Why did I call this The Healing Gifts of Art? Because art—any kind of art—is not only meditative and soothing for the soul, but also can actually emotionally and physically heal a wounded body over time.
The art of writing saved me. When I was five, I was hit by a car and dragged 200 feet down the road. The left side of my face was torn off, along with my eyelid. Fifteen years of twenty plastic and reconstructive surgeries followed. Those were years of hospitalizations, trauma, pain, sadness, disfigurement, shunning and teasing. But when I went off to college, after my final surgery, I stuffed all that down into a deep place and looked to the future. College was a wonder to me, a place and time where I started to glimpse a future where I would be accepted for my gifts. I embarked on a career in journalism, and was fairly successful.
But when I turned fifty, my life began to fall apart. My long marriage was failing, a business I had bought was floundering, my mother, who lived with us, was declining, my teenage daughter was acting out, and I couldn’t seem to figure out how to fix it all. I turned to writing, and with the help of a therapist, started to put the pieces together. I had to go back in time to understand, and find a way back to my whole self. A genuine authentic self. And for that, I had to heal from the complex trauma I had experienced as a child.
Complex trauma is trauma that is sustained over a long period of time. It can be physical, emotional or mental abuse, or it can be trauma that results from medical need, like mine. I was, in Carl Jung’s view, a wounded child.
Jung believed we all have an inner child, that part of us that never grew up and that still influences the choices we make as adults. She holds all the memories and emotions, good and bad, that she experiences. If that child experiences trauma, particularly long-term trauma, she will grow up believing that she isn’t safe, and make decisions out of a survival-based fear.
Childhood trauma destroys the child’s sense of safety, which includes emotional and spiritual well-being. If a child’s needs aren’t met, she will likely become hypervigilant and scared, and thus every time the adult confronts a situation those fears will re-surface. For wounded children who experience long-term abuse, physical, emotional or psychological, the wound becomes so overwhelming that as adults their psyche represses the memories. And that can lead to serious dysfunction.
“Adults are covertly controlled by their unconscious inner child, and this leaves a child in charge of their lives,” the Complex Post-traumatic Stress Disorder Foundation says. “When wounded, these little ones are full of anger, shame and sometimes rage because of the maltreatment they endured. Inner children are the lens through which injured adults make their decisions.”
I was in my fifties when I started to realize how damaging my childhood experiences were, and it took years of therapy for me to heal from it. In fact, it’s taken me until now to put my story together and risk telling it in a memoir, Face, which comes out today. I’m still dealing with the effects of my complex trauma. I have only recently come to realize, too, that I’ve spent a lifetime trying to deny it.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control defines complex trauma—also called toxic stress— as “intense adverse experiences that may be sustained over a long period of time—weeks, months or even years. … Children are unable to effectively manage this type of stress by themselves, the CDC says. As a result, the stress response system gets activated for a prolonged amount of time, which can lead to permanent changes in the development of the brain.”
The only way to stave off these complications is to intervene early on with emotional and psychological support. As I write about in Face, I didn’t get that from my mother, but I had a warm and loving father whose unwavering presence and support are the reasons I have been able to be as successful as I am. Fortunately, many of us do grow up in loving and supportive environments. For those, like me, who suffered complex trauma, art can be a part of healing in adulthood.
Engaging in art—almost any kind of art—can relieve stress, anxiety and depression, improve communication, help arrest cognitive decline, and even speed physical healing at any point. The arts enhance coping for patients in a hospital setting, reducing the need for pain medication and alleviate patients’ levels of depression and situational anxiety. Engaging in art has been linked to improved memory, reasoning, and resilience in healthy older people, as well.
The National Center for Biotechnology Information says four specific kinds of art have been proved to be effective in lowering stress and anxiety; relieving depression; and improving self-worth, among other positive outcomes. They include listening to music, engaging in drawing and other visual arts, movement-based creative expression like dance, and expressive writing.
I wrote about my trauma for 15 years—I’m still writing about it, and working out deeper and deeper layers of sadness, grief and fear, peeling away the urge to hide, the lack of confidence that plagues me, the belief that I’m not lovable (which is not true. I know that now).
For me, writing was the artistic catalyst that I used to come back to myself, a lifetime journey that’s not finished. So I keep writing. And I keep healing and learning. Even if you’ve never experienced trauma, writing can help you work out the daily annoyances and sadness—and even the joys—that are part of life. How many of you have a daily writing practice? Do you paint, play an instrument, sculpt or write poetry? Or do you have some other kind of art that you practice regularly?
Any kind of art can be healing, and I hope if you have a wounded child within that you’ll engage in some kind of therapeutic art to help you process and let go of these debilitating beliefs that are so deeply seated from childhood. Seek out professional therapy if you find you can’t do this alone. The CPTSD Foundation can be a good place to start. There are people who care. Reach out and ask for help.
(Marcia Meier’s memoir, Face, is out today from Saddle Road Press. You can read an excerpt here, and buy your copy here. Today, she will be reading from the book and answering questions at 4 p.m. Mountain time (6 p.m. Eastern) with Collected Works Books of Santa Fe. Register for the Zoom call here.)