How art has helped me: the teen years.

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*To make the post interactive, hyperlinks have been added. Videos and further information are there for maximum learning. Please note some videos may be triggering, so proceed with caution.*

High school was a place of discovery and I enjoyed the new-found independence. However, there was a power struggle between me and my parents. I admit, I was not the easiest daughter to deal with. At all. Restrictions and deadlines simply encouraged me to rebel, further and further. The more restrictions that came, the more resentment I harboured. I couldn’t understand why I felt the way I felt. I couldn’t figure out why I was losing motivation. Some days I was snappy and other days I thought I might burst from feeling loved. During these few years, I had confided in a teacher that I had lost motivation to do anything (including the psychology assignment due that day). She told me to speak to a counsellor to try and help me get back on track. I’d never seen a counsellor before, and my view of counsellors were people who would only tell my parents whatever I would say. I went once, feeling too vulnerable to have a proper conversation. I didn’t return.

I was part of a couple youth groups and that was a way to socialise, free of stress and expectations. However, every time the meetings were over, leaving was almost derisive; the feeling of impending doom remained. Having trouble trusting adults already, I wasn’t about to seek help from a teacher or counsellor. Guidance was what I needed, but I didn’t know where to look.

As the senior years rolled around, things got worse.

My family life was on unstable hinges and my personal life was slowly deteriorating. Let’s throw in a toxic relationship too, shall we? The cycle of control continued. He told me to stop talking to certain friends and that I shouldn’t be going to friend’s parties. If I tried to hide it to keep the peace, I’d be questioned and judged for doing so. He’d also belittle my feelings; I eventually stopped sharing them. One night, I remember being on the phone, and he realised I was at a friend’s party. He was furious, almost yelling through the phone. I was ready to throw the damn phone away. But, I was young and naive. I wanted someone to be ‘on my side’, even if that person was more controlling than my parents. Toxic relationships in your teenage years can be so taxing on your mind, body and those around you.  During this time, I had thoughts about self-harm and running away to be free from the control and manipulation.

I was away from school more and more, and my grades were slipping. Teachers began to notice. The year-level coordinator eventually coaxed it out of me, and I told him what was going on in my life. He said that abuse is never okay. I didn’t understand what he meant, but I felt like for the first time, an adult understood what I was going through. Still, because I wasn’t willing to seek further help, the coordinator couldn’t do anything more than listen if ever I felt overwhelmed.

I still felt trapped. Since I couldn’t talk about my emotions, I decided I’d draw them. I was already withdrawn from the outside world, so I may as well take advantage of it. Colours I remember using regularly was black, red and brown. I constantly drew squares and triangles, representing anger, barriers, cages and anything else that expressed feeling ‘imprisoned’. Charcoal was my weapon of choice. I enjoyed the ability to express so much, that I did my Research Project on art as therapy. This subject was the highlight of high school because I felt I could pour my soul into the work, without it feeling like effort. The same could be said about my final art project. I finally found a way to communicate. Perhaps it was my inner rebel triumphing again – always finding a way to survive.

Creativity was a permanent device in my tool-box, ever since. If I was feeling stressed, sad or anxious, I knew I could express it through art. Years on, I understand why my parents were over-bearing. They were trying their best to look out for me. Our conversations tell me they had learned not to be too strict on their younger kids, as it would only push them away. The ex on the other hand… well, he’s still an ex.

These days, I have been learning to speak up. Drawing is great, but to get through this world in life and work, it is important to be able to communicate effectively. To ask for what you want. To stand up, when you’re not being treated fairly. And to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves.

If you notice a friend is withdrawn, not their usual self, or talks about hardship in a relationship or in their family – support them. They may be experiencing mental health issues or have someone in their life that is emotionally abusive. Even if a friend does not want to share what they’re going through, it is important for them to know that they’re not alone.

Here are some signs you can look out for:

  • Withdrawn from family/friends
  • Constantly unable to make small decisions without checking in with their partner/family member
  • Excessively texting/messaging whereabouts
  • Loss of motivation
  • Loss of confidence
  • Being told they can’t talk to a certain person/group of people for no reason

What I wish I knew: Never be afraid to stand up for yourself. Read books about communication and human development to understand what’s going on in your mind and body. Be aware of signs of manipulation and emotional abuse. If you need help, reach out to a trusted confidant or counsellor. There are people out there that are for you, not against you.

Phone and online counselling service: Kidshelpline (ages 5 to 25).
Video on art therapy.
Image by Jacqueline.

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