Some psychologists are therapists for depressed people; Some are therapists for men; Some are therapists for couples on the rocks.
Me? While I see all those groups too, I’m most-of-all a therapist for artists.
When my now-husband met me twelve years ago, there were canvases covering my bedroom walls. Colorful tangles of mouths and breasts and hair, dared visitors to only enter with caution and an open mind.
On moving day, a year later, I left my kitchen table out by the dumpster, the table that had housed all the research papers I had poured-over and all the drafts I had bled-into over the past year.
My soon-to-be-husband couldn’t understand how I had lost track of time writing my doctoral dissertation or how I had been so energized by so many consecutive hours spent digging into brains. Aren’t you hungry? He’d ask. Huh? I’d mumble, barely looking up.
I also brought to the dumpster my drafts, hundreds of pages underlined and highlighted, and laid them next to a pile of painted canvases. The colors were too bright to paint-over, and the art was in the creating, not in the having.
Little did I know that moment on moving day in 2007 was entirely symbolic. With my first son growing in my belly, and my relationship and career expanding just as quickly, life was necessarily abandoning my reckless abandon.
To be an artist is sometimes a screaming protest of the realities of contraints. (Lots of artists come to therapy.)
I was born an artist. A restless, feel-nothing-if-not-creating artist. In small ways, it was clear right away. When I was five, my teacher asked me why I didn’t want to play duck duck goose with the other kids, and I blithely told her, “What’s the point? They’re not making anything.”
To be an artist is to only feel a part of the world if actually creating the world. It is a devouring and ravenous mindset, always thinking and doing, rarely present and being. It is a detached and methodical, How can I challenge and shape and make this it into something? It is a smothering and emotional, I must curl up and enter this person, this feeling, and this experience. It is depressed and empty when not directly in flow of creation and utterly lonely when lacking community with other artists; It is a narcissistic tunnel vision that drowns out monotony, even when monotony is one’s own children or job or spouse. It is a compulsive, obsessive need to enter instead of simply observe.
The artist is standing on a stage, bursting out of her skin, wondering where to put her hands when the script simply calls for a speech. And if the artist’s mania starts to preclude reason, sound judgment, and sleep, it would certainly call for a prescription.
The irony of art is that the relentless manipulation of the world causes the artist to lose track of the actual world. Bills and dishes and even people fade to the background when the artist is making mental mazes and performances and pictures.
There exists a psychological pull between mundane life, particularly parenthood, and the compulsive pursuit of art.
Lord help artists who are parents….
Recently I noticed the tip of my kid’s dirty fingernail was tearing as I held his tiny body up to some monkey bars, and I become consumed by the metaphor for goals and pain, the sweet mother-son moment being scraped for something more artistically satisfying. My son was nowhere in the scene, only the imagined blog post, painting, or mental spin surrounded me.
My kid stumbled on the mulch, and I watched his body fall. Having recently devoured hypocracy and death and the juxtaposition of love, I patted my son’s back and planned a painting of tangled bodies piled in a setting that challenges the supposedly boundless limits of love. I smiled a little about the idea of painting, briefly detaching from the subject matter and from my son’s tears. Artists can be assholes.
I gave my husband three literally-calculated days of undivided attention before I ignored him for two nights in a row to only paint. My kid just wanted to play legos the next morning so I obliged, albiet distracted and defiantly resenting the inconvenience.
Raising children is putting art on hold sometimes, even when doing so makes it hurt to breathe. Children are not stand-ins for doing art, because children don’t belong to us; we can’t paint their personalities or mold their behaviors. While we as parents may seek to influence our children in some ways, we don’t create their souls. They are formulaic yet unpredictable, and any real creation is lost in the trips to Target, finding shoes, packing snacks, and facilitating homework.
Young children need a parent’s undivided attention, her satisfaction with simple, and her tolerance of structure. These needs fiercely compete with art, and the artist parent often only surrenders to boredom through hiding tears and clenched fists.
An emotionally skilled artist will target her anger at the world and existential realities of civilization, and not at her children or her spouse. She will know that her stifling and tolerating are a temporary service to a greater good.
But she will certainly hate her life at times. And she often ends up in therapy…
Where I will give her affliction a broad name: Unsatisfied and restless artist. And I will encourage her to balance the surrender and the indulgence with acceptance, communication, realism, and pride.
Because I am the artist’s therapist.
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