Brush, Breath and Line: A Veteran’s Recovery through the Arts
I am a US Army veteran, artist, teacher, creative soul guide, and like all of us—a work in progress. With all of these things that I feel I am, I know that being of service to others has been and will always be a thread in the tapestry of my life. The many journeys within my life always bring new challenges, self-awareness, and growth.
It's been 20 years since my first battle with suicidal ideation and major depression. I've had some relapses since then, but with each fight, insights surface and propel me to more self-discovery and deeper healing. It wasn't until after my last relapse four years ago that I discovered what my “service to others” would be, and that my journey of healing through creativity would be born.
My last relapse began while sharing an art studio with a friend. At that time, I was creating commissioned artwork and paintings for some upcoming shows. Things were good ... until I had a severe panic attack. I've had them before, but not like this. This time, the severity and debilitation of the panic attacks led me to, and teamed up with, the suicidal ideation and major depression from my past. I eventually couldn't go to the studio anymore. I couldn't drive, I couldn't leave the house, I couldn't get to a doctor, and I definitely couldn't ever be left alone. Someone had to be with me at all times. It was a dark time for not only me, but also for Johnny, who never gave up on me. A year went by in this purgatory, and I was convinced that I had truly lost my mind.
I had to find my way back, and the only thing I knew well was art. I forced myself out of the bed and grabbed an ink brush and sketchbook. I drew a line. One after the other. Just lines across the page. After a while, I decided to draw a line with my breath to control my breathing. The trigger that always induced panic. I would draw as I sustained my breath and would pick up the brush when I gasped. I'd leave a space, then continue with brush, breath, and line. Over time, the spaces between the lines would become fewer and fewer. They were lines unbroken. This was how I calmed and reconnected myself to the present moment. While other breathing techniques have failed, my roots of creativity provided me a steering wheel, so I could leave my home and get the help I needed.
As I got better, I knew that the lines had saved my life and wanted to utilize art as a healing tool for not only myself but others. I began teaching expressive painting classes at the art center and with local outreach programs. I also co-created an art show called Bound and Release. A show formed around the feeling of being Bound by mental illness and the Release of that experience to create new beginnings and stories.
During this time, I had also begun working with Veterans in recovery. In 2015, I became the Director/Facilitator of what I now call Veteran HeART Circles, a program based on the core belief that art, mindfulness, and community can help heal, connect, and nurture our mind, body, and human spirit.
Not long after and well into remission, I began to revisit the paintings I abandoned in the studio during my last relapse, and as I looked at the work, I noticed something interesting. The current and past pieces were a visual timeline of my recovery. One piece that was once black and white, was now painted in vibrant color with a new title and story.
These paintings eventually became a series and solo show titled Mark Making, and then three of them became part of the Straz Center’s “Veterans Art Exhibit” that opened concurrently with the National Initiative for Arts & Health in the Military's 4th National Summit: Reintegration & Resilience in Tampa. It was speaking at this Summit as a female Veteran about my recovery through art, and what I do in the Veteran community, that gave me the courage to further educate myself to become an advocate for the arts and their healing capabilities. At that point, I knew I wasn't alone in this. A year after the Summit, I became certified as an Intuitive Painting and Expressive Arts Facilitator.
Today, in addition to my Veteran HeART Circles, I am also the Veteran Coordinator for Art2Action Inc., which has partnered with the USF Psychology Department and the Center of Innovation on Disability & Rehabilitation Research (CINDRR) on a Veteran Arts Program pilot study based on the impact of the arts for the Veteran community. Also, as a part of my work with Art2Action, I am currently curating a large multidisciplinary exhibition by military and Veteran artists in the community at the University of Tampa.
My recovery and return to “being of service to others” through the arts has been one of magnitude in so many ways and it has been a wild ride. I am grateful that I can reflect on these journeys through the progression of my art, see the strength of my own spirit, and know it to be true. For the first time, I feel a freedom that I've never felt before because this recovery journey has taught me that, for me to feel true freedom, I had to experience and know its opposite.