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.


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
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


  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


[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.

What V-Day Means to me

Eliason_F_My_Ex_February 14, 2013 is my 9th Valentine's Day free of my abuser. I've been wondering for a long time when I would start to really publicly share the story my abusive ex-boyfriend, and I think now is the time. I can't do it all at once. There's too much. And in reality it makes most people feel uncomfortable, and this is so important that I don't want folks to tune out. I get it--its hard to listen to stories of abuse.

So, I'll just start talking about one of my favorite holidays, V-Day. V-Day, the global movement to end violence against women, has been a part of my life for the last eight years. I witnessed my first Vagina Monologues in 2005, and monologued the following year as a student at CSU Monterey Bay. The ability to channel the experience of 6.5 years of abuse through a monologue about women's empowerment and the support of a whole cast of other Vaginas, was one of the most precious gifts I could have received. It was life changing.

I learned how to speak out about my experiences as a woman. I learned to share my story. I learned that I have my own power, my own voice, and my own body. I leaned about safety and trust.

Today, I had another opportunity to express my story and my art with others. In 2011 I created a piece for a photography course, under the assignment of "3 dimensional or sculptural photography". I created a piece using an old photo of my ex and a set of nine specimen containers. The photo was really the only physical object that I had kept. I don't know why I kept it. Maybe I thought it would help keep him away if there was always a photo to remember what he looked like. Sometimes you do superstitious stuff like that.

I started with clean, un-used, urine sample containers and filled each with a dismantled, destroyed image of him. I had been thinking of destroying the original so many times, that it seemed appropriate to do so for as many containers as I had. While, I have sometimes imagined punching his face, kicking him in the balls, and a number of other acts of aggression, I am actually not a violent person. And the things I've done to the images are expressions of my anger towards my loss of freedom as a teenager and my loss of sense of self while I was being abused.

The Museum of Art and History hosted a pop-up museum event at a local bar tonight, with the theme of "F my Ex" and I'm proud to say I brought my piece. It normally stays in a closet, in a crumpled brown paper bag. Because, really, how often do you want to look at images that remind you of a life that was filled with fear and domination? But for two hours it came out and I shared my story with old and new friends and was reminded of how much of a warrior I had to be to remove myself from that situation and how far I've come since then.

What does V-Day mean to me? It is a celebration of my own freedom and the freedom of other warrior women too. It is a celebration of love, self-love, love for women. And love for men as well. V-Day is a day to remember myself and others. It is a day to remember my journey and a day to share my story with the world!

Happy V-Day everyone!


And if you've never seen Vagina Monologues, do it. Do it for yourself, your girlfriend, your mom, you sister, your daughter. It is a powerful play, funny, sad, sweet, but above all, powerful.

Origin Stories: 12/12/12

Watsonville_Guadalupe_Theater-1Today is my dad's birthday. He's turning 78 this year. When I was a kid he used to tell us that when he was visiting Mexico, they would call him Lupito, or el Guadalupe, because his birthday fell on the 12th of December. December 12th is the day Our Lady of Guadalupe is honored, an extremely important holiday for Mexican people. I didn't fully comprehend what the holiday meant as a child. My mother was from Mexico, but we didn't speak Spanish at home or celebrate the cultural holidays as Mexico does. However, as an adult, I learned not only what was so very special about December 12th, but I have also connected with my own origin story. My American father met my Mexican mother in Mexico. I was conceived in Mexico and my dad brought my pregnant mother to the Unites States, so I literally was carried across the border in my mother's womb. I was born in the United States and I was raised with Anglo culture and Anglo neighborhoods. As a result I developed a yearning for my Mexican roots.

When it was time to decide on a major for college I decided to study Cultural Anthropology so I could learn more about my mother's culture. My field studies consisted of visiting the town of Watsonville, a Mexican immigrant community, whose culture of origin is a party of daily life. Through these studies I learned that there was an oak tree at nearby Pinto Lake, with an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe in its bark, where people would pray and give thanks for miracles at an outdoor shrine.

For eight years exactly, as of today, I have been visiting this outdoor sanctuary and learning the broader meaning behind the Guadalupan adoration. I learned that the apparition of the Virgin of Guadalupe to an indigenous Mexican is a symbol of the collision between two cultures, the Spanish and the Native, which created the Mexican people. Modern Mexican people, religious or not, living in Mexico or not, see the Virgin of Guadalupe as a symbol of their origins. It is similar to how we, in the United States, see and celebrate Thanksgiving or even 4th of July. December 12th, the day of the Virgin, is a celebration of the Mexican origin story.

I have been photographing Guadalupan culture ever since my first visit to the shrine. This year I was invited to photograph the rehearsals and performances of "Hechos Guadalupanos," a theater production in Watsonville which tells the story of the Virgin of Guadalupe, produced and performed by a grassroots theater group, and performed in a local church. The above image was taken at last night's performance. Tonight they'll perform for their largest audience, hundreds of people who believe the Virgin of Guadalupe is their Blessed Mother. This production is just one example of many that demonstrate the cultural importance she has for the Mexican people.

Without realizing what I was doing eight years ago, I put myself on a path to discover the cultural origin story of my Mexican roots, which as it turns out is celebrated the same day as my dad's birthday. Happy 78th birthday Dad! And Feliz Dia de Virgencita de Guadalupe! I'm proud of my roots, thankful for a year full of blessings, and looking forward to another year full of learning about arts and culture.