Using Creativity to Heal & Leave the Past Behind

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At 18 years old, I never would have expected that a force could enter someone’s life – a force so powerfully negative and dark – as to tear them away from the things they loved most, the things that made them who they are as a person.

That is, until I encountered such a force for myself.

I was an outsider in high school.

The wrong clothes, the wrong hair, the wrong taste in music and TV shows, an odd gaggle of friends.

Picture a pissy teenage girl wearing an Evanescence T-shirt and combat boots who didn’t need no man.

That was me.

I knew myself. And I knew I was a writer. Stories lived inside me. I would scribble ideas in the margins of my school notebooks, then run home to type them up on the family computer. I wrote fanfiction for my favorite shows, made cheap websites and published original stories there. My friends and I would create elaborate story lines and characters and then role play them in online forums. They were mostly artists, finding their craft in drawing or painting or digital art. But the words were mine, and it was something that fueled me as a person and helped me become one of the group.

We identified ourselves as creative outcasts and stayed together for most of high school.

As growing up always entails, however, my friends and I began to drift apart by Senior year. They were taking classes in art and graphic design, and I was continuing to focus on my writing and storytelling capabilities.

I was writing more than ever, and learning so much about how to make my writing better.It was awesome.

But I’d been glued to my friends’ sides for nearly three years. Without them, I was starting to feel… lonely. I started to want something that surprised me: I wanted a boyfriend.

Now, one of the reasons (many, many reasons) I had no interest in dating in high school was because I wanted a real relationship. Not to say those don’t exist for young people – one of the friends I mentioned above got married to and had a baby with her high school sweetheart just this past year. However, they’re an exception.

And I mean, let’s face it: teenage boys are dumb.

So, upon becoming a legal adult, discovering I was lonely and ready to start looking for my first genuine romance, I did the thing that made the most sense for me:

I made an online dating profile.

As a highly introverted person wanting to avoid drama as much as possible, online dating was – and would continue to be – a godsend for me.

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I was new to the dating world, but I wanted to give it an honest try and I was prepared to put my all into whatever came my way.

After a few weeks online, he messaged me. The boy, who was just 20 at the time, that I would go on a first date with, who I’d share a kiss with in a dark theater, who would be my first ever romantic relationship.

This relationship would last for three and a half years. And it would be hell.

I won’t go into the details.

I have written extensively about the horrors I went through while in this relationship, both online for people to read and in private journals. But that is not the purpose of this piece. I will simply say this man was controlling, manipulative, abusive, and cruel.

When I finally managed to get away from him, the layers upon layers of damage would remain with me for a long time, and do still to this day. They would impact how I thought about myself, what I did in my day day-to-day, and the kinds of relationships I sought out long after the ordeal was over.

In the time I spent with this man, I graduated from high school and entered college. As an English Lit major in a writing-intensive program, I spent a lot of my time doing the two things that I loved: reading and writing. But the original fiction I had loved and was so proud of were laughed out of existence by the man whom I’d call my “boyfriend.”

Not that I had much energy to create anyway; for much of those three and a half years, my sole focus was surviving.

Even after the relationship ended and I graduated from college, I still didn’t write.

The damage inflicted upon me while in that first relationship, the creative differences I had with my professors in college, and the newly found stress of entering graduate school and starting adult life moved my focus from creating to other things.

I think all creators experience times like the one I went through. Times when we’re preoccupied with building and shaping our lives. Days, weeks, months, even years go by; dust settles over our tools of creation, and the well inside us dries up.

While this time period might be necessary for many creators, it’s never fun.

Maybe I needed the break. Maybe I needed to figure out how to life my life “after” going through all that. Maybe I did need some time to get my feet under me, to figure out who I was again.

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However, going so long without any kind of creative outlet, especially after the stress and pain and trauma I had endured and was enduring, did very little to improve my already unstable mental health.

During this time, I went through one of the worst periods of anxiety I’d ever encountered.

On top of all the other garbage I was dealing with, mentally, physically, emotionally, I found myself yet again in a state of unbearable loneliness. Now that I’d been in a bad relationship, I wanted to be in a good one. And I was desperately impatient for one to start.

And then, one day, it did.

Creative people need support groups. Really, we do. Even if we work alone, we need friends who believe in us, who help fuel our creative energies even when the fire is little more than a spark.

We need that one person in our family who cheers us on no matter how many times we fail, that online community who are desperately begging us to release more content even though we JUST put something out yesterday.

It’s necessary. It’s important. It’s healthy and helps keep us healthy, which is the number one way we ensure we’ll continue to create.

I met the man who will soon be my husband in June of 2017. While he is my partner and my equal and my best friend, I do not give him credit for healing my wounds. Rather, he taught me how to be gentle with myself, and gave me a safe space to heal on my own time. He proved to me time and again he would be there if he needed me, which was something I don’t think I’d ever had before him.

He also gave me a gift I didn’t know I needed: he gave me space to start creating again.

And it would take nearly a year of us being together, moving in together and starting out lives together, for me to take advantage it.

I was still suffering in the early days of our relationship. I was still having anxiety attacks that would last for days. I’d burst into tears while sitting beside him on the couch watching a movie simply because my thoughts had become so toxic. I would start shaking uncontrollably on our nightly walks, would have to go in another room during family visits to try and calm myself down.

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The anxiety was still there, and it was still winning.

Traditional therapy wasn’t something I was interested in exploring, but we knew something had to change. I couldn’t continue to live this way.

I’m the kind of creative person that doesn’t do her best work while in crisis. I needed to do other things to calm down before I picked up the pen again.

I started doing hypnotherapy at home, on my own time. It really helped get a lot of the poisonous thoughts that had haunted me for so many months under control. I highly recommend it for anyone going through bad bouts of mental health issues, especially suffers from anxiety.

So, I did a hypnosis session about once a day for a month.

I went on long walks.

I listened to music.

I started consciously trying to separate myself from my job when I wasn’t there, which was something I’d struggled with doing since starting there.

And once I felt like I had some control back, once I felt the anxiety slowly releasing it’s death grip on me, I started to write again.

I dug up an old project I’d worked on and off on over the course of many years and re-wrote the whole thing in one summer.

Then, I took a break from that and started working on another project.

And then another, which I would independently publish online in the form of a chapter-by-chapter series.

Then, I started a blog.

And slowly, slowly, I noticed I was getting better.

The process of healing is an on-going one.

Recovering from trauma, from abuse, takes time. A lot of time. But it’s not a passive process: you have to work at it. For me, creating was the way to get back the control that I lost, to feel like myself again.

Here are the major steps I took to soften the scar tissue around my heart through creating, steps I feel anyone can take. Steps I highly recommend other victims of abuse, anxiety, trauma, or just the daily stress of life practice as a form of continual self-care:

1. Make a creative space

Even if it’s just a desk in the corner of your living room, make a space where you go that’s yours. You can have other spaces, but this one should be a kind of home base. Having this dedicated space will help train your brain to realize when it’s time to create, and when it isn’t. This is also a safe space, which is incredibly important when it comes to healing and dealing with anxiety.

2. Try to create every day, but don’t beat yourself up if you can’t

This is a hard one and intimidates many people to the point where they don’t do anything at all. Be loose with your definition of daily creation. Maybe you didn’t spend any time in your physical creative space today, but did you get a new idea? Did you spend any time thinking about a project that’s in the works? Even if it was a fleeting thought, or you just glanced at a piece you worked on or are currently working on, that counts.

And if you didn’t get the chance to work on your creative things, to even think about working on your creative things, congratulations: you successfully gave yourself a day off! Take breaks to make sure you’re approaching projects in a fresh state of mine.

3. Finish every project you start

Even if it sucks. Even if you want to totally re-do it. Even if you want to stop all together. Finish it, and then start anew, or use the skeleton of what you have already to build something else. Even if you have to tack on an ending you don’t believe in or add a finishing brush stroke that makes you cringe, just finish it. It will make you feel good to have a finished thing, even if the result isn’t what you wanted when you first set out to complete it.

4. Choose a select group of people to share your stuff with

These people don’t have to be the world’s best critics. In fact, it would be even better if they weren’t. Make them people you trust, people who love you and that you love. If they have any knowledge or background in your medium, then great. If not, that’s fine too. It’s nice to hear nice things about the work you’ve done. Give yourself that. The whole world will criticize and belittle you – don’t bring that into your home.

5. And last but not least, remember that you create for you

This is the hardest part, especially for me. There are some creatives who are totally content with just keeping what they make to themselves.

Not me.

I want to share and publish my stuff; I want to one day be known for it. While this goal adds a whole new level of excitement to my work, it also means I put a lot of pressure on myself to do better, to meet my deadlines, to get attention and start building a fan base. Sometimes, we need to take a step back and remember why we do this. I know I do.

You create, my friend, because there is something inside you telling you to do so that is impossible to ignore. It is so insistent, so loud and nagging, you have to act on it even if it’s just to make it leave you alone.

If you like what you make, that’s good enough. And if you don’t, then you’ve given yourself permission to work on it until you do. The more you create, the better you’ll get.

Finally, it’s important to remember there is no cure.

I still suffer from anxiety; I still have my bad days. I still have feelings of self-doubt, I’m still really hard on myself, and there are still shadows in my mind cast by the things I dealt with in the past. But since I started writing again, I feel like I have more control over myself, my emotions, my thoughts. When I notice my head going to a dark place, I can turn the tides and think about something else – namely, the projects I’m working on and am excited about.

The fears that kept me up night after night are still there, but they’re much smaller now. So small I find myself realizing I’m not thinking about them. And if I start, I can stop.

Readers, I encourage you to create. Even if you think you’re not good enough, you are. Humans have this amazing ability to make art, and art comes in many, many forms. If you don’t know what your form is, experimenting. YouTube is a fantastic resource, filled with all kinds of “how-to” videos for all kinds of things. The important thing is to give yourself an outlet, to let yourself feel good about something you did outside of work or getting the chores done (even though these are important too!).

So take a deep breath, go buy a desk or a chair or a work table or whatever else you think you might need online or at a thrift store, move some furniture around, and get to work.

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