Art as therapy – The Lancet Psychiatry


It is possible to survive worse things than death. Torture for example, more commonly known as child sexual abuse. It is also possible to become satisfied and have memories fade, to survive suicide attempts.

I used art as therapy. I didn’t do art therapy but I learned to draw and paint and went to art school. You see, my parents refused to let me study art in school. I think when I was in elementary school I was expressing myself through my art and my parents didn’t like it, obviously it hurt them, me painting monsters and getting angry. I am a very creative person and being prevented from painting or sculpting was so difficult.

Why were my parents so keen on preventing me from creating art? It was a complete ban. For my father, artists were all left-wing bastards. Strictly no art in any form was allowed. The television would be off. On vacation, I was dragged in front of the galleries. No paint, clay or modeling clay sets; even pencil and paper were forbidden. I got in trouble for scribbling on the phone keypad, carving in butter, and painting portraits in potatoes.

In 1990, in a poor HLM, me on allowances as caregiver to my son, I had my table. I had washed an old box and it was sitting on the table with pens and pencils on it. I can’t quite pinpoint the moment or the real momentum, but I started drawing. I had no money to buy paper, but something in the wrapper of breakfast cereals and apple pies, something in the substance of a card in my hands asked me to draw above. I sat at this table, donated by a charity shop, and drew. I brought out all the pain, misery and pain. The simple injustice of life has flowed out of me and it has flowed out of my fingertips; they seemed to know what to do. Somewhere inside, everything was tidied up. Intense, angry, intersecting images, fantastical sequences, dreams, memories so far removed from reality that it took time to establish what they were.

The paintings emerged from my very psyche that knew I was repressing those memories. It was liberating, but almost coded: the memories were too painful and unpleasant to face but were contained in patches of color – very old childhood memories. The color appeared, then a few lines; more lines built and possibly an image, a version.

Unfortunately, due to the demands of taking care of my son, I was unable to study art at that time. My son was born with birth defects and required many reconstructive surgeries.

I was living in Aberdeen (Scotland) but moved back to Edinburgh to try to get support from my family which never materialized. The reality of being back in the town where I grew up and having contact with my parents again has had a negative effect on my mental health. I slipped and slipped into psychosis. I had struggled with coping throughout my teens and early twenties – I had taken to drinking alcohol and smoking hash to cope, self-medicating . I had also stopped eating for several years, depriving myself of food or pleasure.

During my psychosis, I thought the Nazis had taken over and everyone who was single parent, elderly, disabled, or black was taken to concentration camps that I saw hidden in the trees. Odd-numbered buses take you there. I thought they were going to take my son away from me and abuse him, while raping me to get me pregnant. This thought was partly true because my family would have abused my son if I had let them. The saying, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not after you, rings true to me. Even through that, I started a college course to do art portfolio preparation.

I finally went to see my nurse and was admitted to the Royal Edinburgh Hospital in Edinburgh. Admission was difficult because I thought it was a concentration camp and they were going to rape me. They took my son away from me and I thought he was abused. The kindly brown-eyed psychiatrist managed to make me realize that this was a hospital: it was a difficult process. I stayed there for 6 weeks. They gave me amitriptyline, which was sunshine in a pill, it pulled me out of a deep black hole.

There was very little discussion of my history in the hospital despite the fact that I was there for 6 weeks.

The hospital staff simply did not address the real problem of my poor health. They had neither the time nor the inclination to listen: what I wanted more than anything was to talk about what had happened, instead there was tobacco, no exercise, a television, punctuated by three meals a day, and a huge feeling that the staff were right and I had done something very, very wrong. In the service I learned the currency of cigarettes and the importance of the tea cart and that there were gradients of madness – there had to come a time, if you wanted to get better, where you had to realize you were sick. It was a slow climb, like a bus going up a hill in the snow. I settled in when I realized the staff were there to help. For some reason, one of the female psychiatrists forced me to give them my parents’ address and phone number. I didn’t want to see them again. So I had to deal with my family coming to visit me; they were brought back into my life. My mom was wearing her blazer, showing her middle-class credentials, and she asked me what the prognosis was. I was tired of being polite: I just yelled at her, you know why I’m here again and again and she got up and left.

I had an appointment the day before I arrived at the hospital: he never came to see me, so I thought it was over. My hash dealer came to visit me twice, I don’t know why, but he got a cold reception from the hospital staff – they have a low opinion of drugs. I thought these dealers were my friends and during my stay in the hospital I realized that was not the case. they were consumers for their own profit and did not care about my mental health, which was exacerbated by smoking hash. I sucked at smoking hash – I often got paranoid and realized it was ridiculous to keep doing something that increased my negative thoughts.

Before entering the hospital, I had asked for help. The door was firmly shut in my face. My family had become aggressive with my mother holding her hands around my neck and telling me to shut up, scaring my son.

I decided to go visit my friend’s mother and father in Aberdeen, I thought they might help me. Instead, they pulled out a suitcase and pretended to go on vacation to try and get rid of me. It didn’t work, I was psychotic. They had boxes of tissues, which had the same colors as the German flag; I thought they were in cahoots with the Nazis.

My friend’s mum and dad convinced me to leave (you can’t stay here), driving me very quickly to the bus station to catch the bus on time. As he put me back on the bus home, he said, while shaking my hand, I’ll be fine.

I had even gone to see my GP and told him I felt suicidal – nothing was done except a prescription for not very strong medicine which I then used to attempt suicide.

The hospital was scary: I was terrified, people were out of control. We were given medicine at 10 p.m. We had to queue at the office for our pills from the medicine cart. It had to be taken without protest or explanation. We were chained to hospital drugs and psychiatrists. It pulled you down with side effects. Amitriptyline gave me sunshine in a pill, pulled me out of a deep black hole; I learned to smile again. We were then sent to bed and had to stay there. Night staff didn’t like being disturbed. Strangely, I always felt safer when a big rugby boy was on duty in case it started.

After the hospital, I decided to pursue a career in art. The amazing thing is that for once in my life I was in the right place at the right time – a company called Forth Sector was setting up training for artists. The two tutors Lisa and Lorna were sympathetic to our health; we just did afternoons to balance our feelings of fatigue due to depression. We had courses in clay, painting, drawing and printmaking. They were patient and took the time to explain how to do something and they didn’t mind if you were a bit slow to understand. It was all part of the healing process.

My drawing slowly improved. My drawings were in black and white a bit like my attitude towards life, here is the black with my pencil and here is the white of the paper. Lisa showed me how to use an eraser to create shades of gray to make the object appear three-dimensional. The other thing I was not good at was grounding the object, it always appeared as if it were floating in the air; this was solved by putting a shadow and a solid line defined to attach it to the table. I can see that by solving my drawing, I was also solving my attitude to life. The lack of a solid foundation was indicative of my family life, the black-and-white thinking often found with Aspergers.

After that I studied for a degree at Edinburgh College. It was a complete contrast to Forth Sector as the Guardians really didn’t care. My relationship with them broke down and they let me down. However, I complained and finally got my certificate. It was a great opportunity to try many arts – illustration, textile, sculpture and painting. I chose to study sculpture; unfortunately it was soulless. I wanted to do tricks but it wasn’t fashionable. It meant a lot to me but I hadn’t realized that it was enough to produce what the tutor wants to convey, to massage his ego.

It was a shame, I love art. I had studied for 4 years and had chosen my own subjects and courses to take, each course adding to my wealth of expertise and experience. Maybe it wasn’t my career, but it healed me. I had hated my hands and the things they were made for, art made me love my hands, love my life.

This article is taken from a longer unpublished memoir.


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