Healing Trauma through Art

In January 2020, my body was breaking and I had no idea why.

It started with drastic weight loss, grinding my teeth at night, constant headaches, and stomachaches. I wasn’t sleeping at night and was drinking too much. I was irritable, picking fights with my loved ones, and felt the need to isolate myself. My only hobby was watching Netflix. When I went to my doctor with my list of concerns, I burst into tears because I couldn’t understand why everything felt so messed up inside. She diagnosed me with depression and listed the recommended treatment options.

Even then I knew; her diagnosis was only a piece of the picture. 

On top of my reluctance to accept her diagnosis, I had just begun therapy to address my pre-existing ADHD. I hoped that by starting there, I would start to find some answers. Six months passed and while some of my symptoms had lessened, I still hadn’t gained the weight back. I knew something was still very wrong, and decided to schedule an appointment with the person who would start me on my transformational journey of healing.

This is my story of how a woman’s singing helped heal my complex post-traumatic stress disorder.

From the time I was born, I was a force to be reckoned with. As a newborn, I had set the house alarm off one night with my loud, high-pitched screams. As soon as I could walk, I was moving my body to music, making up dances in my room to my favorite songs. I even roped my little sister into family performances I put on for our parents. I would dress us up, choreograph a dance to my favorite Wiggles song, make a poster for our performance, and seat our parents in our family room as if we were at the theater. As I got older, I started taking guitar lessons, singing lessons, dancing lessons, and continued for the next 10 years- each piece becoming another part of my performances.

From a young age, I dreamed of becoming an amazing artist. But as I grew older and the dim reality started to overshadow my artistic creativity, I started to feel myself shrinking.

And then, as they say, shit happened.

Trauma is complex. It manifests based on the individual’s experience with it, so there is no prescription for talking about it. It is so intimately personal and unique that it must be broadened to this definition:

“A traumatic event, whether it be physical, mental, emotional, or a combination is something that evokes a strong emotion, and the event was not expected by the individual experiencing it.

Trauma can be a surprise- and not the good kind. Our brains seek to compartmentalize and when we experience impossibly emotional events, we reflexively suppress and deny our experience.

The complex thing is that these strong emotions tied to the traumatic event are just too overwhelming for our brains to process. So they hide away, waiting to resurface, anywhere from 5 minutes, 5 days, 5 months, 5 years, and beyond. Our minds hold the ability to repress traumatic memories and their emotional impact to the point of not consciously remembering that they happened. Our internal defenses want to deal with the surprise that is trauma by making sure we don’t experience that kind of emotional intensity again. We start to behave differently in order to avoid these feelings- because who wants to feel the extremes of anger, pain, sadness, jealousy, resentment, etc. again and again?

And this sounds like a perfect solution, right? We experience horrible things and our mind has this incredible ability to make us almost forget that it ever happened.

But it’s still there; it sits and festers in the mind. Not only that, the body holds onto trauma as well. So while we may not be living our day to day lives with these memories, they will manifest into how we’re currently living one way or another.

The first time I went to see Autumn I was unsure of what to expect, I had never seen any kind of psychic before, since at the time I believed most were full of shit and just wanted your money. Yet something about what this woman wrote on her website resonated with me, and I knew I needed to try at least once. We exchanged greetings and she asked me what I wanted, I said I wasn’t sure, but that I just needed help. She then told me she was going to do her thing and that I just needed to sit in silence and not think about what she’s doing.

About 5 minutes passed and the first thing she said was, “I can tell you’ve experienced a lot of trauma and have C-PTSD because of it.”

I burst into tears- I knew right away this was the missing piece. I knew I had experienced trauma before, but I didn’t understand the amount of trauma I had actually gone through, let alone understanding it as Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, also known as C-PTSD.

Up until that point, I figured any of my trauma was the physical kind. For example, in June 2019 I was hit as a pedestrian by a car, I knew this physical trauma was probably still sitting in my body. What I didn’t understand was the mental and emotional levels of trauma I was harboring in my mind from experiences that I couldn’t consciously remember or experiences that I had downplayed over the years.

After a discussion of the current traumas I could think of, Autumn had me lay on the acupuncture table. We didn’t have time for needles in this first session, but she did perform energy healing on me. She did this through singing. I could never make out any specific words she was saying, there seemed to be some intuitive way she was using her voice to meet certain, healing frequencies. I know this may sound unreal and hard to conceptualize, and trust me- that’s exactly what I thought two years ago. But despite my skepticism and resistance, her singing built a path for me to heal my trauma.

When I left that first session and came home that night, I was sitting in my bath when an intense tingling and pressure pulsed through the back of my head near my neck. Something felt different and better that day. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I knew I needed to keep going. I was walking the path of healing my trauma.

The next steps on my path started with painting. I never considered myself a visual artist but some of my best friends painted so I thought I’d give it a try. By beginning to paint I began to recognize this internal critic that lived inside of me, critiquing everything I was doing and asking whether it was good enough. Good enough for who? I’m just painting a damn picture for myself, I don’t plan to sell it to anyone, so why does it matter whether it’s “good”, what even defines a good painting?

I then started eyeing my guitar and ukulele again, I had barely touched them over the last 3 years, but I felt a subconscious pull to start playing again. Something in me wanted to sing as well, but I couldn’t find the volume or pitch to make something come out, or if it did it was off key and a whisper. I felt scared to make myself heard, I felt concerned about taking up space. I asked myself: is this what trauma does to you?

I have this memory from when I was 6 years old, sitting in the back of my mom’s car singing Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” and I was belting it. Where was that girl? She still existed in me, I knew I needed to keep connecting with art again to find her.

I continued to see Autumn at least once a month for the next year. She would gently open up discussions about where I was, sometimes she would simply ask me questions like “At what age did you become responsible for your dad’s emotional well being?” Then she’d do her acupuncture and sing in her beautiful, healing voice.

One November night, I put my headphones in and told myself I would dance. I could barely move. I was thinking entirely too much about everything. How did my moves look? Did I look dumb?I don’t want to look dumb so I shouldn’t be moving this much. All of this was racing through my head, but I kept telling myself I needed to learn to move to this music again. Dancing was something that came naturally to me, but my body and mind were at war with each other.

I felt frozen.

I told myself that I would dance every night, no matter what. Something inside was driving me and wouldn’t let me make excuses. A few weeks of dancing every day, my technique started to come back and I began truly feeling like myself again!

I started to play my guitar or ukulele every day, and I would sing. To encourage myself to improve and to ignore my internal critic, I started recording my guitar and ukulele sessions and posting them onto my social media, being able to not care what others thought but posting something that was bringing me joy helped to silence my internal critic. I kept dancing too, and turned to workout classes to build strength.

I began gaining weight again. I was taking time to listen to my body and really eat. I had rediscovered cooking as an art form, putting time and intention into food to feed myself in a way that I would be excited about again. I needed to be alone to do this and to be focused on rebuilding the connection between my mind, body, and soul.

It sounds beautiful, sitting in chosen solace and making art for months, but all of this came with a heavy price. I was remembering the intensity of emotions tied to different traumatic events I had experienced throughout my life. For eight months, it was a time of emotional heaviness and grief. But I was, and still am, learning how to transmute these emotions and grief in ways that are beneficial to my overall health. I realized how good I had become at numbing down and shutting everything out, just so I could just continue to go to work and get through another day.  

Healing is an interesting word. I think it’s important to acknowledge healing but not get so caught up in when the journey is “done” or “over”. While I have come so far in my journey, and feel immense pride in that, I am still experiencing triggers of my past. But this time, I know that it’s a trigger and I have the tools to work with it to my benefit. I still feel the “bad” emotions of pain, anger, sadness and grief, and I acknowledge them now instead of suppressing them. If I cannot understand what it means to feel these “bad” emotions to their full extent, I cannot feel the “good” emotions to their full extent either.

We are all creative beings, creativity is so malleable and subjective. Coming back to art helped me form a connection with myself again after being cut down and numb for so long.  Our society says if we create something, it needs to fit a certain predisposed standard; and that simply isn’t true. Creation is what our universe is made out of, creating art is the most soulful, meditative, and personal thing you can do for yourself.

Now, instead of saying I’m healing my trauma, I say that I’m coming back to myself.

I am coming back home.

image: detail of original art by author

Resumen

One Reply to “Healing Trauma through Art”

  1. I am very proud of you and grateful that you shared such a intimate experience! It really made me think, as I am facing a similar urge to express creativity, that I should actually focus on singing, dancing and playing the guitar again. Thank you for the reminder. Your post really touched me!

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