After Abuse: Healing invisible wounds through Art

Memories_of_Abuse_Art_Therapy-1 I am a survivor of violence and rape. At 20 years old, after six years of abuse, I became empowered to end the abusive relationship. Despite being given a firm foundation in which to start my path of healing, including therapy and a safe home, the most difficult part has been my journey after the abuse, and trying to mend internal psychological and spiritual wounds that are invisible to the people around me.

Our society has started to raise awareness about the problem of domestic violence. However, there isn’t as much awareness of how survivors of abuse and trauma can cope with their internal pains after they have gotten out of the abusive environment. Most people don't realize that the road to healing can be long and can last a lifetime. Many men, women, and children carry invisible burdens of pain and suffering and don’t know how to find relief or are often given antidepressants or anti-anxiety meds and sent on their way to figure things out.

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There are many kinds of therapy, each used to treat different parts of the mind and body, but the one that I have found the most relief and healing through is creating art and regular visits to a therapist. Art therapy can be defined as:

"The application of the visual arts and the creative process within a therapeutic relationship, to support, maintain, and improve the psychosocial, physical, cognitive and spiritual health of individuals of all ages. It is based on current and emerging research that art making is a health-enhancing practice that positively impacts the quality of life." [1]
Below are some of the ways I have used and continue to use art as part of my healing and are ways other survivors may choose to incorporate into their process:
  • Collage
  • Painting
  • Daily journaling
  • Attending and then acting in the Vagina Monologues
  • Photography
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This series taught me how to "freeze frame" a scene in my own head, so that if I was reliving a painful memory, I could then imagine my abuser frozen and me walking safely away.

The practice I found the most useful was to create artwork and then discuss with my therapist. Sometimes I would bring work in, while other times I would talk about where I was in my creative process, discussing ideas and what they represented in my journey. Another powerful process, that I am just beginning to embark on, is to share work with other survivors. Sandra Guynes, one of the founders of Pearls, a Charlotte-based nonprofit organization using art to help end domestic violence, says that,

Art creates a universal platform for survivors to tell their stories, share messages of survival and create a platform from which to educate the community and end domestic violence." [2]

I encourage anyone who has experienced abuse to find a therapist they trust and ask about incorporating art as a part of healing. For some people, this path will be natural, but for those who may not think of themselves as creative, I've listed some resources that could be helpful. If you are just beginning, it may feel silly, but its really good to remember that the art therapy process has less to do with outcome and more to do with the process itself. [3]

Plan for Art Therapy

Resources

  1. Art Therapy Exercises to Try at Home
  2. 100 Art Therapy Exercises
  3. Pearls Annual Photography Exhibit
  4. Santa Cruz Survivor's Healing Center

References

[1] Cathy Malchiodi, PhD, 2013, What is Art Therapy

[2] Jennifer Baxter, South Charlotte News, May 30, 2013, Using Art to Heal Domestic Violence Survivors

[3] Margarita Tartakovsky, MS, 2013, Art Exercises to Try at Home

Disclaimer: I am not a medical doctor, nor a professional therapist. The advice in this post is based on my personal experience as a survivor of abuse and as an artist. I have referenced some resources for other survivors and their support communities to explore. Please consider this advice as advice from a friend.