Until recently I never really thought about the therapeutic value of art and the act of creation as a therapy tool. I suppose because image making and writing has been a part of who I've been for so long that I never stepped back and assessed it's function beyond the finished product. It turns out art has been used as a tool in treating mental health disorders in an official capacity at least since the 1960s. It's good information to have as someone with a few mental health issues as well as a creative practice.
On reflection on my life as a whole, the expressive arts have been a defining mode of meaning for me. This has caused as much pain as it has joy, for the artist is never truly satisfied with what they've done. Incessantly comparing myself to the greatest artists who have ever lived has never failed at producing agony and depression. This is true to such an extent that I have never been comfortable identifying myself as an "artist" at all. It's a term that carries far too much weight and is loaded with far too much history.
Art and writing is and has always been something I've done on the side as a hobby, never as a vocation. Life is structured in such a way that what we love to do is relegated to the fringe of our life in order to give the bulk of our time over to serve the needs of corporations in exchange for our basic necessities. Even as a student the time available for art making had to balanced against a whole list of other categories of work.
Creativity ends up being this activity that helps us escape from the pressures and monotony of so many other demands in life. Those windows of pure freedom to create anything we want become valuable in part due to the scarcity of the experience itself. Even if it means staying up and losing out on sleep to do it, the emotional boost of making is worth it.
And yet, society as such, be it in the form of our family, teachers, bosses or colleagues rarely support or encourage this most meaningful and life-affirming pursuit. In all my years of art making, the recognition or praise received for all my efforts has been slim. It's obvious where the motivation comes from when a person is rewarded with money, fame and adulation for acting, music or some other expression that fits into the economic sphere of entertainment. For so many of us artsy-types, our work is not an entertainment commodity that's easily packaged and mass-marketed.
Which leaves me with the awareness that art serves an intrinsic value within those of us who create it that is often wholly removed from the standard principles of reward. The value occurs within us as we do it or afterwards similarly to the effect of physical exercises. People who work out don't expect or need a cheer squad or a trophy at the end in order to do it. The process itself is the reward.
That is, when I have my head screwed on straight. I can't say I didn't wish in the past to be talented enough to be much more successful as an artist and able to solely pursue it. The expectation of achieving success or need to be officially recognized in order to justify the investment of time and energy probably keeps many from making their contribution to the well. Realizing I wasn't destined to be a big-time artist able to turn it into a career forced me to reorient my perspective on the matter. I've been talented enough to sell my creative skills to corporations as a designer for their needs, but not just making any old pictures I felt like.
When it satisfies a business agenda, there's plenty of money to go around for the verbally and visually creative. The market for soulful self-expression is decidedly smaller. The whole business of commercializing art, whether through elite galleries or news media is a vulgar theft of a practice that anyone from any skill level or background should feel comfortable in participating in.
This brings me back around to the concept of the therapeutic value of the creative process. Faced with a growing addiction crisis, I think that democratization of art making is of supreme value in or society today. Regardless of what your art will mean to anyone else, its worth to you personally can become invaluable.
When looking back on my own recovery from addiction, one of the first tools I latched onto were gathered from the local art supplies store. Then in a situation that necessitated rediscovering and reconstructing a self identity free from self-destructive behavior, I turned to art in a ferocious fashion. As a matter of fact, I returned to many of the life-affirming hobbies I had just prior to my addiction years. Music, reading, art all came flooding back as if I were a pre-teen once again. With art, I could see a sense of purpose and self-conception that reoriented how I saw myself at a crucial period of renewal.
At that moment, it mattered little how "good" the art was. In fact, by my own standards I would say my drawing skills were seriously lacking then. The point was to start a new behavior and keep at it. I've gotten a good deal better but still don't have tremendous technical skills. The important factor is with the raw materials of ink, pencil, paint and papers I can channel and direct my own internal energy and psychic activity.
While I have never worked with an art therapist who provides directives for the patient that serve to bring forth occulted emotional content, I have always considered my art making to be a treatment for my various traumas and angsts.
As is still the case, my professional tools reside inside of computer software. While creating images with a computer generates a certain amount of creative satisfaction, it doesn't compare with the physical act of drawing, painting or collage making. When my body and mind are abuzz with nervous or excited energy, the work done with the hands makes the critical mind/body connection. The result in energy transference is a decidedly unique phenomenon. Working in traditional image making mediums opens up a flow, rhythm and spontaneity that allows inner content to literally spill out onto the surface in surprising ways.
I found the same truths to hold when dealing with the written word. Constructing poems in a journal activates my mind in ways hard to replicate with a keyboard. I'm sure there's research that looks at why this is. In my case, I have my own anecdotal experience which is confirmation enough.
Early efforts at understanding the connection between the unconscious mind and representational art reached a high mark with the work of psychoanalyst and mystic, Dr. Carl Jung. The image as symbolic metaphor had long been recognized by art historians but the introduction of the collective and personal unconscious provided a fresh terminology and framework for assessing the psychological implications of a work of art and the artist themselves.
Edvard Munch's The Scream painted four times from 1893-1910, exemplifies the tendency in modern art to explicitly depict internal emotions and conflicts. The list of artists with mental illnesses is well recorded and thought almost to be a precondition for creative genius.
With the 2009 publication of Jung's The Red Book, we have a fascinating account of a doctor using art to document his own inner visions received during periods of internal distress. The collection is really unprecedented and Jung kept the work secret during his own lifetime for fear of professional ridicule. There's something ironic about that concern, considering he publicly explored major taboos like UFOs and the occult.
The specialization of the art therapy profession didn't officially become recognized until three years after Jung's death in 1964 with the formation of the British Association of Art Therapy. The United States association was formed in 1969.
The combination of drawn images and written words provides a medicinal effect towards the treatment of not only my addiction process but milder symptoms of anxiety and depression as well. Of course many other resources such as group work, talk therapy and a dedicated spiritual practice all come to bear in arriving at a mental health condition that is more satisfying and productive than not.
For men in Western culture, simply speaking transparently with another person presents issues. The admittance of any problem requiring assistance is forbidden among us. Making pictures and writing poems? You can pretty much forget about it. Which is incredibly unfortunate for those men living in denial of pain and playing the role of tough guy to tragic results.
The toxic masculine archetype, divorced from a healthy Yin counterbalance can make no use of arts and crafts for self-expression. We have to reach back to the ancient Greeks to be reminded of a period when men were rewarded as much for their poetic and artistic contributions as they were for Olympian acts of athleticism.
Poetry was even revered among the warrior culture of Middle Age Vikings. At some point the tradition of the warrior-poet or warrior-priest got broken. The current male psyche is truly warped by a mass media suffering from historic amnesia. The imbalance of mind, body and spirit activation for men in modern culture is evidenced by current high rates of mass violence, misogyny and male suicide. There appears to be a slow reckoning of this unsustainable standard of masculinity in response to the deconstruction of traditional economic, sexual and family dynamics.
The self-sufficient, lone-wolf hunter wandering alone in the wilderness is a myth that no longer serves me.
While I periodically suffer under the weight of many of the destructive male caricatures as I contend with the forces of this world, I recognize there futility more than what is typical. I feel as though I was born predisposed towards curious introspection and creative impulses that modern men identify with Yin energy or the feminine. Modern men are only supposed to act upon the world, not sensitively reflect.
This sort of attitude is crushing men who cling to it as their once secure avenues for imposing their will are deconstructing. I must be dynamic and act with vitality, but I do so having gotten soft and vulnerable which not only brings more honesty into my life but more creativity as well.
Even so, the ridicule and social ostracizing that accompanies being more in tune with the arts makes a problem of a solution. I refuse to dishonor myself by acting the out a part and closing myself off to the sources of my healing and growth. The consequence is that I have very few male friends and find it generally hard to relate with the prototypical dude. The things that mean the most to me earn derision among crowds of beer drinking, football watching homophobes that pass as the male hero these days.
It's not always easy to go against the culture but the result of suppressing the emotional content and vehicles for their processing would amount to death. The death of our collective spirit is very potent at this point. Spirit and soul are sacrificed for science and secularism. Rationality and "progress" are held above the seemingly irrationality of emotions and personal yearning for transcendence. There was a time when reason and soul where not oppositional concepts but rather worked in unison, in the ancient Greek era as one example.
Rationality alone never helped pull me out of any dark night of the soul. Healing has always been a product of turning towards a higher impulse within and without. By recognizing and taping into the divinity of the collective unconscious that holds the timeless spirits watching over us, I transit from suffocating pressures and fears to tranquil harmony and wholeness.
If there was ever a time when I would need every accessible resource for cultivating wisdom and providing self-care, it is now. Being personally in the midst of one of the most turbulent episodes of my life has given me the opportunity to reflect on the modalities in which I address my mental well-being. I haven't faced a soul-searching, life changing crisis as I do now since the final days of my active addiction.
Being let go from a job I had grown to hate but was totally financially dependent upon has sped-up the rate at which I planned to make a dramatic career change. I've had to think fast to conjure up new visions for what I could become that rests congruently within my nest of ethical values and sense of greater meaning.
Standing now at this crossroad from which I can choose to turn down a promising but unlit road,
or try to get back on the perilous one I had been traveling, I know what direction would make for a better story to tell. Sometimes life has a way giving us just what we need, bluntly and unceremoniously. My daemons have strikingly brought to my attention the core aspects of my being and how they coalesce in the field of mental health counseling and art therapy.
The prospect of taking back some of the control of my life I have surrendered to businesses who have zero commitment to me or my family is tantalizing. This new vision for the future, though full of challenges in order to secure, has been the one brilliant light in an otherwise dark alley. What seemed impossible just six months ago suddenly feels impossible not to pursue.
Abandoning the halls of big business, exploring consciousness, regenerating through the power of creativity all in service to the community lines up all too perfectly with the desire of my True Will. While nothing is for certain, if it is meant to be, I'll be back in college this fall pursuing a Masters.
The need for healers in our communities has never been greater. For now, I daily call upon my personal spirits and deities for all the strength and clarity necessary to get in the middle of the action if that's where it turns out I am needed.