The Power of Healing Through Art

by Patricia Obletz

‘’My passion to internalize the external through self-expression in words and in color is a gift in so many wondrous ways. I found out the hard way that practicing my art keeps me on the right side of sanity. Two programs that I have developed, “Wordshop” and “Colorplay,” have shown me that Art also is the Great Healer for many people of all ages. But first Ill begin at my beginning.

Failing the first grade readiness test when I was five was the best of my failures. It established me as an artist and, in fact, it blueprinted the essence of me. Instead of answering questions, I randomly rhapsodized about my dear baby brother; raced to the windows to match faces to passing voices; made lace out of paper scraps; drew a “spontaneous fine likeness” of my evaluators earring.

As a result, my exceptional parents returned me to kindergarten at a different school, affording me the gift of another year in the only grade I know that encourages and inspires creative freedom. And they sent me to paint with a professional fine artist. Memory casts those lessons in the warmth of golden light, the exciting joy of creation, the strength that comes with peace.

My mother framed and hung some of my early work, undeniable affirmation of my status as “Artist.” I still have “Still Life 1948,” twelve tulips within pale green stems and leaves that soar off the newsprint page, another blueprint, and my first work with a brush. Puddled black ink marks my first stroke as I began to outline my first flower, ink thinning my lines as I continued. Even then my heart and spirit conceived in a stream of my consciousness, where self-awareness disappears into spiritual freedom, where love flourishes, where I feel closest to God. This gift, and that of my parents generous, kind intelligence and wherewithal, buttressed me in the hells we humans incur in our lifetimes on earth.

Longing for a horse of my own vanished when at ten I wrote and illustrated a story about a wild stallion. My dads secretary typed it and secured the one hundred single-spaced pages in a binder. My sister and I soon received a horse of our own.

Reading Anne Franks diary filled me with a fearful pain that haunted me until I painted a woman and child whose faces were dominated by big dark eyes, pools of sadness and alarm.

But being passionate, impetuous, instinctual, and ruled by my heart, I never understood that painting and writing brought me to peace despite tempestuous hungers, or the knife of disappointment. This knowledge came to me in my 50s, but not too late, never too late to discover that which anchors me to moderation.

Moderation of course is what my father, throughout our lifetime together, urged me to adopt. It gives you health and happiness, he promised. I was 38 when we learned why I never even knew what moderation was. That year was 1981, three years after cancer became a household word in our family. My fathers lymphoma went into remission in 78, but before this blessed event, we thought we would lose him. Earlier that year, every painting I attempted had turned into lifeless, muddied shapes. Once cancer threatened my father, I became afraid to risk another failure. I had no idea then that painting released overwhelming emotions on canvas, barring the door against my unsuspected susceptibility to psychosis.

In 1981, we almost lost my mother after her first chemotherapy treatment induced congestive heart failure. Before I trusted in her safety, I underwent a partial hysterectomy. As summer ended, I grew to believe that I was transcribing “The Messiahs” messages for the new bible that would save the world with love. I never questioned my change of mind. I was too busy at the typewriter to notice that I was living on cigarettes and water. I wasnt worried about losing sleep I needed every minute to finish this holy endeavor.

Ill never know exactly when I entered my unwitting course of sleepless starvation. I was enveloped by my euphoric belief that my parents, myself and the world had never been safer. Crashing back into reality catapulted me into the worst years of my life: I actually had raced into self-destruction even as I had believed that everyone would be safe. I had believed that Love soon would rule the world. The Golden Rule incarnate, this law the only one that my parents imposed and practiced throughout their lives, their example the standard by which my older sister, younger brother and I lived.

While my mother and siblings attended religious services, my father played his favorite composers on his grand piano and I painted my hearts desires on paper and canvas. Adorable Aunt Helen also believed that Art was the only religion, one that she and my parents supported with time, energy and finances. My father and his sister knew that Art is a universal language, it is spiritual freedom, it connects human hearts and spirits: we are not alone, beliefs I didnt comprehend until much later in my life.

Perhaps the fact I never had a religious education encouraged my messianic belief, well never know. But I will say that madness opened me to the universality of being human; it gave me my passion for words; it eventually forced me to accept my need for lithium; it taught me what reality is, and eventually how to face it and live with it in moderation.

Back in 1981, I never knew that I was in danger until a friend alerted my family, and of course I didnt believe the doctor when he claimed that I was in the midst of a full-blown manic episode. Not at first. Not for a long, hard time.

After six weeks of talk and medication therapies, I foundered on the reef of reality, my parents and good friends my ballast as I struggled to find my balance. For the first time in my life, I was terrified of my own thoughts and actions. I never knew Id been in terrible trouble, how would I know if it happened again?

Before my first psychiatrist discharged me and I could return to my own home, I asked my parents how they could put up with my incessant talking and typing. My father said, “Out of desperation there comes a way.”

Emerging from full-blown mania and depression, I felt compelled to warn people about how easy it is to lose your mind. It never occurred to me that, number one, my case of bipolar disorder was far from over, or that, number two, writing my story was in fact the gold at the end of my rainbow, safe for the key to moderation that enabled me to secure health and happiness. After work and on weekends, I worked on my chapters to help others avoid my fate, one worse than death, I still believe.

A tumor showed up in my mothers lung soon after Id been withdrawn from lithium. Before I knew it, I again was possessed by hypomania, siren of mania. When panic attacks returned, I at last understood that I alone could not control this profound human condition without help. Over the next five years, ever-deepening levels of depression darkened my soul, stole my energy, forced me to quit my job as supervisor of Helene Curtis copy, then work as a freelance copywriter, envelope-stuffer, mail room clerk.

Yet writing my story of emotional extremes exercised the artist in me in all but darkest times. It was the only thing I could like about myself. It prevented panic from consuming me writing about my panic distanced me from its whooshing, breathless claim, enabling me to step outside the fear long enough to call a friend, swallow an anti-anxiety pill, wait for it to ebb. It enabled me to continue living alone in my own home surrounded by the paintings I created back in the Sixties and early 1970s at Parsons School of Design and the Art Students League, reminding me in waking moments that I once was accomplished.

Living on past laurels soon was devoured by depression and I couldnt see beyond my need to die. Only friends, family and medication were keeping me alive.

Telling and retelling my story gave me a semblance of control over the worst of my run-ins with terror, kept my thoughts focused on the known, a challenge I could conquer. Working in a stream of consciousness, as I had done with painting, fed me similar excitement upon beholding my latest effort. The thesaurus became a treasure chest, offering new combinations of words that evoked varying nuances of experience, helping readers to better understand the traps that mania and depression laid.

My serious and persistent mental illness was a legacy from ancestors, their DNA, like that in every family, lying in wait for a crisis. I realized years later that I had believed that, were I to die first, I wouldnt lose my parents, my foundation, the standard by which I measured all others, most of whom fell far short.

And still lymphoma and breast cancer attacked my parents again and again, adding more chapters to Love and Madness, which gave reason for my insanity, justification for unbearable, intolerable pain. Giving me reason to take the pills that kept me on the right side of sanity.

After my parents died in 1987, which threw me into numbing shock for the next two years, I returned to the city of my birth. In Buffalo, New York, I remembered that most of my life had been far more positive than negative. My healing began in Buffalo within the surrounds of my magical childhood.

Mania and depression owned me until 1990, the year that compulsion to polish every word of Love and Madness lifted and allowed me to see that my story was a black and white self-portrait that identified the first warning signs of brain chemical imbalance. Once I converted into symptoms my lifelong responses to times of intensity, and treated them immediately, my swings shortened and gentled. And patience became a more realistic goal. This revelation inspired my “Wordshop,” which I held first at a New York State psychiatric rehabilitation treatment center, and then also with at-risk kids at a youth agency. More people gained insight and self-respect by writing about their experiences with a mental illness. At the center, a number of “Wordshop” members offered their stories to the quarterly “Wordshop News.” So many of them came back to “Wordshop,” beaming, telling us all that their family and friends now treated them with respect and said, “Oh now I understand. I’m sorry you had to go through all that . . .” and other comments along those lines.

“Wordshop*” also launched my career as an activist for mental health through art, spiritual freedom through singular acts of creation. The next year I was recruited by a state agent to establish a quarterly newsletter. Four additional activists from different counties in western New York and I launched the first edition: Mental Health World Winter 1992. This journal continued until 2009, after greed zeroed out so many budgests. This award-winning publication focused on first-hand stories of what helps and what hinders mental health from every possible perspective, the template I first had designed for myself, and then for “Wordshop.”

The following year I suddenly found myself in my junk room, painting over failed canvases, buying more. I completed 39 works in six weeks, and each new thrilling surprise was alive, challenging the best in me. This joy had carried me through triumphs and trials between 1948 and 1978, when I had struggled, but was not yet crazy. I lost this joy for 15 years, stripping me of my defense against bipolar disorder. Now that I could paint again, truly I was one hundred percent really me again.

On the second-last canvas of my 1993 spree, I worked with a palette knife for 72 straight hours, which exhausted me; it ended my run into mania. I worked by phone from bed, leaving it to care for necessities, and to sit for an hour a day before a 40×50 inch canvas, stroking each day one layer of diluted color into doodles that turned themselves into horse heads, their manes ribboning skyward. This painting, Headlines 1993, was the last one of this series, the last one I was to paint for five years, the last one I would paint with a brush. Until 2008.

Back in September 1993, I was in the backseat of a car that missed the turn of a Thruway off-ramp and smashed through guardrails, hurled by momentum into the maw of an eight-lane highway. My head went through a backdoor window.

My neck was rebuilt and, although nerve damage limited me, my spirit was free. I attribute the strength of my positive attitude to the fact I was helping others to help themselves, working to guarantee civil rights and equal medical care for people who have mental illnesses. I also give credit to the strength that mania engineers, which at last I had learned to harness and use for good.

In 1996, Mental Health World won media service awards and was entered into the State of New York University Library bound journal stacks and national database. It continues to be used as a textbook by a number of university human services departments across the country.

Five years after the accident, I put to bed Mental Health World Spring 1999 and retired. Given the luxury of uninterrupted time, I began painting in earnest and eventually allowed my parents friends to convince me to submit my art to juried shows, and actually sell them. Years passed in which I continued my physical therapy, increasing my range of motion as well as the size of my art.

Once I could stand before a large canvas again, I discovered what my painting process was. Nerve pain halted my first few strokes of color before they became more than unfinished doodles without hint of their future. A few days later, with the canvas now 90 percent covered in layers of colored doodles, I Rorschached my sinuous, sensual strokings, turning the work all four ways before falling in love with the most dominant image, eager to develop it. This breakthrough inspired my “Colorplay,” making something out of nothing. My first group met at the Western New York Independent Living Project; we kept our eyes on those telling stories while blindly grabbing colors and doodling with them on paper until the story ended. Then came the fun of turning each doodled sheet of paper all four ways, and finding unexpected subjects in everyones work. Theres no way to make a mistake: we neither choose our colors nor watch what we doodle, focusing our intellect on the storyteller, allowing our hearts and spirits to dictate the rhythms of color evolving on paper.

. . . . . . . . .

September 4, 2001, my sister said that she had end-stage lung cancer; she died November 28, 2001. I didn’t lose my mind as this catastrophe played out. My heart and spirit found freedom from fear on paper and canvas. And I was inspired to establish the first “Heart and Spirit Matter” fine art show at a professional gallery. I won a grant from the county mental health department and invited mental health experts and artists to sit on a panel at the opening reception --- which turned into standing room only, and the need to turn people away, although many gathered around the gallerys front door to hear the panel and ask questions after the discussion.

. . . . . . . . .

The artist in me continues to save me from psychosis, despite my beloved brother’s out-of-nowhere death August 27, 2005. Six months after he died, a new painting began; within the first set of doodles, a mans face appeared, fright embedded in his eyes, the set of his mouth. In the tangle of doodles in the foreground, a friend discerned a fist aimed at the man. By the time green shoots showed up in garden beds and limbs of trees, a woman appeared, and then a child. As this painting, “Out of Nowhere,” came to a finish, the yawning raw wound of unexpected loss began to ease, releasing me from numbing shock, pain now sharp, allowing me to feel again, breathe more easily again, the hole dug by my brothers sudden death still black, still empty, yet reinforced with those left by the deaths of my parents, sister and brother. They were together again, memory of their strengths strong and comforting, their voices continuing to advise, commiserate, and actually make me laugh upon occasion. I dont know if you have lost people you love, but if so, perhaps they also continue to live within your heart and spirit, telephones no longer needed to communicate, to share, to feel connected to them.

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Last edited by patricia obletz. Based on work by patriciaobletz and Tyler Schuster.  Page last modified on September 13, 2015

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