Using Creativity to Heal Trauma and Loss



  Deena Metzger



Max Cleland who
became a US Senator



In 1977 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, Deena Metzger
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looked for what might heal her and give her a chance to live. She decided to create harmony where there was war, to exhume and revitalize what was taken from her and to transform what limited her.

“Creativity makes everything possible. Our bodies know this and respond.” Early on her intuition told her that her cancer was related to silences that had festered within her. She took her typewriter to the hospital and wrote down what came to her. She discovered a voice who wanted her to die. It was a punitive voice who told her her life did not matter, that she was not entitled to live with zest or to fully partake in life.

She decided the voice was from our culture’s attitudes toward women. Earlier, she hated her body and had bouts of anorexic-like eating. She was trying to do away with herself by dieting. She knew that what was lethal to her was not lethal to her alone. She decided to take a stand against the death forces and become a “warrior.”

After reconstructive breast surgery failed, she had a tattoo of leaves, flowers and a bird drawn over the scar where her breast used to be. She knew she needed her body to live. When she began to love her body more than when she had two breasts, she got the idea for the poster. “I was feeling great about my body and was feeling healthy and alive and I wanted people to know that.”

Metzger used creativity as a gift from another realm. She says we can use this gift

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>> to read a PDF of an interview of Mary Baures from New England Psychologist:

Creativilty can Heal."


to restore and reclaim what is lost or buried. We can use creativity to integrate what has been alienated and to reconstruct a scattered self which can go beyond our furthest limits. After nurturing this gift, we pass it on to others.

The Deena Metzger interview is just one of many I’ve collected since 1987 when I started interviewing people who have positively transformed in the wake of a shattering loss. They reworked the symbols and images in the trauma when helping others. They used creativity to convert pain and waste into truth and beauty. They used creativity to give the dead a posthumous life.

Many of the survivors I interviewed have international reputations and are deeply engaged in productive activities – changing public policy, publishing books and articles, producing films and helping other survivors.They focused on hopeful visions of the future not on what they could no longer have or do. They all found ways to let go of bitterness and hate and accepted the dark parts of life without being defeated by them.

In the words of Lillian Smith, they taught “the terrors of nature and their world to sing.” Their stories may help us produce treatments for those who fare less well in the trauma’s wake.

Many of the survivors I interviewed are public figures. Among them are United Nations Ambassador and poet Armando Valladares who spent 22 years as a political prisoner in Cuba, Senator Max Cleland who lost two legs and an arm to a grenade in Vietnam, author Andre Dubus who lost the use of his legs in a car accident, Anne Capute a nurse who was tried for murder after giving morphine to a patient dying of cancer, concentration camp survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel, Reverend Jeb Stuart Magruder who went to prison for his role in Watergate, AP reporter Terry Anderson who was held captive by terrorists for eight years, journalist Mike Wallace who lost a son in a climbing accident, Rabbi Harold Kushner, the author of When Good Things Happen to Bad People whose son died of a rapid-aging disease and child psychologist Donna Jenkins who had cancer as a child and now treats children with cancer.

In severe trauma the lifeline has been broken. The survivor must establish their life on a new basis. Images and stories are a powerful way to compose a new truth. Creative works tame some of the terrors and upheavals of change and metaphors can tap preverbal feelings about unspeakable violations. Survivors fighting a malignant process can use creative projects to counteract feelings of powerlessness. We can process the trauma in a way that is not overwhelming and as we sort through textures and dialogue, we find new truths.
Someone stuck in a trauma clings to obsessions and repeats the same story. The pathological response to trauma is a regressive, closed circuit while creative thought lets go of control and finds something new.

Creative Ideas
Pathological Ideas
A process of discovery
Clings to obsessions
Finds surprise
Repeats the same story
Uses systhesis
Regressive, closed circuit
Lets go of control
Opens to becoming
way of being


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