12 April, 2013

The Art of Surviving Trauma

Translated from Italian at: http://signoradeifiltri.overblog.com/l-arte-di-sopravvivere-al-trauma

Art is a powerful instrument when it comes to communicating the aftermath of trauma, whether it’s physical or psychological. For me, it was combat. As a female combat veteran, it was especially difficult to make the transition back into the US after spending a year in one of Iraq’s most dangerous cities, Ar Ramadi, capital of the Al Anbar Province. Upon returning from a year of deaths, injuries, seeing some of the most glorious and hideous aspects of humankind in an uncensored montage, many judged me for what I had done (in their minds) without even asking me as well as insulted my experience using gender-related or racial remarks.

It was a tremendous amount of pressure. I was paying my way through university studies and working only part-time, and I was feeling as though I were dangerously nearing a breaking point. However, I was fortunate that I was aware of a personal pressure valve: Art.

Since I was a child, drawing, writing, painting, and even sculpting were my passions. Growing up hearing that artists never make enough money to live on, I attempted to pursue a degree in psychology. Unfortunately, I did not have the money to attend college, as it tends to be expensive here in the US, so I joined the Army, which promised me thousands to pay for school. They did not, of course, explain to me how I’d be working 60 hours a week while trying to accomplish my educational objectives. By the time I received orders for Iraq, I was halfway through college and upon my return, I changed my major from psychology to political science/international relations. After all, how can one make a difference in Middle Eastern policy when many of our elected officials – like most Americans – have never left the country? I have, 22 times and counting. I was a force to be reckoned with in foreign policy debates throughout my upper-level courses, but inside, I was empty.

After some thorough introspection, I decided to paint again. After such a gruesome experience, I had lost my interest in art, as I did all other passions and dreams. I felt numb, but I knew art always had a way of unlocking a door into new ideas and plans. Even if I didn't want to, I painted, wrote, sketched, and even took part in Middle Eastern dance as a hobby and side gig. Slowly, I felt warmth return to my veins via creativity. Art was making a transfusion.

"Any (wo)man who is really an artist," wrote journalist Charles Lummis in 1892, "will find the Southwest...a region where the ingenuity of life, the imagination and the love of God are...visible at every turn."

Eventually, I followed my dream of moving to the Southwestern US, Arizona and Nevada, where my artistic talents truly blossomed. Before I knew it, I was creating depictions of the most painful memories, which reignited a state of insomnia but launched into a new level of artistic fervor. Then my art turned from wartime trauma to politics, which have been laced with both humorous satire as well as sharp criticism.

With military veteran friends and former colleagues suffering from mental illness and turning to over-medicating practices provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs and Department of Defense, doling out a litany psychotropic medications and narcotic painkillers to anyone who asked and this bothered me.  It wasn't natural.  While I have stared into combat’s abyss, I can proudly say that I took the road less traveled. I followed my heart back to art where I could both express myself and ease my pain, venting my troubles through pens, paintbrushes, and clay and validating my experiences on my own terms with a finished masterpiece. Art truly saved my life.

After working with other veterans as well as severely mentally ill clients and encouraging them to express themselves through artistic, literary, culinary, musical, and other creative means, I've seen the most dramatic, positive changes in well-being. Such transformations could not be done through prescriptions drugs or any other poisonous substances, which are designed to further numb the senses and keep one from embracing personal truths and ultimately discovering one’s own path to healing. I have, as a result, continued on this creative path, reclaiming my life one artistic step a time and finding my way out of a personal abyss by refusing to be a victim of trauma. Instead, I am an artist – who happens to be a survivor.

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