The Exquisite Healing Of Art Therapy

Photo credit: Lucas Sankey

A storm was lashing inside of me. Like a wild mesh of tangled lightning, there was grief, PTSD, and bipolar, all raging in my body, my heart, my mind, all at the same time … I was a crumpled, chaotic, disintegrating mess and I desperately needed to find some light amongst the fractures and all the broken spaces inside of me, and so I turned to an ancient and buried love … I turned, finally, back to art.

Art was one of my first loves as a child. And one of my fiercest passions as a teen. But for years it had been covered in a dust blanket, visited only by the tiniest moths and random snatches of time. Abandoned because I didn’t think it was safe to really express myself.

But my ridiculous state of being, my total and complete upside-downness and inside-outness pulled me back to that space of yearning for pure self-expression and healing of a new kind.

In my first awkward and tentative steps towards the healing that art could bring, I fell into the divine embrace of a beautiful and incredibly talented friend, artist, and activist, Anastasya Eliseeva, who understood my pain and grief and suffering and madness. An artist who holds a well of deep wisdom, complete empathy, and lush creativity.

She uncovered what my heart needed to heal from my grief, and with beautiful intuition she guided me back to my love for expressionism and created my first art therapy project: to paint a self-portrait. The theme was happiness (which was to me, the opposite of grief), and my medium was love; to paint with love.

It took me months to finish the piece on an emotional level, but the experience of that art project was sublime. It gently dislodged something in me, like a pebble in a river. And quietly shook me awake to a new reality.

The instant I finished the piece it almost magically occurred to me that there was more to my grief than just my father’s passing, that it was also the two years of nightmarish hell I walked through with him as the cancer erupted like too many volcanoes in his body.

That one small art therapy session made me realise that I needed help, it made me  realise that I was ready for that help … and strangely enough, when that help came, it lead to even more art.

My art therapy piece that evoked healing, transformation, and a profound epiphany.

And in a weird and beautiful way, a maverick therapist appeared in my life the exact same day that I finished my first art therapy project. With the exact message of healing I was now suddenly looking for. I booked an appointment without a second thought.

Natasha van Zyl, my newfound therapist, turned out to be another awesome human. Creative, talented, insightful, refreshingly unconventional … and bipolar herself … she unveiled the somehow surprising revelation (to me) that the years I had been ‘nurturing my father into the arms of death’ was a trauma.

There are so many horrifically visceral experiences so deeply etched into my being from those years, but never once did I ever consider the trauma I was in. Natasha was the one who finally got me to acknowledge all that. She said I had to, for my own healing.

And so she set me another transformative art therapy project. And it was this: to utterly destroy something that belonged to my father … and then to create something entirely new out of it. It was because my greatest fear had been that my father would die. It was because he did die. And it was because even though he did die, I still felt him close to me. His destruction was also his creation. And so it could be mine too.

I chose a souvenir in a glass case that my dad had once brought back from a trip, and in my quest for healing, I gave myself permission to destroy it. I gave myself time until I felt ready … and then one day I took that souvenir in its glass case and I smashed that glass to smithereens and set the rest ablaze.

Even now I still feel how magnificently liberating that was. The feeling of it. The sound of it. The sight of it. I can still feel that exquisite release of all that glass exploding. I can still see the flames that engulfed the rest.

And from the ash and the shattered glass, I created something new. Not art that I would ever display, but art for my own healing. In my own heart, I had now affirmed the eternal circle of being. And even more than that, it was like 10 000 ghosts suddenly evaporated from my bones all at once. It was like the sun came out. Like dark clouds melting. It was a massive turning point in my grief.

The destroy-to-create-something-new art therapy that marked a massive turning point in my grief.

The dust settled. I continued to heal. To grow. To nurture myself in simple and quiet ways. And somehow when the time was right again, one of the amazing human angels in my life launched Cool Mindz, an inspired movement of profound healing through the unconscious art of doodling.

We’ve all doodled. I’ve always doodled. But who would guess that there could be so much healing within it? Singer, dancer, actress, healer, transformation coach and cancer warrior, Taryn Sudding has a way of shining light into the darkest of spaces, and I will always be so deeply grateful to her, not just for her friendship, but for the way she opened the ‘doodle doors’ for me.

Doodling with intent (mantras, affirmations, even questions) has unearthed such incredible layers of peace and knowledge and healing within me, and shown me ways forward I’d never imagined before. It’s been such a powerful tool for me that I’ve now started integrating a little doodling time into my daily practice.

My first doodle selfie compared to a doodle selfie just days later. The healing power of art.

And so, over the last three years, art has become a way of life for me. A way to express new ways of being. To totally unlock myself. To set myself free. To come home.

And somewhere in this journey of unfettered freedom, a dream came to me while I slept: I was shown a whole series of paintings called Soul Explosions, merging expressionistic portraits with acrylic flow painting as souls bloom in divine fullness.

Some pieces make me want to dance, some remind me that there is a goddess within. All make me want to walk with spirit first.

I doubt I will ever fully capture what I saw in my dream, but the paintings I’m creating now make me feel like dancing, they make me feel like I have a goddess within, that I can touch the magic and the grace and the beauty in my heart and in my soul. That I can walk with spirit first.

And now that I’ve found it again, I will keep walking this path of art and creative expression and healing. And I hope that you will too, in your own creative way. Because art is healing. And so are we.

Read more about why you should try art therapy.