A Bridge From One Place to Another — What I Discovered in Art Therapy
Not long ago, I stepped out of my comfort zone and attended a mental health support group. While I have family and friends who struggle with their mental health — and I’ve wrestled with mine from time to time — I didn’t go to the meeting with a purpose. I didn’t go to share a story or to work out my own traumas. But, something pulled me to go and listen to the other individuals who sat around the rectangular table at a local church. I went to the meeting seeking something, but I didn’t know what it was.
After introductions, I learned that this support group was going to be slightly different. The last half hour would be dedicated to a hands-on art therapy session with a licensed therapist.
“Oh NO!!” I thought to myself. I didn’t come to the meeting for this! But, introductions were over and I was firmly seated in my chair, having already opened a complimentary bottle of water. There would be no escaping the art therapy session.
We were told to draw a picture of a bridge that connects one place to another. Those were the only instructions given.
I am NOT an artist, nor do I think of myself as creative. Some may think art would come easy for me since I’m a writer and there is an element of creativity when it comes to writing. With writing, I go into every assignment (whether it’s a personal narrative or a feature story for a client) with a formed idea and I know where I’m going with it. With this task, I felt like a vulnerable toddler. The difference being that a kid would have just drawn the damn bridge. But, when you’re 47-years-old, a blank sheet of paper is scary and an invitation to making “bad” art.
We all want to be a good student — to draw the “right” bridge and get the “right” lesson. But maybe that wasn’t the point of this exercise. …
I grabbed a brown marker and started drawing the bridge. It was straight, wooden, with slats on the sides, above water. Others drew curved, half-circle bridges. … Of course, why didn’t I draw that? Others drew Indiana covered bridges. Mine looked nothing like those. I suddenly felt like I was back in third grade looking at my classmates to see if they had better drawings than me. I continued to draw and tried to let go of judgment. I drew what came to my mind and attempted not to question what my mind was doing, or why it was there.
I pictured the natural world around the bridge. On one side (the left) I drew a barren tree, overcast, gray clouds — very much a typical Indiana winter. On the right side was a spring — the sun shining among blue skies and clouds. Green grass below and a tree filled with green leaves. A bridge that connects one place to another … a bridge from winter to spring, I thought.
Just across the street from my first house in Terre Haute exists a small wooden footbridge that connects the sidewalk Poplar Trail to Dobbs Park. It is suspended over a small pond of water that goes into the park. When I first started running in October 2016, I would cross that little bridge every time I ran.
I would walk outside my house, cross the street and do a combination of running/walking on the Poplar Trail, across the bridge to the park, and then back to my house. That jaunt was barely a mile; but that path began a running journey of thousands of miles. I found something out there, moving in nature by myself. I had no idea what it was, but it comforted me and made me feel strong and free — feelings I didn’t have inside my body or mind, or inside my house or marriage.
As I stared at my art therapy creation, I realized had drawn that exact bridge.
When I got home from the support group and art therapy session, I stashed my drawing in a drawer and didn’t give it much thought. … Or so I believed.
Less than two weeks later, I was laying on the floor of a yoga studio listening to singing bowls in a deeply relaxing state. In this meditation, my mind kept bringing me back to the drawing.
And after a few minutes of seeing the drawing behind my eyes and listening to the singing bowls, I heard the words to a song by Mary Chapin Carpenter. “Holding Up the Sky” became a musical representation of how I felt at various points in my life — including the day I first set out to run on that bridge, and three years later when I finally decided to choose myself by ending my marriage.
“I found myself between two places / Neither of them home / I could not recognize the faces / I’ve never felt so alone.”
“I found myself between two choices / To settle or to run / All my life I’ve heard the voices / This time mine’s the only one.”
“I found myself between two lifetimes / A sunset and a dawn / I reached out and took the lifeline offered up between here and gone.”
The music in the yoga studio unlocked a door. And when I stepped through it, I saw the drawing and heard that song.
Draw a bridge that connects one place to another. I drew the bridge that I ran on, that gave me physical and mental strength.
One place to another. The drawing depicts winter to spring … but also, fear to strength, ending to beginning … sadness to hope.
I’ve never thought of myself as an artist. I also never thought of myself as a runner. And yet, here I was — drawing a bridge that was an integral part of my running journey, and my life.
It’s intimidating and scary going into the unknown, doing things you’ve never thought yourself capable of doing. Yet it’s those terrifying things that open the locked doors in all of us, that set us on the paths we need to walk (or run).
I was scared to leave my home and move from San Diego to Indiana. I was scared to run. I was scared to leave my marriage. I was scared to try art therapy. Yet all these things changed my life for the better.
I wonder about all the other things I haven’t done. … What other blank sheets of paper are out there? What else is waiting for me on the other side of fear?