From Trauma to Creativity
by Amy Oestreicher
My name is Amy Oestreicher, and according to doctors, I am a “surgical disaster.” However, at 29, I feel truly blessed. I may not have a stomach, but I sure am hungry for life. It started in 2005 – a week before my senior prom. It was our second night of Passover, and my stomach started hurting. My dad said it might be gas, but he took me to the ER for an x-ray, just in case. On the way there, my cheeks actually puffed up, soon after, I collapsed, and I woke up from my coma months later. Apparently, there was a blood clot on the mesenteric artery that caused a thrombosis, and when they cut into me, my stomach actually burst to the top of the OR. Both of my lungs collapsed, I went into sepsis shock, and I needed 122 units of blood to keep me alive. At 18, I was read my last rites.
When I finally awoke from my coma months later, the doctors finally told me what was going on. I had no stomach anymore, I couldn’t eat or drink, and it was not known when or if I would ever be able to again. What do you say to that? I was shocked – I had been too sleepy to be hungry, but now that I knew what the real circumstances were, I was devastated. I was confused, like I had woken up in someone else’s life – where was I? Who was I? I remember I was once so desperate for answers that I googled “How do I find myself?”
Part of me wanted to curl up in a ball and disappear, part of me wanted to throw something. I was frustrated – I had just gotten my college acceptance letters – was I the victim of some cruel joke?
One day, I picked up a paintbrush. And my world changed. I had found a way to express things that were too complicated, painful and overwhelming to put into words. Suddenly, when the uncertainty around me seemed frighteningly unmanageable, the strokes of my paintbrush could soothe me as I created a peaceful world that my soul longed to rest in as a place of peaceful solace. My passion could ignite instead of my anger and despair. And slowly, the good feelings overwhelmed the bad because I could control the positive world portrayed on my canvases with what my subconscious chose to create. And I still believe that attitude is everything.
You don’t need to be an “artist” to make art – all you need to do is start somewhere. Art doesn’t have to be “good”, it just has to be “real.” What draws me back again and again to my paintbrush is that when I hold it in my hands, no one can judge me – all that matters is what I’m feeling inside. Through painting, I’ve discovered feelings I’ve suppressed that I had never even anticipated. Every day I come to my painting, I may be feeling something different. I could paint the most joyful expression in the world, or just a giant tear drop – but every time, I always walk away feeling better. I’ve realized what I was feeling – and I’d rather feel everything than nothing at all.
Creativity became my lifeline. What I wanted to keep my mind and heart numb to not deal with difficult circumstances, art could help me unlock those feelings and truly express myself.
Who knew that art would make my medical trauma become the most amazing adventure and lesson of my life? Art helped me process what I was feeling. But most importantly, art served to be the greatest reward, acting as a medium where I could still engage with my community, reach out to others, and make a difference in this world while utilizing my passion. Arts were my way of connecting with the world, sharing my story, and spreading my message of hope, strength, and finding beauty in whatever life brings you. My art may be self-taught, but it is personal, uniquely me, and a mosaic of what I have been through.
As a child, the arts were my passion and identity. When my traumas occurred, they became my lifeline. Now that I am out of my medical crisis and into a life of health and vitality once again, the arts are how I can reconnect with the world, make a difference, and raise awareness – awareness of
the power of ones internal resources, awareness that there are many ways to heal externally and internally, and awareness of the human potential and spirit. An awareness of gratitude – that every day and moment should be celebrated – that life is a canvas, an open score, a bare stage, waiting for us to join the dance!
I found art accidentally on my way to healing physically, emotionally and spiritually and have learned that it is one of the most rewarding, forgiving, beautiful ways to find my way through the darkness and into the light. I may have found it accidentally, but because of art, I have found myself again. Although left with a few scars, I am long past my bleak days in the hospital. With, my wonderfully supportive family, my passion and a paintbrush, I was able to keep my soul alive for that uncertain time in my life. Life may always be predictable, but art can always find the beauty in the detours.
Art is an amazing way to find the “me” in me-time. Often, when we need a break from life, it comes from the fatigue of being wound up in our usual routine – tired of the habitual day-to-day monotony of life. When caught in the midst of our daily grind, sometimes all we want is a mental, spiritual, emotional break.
CARE FOR YOURSELF
At those times, we just need a little self-care. We might pamper ourselves at the spa, unwind with a good book or blast a favorite song on the radio. Sometimes we just need a time-out from life.
What I’ve found is that those very times I really need a breather from the “go-go-go” of the week, I really just need a time-in. And that’s when I start to create.
There is something very intimidating about a blank canvas, an empty notebook or an open dance floor. There’s something very scary about the word “artist.” But getting a bit artsy is something that can lift anyone’s spirits at just the perfect time. When I create, I find confidence, I find humility, and I find out what I’m really feeling.
JUST START…I DID.
I found art accidentally on my way to healing from “more than a few” surgeries. I found myself overwhelmed by the sudden twist my life had taken and was not accustomed to suddenly being a “patient” at the whims of doctors and surgeons. I felt displaced from my “old” life and felt like each surgery had somehow chipped away at my identity.
As I was recovering and looking for some way to pass the time, I started to doodle. It was actually a simple tray of watercolor pencils that my mom had picked up from a nearby dollar store. At first, it was a mindless way to keep my fingers moving as the hours ticked by, but slowly it became a way for me to express what was really going on inside.
With my pencil to the paper, I was fixated on the physical sensations of feeling my hand movethe colors and down, creating shapes, spirals and jagged lines. Soon, I saw little teardrops start to emerge from my pencil, hearts, and pictures of my home. Drawing became a way for me to express what was too overwhelming for words. When I picked up a paintbrush for the first time, and my world changed.
ART CAN BE ANYTHING
Now I had a powerful tool in my hand – a vital connection to myself. With no reason to judge how good my “art” was, painting was just my way of visual journaling. I didn’t think of myself as an “artist”, rather, that I had uncovered an amazing means of tapping into who I really was, underneath the surgery.
To get creative, you don’t need to be an artist. I try to add some creativity in my day to make life feel inspired. When I make art, I experience what it’s like when my non-stop mind and inner critic can take a vacation – no matter what is going on in life. Life can get so busy that it’s hard to take time, pause and take a self-inventory. Through my art, I can take a journey into my subconscious and mark exactly what I’m feeling, and what I need – and sometimes I’m surprised at what I find.
It’s exciting to let go of expectations, and allow the brush, pencil, or crayon to move through you. Even when I plan on how I’d like my “art” to look – it never quite ends up that way. Creativity sparks differently for everyone, all you need to do is start. I’m going to assign you an “art project.” But don’t be scared. The gluesticks and crayons are only required if you want them to be. This project teaches you how to see.
7 SIMPLE STEPS TO FIND YOUR CREATIVE SIDE
1. Close your eyes, take a breath, and take a mindful stroll outside (preferably as nature-like as possible)!
2. Find the first image that excites you. How does it make you feel? What kind of music do you hear in your head? If that image were a dance, what would be its song?
3. Grab a piece of paper and crayons. (There’s nothing like a box of old-school crayolas!)
4. Put on the song that your image was “dancing to.”
5. Start to draw to the music – just one continuous line. Don’t think. Just hear the music and draw.
6. When you hear the music louder than your thoughts, forget all the rules and fill in the whole page.
7. Write a letter on the back and send it to someone you love…or better yet, to yourself!
Art is my way of having a reason to make a mess, to play around, to have no game plan. It’s a powerful feeling to have your hand moved by those emotions deep in your heart that are sensed but not seen, those feelings you can’t exactly put a word to. Art is how I take my “time-out” from life, and “time-in” to myself. So “art therapy” to me? It’s just some much-needed pillow talk with me. A way to wind down and feel. So what are you waiting for? You’ve got a body to create with, a self to express with…all you need to do is…start!
Amy Oestreicher is a PTSD peer-to-peer specialist, artist, author, writer for Huffington Post, speaker for TEDx and RAINN, health advocate, survivor, award-winning actress, and playwright. As the creator of “Gutless & Grateful,” her BroadwayWorld-nominated one-woman autobiographical musical, she’s toured theatres nationwide, along with a program combining mental health advocacy, sexual assault awareness and Broadway Theatre for college campuses and international conferences. To celebrate her own “beautiful detour”, Amy created the #LoveMyDetour campaign, to help others cope in the face of unexpected events. “Detourism” is also the subject of her TEDx and upcoming book, My Beautiful Detour, available December 2017. She’s contributed to over 70 notable online and print publications, and her story has appeared on NBC’s TODAY, CBS, Cosmopolitan, among others. Learn about her art, music, theatre, advocacy, book, and inspiring story at amyoes.com, or “tweet me at @amyoes!”