Therapy vs. Therapeutic (Art)
There is a distinct difference between therapy and therapeutic arts. Art can be healing, art can be cathartic, art can deeply reinvigorate a wounded and traumatized spirit, but art cannot single-handedly eliminate trauma or eradicate its scars. That, is the work of treatment, rehabilitation, and help.
Therapy can be an artist’s most sacred tool, most necessary paintbrush, most crucial canvas, most coveted word, most honest stage. I create, write, and perform intensely personal art about overcoming my own traumas and exploring my pain; yet, I do not use the pen, microphone, or stage to serve as my therapist. Rather, these artistic and creative outlets serve as a catalyst for me to express myself, not save myself. I do the saving in therapy, in yoga, in talking to the support system I have amalgamated from friends and family and mentors, in reading, in spending time outside, and in taking baths.
Several years ago, I had a profound experience at a suburban video arcade in Chicago. I was playing pinball, when a young Iraqi veteran approached me, restless and eager to chat. He began by flirting with me, asking if I had a boyfriend. At some point, he apologized for sounding “muddled” and noted a lack of sleep the night before. He said he didn’t sleep much, especially since he got back from Iraq. This morphed into a conversation about his experience at war – what he witnessed, what he experienced, and how he came home traumatized, with an anti-government and pacifist stance, even though he’d grown up in a military family.
Then he said, “We’d be so much better off without government. It ruins everything. If everyone in the world destroyed all their weapons – guns, nuclear weapons, everything – and everybody went into therapy, we’d have world peace. We’d have world peace so fast, people’s heads would spin…All we need is psychotherapy.”
I think about this interaction and declaration regularly. I think about his words when I witness people confess their struggles and triumphs through their art, and then project their pain onto others or themselves backstage, on the sidelines, and in the background. Therapy is a gift we – artists and otherwise – give ourselves to explore and extrapolate the depths of our narratives in order that we may better understand the palette of personal experiences, thoughts, opinions, and ideas we use to create our art.
I have a poem called “Life Worth” about my younger brother Josh’s death: in 2002, at age 15, he was hit by a car and killed while walking on the sidewalk. When I wrote “Life Worth” in 2006 during my senior year of college, it was not only an opportunity for therapeutic release and reflection, it was a chance for me to make a political statement about human life, consumerism, and the way we value and don’t value life and death in our society.
“Life Worth” quickly became one of my most performed and shared poems for the next five years, and to this day, I perform it still. It wasn’t the first poem I wrote about Josh’s death – I wrote dozens of poems and prose pieces after he died. But I feel what allowed “Life Worth” to – pun intended – have such a long stage and page life itself were the circumstances under which I crafted it. I wrote it three and a half years after Josh died – dozens of therapy sessions later, dozens of grief and loss group meetings later, dozens of months after I was able to process my grief.
That is not to say that my grief was gone by 2006, I remain grieving and missing my brother to this day – something I assume I will negotiate for the rest of my life. But in “Life Worth” I was able to punctuate the moments of narrative with factual statements I’d researched about the commodification of life and death – how much it costs to purchase an orphan online, funeral prices, and statistics about other commercial human trafficking. I feel I was able to make such a personal matter political because I had processed my experience so much off page and off stage.
By no means am I placing “Life Worth” as a pinnacle of poetry, or as my greatest artistic achievement, or even claiming art cannot exist without its most raw and vulnerable emotions – that too is a crucial catharsis. I am, however, using this poem as an example of how healing from our traumas through personal and professional mental health and wellness offers us an opportunity to choose the way we create and craft effective art about trauma and pain, while simultaneously knowing we have a safe space to continue processing when the microphone is not enough.