Drawing It Out
In art therapy, we could let our crayons do the talking

By Laura Boswell
Sunday, July 12, 2009

Of all the sessions at Suburban Hospital's outpatient mental health services day program in Bethesda, art therapy was my favorite. Our therapist, Esther, pronounced her name with a Brooklyn accent -- Estah -- chewed gum and winked a lot. She was also the only therapist I believed when she said life would get better someday.

In other sessions, we had to engage with one another and our carousel of counselors, exploring the roots of our anxiety/depression/anger/phobias/compulsions. We had to listen and contribute as we wriggled in metal folding chairs and drank tepid coffee from disposable cups.

I hated group therapy. I didn't care about other people's problems.

No, that's not true. I cared too much. I was a moldy sponge, slurping up other people's issues like sour milk, when what I needed was help for me. When I entered the program two weeks earlier, I had reached my breaking point. My mother was chronically ill. My sister and brother-in-law were on the verge of losing their house. My workplace, once a happy haven, had become a burdensome misery. And I had recently been dumped by the love of my life, an event that left me stupefied with grief.

I needed to know why, at 36, I had begun suffering heaving anxiety attacks, episodes marked by drenching sweats, staggering chest pains. I'd launch into extremely inopportune crying jags -- at staff meetings, in produce aisles, during sex -- and had hid under my desk at work at least a dozen times. Why had life's wonders shriveled and faded like dead autumn leaves? Why didn't I want to live anymore?

With Esther, we could withdraw for a while, feel nothing but the gritty sweep of chalk across paper, breathe in the waxy sweetness of crayons. There was no pressure to talk or analyze or even think; in fact, she encouraged us not to. All we had to do was draw.

Our drawings were supposed to show what our subconscious minds were thinking. One woman had been date-raped and struggled against blaming herself. She drew angels with angry faces. "So you feel like God was punishing you?" Esther interpreted. The woman nodded, hot tears dashing down her round, pink cheeks. "You go ahead and let it out. That's good work, babe! Good work!" In Esther's eyes we were all true artists.

A lesbian whose live-in lover had returned to men drew seascapes, dark waters biting at the jagged black mountains looming over them. She had tried to kill herself three times.

"I'll think twice before I try it again in Pennsylvania," she said as she colored in a red sailboat teetering against a rush of waves. "I had to pay $600 for the ambulance!" And we laughed with her. Because what more could you do?

Then there was the schlubby lawyer whose drug-addicted teenage son was threatening to kill him. The son, who appeared smiling and serene in a school photo his father showed us, had come after him with an ax just the week before.

The lawyer couldn't understand why his thoughts were garbled, why his business was suffering, why something as innocuous as a morning shower could physically hurt. "I don't want to be here," he wailed. "I just want to feel better." Between sessions he would continue his protests in the hallway, pleading with anyone who would listen: "Why am I not getting better? Do you feel like you're getting better?"

His pictures made me the saddest. They were kindergartners' portraits of the happy family he had once had: a two-story house with a chimney, and stick figures scribbled on green streaks of grass; a mother, a father and a little boy, all smiling, the sun shining down on them with a halo of orange dashes.

I drew hearts mostly. Purple, blue, sometimes fractured, sometimes whole, but always small, always dark, don't-notice-me colors. Even in the midst of family, career and financial crises, my heart was all I thought about anymore.

One day, Esther led us outside to a rooftop patio. She gave us thick sticks of colored chalk and told us to draw on the concrete. She brought out a radio and played empowering songs, including my personal favorite, Lucinda Williams's "Joy."

I lay on my stomach in the sun, sketching away with peachy chalk. I drew a hand holding a heart inside it. A hot-pink one.

Esther knelt and placed her hand on my back. "What's going on here, sweetie?" she asked.

I explained how the drawing represented me taking hold of my heart. Not a boyfriend, not work, not depression. Me.

"Then don't look back," she responded. "Keep moving forward. You're going to get through this, I promise you." And I felt, if just for sliver of a second, she might actually be right. At home that evening, I sat on my stoop drinking a beer, playing "Joy" in the background. You took my joy/I want it back!

I wanted my joy back. But therapy, meds, music and even Esther couldn't do it for me. It was up to me. And my hot-pink heart was ready.

E-mail: xxfiles@washpost.com.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company