Healing Through Art


Visual artist Paula Timm shares the healing power of art and creativity on her journey of mental and physical recovery.

Although life-changing events are often wrought with a great deal of challenge, those who come through the other side often reflect on how, in many ways, it has given them a new lease on life. I was no different.

Always fearing and always believing that I wasn’t good enough, I compensated by working hard and helping others, but that took its toll. My body eventually tired, and I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis and celiac disease at the age of 25. Eventually the repercussions from extended periods of active disease, the drugs required to mitigate the flare-ups, and the inability to keep ‘forging’ on, my body said no. I tried to change my lifestyle and do as the doctor prescribed, but eventually that wasn’t enough either. I was too sick to carry on, and the only option left to me was to have my sick colon removed.

During the surgery a major surgical accident occurred. I ended up in ICU followed by a month-long stay in the hospital. At the age 37 my life needed a major overhaul and having an organ removed was the last chance to do it. What I knew from the moment I awoke from a coma is that I wanted to live a life of creativity, joy, and happiness.

I came home and saw that I had indeed been very creative prior to being hospitalized, and I just needed to keep doing it. I needed to absorb the magnitude of my power to create and inspire. This was the way to be joyful and healthy.

The ensuing months were not easy. Rehabilitation from the surgery and the ensuing pain meant months of narcotic usage. The withdrawal was harder than anything I have ever encountered.

I didn’t sleep, both from the trauma, the narcotics, and the steroids. I turned to my art, but in a different way than I had previously. Now it consumed me, I had an iPad and a couch, and I drew all night and all day. I didn’t even have a stylus, just my finger.

I learned that I had more skill drawing than I had ever allowed myself to see. I was hungry to create. I eventually had the energy, and physical fortitude to create outside of the confines of my iPad.

The growth of my art was pacing the growth of my new self. I cried, I danced, I hurt; I pushed my body to paint, tear, glue and imagine. What I hadn’t noticed was how much I was healing, growing, and purging into these pieces. I hadn’t fully felt the acceptance of being a good artist.

I am not sure when it hit me, but it did. I wanted more and I was healing and able to take on more. I had blogged about my process up till this point, so I knew the power of my voice. I broadcasted on social media that I was an artist. I uploaded all my art to my Facebook page for all to see, judge, like or dislike. I had conversations with people around my art. I found out what I needed to make this into a career. Create a community, get into a gallery, teach art, take classes, and get a website.

A year later, I visited with a friend in Calgary’s then Art Central building. With the meeting finished, I absorbed the reality of where I was, Art Central, filled with artisans and galleries. I was excited and scared. I visited each of the shops and introduced myself as an artist. My last conversation was with a facilitator at Studio C and I felt an immediate connection. I asked how I could get involved. My options were to teach, show my work or facilitate art programs. I wanted to do it all. I had only been recovering for a few months but I was hungry to start living a creative life.

In the four years since surgery I am still on medical leave. I am undergoing weekly therapy for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and I have a portion of my colon that is still diseased. On the positive side, I have participated in art shows, I teach art and take art classes, I have a website, a blog and a supportive arts community.

With every task I take on, I filter it through ‘art heals: creativity is authenticity’ filter. I don’t want to be, nor do I pretend to be a therapist. I share the power of creativity. I want others to release themselves from their self-limiting beliefs. I know creativity can access a deep place in our psyche, bring up some water from that deep dark well, and express it in order to release it and let our selves grow.

I am determined to be well. I want to stop limiting myself with illness. I want the big healthy life that is waiting for me over the ridge. The only way I can get there is doing this work. I am so grateful to have the time, space, and support to heal my mental health so that I can be stronger, and help others find their strength as well.

Our Peer Support program services can be accessed over the phone at 403-297-1402 or through email at peer@cmha.calgary.ab.ca.