen bee,” who marched up to me, freshly shunned and teary eyed, to sneer, “I’m glad you didn’t make it into the program.”
I retreated home crestfallen and gathered all my art supplies – bold pastels, shards of charcoal, acrylic paints, oil crayons — and hurled them in the curbside trashcan. My latent insecurities regarding my worthiness, my talent, and my purpose had invaded my waking life, so black-and-white it would be.
The world was no longer my blank canvas — it was barely mine at all.
Let’s flash forward a dozen years. I’m 23 years old, succumbing to regular panic attacks and nose-diving into depression I had briefly wielded off with overworking and hard partying. I attend weekly talk therapy sessions and my primary care physician begins a conversation about unbalanced brain chemistry and fear of an impending breakdown. As a Hail Mary to avoid the prescription pad, he suggests that I channel my various strains of trauma through a creative outlet. And so begins my foray into art therapy.
Thanks to me not dozing off in AP Psychology and a few mental health advocate Instagram friends, I was casually familiar with art therapy and knew it had become a burgeoning phenomenon in its own sect of academia. Psychology Today has devoted an entire corner of its website to the benefits and literature supporting art therapy, and National Geographic delved into how art therapy helps life during wartime. The late, great Oliver Sacks, a famed neurologist and essayist, devoted an entire book to the therapeutic qualities of music. Art saves people, and I was willing to put my heart — and my work — at the altar for another chance at piecing my life back together.
Straight from the clinic, I roamed a couple of miles toward the closest art supply store. I was like a catatonic kid in a candy store, corralling rations from every aisle. A technicolor watercolor set. A few packets of coarse bristle brushes with rust-colored handles. A bag of opalescent plastic palette knives. A massive starter box of acrylic paints. Reams of canvas and spiral-bound books of paper.
Despite arriving without a roadmap, I felt as if, for once, I was heading in the right direction.
I lugged two bulky bags of supplies back to my apartment and commenced my bedroom’s transformation into a ragtag studio. I laid a pilled serape blanket on the carpet floor and neatly arranged my instruments. Without pause or pretense, I decided to quell all the voices in my head — the ones that said I wasn’t good enough to be an artist, the ones that told me I wasn’t good enough to be alive — and I gave them each a color.
I cranked out five paintings in an hour, feverishly tearing sketchbook pages and lashing paint strokes and swiping palette knives. There was no clear beginning or end, mode or aesthetic; but it was me, spilled guts in mixed mediums and haphazard strokes. The garrote of anxiety around my throat, the albatross of depression that weighted every breath… those hellians had become docile enough to let me roll out of bed and smear some paint on a shard of canvas until I strong enough to face the world for a day.
Art is the only method through which I can feel at peace with the damage that makes me indisputably, irrevocably who I am. Every painting is a demon I’ve exorcised, a snapshot of a moment when I was strong enough to overcome the weight of a world I hated. I’m glad I didn’t listen to the voices of my rejectors and illnesses forever. I’m alive because I refused to listen.