Art Therapy as a Coping Mechanism

Animal Self by Patrick SamuelI’m an artist with Asperger’s Syndrome.

As a child I was hyperactive, and I think my mom recognized that early on. I would get distracted, frustrated, restless and angry very easily and was prone to outbursts when things suddenly changed. I would be moved from class to class as teachers didn’t really know how to deal with me.

Although I was bright, I had no social skills, and team sports as well as group activities would lead to meltdowns as I just didn’t know how to co-ordinate myself, relate to others and stay calm when things didn’t work out the way I thought they would.

It was my mom who showed me how peaceful and rewarding drawing and painting could be. We did a lot of arts and crafts sessions together. There was a lot of cutting and sticking, making decorations and things to hang around the house…

The smell of paints in their little tubes, the feel of a crayon as I held it between my fingers. The way the light came through sheets of tissue paper. Oh, and the taste of chalk, I remember that one well… I could sit for hours and draw or paint. Those two things reduced my hyperactivity as a child and wherever we went I always had some pencils and paper with me.

Unfortunately, between 1996 and 2016, I didn’t draw or paint at all. I forgot how. 

As hard as I tried to ignore the limitations Asperger’s placed on me, I was simply becoming less and less able to cope with the demands and pressures of adulthood. As a result, 2016 was the worst year of my life. It became much worse in September when I started teacher training. Together with my other co-morbid conditions, it became clear that I was not getting the necessary support.

I let matters get worse and by December I was in hospital with an overdose, having attempted suicide for the second time in my life. I was referred to the mental health team, then the crisis team and finally, my local complex care team. Things started to move forward. My diagnosis, care plan, treatment plan, assessments and psychiatric evaluations followed. There was also full-time care, support, access to groups, CBT and talking therapy.

It’s all been very helpful, but I would not have gotten it if it I wasn’t willing to take responsibility for my actions. I had to face up to my limitations, accept my difference and not blindly ignore it, stumbling from one disaster to the next. The thing that played a big part in this turnaround of my destructive life was the start of my daily art therapy, which began one evening in December 2016.

My friend and carer placed an empty A3 drawing pad on my lap, perhaps frustrated at my endless silence. There was the complete inability to put my thoughts into words, or express my emotions and the lack of social imagination to be able to communicate precisely what I was thinking when I swallowed those pills. I just didn’t want to talk anymore. What does it matter why I did it?

December 23 by Patrick SamuelHe told me to just draw what I was feeling. I hadn’t drawn in 20 years because I’d forgotten how… 43 minutes later I finished a self-portrait. Half of my face with rotting flesh and bone protruding. It reflected everything I was feeling, or rather not feeling. I was dead from the inside out and fed up of trying to hide it. This is who I was. In that moment, I actually felt something. A little feeling of release. And I was done for the day.

The next day I drew again. Another self-portrait. Sitting atop a gravestone in a cemetery I saw myself reflecting on the mistakes I’d made. The drawing was from a real-life incident that took place in November 2015 when I tried to get the wrong kind of help and made another big mistake in my life. I’d never been able to talk about it before, but somehow drew it and wrote down my thoughts and emotions, as well as my deep regret.

And so it went. Day after day. Slowly at first. Each day I’d complete a picture.
Eventually they weren’t self-portraits anymore as I started to look beyond myself. I started to draw my dog and other animals. Forests and fields. Then other portraits. Then the moon, the stars, planets, galaxies, other universes, dimensions, portals. I was traveling, exploring…

The point is, art therapy is helping me to stop focusing on myself and looking inward.
It’s enabling me to look up and beyond. It’s given me the power to dream again, to envision a future me who could use these experiences to build something of a life that could help and inspire others. Art therapy is a chance to use my Asperger’s for good, rather than the harm I’d been causing to myself and others.

As a person with Asperger’s, art therapy has so many benefits. People notice I’m calmer, more focused and less distracted when I’m doing it. It’s given me a tool to communicate both ways. When it’s too loud in my head, when I’m ruminating or reliving traumas, that’s when I’m most vulnerable and that’s when I need to do it; to reduce that sensory overload.

As a sensory experience, it’s a very rich one. There are so many textures, colours and smells and the way the sound of a pencil on paper differs from a brush or a pastel. As for the tastes – I’m happy to say I haven’t eaten any chalk, crayons or pastels since I was 5 years old, ok maybe 6.

Art therapy is helping me build social skills. I don’t just want to create art, I want to share it and I want to keep doing it for as long as I live now. In a short space of time I’ve secured over a dozen sponsors including Cass Art, The Frame Company, IKEA, Printfields, Disc Factory and Tiger. I’ve also reached out to other artists and they’ve kindly donated many of their materials including oil pastels, paints, pencils, brushes, canvases and even an easel! And they’re all keen to see how I’m developing as an artist and learning for the first time to manage my Asperger’s. It’s given me a topic to talk about that others can relate to and for the first time as well, I’m conversing with my neighbours.

Before Everything by Patrick SamuelWhat Art Therapy has also done is help me get to the bottom of problems and identify issues that I’ve been unable to access in other ways. Why did I swallow those pills? Why do I bang my head? Why do I want to be alone? I couldn’t answer of those questions until I was first able to draw those pictures because that’s how my brain works – in pictures – not words.

For as long as I can remember I’ve always had facial blindness, and I still struggle with reading faces, particularly expressions. The human face can express so many subtleties that are completely lost on me. With Art Therapy I can draw portraits to explore facial expressions, focusing on details such as eyes, mouths and the difference between a smirk and a sneer. I’m still not able to read faces, but I can draw those faces and eventually I might get there. Small steps…

Art Therapy might not work for everyone the same way. We’re all unique individuals with wonderfully complex brains that work in so many different ways. What works for me, might work for you, or it might not. You won’t know until you try.

Once art therapy started working for me though, it was like the whole universe opened up. But, I had to keep doing it every day, even when I had a concussion, or after being restrained, or being sick, or just dealing with the side effects of my various medications.

And that’s what it’s been like, I’m constantly moving forwards now. With art therapy, it’s like a re-birth. I’m still me. Asperger’s through and through, that will never change, nor would I ever want it to. My little animal self, the Asperger’s part of me, is a gift. It allows me to have a lot of abilities and interests that my neuro-typical peers find baffling. But it’s art that people relate to and can share a back-and-forth conversation with me about.

People ask me what they should do and how they can get started because they don’t have the skills and abilities to create anything that can compare to other people’s work. I tell them what my carer said to me, “Draw what you feel”. Abilities, skills, technical know-how, none of this matters in that moment. Draw what you feel and what comes from that is an honest representation of what you’re thinking and feeling. It’s all the things you couldn’t say before. It’s all the thoughts that were rustling through your head that wouldn’t settle before. It’s all the pain and hurt you couldn’t let go of. It’s all the anger you’ve been holding onto. It’s all the joy that comes with that sense of release.

It’s ok to get mad at your art. Smear the paint. Rip up the paper. Do what you need to do to express yourself. Stick it back together if you want. Use pencils, use old newspapers, envelopes, macaroni, glue, shoe polish. Use whatever you have. Art and art therapy is about expression and release, and it’s about you, no one else.

Lastly, art therapy helps me go from strength to strength and blossom with skills I forgot I had, and learn new ones too; social skills, and technical skills. And coping mechanisms.

I used to say to an autistic girl I worked with for two years that I was there to help her find her super powers. Along the way I realized she was already amazing as she was, but watching her bloom with the benefits of art therapy, acquire so much confidence in herself and master so many social skills…the irony was that it took me so long to discover it in myself; that art and Asperger’s were my super powers all along.