Narrating our healing with images

The late Oliver Sacks, much-loved British neurologist and author, describes the quality of awakening that the arts provide to ill, or disabled people:

Awakening, basically, is a reversal…the person ceases to feel the presence of the illness and comes to feel the absence of her illness through the full presence of her being…

Many artists have used art to awaken their inner selves, express their own struggles with illness, distress, anxiety, or pain. Frida Kahlo, the Mexican surrealist painter, created many self-portraits during her life-long struggles with pain and health. Kahlo had polio as a child and suffered from a congenital condition of the spine that caused her nerves to degenerate, contributing to painful ulcerations of her legs and feet. She was badly injured as a young adult in an accident where her pelvis and one foot was fractured.

In The two Frida’s, Kahlo painted herself as two people: one Frida is dressed as a bride, and the other wears a Mexican costume. Both Frida’s are connected through their hearts by a thin red artery that drips blood on the bridal gown. Kahlo’s image depicts the experience of a woman trying to control her life tormented by continuous pain and shows the serenity of two faces as merely a façade that barely conceals her real suffering. 

When Sarah came to consult with me, she explained herself as being entangled in the challenging web of cancer. Diagnosed with a formidable adversary, she embarked on a journey not only to fight the physical battle, but to navigate the complex landscape of her emotions and fears. In the quiet room of my narrative arts therapy studio, she began to find solace in the expressive realm of the arts. 

During the early sessions, Sarah's pastel strokes were cautious, mirroring the uncertainty inside of her. Yet, she began to weave her story through colour, shape and lines. Through narrative arts therapy interventions, her work slowly took shape as a testament to her strength, a personal rebellion against the illness that sought to define her.

The studio became a weekly sanctuary where Sarah felt free to confront her deepest fears. Her work oscillated between dark hues portraying pain and bursts of light representing resilience. The act of creation became a cathartic and sometimes difficult dance, externalising the emotions that words struggled to articulate.

I introduced Sarah to the concept of visual storytelling. Together, we crafted visual narratives that mirrored her journey—each sheet of paper became a chapter in the evolving story of her resilience. As Sarah delved into her story, and dreams for the future, her artwork bridged the gaps between those ‘fractured’ pieces of her identity.

One pivotal session saw Sarah creating a symbolic self-portrait with her favourite pastels. The woman on the paper wore a crown of wildflowers, a representation of newfound strength and acceptance. Sarah had painted the flowers for herself, placing them on her bald head - going beyond the ravages of chemotherapy. A transformative, self-compassionate act of art.

Our narrative arts therapy sessions extended beyond visual images. I introduced writing exercises, allowing Sarah to breathe further life into her images through words she could not find before. Through poetry and prose, she articulated the tangled emotions within her. The written and visual narratives became close companions in her journey with illness, guiding her through her struggles.

Sarah re-created her narrative. The woman who had initially entered the studio with trepidation and overwhelming sadness, emerged as a storyteller, a partial creator of her destiny. She arrived with one story and left with another.

The stories of Sarah and Frida demonstrate the power of the narrative arts when one is confronting issues of life and death. Their artworks expressed feelings about illness which is very hard to communicate in words. Narrative arts therapy helps people to express the emotional and spiritual aspects that come with confronting loss.

In closure, let us revisit Oliver Sack’s words of wisdom:

Awakening, basically, is a reversal…the person ceases to feel the presence of the illness and comes to feel the absence of her illness through the full presence of her being…


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