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Archive for the ‘art therapy’ Category

Here is a portrait of me that I drew May 15, 1976. I had left Synanon, a rehabilitation community, six months earlier and was living in East Oakland, California  with a small group of artists and students. In drawing this image with a magic marker, I was not aware of any issue regarding the trauma of my infant surgery. I was drawing because I felt depressed and hoped for relief and clarity.

What’s clear though is my inner knowledge of my pyloric stenosis surgery. The left side of my face is basically intact. The right side, however, is completely absent of facial features! Depicted instead is a series of sharp edges. The obvious one in the center is a meat cleaver and resembles exactly, hole in the blade and all, a knife that I used to juggle in my early teens.

My mother went back to work when I was eleven years old, and so often after school I was alone in the house. At that time, I engaged in some risky behaviors. I would take out the meat cleaver and a huge steak knife and juggle them. I wasn’t very good at it and once, believe it or not, I actually stuck my knee out to break the fall of the cleaver so I wouldn’t scar my mother’s kitchen linoleum. My body wasn’t real to me, in many ways; my feelings had hardened toward it and so, it was like an object.

The black mark below the cleaver on my face looks somewhat like a disposable razor and the shape above reminds me of a barber’s straight razor. In any case, all the images have sharp edges and are black. Something was excised. Something was missing. Something was troubling me of which I was unaware. This portrait is an example of the power of visual art: We know things that we don’t know that we know.

Interestingly, I titled the piece “Appreciation.” At the time, I was trying to validate myself. When this image arrived on the page, I felt mixed feelings. While I liked the depiction of the left side of my face in which I am focused, insightful, and authentic–not smiling, trying to please–the right side bothered me.  I eventually attributed the black spaces and absence of facial features to mean that I was still unaware of myself in many ways. I felt a bit of compassion for myself. Though I did not understand what my subconscious was getting at. I did not see the sharp edges in the portrait when I was 23.

Now I see the blades clearly and the message they were trying to convey: Your infant surgery–go back to what was cut away. Explore it and integrate what you find. It’s essential to becoming a whole portrait and leaving depression behind. Fill in those excised spaces with your story. Not the story that was told to you, the one that you adopted–your parents’ words, your pediatrician’s words–but your version, your truth. Then, you’ll be able to face yourself.  

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I was 25 years old, lying in sand by the Pacific Ocean. I had come to the sea to kill myself, depressed again after so many years of trying to make my life work since my suicide attempt at age 21. But I just couldn’t bring myself to harm; I had grown. So I drew words that bubbled up from nowhere. From somewhere. Pain from long ago. Ancient hurt buried until that moment where water meets shore and life called–a baby’s cry in early morning hours.

Pre-verbal trauma cannot be remembered in words. Perhaps that’s why this message came in a word picture, if you will.  There are many ways to release early pain if the brain does not get in the way. The brain that says, oh that happened so long ago, or you couldn’t possibly have felt that! That memory brain didn’t realize that it was shut off while the trauma was occurring. A different part of the brain recorded the experience, and talking and writing don’t access it. They can point the way to trauma, but they don’t release it.

Draw the story. Draw the message. Draw whatever it is that bubbles up. Begin the healing process.

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I am not sure why I want to share my pastel “Bell Pepper with Scar” on my first post of 2012. I wanted something visual for sure as I have not posted an image for months. But it also has to do with the oddness of the picture–a scar on a bell pepper!  A strange harmony draws me to this piece, what with the pepper slanting one way and the scar the opposite.

I completed the pastel years ago at a time when I was writing the final chapters of my memoir manuscript about my infant surgery. One day, while harvesting peppers from my garden, the image came to me. At the time, I thought the pastel  communicated that as a baby, my body was a perfect vegetable made imperfect by the scar. But the picture won’t let me settle for this interpretation.

Be whimsical about the scar, it seems to suggest. Maybe even dance with it. Realize it’s part of the perfection. The scar creates the balance with the pepper, for how can a scar that represents my life being saved be imperfect or wrong?   A body with such a scar can only be right. Perhaps “Bell Pepper and Scar” would better name the composition or “Scar with Bell Pepper.”  How about “The Beauty of What Is.”

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I feel my heart rate increasing, like a detective getting closer to the whereabouts of the culprit—the current way in which the chemistry of my brain works due to the trauma of infant surgery without anesthesia. I just read a paper entitled, “Working with the Neurobiological Legacy of Early Trauma” by Dr. Janina Fisher, a licensed Clinical Psychologist and Instructor at the Trauma Center in Boston, and the first page read like a narrative about my life. She’s writing about why many trauma survivors don’t get the help that they need, and that sure was me growing up. Here’s what she says in the first paragraph:

Despite the fact that an estimated 70% of all psychiatric inpatients and 30% of outpatients have histories of psychological trauma, the effects of those histories often go unrecognized or underestimated. When my client, Jill, first began psychotherapy at the age of 16, she was depressed, suicidal, angry, and oppositional, for no reason that her family or therapist could clearly pinpoint. Like most survivors of childhood trauma, her presenting issue was not framed as, ‘I was badly neglected as a kid by my alcoholic mother’ or ‘My two older brothers sexually abused me and terrified my whole family.’ At the time, she barely remembered what had happened: she only knew that she was filled with shame and rage and just wanted to die.

 That was me! I not only wanted to die, I tried to die—many times. What’s truly a miracle is that I didn’t kill myself just by continually engaging in risky behavior, such as driving insanely fast, walking alone late at night, and starving and stuffing myself until I felt sick. For me, self-destructive behavior was a lifestyle off and on until my mid-twenties.

The article goes on to say that since most trauma survivors complain of the very things that many non-traumatized therapy clients suffer—relationship issues, anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, loneliness and alienation, problems with anger—it’s hard to know whether someone has an early trauma history unless he or she tells you, which is unlikely, or unless a report exists, which is often not the case.

According to Fisher, the ‘symptom-equivalents’ of traumatic memory [are]  intrusive fear, hypervigilance, chronic self-hatred, alienation from self and from one’s own body, [and] disorganized attachment behavior in relationships. Many therapists don’t recognize these signs that point to early trauma in their clients. Lucky for me in my early twenties, I had used writing, drawing, and painting to explore the early trauma and so at age 26, could articulate to some extent what was going on with me to a counselor. It was quite clear that I was suffering from the early trauma of my infant surgery.

Furthermore, Dr. Fisher goes on to say that even when counselors or therapists correctly recognize the signs of early trauma and assign a post-traumatic stress (PTS) diagnosis, professionals need to understand the neurobiological effects of trauma so that  they will be in the best position to help their clients. The neurobiology of trauma is summarized in her article, but the specific details of that process are not clarified.

I’m closer to identifying the culprit that causes the fear, hypervigilance, and distrust of my body that I still experience 59 years after the surgery. Will keep you posted.

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Come one, come all to the Upstairs Art Gallery, 420 Main Street in Placerville, California. I’ve got two pastels hanging in the show for several weeks. Here are photos of the pieces and the words of the narratives that accompany each picture.

Title:       Healing Tree                  Medium:    Pastel

As I drew these shapes, a stomach emerged with a tree growing up from it. This tree represents the hope I feel about completely healing from the impact of infant surgery. I am still dealing with post-traumatic stress (PTS) from the operation. When I made this pastel, I had just learned that it is likely that I hadn’t been anesthetized before the surgery; instead, I was given a muscle paralyzer to keep me still during the procedure. In the 1950s, the medical profession believed that babies didn’t feel pain and that anesthesia could seriously harm a baby. See my blog for more information about this, PTSD, and the process of healing from trauma: https://myincision.wordpress.com

Title:         Moon Shell                    Medium:    Pastel

I made this pastel after finishing my memoir manuscript, The Autobiography of a Sea Creature, about living in the aftermath of infant surgery without anesthesia. The image is very calm, centered and peaceful. When I began the book, the series of pictures that I pastelled were filled with chaos, pain, and confusion. This pastel shows how far I’d come through writing. Excavating the past helped me find balance and joy.

Here’s a photo of yours truly and “Moon Shell” taken by my friend Laci.

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When I graduated from college, my cousin sent me a doll in the mail. Without knowing why, I immediately took the scissors and magic markers to it. I snipped off the white yarn hair and drew a recored of my abuses onto its body.

My eyes are black tear drops, my jaw is aflame from gritting my teeth in pain, my scar is broadcast across my belly and my arms are black where I used to cut them with a razor in my teens.

Why would I do such a thing to a gift given in love and congratulations?  It’s like I was saying, see, here’s the real me. On the outside, I’m a successful person, but underneath, I’m a failure. I remember being shocked when I was accepted into an Ivy League college. Had they made a mistake? While a student there, I felt as if I had slipped in under the door and if I made too much commotion, someone in charge would notice that I’d been mistakenly admitted.

The same feeling emerged when I was hired as a full-time teacher. When the president of the college congratulated me, I thought, if you only knew that you just hired a crazy. I felt like I got away with something. Maybe it has to do with the unresolved feeling that as a sick infant, I cheated death–I was dying, but then the medical profession performed an emergency surgery and rescued me. Is this what God wanted? I was never convinced that I had been worth saving and that I was meant to be.

It’s up to me to accept this now at the deepest level. I am worthy. I am loved. I am lovable and worthwhile. I’m the only one who can convince myself of this now. It’s time to become my own spiritual lover.  I am divine. I am sacred. It’s time to believe what is.

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“Haunted Shrimp Baby” and “Moth Baby” are two pictures that I drew with colored pencils and black magic marker back in 1999, trying to come to terms with my infant surgery. At the time, I was not aware that I hadn’t been given anesthesia for the operation.

As I uploaded these pictures, I was scowling. Such bondage!   The inertness of the images cried out, both “babies” trapped in tight bandages. The first image screams insanity, the shrimp laughing as inner darkness consumes her. She scares me with her demonic face. Her tail appears pinned on and is anything but functional. Neither creature has legs; no agency whatsoever.

In “Moth Baby,” the antennae depict replicas of the scar from my pyloric stenosis surgery; one antenna has four stitches, one five. Five is the actual number on my middle. As I re-count the stitches, I feel ugly. Seeing my scar does not always make me feel this way, but it does today. In the picture, my tiny, pink face looks like it’s about to burst!  No cry or baby die–the mantra the surgeon taught my mother.

A shrimp floating in air. A moth baby with wings pressed to its body. Art can tell the raw truth: trauma interruptus.

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