I was diagnosed with lupus in 2001. At the time, I was in my mid-twenties and scared to death of being diagnosed with a lifelong illness. I remember feeling so powerless, alone and frightened of what it would mean for the life ahead of me.
I did not know it then, but realize now, that it was a blessing that motivated me to wake up and take better care of myself. I realized that I needed to listen to my body, notice the signs of stress, and to work harder by practicing self-care to help me de-stress. I found that learning about what the diagnosis meant, helped me to shift from a place of powerlessness to having strength and the power to face it. I connected with a local support group and found so much strength in the support of others who truly understood the complexity of what I was dealing with. Knowing I was not alone was a huge relief, and helped me to feel strong enough to face it.
I also turned to making art to help me through it. I created this piece of art to reflect on and attempt to comprehend all the feelings I was experiencing.
I titled this piece “I don’t want to be sick.” It is life-sized on two pieces of wood that were drawers repurposed from a letterpress studio. I made a mask of my face and found clear plastic tubing to articulate my blood vessels. I felt so angry that I was living with something that was in my blood and was attacking my immune system. I am dependent on my blood to be alive and was wrestling with feeling so powerless in the face of this illness that was in my body. I could feel the physical pain in my joints and felt trapped in my own body. It was satisfying to use a hammer, nails and to etch into the wood: “I’m so f*cking scared.” It took me several weeks to make this, and as I created it, I was able to release the pain, confusion and all my feelings into this piece of art. It now hangs in my office to remind me to put my self-care first.
I am an art therapist. Making art is my way of looking in the mirror – to look within – to unpack and understand my emotional self. My art is my way of knowing the deepest parts of myself and my life, places that I do not understand or have the words to articulate. Without my art, I am lost, I am disconnected, and I am dysregulated. I need to keep a regular practice of making art to help me feel grounded, connected and balanced.
Art therapy is a distinct and growing mental health profession in which master’s level training is required to practice. Within the last 5-10 years, art therapy doctoral programs have emerged across the United States. Art therapists support clients of all ages to use art to express, transform and understand themselves – reflecting on both the process and the artwork to understand oneself.
Author: Dr. Mary Andrus
Dr. Mary Andrus is program director of the Graduate Art Therapy Program at Lewis and Clark in Portland Oregon. To learn more about the program on becoming an art therapist go to https://graduate.lclark.edu/departments/counseling_psychology/art-therapy/