This month’s theme at the BeZine is “The Healing Value of the Arts”. The Arts have an intrinsic value in and of themselves, of course, but most of the time when people read or hear the word “Art”, they don’t associate it with healing or medicine. And yet, there is a very real power in art to be and do exactly that. I want to share a personal story with you about how art really can change a person’s life and help them heal.
My brother-in-law, whom I will call “TW”* for the sake of this piece, is a proud USMC and Army National Guard veteran who served our country for almost a decade. He did tours in Bosnia and Iraq and when he returned to the States, he was not the same vibrant, easy-to-laugh young man who first enlisted. The things he witnessed and experienced overseas changed his mind to such a degree that his everyday functioning was affected. You see, TW suffers from severe, debilitating PTSD. There are good days and bad days, but on the bad days, his body freezes up and he has problems performing simple tasks that you and I might take for granted. He has been known to curl up into a fetal ball for hours at a time, trying to escape the monstrous hell his memory is reliving.
Of course, he has meds which his doctor prescribed for him, and they help…to a degree. But the most amazing treatment of all has been his painting. His art has helped save him more than any pill ever could. TW builds and paints hundreds of miniature figurines and it has become much more important to him than a simple hobby. He agreed to answer some questions about how this type of Art has changed his life and how it continues to help him get better.
Q: How did you get started in using painting to handle your PTSD?
TW: I was having so many panic attacks, and when that happens, there are a lot of times it’s something that you’re not aware of until you’re right in the middle of it. It’s like your body does its own thing, it floods with adrenaline, the nerves go haywire and it gets hard to control your emotions. That’s something you learn as a marine…you learn the ultimate control, you don’t feel fear or rage or any of that, because having emotions over there can get you or your buddies killed. So to not be able to control it like that makes me feel like I need to do better somehow.
I tried video games for awhile, but they didn’t help the same way that painting does. They say “idle hands are the devil’s work”, well, an idle mind is just as bad and I got sick and tired of being afraid all the time. So I was looking for an outlet, something to take the place of the fear, you know? Back in high school, I kind of messed around with models a little bit, so I thought, “Here’s something tangible to keep my mind and hands busy” and it just grew from that.
Q: How often do you paint and for how long at a time?
TW: At least once a week, but sometimes a lot more. It just depends on when inspiration hits, and if or when I need it. I’ve learned some of my triggers, but the attacks can still creep up on me and can happen at any time. If I feel like one is starting, then I can take some meds and start focusing on my painting and it helps calm me down almost immediately. I usually paint for a few hours, but sometimes it can go all day. It just depends.
Q: Why do you think it helps?
TW: Well, this may sound weird, but it’s a routine I do. I have several steps, and those steps have steps. Like, I prepare my work space, and that might be two or three steps. Then I pick out my paints and brushes, and that’s a couple more steps, and so on. It’s a ritual, and it helps calm my mind by giving me something tangible to focus on, one thing at a time.
Another part of it is the ethos of the figurines I paint. What I mean is that the lore behind the models is something that empowers me. These figures, they’re Space Marines, so of course I can relate to that part of it, but it’s a fantasy world, too – they’re soldiers who don’t ever feel fear, they never get PTSD; I can command troops and build my own army without any of the weaknesses of real people. I mean, they’re super-human, genetically engineered warriors. So being able to pour myself into that…helps me feel better about myself, helps me be stronger.
Q: Have you told your doctor about it and has it affected what kinds or the amounts of medicine(s) you take?
TW: Yeah, I did tell him about it and it’s encouraged for patients like me to keep busy and calm. He called it a constructive focus, so that I can come back to reality with a possible different perspective, from a different place mentally. As far as the meds go, I can tell you this: before I started painting, I used to drink, a lot – to escape all of it…and now I don’t. I have a pretty good schedule for the meds I do have to take, but on days when I paint, I don’t need some of them because I just don’t have any attacks on those days.
Plus, if I’m going through a period of insomnia, which happens more than I want, I can paint and come down enough that I can actually get to sleep. Most of the time, though, I like to paint during the high sun of the afternoon and my doctor has encouraged that, because the sunshine helps with my moods, too. It also helps me see how the models look with details that show up in natural light that don’t always show under artificial light.
Q: Do you think it could help other veterans like you and have you mentioned it to anyone else whom it might help?
TW: Yeah, I do. I mean, it’s not for everybody, and some people might find it boring, but it’s helped me become more patient, keeps me calm and focused. Making sure all the details come out right is a good challenge for me. A couple of my buddies are vets, too, although they’re from different units, and I’ve told them how much it helps. But everybody has to find what works for them, and I think it’s good if you already have an interest in it, like I used to be sort of interested in it in high school. But I recommend that anybody should try it because you never know. I know it’s worked for me and I think it would work for other people, too.
Don’t let anyone ever tell you that Art can’t heal. I’ve witnessed it, so I know that it can. I know TW’s case isn’t the only one, or the only way that art has helped someone. Look around, pay attention. I bet you can find ways that The Arts heal people, too. 🙂
* When I asked my brother-in-law what nickname I should use for this piece, he said to call him “The Wizard”. It’s a private joke with his doctor, about the ‘powers’ that each of them have to help TW get better. I abbreviated it to keep it from being too distracting to read.