PTSD awareness: Unmasking invisible wounds with art
PETALUMA, CA, June 26, 2016 – Playwright and poet Oscar Wilde once said, “Give a man a mask and he will tell you the truth.” A clever adage, to be sure. But for creative arts therapist Melissa Walker, it’s actually the process of unmasking the invisible wounds of her patients that enables them to discover what’s true – and what’s not – and to experience lasting healing.
“Imagine you are a high ranking military service member deployed to Afghanistan,” said Walker during her talk at last year’s TEDMED conference in Palm Springs. “Incoming mortar rounds are exploding all around you. Struggling to see through the dust and the smoke, you do your best to help those wounded and crawl to a nearby bunker.
“As you regain your vision, you see a bloody face staring back at you. The image is terrifying, but you quickly come to understand it’s not real. This vision continues to visit you multiple times a day and in your sleep. You choose not to tell anyone for fear of losing your job or being seen as weak. You give the vision a name, ‘Bloody Face in Bunker,’ and call it BFIB for short. You keep BFIB locked away in your mind, secretly haunting you for the next seven years.
“Now close your eyes. Can you see BFIB? If you can, you’re beginning to see the face of the invisible wounds of war, commonly known as post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).”
The story is compelling, providing Walker’s audience with a glimpse into the complex challenges facing the many servicemen and women she treats. But beyond simply shining a light on this all-too-common condition, Walker went on to explain the remarkable ways in which her patients are confronting and conquering it.
“I believed in art therapy,” Walker recounted, “but [in my new job at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence], I was going to have to convince service members – big, tough, strong, manly military men, and some women, too – to give art-making a try.”
“The results,” she said, “have been nothing short of spectacular.”
“PTSD is more than fear and anxiety. It involves a full range of emotions and undermines overall health,” reports the Veterans Empowerment Organization (VEO) in a recent press release. “PTSD impacts the ability to think clearly, to set and achieve goals, and to fully participate in and benefit from relationships.”
In order to combat these effects, Walker utilizes a variety of art forms – drawing, painting, collage and so forth. But the one that appears to be having the greatest impact is mask-making, a mechanism that enables her patients to both expose and expunge their previously hidden wounds in a creative, non-threatening manner.
While on the surface this might seem like little more than a quaint, if effective, therapy, there’s an underlying spiritual dimension that deserves further exploration – a dimension we’ve been trying to unravel literally for millennia.
In his letter to the Romans, written nearly 2000 years ago, the apostle Paul confessed to an inner struggle not unlike that experienced by many modern-day veterans – a frustrating, even terrifying battle between the good that he aspired to be and the evil forever biting at his heels.
“I want to do what is right,” he wrote, “but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t.” However, as Paul began to realize and accept his genuine nature as a wholly spiritual expression of what he knew in his heart to be a wholly good God, things started to look a lot less scary.
“[We] have not received a spirit that makes [us] fearful slaves. Instead, [we] received God’s Spirit when he adopted [us] as his own children,” continues Paul. “For his Spirit joins with our spirit to affirm that we are God’s children. And since we are his children, we are his heirs. In fact, together with Christ we are heirs of God’s glory.”
Fast-forward to the late 19th-century and we find medical pioneer and religious reformer Mary Baker Eddy putting the very same revelation into practice. She discovered that by helping people grapple with whatever mental or physical image might be frightening them – rather than simply insisting that “it’s not real” – they were able to experience complete and permanent healing.
Unlike the various forms of “visualization” and “positive thinking” we hear about today, however, hers was a decidedly prayer-based approach inspired by and grounded in the Bible’s many accounts of curing both mental and physical trauma.
“When will the error of believing that there is life in matter, and that sin, sickness, and death are creations of God, be unmasked?” asked Eddy in her seminal book, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. “When will it be understood that matter has neither intelligence, life, nor sensation, and that the opposite belief is the prolific source of all suffering?”
Although unmasking and debunking the generally accepted belief of life and intelligence in matter and disposing the mental remnants of some traumatic experience may seem like very different things, the effect, Eddy found, was the same – a process instigated not by the human mind or brain, but by that singular divine Mind she called “God.”
Getting back to BFIB, toward the end of her talk Walker revealed that this was an actual experience for one of her patients.
“When he created his mask, he was able to let go of that haunting image. Initially it was a daunting process, but eventually he began to think of BFIB as the mask, not as his internal wound,” she said. “A year later, he had only seen BFIB twice, and both times BFIB was smiling and the service member didn’t feel anxious.”
If the success of Walker’s work is any indication, it would appear that, in her words, we’re all capable of finding the resources within ourselves that we can call upon for healing. And to the extent that Eddy’s questions are given honest consideration, we’re also destined to discover that such healing embraces not only our mental health, but our physical well-being as well.
Eric Nelson writes about the link between consciousness and health from his perspective as a practitioner of Christian Science. He also serves as the media and legislative spokesperson for Christian Science in Northern California. Follow him on Twitter @norcalcs. Continue the conversation on Facebook.