Art to Re-write Your Manual

I talk and think about trauma often. I’m a coach and I work with neurominorities, so the subject comes up a lot. I grew up with multiple traumatizing circumstances, like overlapping slices of colored glass, each blocking the light a little bit more as their tint blends with the ones in front and behind. In some ways the whole arc of my life can be traced as a fierce pursuit of healing and wholeness, all the way from (pre) birth to the present moment.

When I discuss trauma with clients or acquaintances, there’s this misconception that imagines trauma only to come from out-of-the-ordinary horrifying or dramatic events. Trauma, however, is less about “what happens” and more about whether or not we (and our social ecosystem around us) have what we need to process and integrate what happens, so that our nervous systems don’t get permanently stuck in survival and threat states (I’m obviously oversimplyfying here). This is how “harmless jokes” from relatives; being called names at school; being punished in a particular way by our parents or needing to rely only on ourselves growing up because the adults around us were sick, or needed to be at work all the time– and a million more possible scenarios– can cause us to develop trauma symptoms, even when we can function “well” in the outside world.

I’ve been creating art that reflects my current trauma-healing process. One of the colored-glass-sheets of trauma experience for me is very, very early– from when I was a very small baby. If you’re wondering how one can tell that’s the case, here’s a simple explanation:

The memories and experiences that form before we have language are understood to become a sort of our “user’s manual” for our relationship with our own bodies, as well as for connecting with other human beings. The manual is written by the kind of experiences we have with those who care for us, and by our experiences of our environment in general. While this manual can be “edited” later on as we adapt and learn from other experiences and relationships, it also can remain largely “unedited” depending on how much access we’ve had to new experiences where we are able to learn new ways of being and relating. Often, to edit the manual, we have to do it on purpose and with the help of others (friends, family, partners, mental health professionals). Chances are, most of us are walking around executing some “instructions” about how to be in and with our bodies, and with other people, that stem from that very period from before birth until we could speak our first words.

What my “manual” has felt like is fear, and a blank numbness where warmth and care should be. This is not a small thing: it has created a whole complex system of strategies so I can live with fear as a dominant force in my world–which is a very draining way to exist on this planet, to say the least. In some ways, it’s left me feeling very untethered to existence.

I am here, at 33, and many times I still feel the exact same way an infant freezing in despair feels– and it has been like that all my life. But because I know that I change, and that my brain can be re-wired to feel the warmth it needed all those years ago (and more) I am going through the grueling (but totally worthwhile!) process of editing the manual of my body and heart, and creating as I do so. The creative part serves the healing, and vice-versa. Creating art that documents and explores the healing process gives new meaning and value to inner experiences that are otherwise really tired, stuck, charged, and sort of re-cycle themselves in endlessly repetitive ways. The creative process interrupts the usual cycle and injects it with curiosity, playfulness and beauty.

(If you’re also someone working through trauma, be sure to do this with professional support!).

Reaching Photo-series

One of the creative outcomes of the healing process these past weeks is that I created a photo series. Here are a few of the images from the series:

Choose Life, mixed media, 2019

I first painted the background for this as a stand-alone piece, using acrylic inks.

As I painted, I called into my awareness the feelings of being stuck in a half-life state, and let those feelings guide my choice of colors and gestures. Even though I painted from that place, as I painted– and seeing the image that emerged– I felt as though part of me was using the act of painting to choose life, to commit to being alive even though the possibility of numbness and half- or only-barely-alive has been the default option, at a body level.

A couple of days later, during an important conversation, I was mindlessly playing with some sculpting material– suddenly a tiny black hand practically materialized without me noticing what I was doing. I imagined, if I could travel through time, this could be my past-self’s baby hand, reaching up for contact and care. I played with the painting and the hand and performed with the little hand standing-in for my past self. The connection felt fully real.

Reaching through Barren Space


Reaching back across Time


Feeling Alchemy, gouache on paper

Feeling-alchemy is the term I use to describe what happens when one is ready to dive into the overwhelming feelings that become part of our daily landscape after trauma. It’s a later-stage of the healing process, and for me, the first time I could “sit with” certain feelings that have been part of my background for decades.

Healing has been, as I mention above, a big focus in my life from a young age: meaning formal things I “do” to promote and support my inner drive to be whole, and an organic, spontaneous approach to all my relating as a way-toward-healing. At the same time, trauma feelings like terror, despair and anguish continued to “hum” in the background, and could become terrifying and disabling in their own right: if something on the outside seemed like it would awaken them, anxiety would “step in” in an attempt to prevent the black hole of those catastrophic, overpowering emotions from opening up.

Recently, however, I was able to open up to those feelings and experience them from the place I’m in now: more connected. From this place, those feelings are intensely uncomfortable, painful, yes– but no longer capable of fragmenting my mind or my functioning. To the degree that I could experience them fully, their intensity lessened, opening up new spaces for experience without the lurking fear that I would become incapacitated by their power, and as an added benefit, they left a deeper understanding of my history in their wake.

Over to you

Here’s an invitation to make some art, poetry, or any other creative expression about your internal healing process. The key ingredient is a gentle, compassionate regard for the parts of you that are hurting– how would a dear friend be with you, if you were in pain? Create a piece that expresses that kind of care. If you have a hard time calling up that kind of empathic feeling, allow the struggle to show up in your art.

Be mindful of your limits: engage only as far/as deeply as you can sustain while being curious, playful, and without being overpowered by your inner experience.

Share what you create in the comments on the Facebook thread on my page, or by tagging #mermaidforest on Instagram.

Wanting to learn more about trauma healing?

Check out Pete Walker’s website and book, Complex PTSD, for a comprehensive place to start.

Dr. Arielle Schwartz writes about complex trauma in a clear and accessible way.

If you’re interested in understanding pre-verbal trauma more deeply, here’s a place to start via the work of Dr. Allan Schore

Mermaid Forest @mermaid_forest