Disability and Art

To me, disability and art goes hand in hand. When I struggled to communicate what I needed or wanted as a young child, I would draw pictures of it and then show my mum. When I felt isolated or misunderstood at school, I would walk around the playground, daydreaming about the different artworks and stories I could create. I had trouble understanding faces and emotions, so I drew them over and over to understand them better. I would go to the library and draw with my peers as a way of relating to them in ways I couldn’t with speech. I use my voice through art and I always have, because for me, art is about communication, from vague to complex ideas, for others and for myself.

Art has taught me things that I used to find hard to grasp and it bridged that gap between myself and others. My autism has informed my art in ways that I hope other neuro-divergent people would also understand. I used to be ashamed of my condition and how I believed it limited me, but now I’m proud of the unique insight of the world, its living inhabitants and complex topics that it has given me. Art has helped me to tackle the problems and trauma in my life that I hope makes others feel understood and validated too.

About a year and a half ago I went through my first psychosis episode that hospitalised me for nearly two months. A while later I was diagnosed with schizo-affective disorder which is a combination of schizophrenia and a mood disorder. It completely changed my life and this new disability has brought so many new trials. But art, like always, has helped me. During those days in the psychiatric ward, I would spend my time painting and therefore processing my reality and emotions. At that time I found it hard to communicate what was happening for me, even to myself, so I would dump my thoughts, hallucinations, fears, questions and feelings onto a canvas. Just like when I was a kid, art helped me connect to others and myself in ways I couldn’t without it.

Art has the power to let us process emotions and become more brave with each stroke, which can be difficult to accomplish with those unable to voice their truth in other ways. Everyone who picks up a paint brush or a pencil or anything else to make a mark is a leader. It means having the courage to convey your being to others, communicating feelings and thoughts that can change the world and the way people think and act. People with disabilities often are incredibly insightful and wise and so their art is vital in our society that goes against emotional intelligence. We are needed.

Trauma Unpacked

“I’m bad!” “I’m worthless.” “I’m a waste of space.” Do these thoughts sound familiar to you?

I’ve been having two kinds of intrusive thoughts recently, and the first ones are like what’s written above – thoughts that we latch onto so tight, despite seemingly having little to back it up with. Sometimes we have a lot of reasons though, which are either delusional or correct, but the point is that the thoughts are intrusive.
I’ve also been experiencing a different kind of intrusive thought; memory stabs – a new name that I like to call them. To me it is like a flashback, but instead of a whole scene, perhaps you see a recognisable snapshot. Or one word or sound triggers a whole event in your mind, or a feeling of pain, disgust or fear you’ve felt in the past suddenly overcomes you in the present. Whatever it is, they all usually feel like a sharp shock, which is why I call them a memory stab. At least that is what it is like for me, but I’m certain that the equivalent is different for many.

Most of everything I experienced in 2016 I considered one whole lump of bad squished together, like something that can’t go down my throat, which I usually categorised as ‘Japan.’ That is unfair of me since the country itself isn’t to blame. That’s like travelling to New Zealand, getting mugged and then saying that the whole country is bad because of it. Every country and culture has something terrible, toxic or backwards about it, some more than others, and that’s okay. It’s good, in fact. Humanity is the world’s worst relationship. If we accept that we, no matter who we are and what country we come from or live in, are free to live, then we must also accept that everything that is a product of us are free to live as well.

In a black-and-white perspective, humanity harms the earth and the life it holds and therefore we are bad and should not exist. That is an acceptable perspective, perhaps the most noble one. An optimistic perspective is that humans are needed to keep on living, because we matter – we live and so our love, art and beauty lives on too. This is true too. Pessimistically, none of this matters, we shouldn’t care because everything dies anyway. Another acceptable perspective. And finally, in a “grey” perspective; this all is true, but our flaws or negative traits do not make us less worthy and the good can only exist if there is also bad. Therefore, yes, we are destroying the world by living on it and being its worst relationship, humanity is an incredible source of love and beauty that we should treasure, everything dies so we don’t need to take everything so seriously, and it’s okay to be flawed and to have “bad” traits, because that’s the nature of all life. Should we exist or not exist because of all of that?

No matter who we are and what country we come from or live in, we were born and therefore continuing our legacy of goodness, shittiness, a mix or both, neither one and everything else that perhaps I’ve forgotten to mention. The differences between countries, cultures, groups and individuals are necessary, because nothing is categorically “bad,” or “good.” Our morals, codes and values are personal and are not universal. To create one true mindset that is “The Right One,” is to create an impossible God. Everything is flawed, including the country I am talking about, Japan, but the same experiences could happen in many other different countries. I just wanted to make that clear.

Almost every night for the last couple of weeks I’ve been having nightmares about being trapped in Japan and being unable to leave, and about an ex I had, either hurting me in the past or in new ways in my dream. I’ve been having these kind of nightmares for years now, but for some reason I’ve been having them almost every night recently. Like I said before, it is unfair of me to name the trauma I experienced as “Japan.” The reason why I use that word is because I do not want to think about the specific situations I experienced in that time of my life.

In 2016 I stayed in Japan as an exchange student for 9 months and I must admit that even though I am talking about the bad experiences I had, there were also lots of beautiful times and kind people I met during that exchange too. I am grateful for those good memories and I’ll treasure them forever.
I believe that the trauma from the whole experience was from a lot of different things, bunched together as if it was one. It was the harmful experiences I had, some of the toxic people I met, the loneliness I felt in a room filled with people, being in a culture that looks down on emotional expression, my limitations not being respected or cared for by me, my situation back home and my mental health at the time, which all tainted the whole experience.

I find it really hard to think about the details of each situation that hurt me. It feels like I’m reliving it if I try. I’m working on that. When I first came back from Japan in 2017, the year that everything changed for me, I had a lot to process. I did not want to admit to anyone that my exchange was traumatic to me, not even to myself. People asked me about it, not caring and not having the time for a truthful answer, and so I hid behind, “It was a great experience!” Which is true about some parts of my exchange. I travelled to see beautiful places, I met some wonderful people, I experienced new and exciting things and the food was fucking fantastic. I don’t want to seem ungrateful, because I truly am lucky to have those memories.

The problem is that it was too much. I have autism and I have limitations, but I did not respect that. I told myself that the only thing that mattered was that I get through the whole exchange, to prove to others and most importantly to myself that I am just as capable as anyone else. I wanted to prove that I was good enough, strong enough and normal enough. I was ashamed of being autistic, and I treated it like it was a dirty secret for my whole life. It made me feel like I was bad or dumb or like there was something terribly wrong with me.

It still feels weird accepting that my autism affects some of the things I can or cannot do, without feeling ashamed because of that. It’s okay if I need time and space to recover after situations that take energy, that I struggle socially and that my limitations of what I am able to do without falling apart is different than others. That doesn’t make me weak or bad. But in 2016 I felt like it did. It certainly didn’t help that I didn’t take my medication at the time. I’m not sure why I didn’t. Perhaps I was being unconsciously self-destructive.

Back to the memory stabs. I think that the reason why I keep getting sudden snapshots in my mind about 2016 is because my brain is trying to tell me that I need to finally start unpacking my experience in Japan. I am definitely not a detail-orientated person. I’m good at looking at the overall big picture, but when situations come that require me to look at the details, I feel not in control. It doesn’t help that I have big chunks of memory loss about 2016, which I heard could be a result of having mental health issues. And it also doesn’t help that as soon as I try to remember things my mind instantly wants to reject it and run away. It’s hard work processing memories.

I’ve had a few therapists in my life, but for most of them, I only talked about the now, such as what happened last week. I never really delved into specifics about things in my past. I really am in need of a therapist as of now, but I have a fear that being unable to articulate and communicate what exactly happened in Japan will make me feel invalidated. My mind says they won’t understand, they can’t help and that they will secretly judge me. After being hospitalised three times since 2017, (for nearly 3 months overall) I am tired of feeling like I need to prove myself. It’s like I am fighting for my life to just be validated. I have all these fears, but still I want to try to get help. I want to heal.

I hope that people in a similar boat as me will feel understood by reading this. I feel sad, because there was so much I loved about Japan and how beautiful it is and I want that back. I want to be in control of my hurt, to be able to live fully despite the harm. I hope that for you too. Facing the details of your trauma is incredibly hard, but whatever you are experiencing, big or small, you are always growing, even when your branches are cut short.

Art is Therapy

  • Below is an excerpt from my book! It’s a first draft, so the final version of my book may or may not have this in it. Even so, I like this topic, so I wanted to make it a blog post!

I’ve said it already and I’ll say it again; art is therapy. However, it is also frustrating, crushing and disheartening. It builds up my being as well as it destroys it. If the process of every artwork always went my way and therefore was easy, then that would not make it truly and wholly therapeutic. The times when an artwork goes awfully awry and all I want to do is angrily paint a big blob over it, throw it or just simply cry, are just as much a part of the therapy.

Art challenges you, or more so it should, for if you do not push outside your comfort zone, whether in your art practice or in life, you will simply stay stagnant. Each piece is an adventure of emotions and processing, whether you do it consciously or subconsciously. So I try to embrace the challenges, see the importance and value of each “mistake,” and learn to love being an imperfect creator. I do not remember this all the time and so I sometimes question the validity of calling myself a true artist. But what does that title even mean?


Something I really dislike is that there are a lot of people who believe that to be a “true artist,” you must do or be X, Y, or Z. Anybody can be an artist, or practice art, and anybody should. When it comes down to it, especially when it is utilised as a form of therapy, it simply does not matter if you have the skills or talent. You can be as emotional and messy or precise and detailed as you want. If you open yourself up to it, it can be therapeutic for anybody and it does not matter if you claim to only be able to draw stick figures, for that is art too.

The more you indulge yourself in the beauty that it can bring, the more the process deepens. I really do truly believe that anyone can create and that everybody should. We can always try to implement creation into our lives, as long as we let go of fear and expectation.

It’s nearing the end of December now and this month I have tried my best to create as much as I could. However, the one thing I started the month with – what I called the eye painting – has been sitting on an easel, waiting for me to continue it all month. I do not have any idea how to keep working on it, because right now it seems finished to me. And it very well may be finished, but it was just too easy.

Therapy can be easy. That kind of therapy – the nice, relaxing and soft kind – has so many positive benefits, because it is safe, and for a lot of people, safety is what they need. But when therapy is challenging, it can uproot some heavy and painful topics or memories, which can also be therapeutic if done right. There is so much to say about how facing things that are difficult or uncomfortable can break ground on the real issues that need healing. Ignoring these issues, intentionally or not, can lead to the behaviour of falling on the ‘off switch’ when things get hard or uncomfortable.

It seems so dangerous to face your trauma, mental health or difficulties head on, and it is, in some way or form. But this facing of situations that seem dangerous is necessary to growth, understanding and moving forward. That is why choosing to do something that challenges you is so helpful for your improvement. It allows you to learn through experience and mistakes.

It is important to remember that challenging yourself should not lead to pushing your limits in an unhealthy and damaging manner. This is where emotional intelligence comes in; there are times when everyone needs to accept their own limitations and take part in self-compassion and forgiveness. It is about knowing when to stop, allowing yourself a break and the kind of understanding and love that helps you to continue with the trials of life.

Sometimes you need to put the paintbrush down or do what is easiest or kindest for you. There is absolutely no shame in that – in fact, it is necessary to look after yourself. Challenging yourself will not be effective if it would be unwise or unkind to do so. The balance of challenge and self-compassion leads to a good life and powerful artworks.

  • If you want to read more, the draft of my book is here. Thank you for reading!