Expressing emotions through art

Expressing emotions through art

By Charlene Charles 

When I think about the past few years of living with a cancer diagnosis and everything that comes with that, I automatically think of how my life has changed and all the bad things that come with that. There are good things that have happened, too, like discovering my creative side. I had no idea how creative I was until I was stuck at home too sick and depressed to go anywhere. My mental health was in jeopardy.

When I first found out I had cancer, I went into survival mode. I couldn’t allow myself to think about what it all meant or process the feelings I was having. I just stuffed it down and did everything in my power not to deal with it. Eventually it got to the point where I could no longer do this and I fell into a deep depression. It felt like I was in a deep black hole and as each new day happened, it just got darker and darker. Eventually it got to the point where I needed to find a way to have colour in my life again. I was cleaning my apartment one day and found an adult paint by number kit a friend bought for me. I decided to paint it, thinking maybe it would help me not concentrate on the deep depression I was in. I needed a distraction. My feelings were so intense and everything was rushing to me all at once. It was too much to deal with; I was in denial I couldn’t accept that I was sick.

At first, painting started out as a way for me to not think and deal with the emotions and everything that comes with a cancer diagnosis. I didn’t want to deal with what was going on. I had so many emotions and thoughts, I just wanted to forget that I was fighting for my life and all the emotions that come with that. As long as I just concentrated on which number I needed to paint next, I was okay.

“As long as I just concentrated on which number I needed to paint next, I was okay.”

I was in control and didn’t have to deal with the fear, grief, sadness, etc. I was feeling. I eventually learned that no matter how hard I tried to ignore my feelings, they will resurface if not dealt with.

Sure enough, my feelings came back. Not only did they resurface, but they were stronger than before. It has always been hard for me to express my feelings and allow myself to feel them, and as much as I didn’t want to acknowledge how I was feeling, I knew I would just become more and more depressed if I didn’t allow myself to start acknowledging what was going on.

“I knew I would just become more and more depressed if I didn’t allow myself to start acknowledging what was going on.”

I remember I was in a support group, and this particular day was really hard. For the first time since being diagnosed — except the day I was told I had cancer — I cried. I totally broke down, and the thing is, I couldn’t stop. Everything that I had stuffed down over the past few months was coming out.

As we were checking out, the facilitator who knew I was into painting assigned me a homework assignment. She said she wanted me to paint my emotions and to bring it in the following week. I had no idea how to do this. I mean, I can’t draw, so how am I supposed to paint my emotions? If I didn’t want to feel my emotions, how was I supposed to paint them?

With a cancer diagnosis, there is a lot you don’t have control over. Me not dealing with my feelings was something that I had control over. It wasn’t very helpful, but I had a bit of control over something.

A few days had passed since I received the homework assignment. I had spent most of the day in bed too depressed to do anything. I wanted so badly for my emotions to just disappear. My emotions were so strong, and all I wanted to do was hide from them. I remembered my assignment and thought it was the perfect time to try this. It has always been hard for me to name my emotions. I knew I was scared and angry, but what I felt was bigger then then just being scared and angry.

“I knew I was scared and angry, but what I felt was bigger then then just being scared and angry.”

I got a blank canvas and poured black paint all over it. Then I got another blank canvas and put it on top of the one with black paint. When I lifted the canvas up, the majority of it was black, but there were still some spaces of white. I filled in the white spaces with bright colours When the painting was done, I noticed I felt a lot better. The heaviness I was feeling was gone. Painting helped me express the emotions I wasn’t able to name.

That is what my art does for me. It allows me to express and process my feelings. It brings colour into my life on really bad days. It helps to make this cancer journey less overwhelming, and helps me relax on days when my anxiety is really high.

That one painting I did on expressing my emotions has brought me to new painting techniques like acrylic pouring and jewelry making, which I love so much.

Usually when I am doing an acrylic pour, I’m feeling either depressed with a lot of anxiety or an emotion I can’t quite name, but I just feel heavy and need to get out of my mind for a bit. I try to choose colours that will help cheer me up a bit. It doesn’t take everything away, but when I’m done, I feel less heavy and able to process what is going on for me. 

What I have realized about acrylic pouring is in the beginning, the colours are all jumbled up like my feelings, and by the end all of the colours have found a way to exist together and have created something beautiful. My feelings haven’t created something beautiful, but I’m working on all the feelings that I have existing together and remembering that whatever I feel at the moment is ok, and it’s ok to not be ok.

Besides providing a relaxing escape against the backdrop of treatment, anxiety, and fear for the future, acrylic pouring has helped me understand the myriad of emotions that can go along with a diagnosis of cancer and emotions that are often difficult to express in words.

Being creative like this has brought out a side of me that I never knew was there. Not only has it helped with my depression and processing my emotions, it has helped in other ways by bring colour into my life.

Acrylic pouring has allowed me to make beautiful jewelry and paintings, but it has also allowed me to visualize my feelings which makes it easier for me to process. Sometimes it’s just hard to talk about how I’m feeling or there isn’t a perfect word to describe how I feel. Acrylic pouring helps me get that out.

I’m always amazed at how the paints I chose fit together. Maybe that’s something that we can take away from this — feelings are just feelings. They are not good or bad, they just are, and they fit in together just like each paint colour just is. Somehow by doing acrylic pouring, they just come together.


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