I tell stories about my own life. I write them, speak them, paint them, sing them, and sometimes when I don’t feel like doing any of those things, I act them out. And the common question others ask in relation to all of this is, “Did it feel better to release those pent-up emotions?” I think what people are usually referring to is related directly to art therapy.
According to the Art Therapy Association of America, art therapy is a process in which trained professionals (art therapists) use the production of artwork to “explore their feelings, reconcile emotional conflicts, foster self-awareness, manage behavior and addictions, develop social skills, improve reality orientation, reduce anxiety, and increase self-esteem.”
I’ve noticed that there is sometimes a dispute regarding the use of art as therapy. Artists, for one, like to think that art is a mystical creature that transcends psychologists’ understanding. Therapists seem to see therapeutic potential in basically everything. But in a way, maybe they’re both right.
Art, in all its forms, allows for a person to express things that, in reality, are typically inexpressible. It allows us to get in touch with a part of ourselves we might not otherwise be ready or willing to acknowledge. For practicing artists, though, this is often overlooked. Art our work and therefore our greatest stressor. But as much as I sometimes want to throw my writing out the window, I do find some therapeutic benefits in painting, drawing, singing, expressing myself and my feelings in ways that are atypical to my everyday experience.
Exploring life from different perspectives is important. It reminds us of aspects of ourselves that may be commonly overlooked. It highlights our similarities with other humans as well as showing us how we are unique from the crowd. And though art does this very well on its own, an article by psychology writer Kendra Cherry points out that art therapy specifically targets those emotions that need release.
The thing I’ve noticed most about literary storytelling as an art form—and many artists agree that all art is storytelling—is that stories mimic life but are independent of it. When we experience them, they come alive, emerging into the world with us. There is always something relatable in a story, whether that is to the individual or the overall human experience. Stories, art, show us that we’re not alone. Usually in a more abstract way than simply coming out and saying it.
Sometimes, whether as therapy or as plain art, it’s important to get in touch with the more abstract part of ourselves, rather than taking life too literally. The arts offer us not an outward escape from a place we will dread coming back to, but an escape to an inward place, where we create, rebuild, and transform our internal conflicts into some sense of peace.
The thing about moving away from home is that when you need to run away, just for the feel of running, just for the crust of mud on your boots, sometimes there’s only skyscrapers and city lights and a grid you can’t get lost in. So you lose yourself. You let go, bit by bit, just to see what it’s like—what they all said it would be like—to struggle. I hang on to things that don’t matter with my pinky finger, and I’m not sure why I do it.
I never really ran away, but sometimes, back home, I would feel like there was this cage closing in around me, and I had to get out before its door locked shut. There were a lot of times when I would just walk out the door, walk down one street, then another, and down a third street lined with corn fields until I got to my grandparents’ house. Sometimes I drove there, but at those times I would turn the three minute drive into a thirty minute one, testing the limits of the roads I knew. I needed to see new things.
I needed to be somewhere else. Home wasn’t good enough. I wanted to find myself a new home, create a little camp for myself in the wilderness, with dark trees hanging over me and coyotes stealing my food. I sped past all of it, and cold wind billowed through the barely open windows. I could only get so far away before I felt myself longing for the warmth of my bed, my cat, and my brother’s hugs.
There’s not all that much to do back home in Indiana, but there’s no lack of things to be done in Chicago. Even so, I run into the same problem. The cage. The buildings are too tall. The grass is too short. The lake, where I feel most at home, is too cold to go near for any length of time. I look for new things. New beautiful things. I look for any opportunity to take a break, get away, take a vacation from the vibrant, pulsing place that has now become boring in its familiarity.
Vacation, for me, is a place on the water. Not a warm place or a cold place, but a place in the middle. A place where the world is so expansive that I feel small and humble in its presence. It’s the gentle tilt, back and forth, of my grandpa’s boat, as he points to an eagle gliding with its broad, dark wings outstretched.
The funny thing is, that same sort of vacation happens to also be the place where I feel most at home.
Merriam Webster Dictionary defines the term at home as, “relaxed and comfortable: at ease; at harmony with the surroundings; on familiar ground.” I think it’s interesting that no part of this particular definition includes the actual building that one considers as “home.”
Being in college, people always ask me, “Where’s home? Where are you from?” I feel like I give a different answer every time, even though my zip code has never changed.
Growing up, I had four homes. There was the place where I lived, and the place where my grandparents lived with my dog and a swimming pool and the woods I grew up exploring. There was the more-shack-than-cabin we stayed in for a week every year in Michigan, and there was the resort in Minnesota where we stayed in each cabin at least once. In all of these places, I felt like there was a part of me that belonged there, that would always be there, and a part of those places would always stay with me.
Taking vacations for weddings, family time, or fun has always given me a stronger sense of what home actually is. It makes me miss the familiar. It reminds me of the people I love. It builds a sense of community and connectedness. When I find a person from Minneapolis who knows where my hometown is, I feel important, like I’m part of something bigger and in some way connected to all the other people in the world. Traveling has a normalizing effect.
But there’s no greater community than discovering your own home. Maybe it’s not a building. Maybe it’s not even a place. But “home,” as defined by Merriam Webster, could simply mean a group of people who make you feel welcome or comfortable or loved. It could even be one person. It could be a pet. But without that “home” to support us and reel us back, it would be much harder to scramble out of the cages that sometimes threaten to close us in.