There’s little doubt I would not be here today without art in various forms. It made my mother’s life bearable after her husband’s death when she was about 22. She attempted suicide then, long before I was born, and it seemed that for the rest of her life an endless parade of fat novels and crochet projects created a livable center to her existence, whatever the conditions. I depended heavily on art and design from the start as my escape hatch from the chaos of my crazy childhood, and it helped me survive my turbulent teenage years. I started reading very early, I think before kindergarten, began drawing and writing as soon as I could hold a pencil, and I always adored music.
The most important thing music gave me was a raw full volume channel directly to my least acceptable self: feelings of jealousy, anguish, shame, fear, rage, desire, and the pain of my unmet needs. As a survivor of child sexual abuse, I started my healing process as George Michael crooned “sex is natural, sex is good” on the radio in the 1980s. Pop music that embraced sexuality as healthy and wholesome was important to me as I battled my shame. Certain artists also taught me a lot about confronting and speaking uncomfortable truths. Sinead O’Connor went from crystal soprano to gut punch growl as she tore away the “Emperor’s New Clothes” with her lyrics “Everyone can see what’s going on / They laugh ‘cause they know they’re untouchable not because what I said was wrong / Whatever it may bring I will live by my own policies / I will sleep with a clear conscience / I will sleep in peace / Maybe it sounds mean but I really don’t think so / You asked for the truth and I told you”. Se gave me an early impression of a female source of take no prisoners communication and the freedom it might give rise to.
Peter Gabriel confessed to my troubled 15 year old self “when my self esteem is sinking, I like to be liked” and “with this darkness all around me, I need to be needed” in his song “Love to Be Loved”. I thought if he could tell the world he needs to be needed, maybe I could forgive myself for having needs and work on accepting them. This particular song is a touchstone I’ve returned to over the years. It took me a long time to understand the lines “This old familiar craving / I’ve been here before, this way of behaving / Don’t know who the hell I’m saving anymore / Let it pass let it go let it leave / From the deepest place I grieve / This time I believe / And I let go ”. In this bridge vocal, he’s releasing his attachment to existing patterns of greedy possessive co-dependent passion in favor of holding space for a more mature honest love that seeks to discover and meet the needs of both partners openly. I was about 25 before I began asking myself his questions. Who am I saving with this self destructive behavior? At what cost? Why does this pattern keep repeating? Because I was unconsciously recreating the conditions for giving too much of myself to people who didn’t care enough to return my care and consideration. It was a message it took me a long time to get, but it remains valuable and widely applicable to all sorts of loving relationships and friendships decades later.
PJ Harvey poured out the torture of her lost and unrequited loves in “Rid of Me” and “The Dancer” when I was an insecure 17 year old who thought I would never be loved. The power and pain in her voice were magnetic, and howling along with her on lyrics like “You’re not rid of me / I’ll make you lick my injuries / I’m gonna twist your head off, see / ‘Til you say don’t you wish you never never met her / I beg you my darling / Don’t leave me / I’m hurting / I’ve been lonely / Above everything / Above every day / I’m hurting” soothed old wounds and ones I somehow expected in my future. Now I know that I am loved and worthwhile, yet I can still take courage from her fearless expression of her feelings, no matter how complicated and ugly. Her words combine the fury of denied need and the broken sadness beneath in an unforgettable storm of sound that still moves me now.
All the work I’ve done to heal from my past and do something different with my life to break the old patterns in my family have led me to study psychology. Research in the field shows that singing has its own neurological and emotional benefits, even apart from the impact of taking in meaningful lyrics and messages. It makes me grateful that I gravitated to singing my heart out as a response to all my pain. A particular favorite for this was the trip hop act Portishead: I found a home for my unwanted emotions in the lovely yet painfully throbbing vocals of Beth Gibbons. In the song “Elysium” they gave me permission to be me with the sweet defiance of the lyrics “you can’t deny how I feel/ and you can’t decide for me”. I had quite a lot of “suicidal ideation” going on in this phase, and I may not have survived without my moody music to give poetry and sound to feelings so large and complicated I sometimes felt there wasn’t enough space inside me to contain them.
Making pictures was another way I escaped my world and practiced building a new one. My early childhood drawings heavily featured houses, my way of creating the safe secure comfortable home I never had. Circling back to music, the very first song I remember resonating with deeply was “My Own Home” from Disney’s The Jungle Book. I too longed to have a secure home under my control, where I would be the decision maker of the household. I began to make that home on paper, with crude gable roof houses as all children do. I saw ads in the local paper for planned subdivisions, which included floor plans. As soon as I deciphered what I was looking at, I realized I could use this symbolic code and draw my own perfect dream house. It seemed like magic to me, and has become a project I return to since that moment, even now. My simple pencil sketch floor plans have become 3D renderings of houses ranging from tiny houses on wheels to 5,000 square foot earthships. The skills I acquired along the way are a tremendous comfort to me, because they empower me to remake the world and create my visions in some small but visible ways as I move along my life’s journey. I also drew a lot of outfits, representing different versions of me and a kind of symbolic armor. I drew homes and clothes I imagined would make me safe, powerful, invincible, unstoppable. I started with standard princess gown fare and over the years my pretty gowns became superhero costumes, historical garb, and adventure gear for distant planets and impossible fantasy worlds.
Of all the ways art has improved my life, none has been so powerful as literature. Books took me places I could never reach in real life and taught me things far beyond the scope of my experience. They exposed me to different questions about what it means to be human, what it is to be good, how we define beautiful, why bad things happen to good people, and what we can do with those painful lessons – whether through positive or negative examples. I met characters who faced tragedies, grew from them, and used them to fuel compassion and commitment to kindness, love, and acceptance. I saw others darken, turn inward, become hard and twisted and reach ever deeper levels of cruelty and misery.
After I’d gotten through the most dangerous and difficult parts of my childhood, art began to be more about expressing what in the world created the conditions for the horrible times I experienced. I watched many dark films in this phase, and developed a taste for dystopian fiction that is still with me. Writing has become one of my ongoing therapies, and these days I more often see art as a way to explore what we might do differently to heal and to create conditions conducive to thriving for more people, both in my family and beyond.
Harvey, PJ. “Rid of Me”. Rid of Me. Island, May 1993.
Michael, George. “I Want Your Sex”. Faith. Columbia/Epic, 30 October 1987.
O’Connor, Sinead. “Emperor’s New Clothes”. I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got. Ensign/Chrysalis, March 1990.
Portishead. “Elysium”. Portishead. Go! Discs, 16 September 1997.
Sherman, Richard and Robert. “My Own Home”. The Jungle Book. Disney, 18 October 1967.