Healing Trauma Is a Creative Art
Our creative and spiritual energies come together in healing to restore the whole self, over time.
“Every child,” said the great Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens, “has the spirit of creation. The rubbish of life often exterminates the spirit through plague and a soul’s own wretchedness.”
In the almost-500 years since Rubens was born in 1577, we’ve gained a few things: For one, it’s easy to dig up obscure facts. So: Artists in his day didn’t expect to live much longer than 40 years. Covid-19 may have kicked our ass, but on average, we in the US have till age 75 to work things out.
That’s progress, but we’ve lost something along the way. The Old Master uses both lofty and brutal language, words that one might be embarrassed to write today. It’s too religious-sounding, too hifalutin’ given our collective cultural delusion that life should always be manageable. “The spirit of creation” is inborn, but it can be “exterminated...through a soul’s own wretchedness.”
Today, “mental health” is often viewed as something you either have, or something that you need to obtain through proper medical channels. In a strictly medical view, we who keep living despite life’s attempts to exterminate our spirits are reduced to being little more a collection of symptoms. At best, we have the hope of increasing our mental health score, moving therapeutically upward from the dank stockroom of our initial misery to the CEO’s commanding perch. (Helluva view up here! I’ll send the peasants a postcard.)
Actually, life is a creative, harrowing journey toward wholeness. In healing trauma, we don’t reject who we are. We rediscover who we are. Ours is a delicate, complicated, journey through a wilderness where we re-collect lost shards of our humanity. Even problematic things like addictions, controlling behaviors, or hyper-vigilant nervous systems, speak of our longing for a life in which trauma doesn’t define us.
What if we stopped treating emotional and mental well-being as a commodity? What if we started looking for the creative potential in our life stories? What if we are, in fact, our own art?
My first experience of deep healing centered around therapy, but it was a journey to recover the spirit of creation itself.
My first pregnancy, and my son’s birth, had been very difficult emotionally. I was medicated for anxiety while pregnant, and I felt terrible shame over my perceived failure as a mom. Physically, everything went well until I was in labor at the hospital. My son’s heartbeat plummeted suddenly. I was whisked through a tunnel that connected one wing of the hospital to another and prepped for an emergency C-section. In my shock, the rushing people around me were surreal shapes, barely human. “Is my baby gonna die?” I asked my midwife. “We’re doing everything we can,” was the honest response. I’d been bleeding internally from a placental abruption, but I only found out later that I could have died along with my son. He was healthy — and big, at 9.2 pounds, but a day and a half later, he stopped breathing. One doctor told me that my medication was to blame, while another attributed it to the difficult birth. My baby was put on a ventilator in the neonatal ICU. He was feisty. He actually pulled out his own breathing tube — that must have hurt — but he kept breathing on his own and we brought him home after a few more days. I doted on him even through my post-partum depression, but shame dogged me even after the depression lifted.
He was a delightful baby, which reassured me. He wasn’t damaged after all. But when he was two and the desire for another child took root, the anxiety hit again. Eventually, I sought therapy to resolve that fear. I also had a history of childhood, adolescent and young adult trauma, but my relationship to that history was abstract. The abuse had happened, okay. I mentioned it to my therapist, John, because some far away part of me knew it mattered.
Still, I was surprised one day when John uttered the words that became the doorway to the rest of my life. “I could be wrong about this,” he began, “but you know that thing that happened when you were little? It may have to do with your fear of another pregnancy.”
I blinked at him. Really? “I have no idea,” I said. It was like staring into my own wilderness and seeing a blank screen. It was, as they say, a process. Toward the beginning of our work together, I wrote in my journal: “It feels like John and I are on a bear hunt in a dark woods. Only he’s more convinced there’s a bear out there than I am.” There were plenty of awful days as I grappled with what had been done to me. But I actually came to welcome the gathering dread of driving to weekly sessions. There was a magical quality to my life at the time. I felt I was in the process of undoing a terrible enchantment that had kept me prisoner in a tower wrapped with thorns. My heart was coming to life.
Slowly, the pieces fell into place. Slowly, slowly, I healed. I took long afternoon walks in the forest, feeling something wordless and whole unfurl in the core of my being.
Toward the end of therapy, John and I had a disagreement. Now the question wasn’t “if” another pregnancy, but “when.” I insisted that I would know when I was ready. John, who was more of a rationalist, said that my approach was too murky. Too mystical. “How will you know?” he pressed me. “Feelings come and go. You can’t rely on them. You simply have to make a decision.”
In the end, we were both right. I did know. I knew it in the same way I know when piece of my writing has transmuted into art. I had braved the wilderness in the company of a fallible guide, and I held to my “mystical” conviction. I can’t pinpoint any particular, magic moment of knowing. I did know I could trust myself. On that basis, I made the decision to stop using birth control.
In that remembered room that I haven’t seen in many years, I spent hours absorbing the pattern of the Persian rug on John’s floor and assimilating the good, hard work of healing. We created something together. A new way of being was brought to life. Eventually, a new being was brought to life! My daughter was born when my son was eight years old. This pregnancy and birth was a breeze compared to the first one.
At the time, I assumed I was done. Healed. But the ramifications of childhood trauma unfolded slowly, over time, in response to life events. I have had several therapists since John. Some were forgettable; a few were superb. None damaged me. But even when the stressors of life threatened to extinguish my spirit, I remembered that experience and it oriented me toward hope.
I disagree with Rubens on one point. As long as we’re alive, and especially if we struggle to heal, our spirits can never be extinguished. The art we make of our own lives is proof enough.