Using Art to Heal: Painting the Psyche’s Message

Committed to the Sane Asylum: Narratives on Mental Wellness and Healing* is the title of the book written by Susan Schellenberg and psychologist Dr. Rosemary Barnes. Susan suffered a psychotic breakdown in 1969. She and her former husband both understood that her diagnosis was schizophrenia. Her sole treatment over the next ten years consisted of prescribed anti-psychotic drugs. Rosemary Barnes comments on the treatment Susan received and offers her perspective on the state of treatment for emotional illness at that time.

Ten years after her psychosis, when drug side effects brought Susan to the point of despair and suicide she committed to what became a four-year supervised withdrawal from the prescribed anti-psychotic drugs. In addition, she committed to heal her mind from the causes of her psychosis, to heal her body from the debilitating drug effects and to keep a painted record of her dreams as her mind and body healed. Through these processes she eventually discovered that sexual abuses inflicted by her parish priest and both her parents were major factors in her anguished mental state.

In this blog post I have the opportunity to explore with Susan the role art played in her recovery and in her life as a respected and talented artist. The article is written in an question-and-answer format.


Mary: In your book, Rosemary comments that between 1969 and the early 1980s, the period in which you were being treated for a psychosis, mental health professionals never asked about child sexual abuse. Rosemary reports that today, 50 – 60 percent of those hospitalized for mental health care report childhood sexual abuse. How did you uncover your own history of child sexual abuse?

Susan: By 1997, the time I was mentally strong enough to recover my trauma memories, trial and error with my art and dream processes had long shown me that there was no possible way that I could lie to my psyche and expect to heal. So I absolutely knew from the outset that it was essential to get the abuse story right for my own healing as well as for my abusers’ sakes.

The getting it right was made difficult by a powerful “false memory,” counter argument at that time that often appeared when sexual abuse cases were reported in the media.

Mary: Oh yes, the False Memory people really scared off therapists as well as those who were trying to make sense of their traumatic memories.

Susan: Another unexpected challenge was a post-recall rush of additional anxieties that heightened my original childhood abuse related fears and feelings of being bad.

Mary: Isn’t it amazing how we’re programmed not to tell even ourselves? Opening Pandora’s Box stirs huge anxiety in us.

Susan: In my case this fact resulted from early religious conditioning in Catholic myths that implied priests’ so-called” higher calling” ensured they were incapable of wrongdoing. Myths I since knew to be false but which came back to haunt me immediately after the abuse recall and during my resolution of my trauma narratives in formal dream analysis.

Mary: Tell us more about your dream analysis.

Susan: Important background to that story is the fact my commitment to heal through painting dreams began in the mid 1980’s when I knew nothing about or how to interpret dreams. But, the mere act of reproducing dream images at that time and since is that my eye is allowed to feed the same images back to the psyche that the psyche has sent to me through dream. Dream and art’s alternating dialogue between one’s inner and outer worlds has been a constant and invaluable to my gaining the trust in life and self that my wounded mother was unable to give me.  I have come to see dream as a surrogate mother.

Studies with an excellent dream teacher in a method of dream interpretation called “Percept” helped me develop an understanding of my personal dream vocabulary and how its symbols are rooted in my history and how I learn best. Because each person’s dream language is as unique as their thumbprint, no one but the dreamer can truly interpret their own dream. My analyst could guide and encourage my understanding of my dreams and provide invaluable empathy and witnessing for my trauma story, but dream by its very nature did not allow me to hand my power over to my analyst. I doubt my trauma induced willingness to give my power to others could have changed from its by then highly fixed state through any other means than my honouring and painting dreams.

Besides art, other helpful aids during the trauma/dream analysis period included yoga and tai chi, types of bodywork and above all meditation. Such practices were critical to my ability to relax to the degree I could approach and examine my worst fears around my abuse story.

Mary: When you withdrew from the drugs that kept you compliant and stupefied, you resumed your art work. You also describe how art stirred feelings of chaos and terror. How do you explain that?

Susan: Art is birthed at the deepest part of our essence. That core part of me also held my story, which meant that in order to access art, I needed to approach the light and dark of my entire story every time I painted.  My psychosis reflected an aborted attempt at bringing to consciousness the abuse stories I had buried in order to survive as a child yet needed to make conscious in order to survive adulthood. Because long-term drugging with psychoactive medications compounded and further buried my trauma stories, art was a major and terrifying struggle in the early years but lessened as I healed, then dissolved once I cleared my entire psychosis’ trauma core.

The sensuous, tactile and seductive aspects of art, i.e., colour, drawing and the lusciousness of paint also enabled me to move beyond my fear of certain dream images. Similarly, the understanding and humour of other artists and friends who seriously embraced their own soul journeys made any grim slogging bearable. Where art was my passion and gift, I believe that other peoples’ passions and gifts when knitted to their own commitments to heal can result in similar healing.

Not healing in the sense of cure as in the absence of illness but healing in the sense of growth in becoming more human.

Mary: Your painting was often trying to bring to your consciousness things that you needed to know – and didn’t yet know in your head. Can you tell us something about this?

Susan: Childhood trauma from the start shaped many attitudes and behaviours in me that eroded my ability to cope, to feel pleasure, to create, relate to others and to love and forgive other and myself. In painting dreams and learning over time what my dream symbols meant, I was able to reduce serious psychological information into a form of play or another way of seeing. If your readers want to visit my website, I suggest * Casting A Vessel gallery which contains a painting called “Churchill.” This work represents a breakthrough dream that offered much insight into my depression and through its use of the historical Churchill reference validated that the Church had indeed made me ill. Until the time of that dream, I lacked the necessary insight to overcome my depression and was still questioning the validity of my trauma recall. That and every other dream I paint mimics the psyche’s way of leading me at a pace that is psychologically tolerable and in sync with my need to learn in the way I learn best.

I have one final thing to say to those who feel the need to become better artists before they paint dreams. It is important to clarify that the inner/outer, dream/art dialogue for me depended as much on my intention as it did on the quality of the art I produced. Though my main intention is to fuse dream to a best art effort, I have often experienced equally powerful insights while executing and pondering rough stick figure, i.e., kindergarten-like sketches.

Mary: Thank you, Susan. I think a lot of readers can resonate to the use of art in freeing up their deeper levels of awareness. Granted, they may not become recognized talents, but freeing their creative selves can lead to a new knowing about the underlying cause of their distress.



Aug 9, 2011

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