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Read This If You Struggle to Return to an Art Practice after a Traumatic Event

(How I rebuilt my life and got back into my stained glass studio after my son stabbed me)

Are you so consumed with emotional “crap” and that “crap” is your new normal, and making art (like before) seems impossible? I want to share my 5-year winding path that led me back to my studio. Warning: This story contains graphic images. 

My story

My beautiful, intelligent 20-year-old son was so paranoid he thought I was planning to kidnap him and, in the hell of his newly-acquired mental illness, pulled a knife on my husband and me in our driveway in rural southern Virginia.

My son was in the throes of early schizophrenia. The date was May 4, 2018. After our unsuccessful struggle to get the knife away from him, I ran to my studio to call 911, but he ran after and caught up to me. I fell into my daughter’s sandbox as the knife hit my skull.

As I knelt in the sand, bleeding, I remember how beautiful the orchard seemed. The weather was mild, and the light was golden. The next event was a miracle. He pulled me up by my hair and dragged me to our neighbor’s house to call the police on me for attempted kidnapping (of my own kid, mind you)

When the police and ambulance arrived, it was clear who needed to be apprehended, and the EMTs took me to the ER.  Thankfully, the wounds on my head and hands weren’t deep, and stitches pulled everything together. 

My son went to a mental institution and jail for most of the year. He was released under probation to his uncle in Florida and is now fighting a painful journey of severe mental illness.

My husband and I have been through problematic, anxiety-filled years since then. I, for one, stopped going into my studio. I stopped entirely for five years. In the interim, I sought ways to get my brain back. I will share how I rebuilt my art practice and returned to my studio and how you can too. 

Use tried and true methods for healing

Please seek professional help. I started therapy and did everything I was supposed to. My therapist told me to get back to doing the usual stuff. I got back as much as possible to do “normal” things at work, which is working at a local community college.

I did not find success with prescriptions, although some people do very well with those. My therapist made me talk through the experience: talking is supposed to alleviate the unconscious controls PTSD has on one’s brain and every system of your body. 

In addition to (mostly) doing what professionals told me to do to recover, which I think helped a lot, I found a few other methods to deal with the psychological repercussions of life after an assault. First is “waking up” and being good to your family. 

Tread carefully with your close ones

Perhaps a little late in my unique experience of PTSD, I learned to use Buddhist techniques discovered in a parenting class to improve my weakening relationships with my young daughter and husband. Without even realizing what was happening, I had become an angry and detached person.

With Buddhist coaching, I learned not to get caught up in the stories in my head. I learned to drop the stories. Anger management may be a necessary piece for you to deal with trauma. Don’t wait to work on that.

Positive relationships will give you more energy to return to your art and bring you closer to the most important people in your life. 

Take a detour

It is simple for others to say, “Go back to your studio,” but returning to an art routine is more challenging when you have PTSD.

In reality, when LIFE is hard, getting up is hard, surviving the day and pretending to be normal is a triumph, and going back to an art practice is an impossible existential luxury.

So I took a detour. I built another studio of sorts in my house—a sewing room. I learned to make pouches. And I started drawing with my family (sans son, who was in jail)  every night at the dining room table.

We decided to draw animals. We drew a lot of animals, night after night. Animals in clothes, animals cooking, animals that might inhabit the illustrations of a cookbook. It was the only art I did for a year.

About two years later, I took Adobe Illustrator and quilt design classes and became a workaholic and a learnaholic, a little detached, yes. 

In retrospect, maybe I could have found a way to use art as a cathartic experience to release trauma, like Goya in his series The Disasters of War. The series depicts the horrors of war, including violence, death, and suffering. It is considered one of art history’s most potent and disturbing depictions of war.

Making cathartic art didn’t cross my mind. I wish someone had mentioned it. All I wanted was to draw innocent things, anthropomorphize owls, deer, and lions,  and sew lots and lots of pouches. Maybe someone with a knack for psychotherapy might know why pouches were my object of obsession.

Maybe there was something cathartic in pulling off dozens of zipper sandwiches.  But my humble advice to you, the artist with PTSD, is that you might start making marks on paper and make more and more.

Do that anywhere. While watching TV, sitting in bed, at the dining room table. Catharsis may happen and help, but a nonstrategic detour worked for me. Maybe that will work for you too.

Clean up your studio

Five years later, with the encouragement of a business coach, I reentered my studio, intending to work in stained glass.

My first step into my studio. I started cleaning up. I had previously worked in glass for more than a decade and then suddenly stopped. Cleaning up my studio was opening a time capsule. My paintbrushes were exactly where I left them. Multiple projects were in the same state as I left them, unfinished, albeit covered with dust. Clean up.

I am sure there’s a lot for a  psychoanalyst to unwrap in that statement. There was a lot to unwrap as I started moving around the ghosts of my former selves that once occupied that space.

Experiences change us. The longer we live, the more likely we will have bad experiences. Use the bad stuff and the good stuff as fuel for your art. Please don’t stop for five years like I did. 

You can do it

To return to your studio, use proven methods, anger management, be okay with a detour, be a cathartic mark maker, and eventually start cleaning up. That’s my advice. You will get back to your art practice as I have.

Now, I draw every day and work in my studio nearly every day. I am loving life again and finding more fullness than I have in years. I have good relations with my family, including my son.

As a side note, I continue to seek support for my son in a flawed mental health system, and that event would not have happened had we had more support in the stages leading up to it.

My newsletter, Patterned Visions, addresses cross-craft theories in action and how-to guides for stained glass artists. You can get Patterned Visions delivered to your inbox

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