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From darkness to light

October 1, 2009
by Adrienne Anderson
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Clients tell their stories of recovery with paint brushes

Connie mccool painted this van gogh look alike highlighting the names of famous artists who have suffered from mental illnesses
Connie McCool painted this Van Gogh look alike highlighting the names of famous artists who have suffered from mental illnesses.

Kim Nguyen knows firsthand about the long-term effects of trauma. When she was a mere 13 years old, her family piled into a tiny fishing boat on an ill-fated attempt to flee Communist Vietnam. After three days of weathering storms in the vast South China Sea, the vessel's engine, designed for small-scale excursions, failed and Nguyen's father fashioned a sail to keep the boat moving. But in the middle of the night on Dec. 21, 1975, the sail broke under the strong winds and Nguyen's father fell overboard trying to repair it in rough conditions.

“The waves were like mountains,” Nguyen recalls. “I saw his head for a few minutes. We were crying and praying. We were helpless.”

At the mercy of the current, Nguyen and the others arrived on the shores of Malaysia on Christmas Day as fatherless and husbandless refugees. The holiday became a day of sorrow for the family.

Several years later she found herself pursuing a fine arts degree at Louisiana State University and, inadvertently, pursuing healing. “Everything I painted was very dark,” Nguyen said. “I was doing self-art therapy. Looking back, I was depressed and suicidal. The art got me through.”

Since then, Nguyen has dedicated her life to helping others heal with art. She leads the Art Therapy Program at Pikes Peak Behavioral Health Group's ACCESS Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The program sees an average of 100 clients a month.

Art has been used as a diagnostic tool in the professional field of psychology for more than a century, but art as therapy did not emerge until the 1960s. Since then, research is showing art has healing power and is particularly effective in addressing trauma.1

Drawing, painting and sculpting help many people to reconcile inner conflicts, release deeply repressed emotions, and foster self-awareness and personal growth, Nguyen says. Some mental health providers use art therapy as both a diagnostic tool and as a way to treat disorders such as depression, abuse-related trauma and schizophrenia.

The Faceless Prince

For some of the art therapy students at ACCESS, the healing begins on canvas, but transformation takes place when the clients then also market their artwork, learn framing skills and help organize art shows.

Two years ago, 50-year-old Connie McCool couldn't get around without a wheelchair. She slept most of her days away. Plagued by chronic pain from arthritis and major depression, she tried to take her own life.

Tisha gutierrez paints while art therapist kim nguyen demonstrates watercolor techniques. nguyen likes to teach watercolor because it helps clients let go of control

Tisha Gutierrez paints while Art Therapist Kim Nguyen demonstrates Watercolor techniques. Nguyen likes to teach watercolor because it helps clients let go of control.

Today, the single mother of three grown children runs an arts and craft group at the ACCESS Center and has completed more than three dozen works of art. She's an artist, a mentor, a friend and a natural leader.

“I feel so good about myself when I am doing my artwork,” McCool said. “It's given me a sense of purpose.”

Tisha gutierrez and connie mccool paint during a recent art therapy class

Tisha Gutierrez and Connie McCool paint during a recent art therapy class.

Guided by Nguyen, McCool found empowerment and healing in her paint brush. Through the canvas, McCool unlocked trauma from the past and found a filter for her emotional and physical pain. “Sometimes people associate mental illness with crazy ideas; treat it as a negative,” Nguyen said. “But (the clients) are full of creativity and an abundance of beauty. With the right direction, they can flourish.”

One of McCool's pieces illustrates this point: painted in the backdrop are the names of famous artists and authors who suffered from mental illness (see page 26). Another McCool original currently on display at the center has been 30 years in the making. The painting is based on a Heart song called “These Dreams,” which speaks of a faceless prince in the woods. McCool said she always wanted a prince to come and save her.

“I've lived so much of my life in a fantasy world,” McCool said. “I've discovered the prince isn't coming. I'm the only one that can come to the rescue and take me away.”

Beyond therapy

It's loud, often deafening, and, at times, painful for Russell F. to keep pace with the speed of his thoughts.

Russell is one of the nearly 2.4 million adults who suffer from schizophrenia. The World Health Organization classifies schizophrenia as one of the top ten most debilitating diseases affecting humans. With a combination of therapy, medication, and art, Russell has emerged from a life of drug addiction into one of self-sufficiency.

Nguyen said art has given Russell a sense of purpose. He now paints at home daily and sells his art on his own.