My husband James just wanted to know what was going on with me. Or if there was anything he could do to help. I had no idea what to say.
Several weeks ago, I sat quietly at our kitchen table, hoping I would stop crying by the time James strolled home from the local brewery - he had said he wanted to catch some of the game. After a particularly rough week, I knew he probably also wanted both of us to catch our breath for a few hours before we talked. I had been holed up in our bedroom for days.
Logically, I knew I could articulate at least the bare bones of where I was at. Several months prior, I had been diagnosed with extreme Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, thanks to a highly abusive past relationship. The diagnosis wasn’t exactly a shock - to me or to James. I think it’s safe to say the flashbacks kind of gave it away, for starters.
But as a string of painful anniversaries crept closer on the calendar this year, and as I attempted with marginal luck to push through the trauma with anything from counseling to whiskey, the name of the diagnosis didn’t matter to me. In part because I can be a prideful twit and for some reason I was convinced I was, I don’t know, better than PTSD.
And also...I tend to share my feelings about as much as most share their real lives on Facebook - highly edited, and generally only entries discussing things desirable or enviable. I have a talent for tidy, self-imposed isolation.
I needed to let James in more though. And for my sake, I needed to let far more out.
So like any self-respecting 32-year-old woman, I picked up a pack of crayons.
When my husband arrived home that evening, I weakly pointed at what I had drawn. At the top of my page was an egg. “This is your brain,” I had written by it, mimicking that old ‘90s PSA about a brain on drugs. Next was a picture of a chicken running with it’s head cut off. “This is my brain with a diagnosis of PTSD and Major Depressive Disorder.” And finally, I concluded, “Any questions?”
As James looked down at the illustration, I realized that yes, he probably still had plenty of questions. But at that moment, he simply kissed me on the forehead and hugged me. I hadn’t been able to articulate much, but it was a start.
The next step was letting everyone else in my life know why I had been a social hermit for nearly two years. And also, to let them know I was going to be okay.
Thus began Project Coping Through Cartoons (or The Headless Chicken Project, as I affectionately like to call it). For the last several weeks since that first entry, I have been drawing page after page of awkward bug-eyed animals, expressing anything from determination to deep depression. The posts have gone up on Facebook and Instagram. They have been met with encouragement, commission requests, and so many private messages from people sharing their own trauma that I have more than 50 replies backlogged from the last week alone.
I’ve been pleasantly overwhelmed with how much my little critters have resonated with people.
I have yet to be able to write about much of my trauma. To be honest, even writing vaguely of it in this article proved to be more challenging than expected. Acting, my other profession, has yet to be an outlet either. I’m just too effing raw. The panic of not knowing how to spit out even some of the pain out into words or performance has been petrifying.
Crayons, cute animals, and now two notebooks full of simple drawings, however, have provided me with an alternative language. It’s allowed me to operate in a kind of safe mode.
Shame, irrational fear, and memories of hair ripping or hiding in a closet with the taste of blood in my mouth...finding ways to address much of this has been all but impossible for years. A few days into my cartoon endeavor, I brought myself to draw a simple cartoon dog, hanging its head. “Nice dogs don’t get hit...Right?” I wrote next to it.
For the first time in years, I finally have a voice of some kind again.
Art therapy is hardly a new concept. And as more and more studies have been released discussing the benefits of even simple doodling, art as everyday stress relief continues to gain traction. To those who do not feel artistically talented, so what? Coloring books aimed at adults are gaining in popularity.
I did not go to art school. I did not draw that first headless chicken to land a gallery exhibit. Actually, I didn’t even draw it for public exposure originally.
The caliber of my cartoons is not the point though. The “likes,” while lovely, aren’t either. The relief of finally finding some outlet, even if temporary, to begin expressing thoughts and experiences I tried so desperately to bury, it has been almost euphoric. And if anyone gets even an ounce of help from the project, all the better.
Anyone who might gain some sanity by sharing via social media, by all means use #projectcoping as a tag. I look forward to hearing from anyone who’s been feeling like a headless chicken, for whatever reason. Since starting this effort, I feel like I just might be able to find my head again.
This is a guest post by Lillibet Gilbert. Follow #ProjectCoping on Instagram and Tumblr. You can buy prints of #ProjectCoping cartoons at Kite And Anchor on Etsy; a portion of proceeds goes to PTSD United.
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Lillibet Gilbert is an actor, playwright, and freelance writer hailing from Portland, Maine. Her feature film projects include "How to Make Movies at Home” (nominee - Jack Nance Breakthrough Performance Award) and “Tangled 8.” Her first full-length play, "Temporary Living Arrangements," received its professional world premiere in 2013. Lillibet earned a bachelor's degree in theater from the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, and currently resides in Colorado. She has shamelessly rollerskated down a mountain on a dare.