When I was working through my trauma in exposure therapy, my therapist and I tried to find safe ways to expose myself to reminders of the trauma. Of course, seeing R. was out of the question, as it would be dangerous for the both of us. I still don’t know how he’d react to seeing me, and at the time I didn’t know if I could control my rage. As a team, my therapist and I came up with the idea of using art as part of my exposure therapy.
I’ve been working towards becoming an art therapist in recent months, a dream I’ve had since I first saw an art therapist when I was fourteen. As such, I’ve done research on art therapy. According to Schouten, Niet, Knipscheer, Kleber and Hutschemaekers (2015), who conducted a review of the effectiveness of art therapy in traumatized adults, and was found to significantly reduce symptoms of trauma. Art therapy has been used to treat traumatized veterans, those suffering from drug addictions, and many other types of complex trauma. I was confident in the ability of art to help me.
The first project that my therapist gave me was to draw R.’s old house, the place where a lot of the abuse happened. To do this, I had to take a picture of his old house. I had to call on my inner super-spy skills, as I wasn’t sure if just going to someone’s house and taking photographs of the outside was legal or not (shhh!). I went to a nearby candy store first, for some sugar courage. I took the picture like a ninja, pretending to be taking a selfie in the playground across the street so the nearby construction workers didn’t think I was scoping out the place for a robbery (bwahaha!).
When I got home, I sat down and tried to draw. I decided to practice some of the perspective skills I learned in my art class a few days before to make the house more realistic. I over practiced, however, to avoid the feelings that came from drawing the house. When I was ready, I drew the house. To draw it, I had to break it down into it’s component shapes, and then draw the details later. Breaking it down (this is the siding, this is the window) helped me to realize something: a house is just a house. It wasn’t a Monster House, like in the 2006 film; it was just some house in some neighbourhood in my home town.
The second project was a little bit more difficult. I was tasked with drawing R. My therapist suggested that I draw two different versions of R.; one as he was, and one as I saw him. Of course, I knew which one would be easier, so I did the harder one first, drawing R. as he is.
I tried to do what I did with the house, and what most artists do when they try to draw something…break him down into his component parts. However, I’m such a perfectionist that I didn’t want to draw him from memory because it wouldn’t be accurate. Even R., I suppose, deserves the effort of an accurate portrayal. On a less pretentious note, I also have trouble remembering his face sometimes, as a defense mechanism from the trauma. Since finishing treatment I can remember his dumb face easily, but at the time we conducted this little experiment I couldn’t. I had to unblock him from my Facebook so I could see his profile picture and draw from that.
Funnily enough, that’s not the first time I’ve drawn R. I drew him before we started dating, because I couldn’t get him out of my head. Little did I know that once he was in my head he wasn’t going to leave. As I drew him I felt angry at his face for being so dumb and ugly, but then I saw it as a collection of features and broke it down and drew them as I saw them. I tried to remove the feeling from the drawing to make it realistic, hiding behind artistic integrity. Maybe that wasn’t so bad. The picture I drew isn’t accurate at all, but I tried damn it, I tried. The experience made me realize that, much like the house, a face is just a face. Yeah, it’s a face that traumatized me, but a face on a computer screen wasn’t going to hurt me. There was no point living in fear of the memory of a face that I never saw.
Drawing him as I saw him, as a monster, was much easier. I chose to take inspiration from a classic Canadian monster called the wendigo, from the traditions of the Algonquin plains people. The wendigo is a cannibal creature, how was once human but tasted flesh and became a monster. The wendigo can thrall people into walking right to it and preparing themselves to be eaten. The more it eats, the more it grows, but is never full. The wendigo has a heart made out of ice and looks more like an animal than a man. I drew him as one of these creatures, because R. has a cold heart and no matter how many people he hurts, he never gets his fill of pain. The drawing of R. as I see him took me fifteen minutes, the drawing of him as he is took me forty five.
The art did help me put onto paper how I feel about R., but also reminded me that, no matter how monstrous my mind had made him, he was still a human being. One with a stupid face and bad hair and generally kind of an evil jerk, but a human being. Flawed. Made of the same component parts as anyone else.
Did art reduce my feelings of depression and trauma? I think it did. I was able to make my feelings expressible, like in the poetry I’d been writing. I was happy with it. I felt that it was a safe way to expose myself to my trauma, with the added benefit of a tangible accomplishment at the end of the day. I would recommend it to other therapist. Who knows, maybe I’ll use it one day in my own practice!