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Healing Through Painting: Reintegrating Parts of the Self.

A meditation on how my recovery from PTSD shows up in my painting practice.



Healing from PTSD is about reintegrating disconnected parts of oneself. I see in my painting practice that I am touching upon aspects of trauma, emotions, and difficult feelings, whilst keeping my feet grounded in a place of safety and awareness. By gently tapping into painful experiences, and then using subject matter that is firmly rooted in the safety and comfort of the present, I am attempting to intergrate disconnected parts of myself.

 

Part of what’s terrifying about PTSD is reliving trauma, but not being aware that what you are feeling right now is a very normal reaction to something very difficult that happened in the past. When experiences are too painful to feel at the time, they are felt afterward, when the body and mind are ready to experience them. The resurfacing of these feelings is pretty shocking when they appear out of nowhere and seem to make no rational sense to your conscious experience. When it’s not understood as past ‘stuff’, it can make you feel like you’re going ‘crazy’ or losing your mind. Re-feeling these experiences is really the opposite - I suppose you’re ‘gaining’ your mind, or at least re-experiencing the contents of the past, just at a later time. When the mind and body are unable to cope, accept, and process something, you can go numb and disconnected, but the contents of the experience do not disappear – they just stay below the surface waiting to re-emerge at a later date.

 

What I’ve realised through painting is that my practice is an extension of my healing. If it were not for having done around 2 years of CBT and 6 months of intensive EMDR therapy to process trauma, as well as a lot of internal work, I don’t think that this would be possible. I certainly don't think that painting alone would heal trauma, but it's a very interesting and fulfilling extension of my post-therapy recovery.


I’m noticing that I am drawn towards painting things that bring me feelings of safety, love, and connection; things that evoke a feeling of child-like joy which are very healing to my younger self. At the minute, I am drawn to painting soft toys: my Jellycat walrus (who brought me comfort through EMDR therapy and through episodes of dissociation and trauma-reliving), the Nisse that sits in the living room (which makes me think of happy times in Copenhagen with my boyfriend and his family); and Totoro (I have been watching all the Studio Ghibli films for the first time and they bring me a huge sense of child-like joy and comfort).

 

Whilst the subject matter is comforting, there is always an aspect of ‘strangeness’ or darkness coming through. I am drawn to blues and greens which somehow seem sickly and sad. I find it difficult or ‘wrong’ to use bright, happy colours. Somehow through the choice of colour, and the atmosphere of the painting, there is a sense, at least to me, of darkness, sadness, pain, grief, and fear. Something about the space is strange, discomforting. It is not clear what it is, but something of trauma speaks through the painting, whilst at the same time it is not a purposefully dark and morbid painting practice. For me, painting is a process of healing and reintegration of my childhood and aspects of myself which have been shut down or repressed.

 

I am doing my best not to overthink or plan too much what I paint. For it to be authentic, and perhaps more importantly, for it to be healing, I need to trust myself and paint just what I want to paint. I don’t want to paint for appraisal or to gain good marks (although it’s very hard not to let the ego get in the way). I want to paint for myself, and for the little girl who I am healing. I want my painting to be me, and for me to grow through my painting.

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