More on Creative Blocks and Trauma/Depression

I think my most recent post was about daily habits and establishing something that works for you as a daily creative thing to do, even five minutes… So, continuing on with this series of posts about creativity as a healing process…

Creative Blocks and Trauma Related Depression

I think there is a connection between having a lot of trauma in your past and/or recent past, being depressed, and also having creativity blocks. This is a kind of depression that is not necessarily that noticeable although sometimes it is very much in the forefront of your life. For some people, it is a lowgrade depression, characterized not so much by depressing thoughts or great feelings of sadness and melancholy, but more like a kind of daily feeling of a lack of excitement and pleasure in your life. A person can get used to sort of feeling “ok” and functioning at work and with others but not really looking forward to anything or being very excited by much in their life. “Going through the motions” is part of it. Also a kind of low expectation for oneself that seems to creep up on the person slowly so that they notice they are older and don’t have a lot of “big dreams” or exciting plans for the future. Sometimes this manifests in “forgetting” to plan a fun vacation, going to work but not really liking your job while at the same time not hating it or thinking of other options. It’s also as though the idea of “other options” keeps receding and the person has stopped thinking of their “Bucket List” which may have just been things they were thinking of doing in their early 20s they didn’t end up doing and have developed a block about, such that they do not even think about other possibilities, even little things like taking a class in something new or something you liked as a “hobby” but gradually just stopped doing and “forgot” about…

The “forgotten life” is a sad part of this depression. It is easy to go about your day with blinders on and come home just tired, not expecting much, watching some tv, helping your kids with their homework but not getting much joy out of anything. Sometimes a person with this kind of depression is feeling ok or happy when with their kids and family or their dog or other animal companion and has moments of joy that are connected to these relationships but can’t muster up much gusto for doing anything for themselves. Even without depression, it’s easy to forget to talk to your parnter/husband/boyfriend/girlfriend/companion about anything much besides the usual talk about daily matters.

This is an insidious kind of depression because it is not very obvious. The person seems fine and does not demonstrate the usual big red flag signs of depression, no sudden weight loss or weight gain, no sleep problems, no crying, no thoughts of death or suicide. The big connections with really bad depression are “anhedonia”, which means lack of ability to feel a sense of pleasure and enjoyment of things, as well as a kind of hopelessness, but unlike dramatic major depressive disorder, the person is barely aware of their hopelessness as it manifests in this kind of “blinders” not expecting much from life kind of attitude. In my experience of working with people who suffer from this kind of thing (and if a person actually goes to therapy, they do start to notice these little signs, but sometimes the person has gone to therapy for some other reason and has no awareness that s/he is also depressed in this way until later on in the therapy process), many people who have this kind of barely noticeable depression have also suffered from traumatic events in their life, ranging from terrible childhood trauma to small kinds of trauma that the person does not even consider to be unusual but nevertheless, these “traumatic” kinds of events have left a mark on the person. Early or later loss of a parent, the earlier the loss, the more traumatic, or loss of a sibling or love partner, surviving a fire, moving many times, dropping out of school and other even less obviously traumatic types of events, such as living with a partner with a significant chronic physical or mental illness or addiction, or being the child of a parent with such an illness, as it is easy to forget while being the caretaker, that you have also suffered. Children of such parents are also used to thinking of others as being sick and not noticing their own suffering.

Silent and unaware suffering is sad in a very different way from very dramatic kinds of suffering.  This depression that I have described is not only accompanied by undetected or worked through traumas but also very importantly, a lack of creative drive and a lack of creative activity in the person’s life. 

The magic of creative arts therapy is that I have seen such people suddenly awaken to themselves by starting to make art in sessions with me. Often it occurs after I have been working with an adult for quite a long time and established a trusting relationship and suddenly the person becomes interested in trying out some kind of art making, maybe out of curiosity from being in my art studio for so long, surrounded by art and art materials, sometimes at my suggestion. Often it probably starts as a desire to please me, especially in people who are used to trying to please others in their lives and not thinking much of themselves. I welcome this because I know that a person cannot create for very long just for another person, even their therapist, without experiencing a sense of enjoyment and pleasure that belongs to them and is witnessed by me. As this person starts creating, some changes start occuring that are purely related to the creative process and how powerfully healing it is. I know there are studies of creativity and brain activity, and I’m certain that the act of creating lights up places in the brain and awakens parts of the brain that were not being used much, even though I don’t have the scientific knowledge of this. I have witnessed too many magical transformations that are directly related to the person creating more, even if it is only once a week in the session with me. 

This is the magic and beauty of the creative process. Of course it feels like one is back in kindergarten, so the cliche goes, but it is wonderfully true, as many adults have not made any art since the age of 4-6. To bring a person back to Kindergarten is to bring them back to the Source of Creative Healing, to a feeling of safety and trust and even a wonder at what they have made. (See my post of the wonderful poem “All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten”)

These are the moments when I truly love my vocation and feel privileged to be witnessing such deep healing. No matter how long I do this, I am consistently amazed at the shift in energy in the room, at the sense of wonder creeping back into this person’s life and also touching me. 

On a personal note, I started making art as an adult around the age of 20, while being in college and consistently pretty depressed. A simple beginning drawing class with simple ingredients: lots of students but enough attention from a great teacher, low expectation of any kind of “realistic” type drawing, even positive reinforcement from the teacher and the assistants who loved most the images made by students that were unrecognizable as anything “real”, simply “marks on paper”, a phrase of the teacher’s that I never forgot, that had a profound effect on me. I had not thought of drawing or painting since kindergarten, probably had to do some art class in high school but I mostly remember noticing that I could take photography and avoid drawing and painting while in high school.

This elective art class in college changed my life in a profound way and is one of those moments on the journey of life that one sees later as a “marker” of a change in direction. The process of doing something non verbal and so pleasurable was so surprising and wonderful that it “woke” me up out of my depressive college “angst” at least to the point where I started drawing outside of the class to express some of this angst.

I mention this just to point out that the act of beginning to use one’s creativity in a different way can really stir up and awaken a little flame of excitement and “libidinal” creative energy and then the small flame becomes a fire, maybe quickly, maybe over time, but just lighting one little flame can really stir up the brain and knock out this kind of depression in a person to the point that s/he starts to have daydreams or quiet little desires to do new things or to enjoy little things, sometimes it results in a person taking out their guitar after ten years of no playing and playing it, or journaling daily or starting to write poetry. For some, it results in buying art supplies and having fun painting or collaging at home.

These little beginnings when fed and properly witnessed by the art therapist can result in some small or big shifts in a person’s life. The depression starts to get knocked off or dusted off, and the person starts to see more around him or her and inside him or herself. Like a small pebble tossed into a pond, the ripples go outward, the water gets stirred up and energized.

Thus begins a healing process and a slow or fast disappearance of the little depressive symptoms. Excitement and enjoyment of little things and/or big changes occur.

I strongly believe that this kind of depression is most helped by creating and bringing more creativity into the person’s life. Exercising, eating better, doing more besides the usual, that all helps too, and sometimes it actually comes along with the creative awakening. Medications do little to stir up this depression in most cases in comparison to what a few art supplies and encouragement from a safe, trusted art therapist can do.

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