Names and specifics withheld to ensure confidentiality. Art work used with permission by client.
Depression and Emptiness
Janice was a middle age woman who came in to see me because she was feeling depressed and empty. She was able to function, but she sensed that there was something missing and that things could be better. Anti-depressant medication had failed to help her with any of these symptoms, so she decided to try art therapy. Together we figured out that in her family no one had had permission to express emotions and this had blocked her from experiencing connectedness with herself and others. When I asked her to tell me more about her emptiness, she responded, “It’s empty, just nothing.” It was difficult for her to use words to articulate this abstract feeling. So I asked her to SHOW me her emptiness. Her painting wasn’t just ‘nothing’, it was color and lines and texture because on the paper she could really see it. She had even included a black wall in the painting to show what was between herself and others.
Over time she worked on expressing the idea of a wall in her paintings. She talked about the different associations that came with each painting—sometimes the wall was between her and her mother, sometimes it was within herself. As Janice became more familiar with this symbolic representation of her emptiness she started to report feeling less depressed, less empty. She was expressing feelings that were unfamiliar, but life affirming. Her paintings were reliable, concrete expressions that also affirmed the intensity of what was inside. She was experiencing a shift toward more aliveness. Her wall began to have colors inside and outside.
One session, Janice came in and announced that she wanted to try a new way of painting her wall. She painted with exuberance and smiled at her finished product. The wall in her painting was alive—it had become a tree!
Her art had transformed. The formerly dead black wall suddenly had potential to grow and grow. Because she had initiated her very own solution to her problem of emptiness by staying in relationship with herself through her art, her life began to mirror this transformation. She started noticing that when she told her children that she loved them, she didn’t feel dead, she felt alive, like the tree. She was sleeping better. The nightmares that she had been having were no longer there because she’d been drawing them and she didn’t need to dream them anymore. Janice began to have hope and excitement for her future. he reconnected with a circle of friends, she began planning fun vacations, and she applied for a promotion. Because Janice had experienced feelings and vibrance in her paintings, she was able to experience the same exciting growth in her life.
Monique came to therapy with a history of abuse and neglect. As a teen, she had experienced a great deal of trauma throughout her life, and the most recent experience coincided with the onset of her panic attacks. She described her memories of coping with her family’s dysfunction in great detail. She reasoned through traumatic events. Her words provided a thoughtful reporting, but the panic attacks indicated a deeper struggle. When I asked Monique to paint the anxiety that she felt at the onset of these attacks, she clenched her jaw and painted ‘To Drown or To Breath?, That is the Question’.
Her painting showed her in the water at the beach. I asked her to tell the story of what was going on in her painting. She told me that she was struggling in the water, while her family was on the shore waving. Monique described the panic feeling that came with imagining herself drowning. She imagined that her family might finally notice at some point that she was sinking. She thought it might be too late before they notice, but they would.
I asked Monique about the mysterious pink box that was floating beside her in the painting. She stated that she didn’t really know. It was mysterious. I asked her what was inside. “Scuba gear”, she stated with surprise. She elaborated on this idea with a very surprised look on her face. She explained that she thought she could reach out and grab the pink box, put on the scuba gear, and breath just fine. She wouldn’t be drowning, she’d be breathing and floating. When I asked her to imagine this happening, she became teary. She now understood how important it was for her family to notice her struggles. “They don’t get it, and they don’t understand. If I save myself, they will never get it.”
Monique’s painting allowed her to simultaneously experience two different realities. She could drown and have her family notice her, or she could save herself with the scuba gear and sacrifice being noticed. This discovery was transformative for her. She grappled with it, took it home and thought about it, talked about it. And her panic attacks ceased. Her painting had presented an alternative that she wouldn’t have thought of. Her psyche chose the pink box and the scuba gear. Because her panic attacks were no longer plaguing her, she could then begin working on her underlying issues of abuse and aloneness.