More threads by David Baxter PhD

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
How I Used Art to Get Through Trauma
By Terry Sullivan, New York Times
June 7, 2018

My encounter with a gunman on my evening commute led to nightmares and depression. Art helped me recover from post-traumatic stress, and it might help you, too.

I’m a writer, and I use words to tell stories. But after a tragic event in 1993, I felt as though words had lost their efficacy. Luckily, I was able to use other mediums, namely drawing and painting, to help me deal with what I witnessed. If you’ve experienced trauma, art — whether it’s drawing, painting or writing, can help you cope. Here’s how I learned.

A Commute I’ll Always Remember
On Dec. 7, 1993, I traveled home on an evening train. At some point, I dozed off, but as the train approached one of the stations, a commotion startled me awake. When I looked over my shoulder from my aisle seat, I saw panicked passengers rushing toward me. I hadn’t realized it, but they were running from a commuter who was firing an automatic pistol at others in the rear of the train car.

It’s odd, but when I recall memories of the next few minutes, they have the quality of a time-lapse video, where moments speed by quickly and feel slightly disconnected: I’m crouched below my seat. Then, I see a gunman fire at others. He glances at me, but moves on. Three commuters then tackle the gunman. Next, I see wounded people, and try to help, but become overwhelmed. I hear a woman screaming she’s been shot. I notice blood on the floor and see a body slumped over in a seat. Finally, I panic and run to the next car to exit the train.

The shooting probably took less than five minutes, and I walked away physically unharmed. But on that December evening, six commuters died and 19 others were wounded.

After the shooting, I had many heartfelt conversations with friends and family, yet I often felt unable to truly convey what I’d gone through. Seeing a therapist helped immensely, but I still struggled to articulate my feelings. I also had nightmares and was severely depressed.

How Creating Images of Trauma Helped Me
Since I’ve always loved fine art, I attempted to tell my story visually and began work on a painting called “Still Life on the Long Island Railroad.” It’s based on a Baroque still-life painting technique, in which the artist depicts a dinner table scene without guests. In such a painting, you might see plates with half-eaten food and overturned goblets, which is meant to give you the feeling the dinner guests either left in a hurry or were forcibly removed. In my still life, I transferred the setting to a L.I.R.R. train car, placing a half-eaten candy bar and coffee cup on floor of the train car.

I spent many days painting it and completed it in November of 1994. Yet, today, the hodgepodge, fragmented painting looks confused and unsettled.

I wondered. Could making such a jumbled painting have been helpful to me, at least psychologically?

I posed this question to Dr. Rorbert Ursano, professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at the Uniformed Services University and a founding director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress. He said, “We know recounting the story can be a valuable part of recovery. It allows us to put the parts and pieces into context, and also to develop meaning from the story. Those elements — the recalling and setting to rest, and putting it in a meaningful context — are part of the recovery process.”

Often, people choose to write about trauma, since it’s “the most common form of expression,” Dr. Ursano said. But, drawing and painting are equally valid forms of expression also used by patients. What’s most important is that a patient is comfortable with the medium.

In my still-life painting, perhaps I was using the canvas to visually piece together fragments of personal memories, emotions, and fears during this time. Yes, it’s a disjointed composition that still disturbs me today, but it may accurately reflect the feelings I had at the time.

The still life wasn’t the only work I created. Between 1995 and 1998, I drew more than 150 small drawings, using my commute to sketch passengers, who slept, read or stared out windows.

Dr. Ursano noted that this may have benefited me: “It puts you into a state of relaxation, which can be a safe space that’s known to you. You have a sense of control over that space.”

It also helped me avoid obsessing over remembering the shooting, a common problem with patients suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. “In some ways,” says Dr. Ursano, “we look at post-traumatic stress as a forgetting disorder. It’s a problem in being ableto forget … But forgetting is a very important process of our psychology. If we didn’t forget, our brains would become too full. So, it’s as important as the process of accumulating information. So, the ability to forget is a powerful part of our recovery, particularly from trauma.”

Dr. Ursano said that art, in the form of drawing or in the form of words, can be a very important component of recovery from traumatic stress. In fact, Dr. Ursano said drawing is often used to treat children, since they often lack the vocabulary to express their emotions.

For me, drawing allowed my mind to focus on two positive activities simultaneously: First, I was trying to capture the likeness of my fellow passengers in graphite or pen. Second, I focused on immersing myself in the act of drawing itself.

Four Tips to Find Your Voice
Dr. Ursano said that patients have many options for dealing with trauma and PTSD. In my experience, I found the following tips helped me deal with my trauma:

1. Choose a mode of expression that’s comfortable: “Someone who is a dancer may need to dance about the trauma,” said Dr. Ursano. Once a patient finds the appropriate mode (words, drawing, painting or another medium), the patient can then find his or her voice. Doing so allows the patient “to speak to both the trauma and the hope. And that is what recovery is about,” he elaborated.

2. Seek a state of relaxation: What I hadn’t realized at the time was how the activity of drawing relaxed me. Dr. Ursano said the activity itself provided a sense of security. “One creates a space in which one can be and feel safe. Just to be able to find that safe space and remember that it exists. The process of creating that is, in itself, the process of creating hope.”

3. Don’t critique yourself, but add dates: Whatever mode you choose, be generous with yourself and avoid critiquing your work. If you’re drawing, don’t fret if you simply want to scribble. Give yourself space to work in a manner you might not normally work in, too. But put dates on the works, which can serve almost as a visual diary.

4. Be selective — don’t show everyone your work: Refrain from showing others your work, or show it only to a spouse or close friend, at least at first. “In psychotherapy,” Dr. Ursano said, “the response of the therapist will be to the benefit of the person or patient that is there.” But there’s no “rule” on how others will respond outside of therapy, where responses can be vastly different. “Some will run away,” Dr. Ursano explained. “Others will want to talk about it more than you want to. And some will appreciate the new meaning that it brings to their lives.”

Dr. Ursano said patients who have lived through trauma have many options to help them heal: “We have wonderful treatments for post-traumatic stress these days that are highly effective, both psychotherapy and medication. Reaching for those resources is done usually through one’s primary-care physician.”
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