“I Painted Away My Pain”
Art therapy combines art and psychology to help adults and children cope with difficult emotions or recover from physical and emotional illness. A woman with dissociative identity disorder, shares how it helped her to heal towards a happier future
I looked at the painting on the canvas – it was filled with wild strokes of red and black, skeletons and knives. How could someone paint such a gory picture? Why would anyone paint something like that?
I’ve often stared at the painting and wondered about the mind of the person who painted it. It’s hard for me to fathom that I was the one who put brush to canvas and created it.
You see, I have multiple personality disorder, or what’s known these days as Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). My internal world is chaotic and my paintings reveal my innermost emotions.
There are a multitude of personalities – I call them “Voices” – living in my head. Some of them I’m familiar with, others, not so much. I also have recurrent gaps in my memory.
I used to find the overwhelming mental clutter a torment and was depressed. But the first time I put paint to canvas, I felt myself leaving depression behind at the door step.
When I’m in the studio, I come alive. I used to work with art, but had slowly forgotten about it after depression hit.
HEALING THROUGH ART
Prior to art therapy, I was wrapped in too much self-blame to seek help. I didn’t think that I deserved any. People with DID can experience intense shame internally from themselves and their Voices. That shame destroys self-worth and tells you incessantly that you are not deserving of help or acceptance.
Moving through the shame and self-blame was a long and difficult journey, but art therapy helped tremendously. With my therapist’s gentle prompting, we had many significant breakthrough sessions which unearthed a lot of hidden issues. My turnaround was very gradual, but little by little, my fear went away.
Step by step, I started learning about each Voice, and why it was there.
Some of my Voices came into existence during extremely traumatic events, as a coping mechanism to keep the traumas from me. Painful as it may have been confronting those horrific memories, it was crucial for me to understand the distressing events linked to each Voice. The process was necessary for my recovery.
I attended art therapy sessions every week, and they were run in an open format that welcomed anyone young or old to join in and start painting. Every session brought different gifts, and I was constantly in awe of how my therapist held the sessions together so seamlessly, regardless of who walked in. She always knew when we needed space, or when someone was stuck while painting. She never intruded, but was always present when you needed her help. With her guiding me along, I felt like I had been thrown a lifeline. I no longer felt imprisoned.
With time, I learned how to communicate better with all my Voices, and became calmer after each session. These days, my buttons aren’t as easily pushed. I have lesser nightmares and even when they come, I feel more detached and am less affected by them.
It’s been five years of using paint to reveal my inner turmoil, and the benefits have been tremendous. I feel calmer and more grounded.
Now, I paint colourful pictures, with plump figures and funny illustrations. When my therapist inquires, “What happened to the dark images you used to paint?” I tell her honestly, “I don’t feel like painting them anymore.”
Art helps one express one’s pain, when there are no other means to release them.
Today, I smile because I feel happy. I remember a particular session one Wednesday afternoon when I felt really peaceful stepping into the art studio. In my mind’s eye, I saw flowers, all pink and rosy, so I drew them surrounding a girl who was smiling in ecstasy. I drew her with her long hair flowing all over the page. Subconsciously, I must’ve channelled myself into the drawing – my art therapist commented that the girl resembled me.
WHAT IS ART THERAPY?
Art therapy has been used for years in the West and is considered especially helpful for those who have trouble putting feelings into words. In Singapore, art therapy is becoming more popular, with psychiatrists and institutions such as the Singapore Association for Mental Health and KK Women and Children’s Hospital using it to help patients cope with difficult emotions. NUH and The Rainbow centre also run art-based programmes for children with special needs.
Art therapy is not about producing masterpieces like Picasso. Instead, it’s about having the freedom to paint, draw, make or say anything you want. Participants get lost in a maze of colour. This relaxes your mind – which can lead to surprising insights into things that have been bothering you.
Even the hand movements can help tap into your emotions – for example, the movement of your hand when you draw a circle, is an activity for anger management. It’s not uncommon for participants to start with the darkest colour, signifying rage and anger. But eventually, the anger subsides into softer and smoother colours.
Art helps you express feelings and thoughts that are too difficult to put into words. That’s why it works for all ages and social classes. The creative process is healing, so you’re encouraged to just draw and let go.
Art therapy helps you sort through your feelings so you can come to terms with tricky situations. It also gives you a sense of accomplishment, enjoyment and personal expression. It’s used to:
- Reduce anxiety and stress
- Improve self-esteem and confidence
- Cope with grief and loss
- Develop better interpersonal skills
- Overcome anger and depression
You don’t have to be “artistic”. Art therapy is not an art class – it’s about self-discovery. No one judges your work as “good” or “bad”. You don’t have to stick to drawing and paintings either; sculptures, carving, music all can help – what’s important is that you feel comfortable. Then your mind will relax and your feelings will be genuine.
EDITOR’S NOTE: THANKS TO *LISA SIM FOR SHARING HER STORY WITH THE YOGA SCHOOL. NAMES HAVE BEEN CHANGED TO PROTECT THE PRIVACY OF THE SUBJECTS MENTIONED.