A few years ago as I was finishing up eight rounds of chemotherapy, a fellow cancer survivor warned me about the fear that would come after my treatments ended. She said it would feel like there were tigers hiding in the trees along my path, waiting to pounce. I soon understood what she was talking about. Believe it or not, having toxic chemicals pumped into your body when you have cancer can have a comforting effect. Because despite all the horrible side effects, those chemicals (if they’re doing their job) are fighting the enemy. So even though I was cancer-free when my treatments ended, I was left feeling vulnerable and fearful. I could feel those tigers stalking me, sometimes even breathing down my neck. I wanted to fight them off; to shove them away and tell them that I was healed, that the cancer was never coming back. But how could I challenge something that I couldn’t even see?
The only solution was to bring those tigers out of the darkness and into the light. So I took a pencil and paper, and I embodied one of those tigers in a way that I could see it—snarled muzzle, bared teeth, flattened ears and all. It made my fear more tangible. But it also made it less scary because now I could see it. Which meant that I could challenge it. I drew my own face on the same paper, staring down that tiger with an expression that said, “I’m not afraid of you. You can’t hurt me.”
There was something so therapeutic about this exercise, and I realized much later that it wasn’t the first time in my life that I’d used a creative process to deal with fear, pain, or grief. In high school, as I was going through a very dark time, I channeled my emotions into poetry, music, and art. When I felt pain or sorrow, I would sketch the shape of it on paper. Or play the sound of it on a piano. Or write words to cryptically describe it. And looking back, I can see how my creations carried a portion of my burdens and helped me make sense of the things I struggled with. The music embraced my sorrow so I didn’t have to. Or the paint on the canvas captured my grief so that I could let it go.
In my book, Porcelain Keys, both of my main characters use forms of creativity to cope with the darkness in their lives. Seventeen-year-old Aria dreams of following in her mother’s footsteps and going to Juilliard to be a classical pianist. But when the story begins, her mother has been gone for five years, and Aria is grieving silently and alone, living in a situation that makes it impossible for her to pursue her dreams. She turns to music for solace and to express the things she can’t safely say with words. Aria’s love interest, Thomas, is also carrying his own secret burdens, which he uses as fodder for beautiful art pieces.
I believe that through the power of creativity, our struggles can be a great opportunity for growth. We can take the scary or painful things inside of us and transform them into something beautiful, obtaining a measure of healing in the process.
Thanks so much to Sarah for visiting the blog today. Her debut book, Porcelain Keys, is now available!