Category Archives: trauma

The Wound

This week I came across a beautiful animated film which illustrates how emotional trauma can take control of a life. It’s called Obida (The Wound), by Russian filmmaker Anna Budanova (2013).

The protagonist spends a lifetime feeding a creature that embodies her pain and resentment, and it it grows bigger and bigger until it completely defines her life.  Take a look:

Children draw 9/11

In the days, weeks, months, and even years after 9/11/01, many of the children I saw in therapy turned to art to express deep feelings of fear, trauma, sadness, anger, and healing related to the tragedy. Shortly after the attacks, the NYU Child Study Center began to collect children’s artwork created in reaction to the tragedy. The submissions resulted in a book, The Day Our World Changed: Children’s Art of 9/11 (Robin F. Goodman and Andrea Fahnestock, 2002). On the first anniversary of the attacks, the Museum of the City of New York mounted an exhibition of jury-selected work from the NYU collection. The 9/11 Memorial Museum recently acquired some of the works in that show.

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Cover art by Andrew Emil, 11 years old. Memorial. “My father worked on the 106th and 107th floors of the WTC Building Number One. Luckily he wasn’t there.”

The book is beautiful. (You can probably tell that it’s well-loved by its dirty cover.) It contains 83 works by children and teens ages 5-18, as well as essays by mental health experts, historians, artists, teachers, journalists, and religious and political leaders. The children’s work, though, really needs no words. Here are some of them. Those that are unclear will be clear if you click on them individually.

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Charlotte Lockhart, 14 years old. Untitled.

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Kitwana Carr, 17 years old. Untitled.

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Pearl Newman, 12 years old. Disaster 911. “It was a very sad day for America.”

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Quinn Taylor Kelley, 6 years old. In Bed Dreaming. “This is me in bed dreaming my mother is in smoke and fire.”

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Joshua, 9 years old. Children’s Guernica. “The Children’s Guernica’s relation to Picasso’s Guernica is that I wanted to show how disgusting war is.”

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Talal Jaradat, 10 years old. Doomsday.

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Annie Mak, 17 years old. Osama’s Toys. “The painting of Osama eating the Twin Towers would be helpful to understand the anger put over America and symbolism.”

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Tamara Obradovic, 9 years old. America Is Crying.

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Alex Marroquin, 13 years old. How I Felt On September 11th. “My picture shows the WTC attack on 9/11/01. It shows the first building on fire and the second about to get hit.”

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Merica Noel Suga, 11 years old. Nervous.

Nesita Abreu, 9 years old. Untitled.

Nesita Abreu, 9 years old. Untitled.

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Ewa Podgorska, 8 years old. Fireman.

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Ryan Anders, 8 years old; and Henry Corcoran, 8 years old. Untitled. “I feel sad because dogs have sacrificed themselves for other people. And their tails got squashed and their ears got cut off.”

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Isabel Glatthorn, 8 years old. Sparkly Spots Proud To Be An American. “Dalmations help people to be found and cheer up the Fireman. He’s an American, too.”

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Vivian Ng, 16 years old. Firefighters Standing Strong. “The firefighter represents all the heroes of this event. His sadness is shown by the tilt of his head. However, he still holds the flag with honor and pride. The flag represents the nation’s strength as they overcome the tragedy.”

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Babul Maih, 17 years old. Empire Fallen. “This painting shows the towers…falling from the sky.”

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Catherine Ormaeche, 17 years old. Untitled.

I love this untitled series by Kevin Wang, then 8 years old, which speaks of trauma, hope, and healing.

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Another week, another school shooting, more dead. A lot of heartbreak and agony. Opinions, discussions, arguments, demonstrations. I thought I’d weigh in from one art therapist’s perspective.

People are traumatized by so many things. Most people associate Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder with war, child abuse, domestic violence, natural disasters. There’s plenty of that around. But people can experience trauma for many other reasons. Traumatic experiences usually involve a threat to life or safety, but any situation that leaves someone feeling overwhelmed and alone can be traumatic, even if it doesn’t involve physical harm. Objectively there may not be any apparent reason for someone to feel traumatized, but it is the subjective emotional experience that counts. An illness, accident, loss, or humiliation can be the cause of trauma, for example. A sense of abandonment can be traumatic. As we have seen, bullying traumatizes many victims. Trauma is more common than we’d all like to admit.

Anger is a hallmark of PTSD, a response to feelings of powerlessness and the loss of a sense of safety. Alternating states of hyperarousal and numbing are common, intensifying chaotic and overwhelmed feelings. There is a pervasive sense that danger is all around. A fight-or-flight response, a physiological reaction to the threat, kicks in.

Back to volcanos:

vol·ca·no   noun

  1. An opening in the earth’s crust through which molten lava, ash, and gases erupt.
  2. Something of explosively violent potential.

Volcanos are by far the most common image I have seen in the many years I have practiced art therapy. A volcano is kind of a perfect metaphor. So many of the traumatized clients I have seen struggle to contain a rage which is pushing to erupt. Most live in fear of their own rage, terrified of destroying those around them.

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Some feel less aware of their own dormant volcanos, but their images convey that they may sense the impending shifting of tectonic plates that precedes an eruption.

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You would not believe the size of my collection of volcano drawings, most of which I don’t have permission to show you here. These drawings can be seen as self-portraits, as the depiction of the subjective experience of their makers. Most of these artists had a healthy fear of their emotional volcanos. I always thought this child directed a huge wave at his volcano to put out the fire and make it safe for himself and those around him.

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You help people by restoring safety, by helping them regain control, not by handing them the means to lose control and cause harm. People don’t want to cause harm. In my experience, they’re scared of their anger.

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When someone is suicidal, we take away the sharps. With so much trauma in our midst, let’s make sure we take away the guns.