In the absence of words, selfies help patients reflect on trauma 

The first time I tried art therapy I was eight years old, had a rap sheet of behavioural issues that felt a mile long, severe anxiety, and was getting bullied almost every day by my peers.

Once every few weeks, my mother would take me to a psychologist to talk about it — a woman I remember feeling extraordinarily out of touch with. She would ask questions that I wouldn’t see the significance of for many years to come. Then she asked me to draw a picture based on what we had just been talking about. I was never very good with a crayon.

Perhaps that is why I failed so completely at expressing those early emotions in vivid technicolour images. I stopped going to those appointments almost as abruptly as I had started them, and nothing ever changed.

A couple of years ago, I read an article about a victim of domestic abuse who, in a bid to free herself from her toxic relationship, started taking one selfie every day of the year, documenting her highly visible injuries, as well as her physical and emotional recovery since leaving her attacker. That year of grisly photos stood as a reminder of what she had survived.

I remember thinking, “I wonder what someone like her would put to the paper if their therapist asked them to draw a picture of their abuse?” Thanks to those selfies, I suppose she wouldn’t have to.

In a bid to make use of her creative passion as a part of her healing process, Brittany Dorozio (pictured above) was encouraged by her art therapist April Dyrda to experiment with body art and self-portraiture. The two conceptualized this selfie to help Dorozio dissociate her “old inhabitant depression” from her own self by giving it a physical form of its own.
Photo courtesy of Brittany Dorozio
Similar survivor selfies have become more prominent in recent years. In 2014, Vice reported on the rising popularity of “hospital selfies” on Instagram — photos tagged such things as #dialysis, #chemo, and #amputee, denoting the hardships the patients were struggling with. The trend, Vice explained, was opening up a larger discussion of how people cope with trauma by re-imagining and re-examining the image of themselves within their new reality.

So when, in June of this year, a co-worker and friend of mine, Brittany Dorozio, posted a photo to Instagram with the hashtag #paintmydepression, I couldn’t help but draw similarities between those selfies that illustrated physical abuse, disability, and disease to one that called to attention a mental illness that I myself have lived with for years. I was skeptical, but simply had to know what if anything there was to “selfie art therapy,” and what made it work so well for my friend when I had been rejecting its legitimacy.

“My therapist and I spent a lot of time characterizing my depression, giving it a separate voice and face from my own,” Dorozio wrote in the caption for her photo. “I don’t talk about it a lot. I don’t want people to see this face and voice that isn’t my own. I end up keeping this thing inside me. I make myself lonely. I stifle myself. But this is not my end. This is another step in my fight.”

April Dyrda, a Master’s graduate from the University of Calgary, was completing her practicum, working under the supervision of registered psychologists at Mount Royal University’s Wellness Services, when she first conceptualized the selfie portrait with Dorozio.

“It started more generally as art therapy,” Dyrda said of the process, “because Brittany is into theatre and those forms of expression, and so I found art therapy was a really good fit for her to express herself.”

When Dyrda’s practicum came to an end, she and Dorozio continued to correspond to maintain her progress. That’s when the idea of Dorozio combining her love of portraiture with art therapy came about. Instead of using colour and canvas to make art, Brittany, who as an avid cosplayer has plenty of experience with staged photography and body art, would infiltrate the image herself. It was a chance to ease her anxiety through art therapy, she says, while also taking a moment to appreciate herself more fully by becoming a part of the art itself.

“Art therapy, especially, allows people to really create some distance between themselves and their problems,” says Dyrda. “I think a lot of times, when you’re struggling with mental illness, it can be easy to feel like we are the problem and get consumed by that. So if we’re able to kind of express ourselves through art or another means, it allows us to get whatever is inside out on paper, and see it as something separate from yourself.”

The healing arts

This was very much the case for Tayari Skey when she began art therapy in 2010. Having just escaped a cycle of sexual assault and manipulation by a trusted family friend, Skey recalls being “really messed up from it, as you might expect.” Though she immediately started consulting counsellors at her school, and was open with her family about the abuse, Skey remembers feeling that the usual “talk therapy” was simply not enough.

Calgary-based makeup and body paint artist Lianne Moseley created this portrait of herself after a string of upsetting events in her personal life and around the world left her feeling defeated, her struggles with anxiety surfacing once again. “I’ve been feeling a lot of tension in the air lately, and this let me express that in a different way… I’ve been noticing a difference in the world, in my relationships, in my friendships, in my interactions with people, and the changing perspectives of people recently. I’ve found there’s been a lot more selfishness in my world, and I’ve been through a couple of heartbreaks recently so [this photo] was just that all mixed together and coming out, and getting rid of those feelings.”
Photo courtesy of Lianne Moseley
“I felt like I could’ve gone and talked with my friends and they would’ve been as much help as the counsellor talking was. But then when I went to art therapy, it was like, you don’t just talk at someone and have them nod and say, ‘Uh huh, that must have been hard.’ They actually look at your art with you, and they listen to you in two different ways almost — through your voice, and through your painting.”

Having difficulty expressing herself and her experiences with verbal clarity, Skey says allowing her emotions to take on a physical form through art was crucial in her recovery.

“It helped me find myself again, at that time. It helped me figure out, if I was feeling damaged, why I was feeling that way, and how I was going to fix that. Even if the feelings weren’t in words, they were in ink, and in a way that forced you to confront them. You know how people say ‘Once you write it down, it’s real?’ Well it was almost like, once you painted it, it was real,” she says.

Art therapy is at its most effective when what is revealed on paper, on a screen, has as little to do with the patient’s active train of thought as possible, tapping directly into the heart of their problems. However, does a selfie — a deliberate, planned out photograph — clash with some of those values in its attempt to become the next art therapy medium. The increasing popularity of selfies has already gained widespread criticism without throwing serious mental health issues, and the wellbeing of patients, into the mix.

As Calgary psychologist and art therapist Rachela Buonincontri explains, because of the vain and narcissistic connotations associated with our understanding of the selfie, controversy surrounding the use of selfies in therapy has to be expected.

However, she says, although the word “selfie” has only been in colloquial use for a few years, the concept of the self-portrait dates back to the Victorian era. Forms of phototherapy, a mode of art therapy that makes use of photography for patients to document their experiences and emotions for better reflection later, have likewise been in practice since approximately the 1950s.

“We have Facebook and Instagram now, and there’s lots of opportunities now for people to take photos and to share them,” says Buonincontri. “So there is this renewal and re-examination of how we use photos in our every day life and share them with others. That can make it feel like this type of therapy is new, when really, it’s not exactly.”

Selfies as art therapy

Dyrda explains that the process of detaching ourselves from mental illnesses or other ailments by expressing them creatively, though hardly novel on its own, takes new shape with the selfie. Instead of externalizing our various pains by committing them to canvas or clay, or even representing them abstractly with the symbolism found in photographs, by making ourselves a part of the art, part of selfie therapy becomes about reconciliation with our selves, rather than just escapism.

In collaboration with New Mexico artist Anahy Nuñez / @glassjawbabe (left), and Calgary makeup artist Laura Del Rizzo / @ldr.mua (center), Lianne Moseley (right) conceptualized the Expelled Poison Collab series, which she writes, “was created to help each of the artists invited to help release some of the negativity or hurt in our lives through our art. Everyone’s fighting their own demons, it seems like more people are reacting in such a negative way to things that they envy or they fear. I can’t say it enough, find a healthy outlet for your negativity. Talk to someone, don’t be afraid to reach out.”
Photo courtesy of Lianne Moseley
“It allows people to develop a different relationship with their mental illness,” she explains. “We can have a positive relationship with our mental illnesses that we live with, it doesn’t always have to be negative. Reflecting on it through you, through a selfie, I think it changes the relationship between those two things in the frame, for sure. I don’t know if it’s necessarily a form of escapism, because you aren’t running away from it or hiding it or ignoring it. You’re still interacting with it, you’re still engaging with it.”

Buonincontri seconds this notion, pointing out that, while it may seem like a superficial fix to such dense illnesses such as anxiety, depression, body dysmorphia or anorexia nervosa, the power a single image has in changing one’s perceptions, much like the power of the selfie itself, is often underestimated.

“I do know people who can’t even take selfies because they have some huge issues around body image or they’ve gone through cancer treatment and so their body has changed and it’s hard to actually look at themselves, so of course the photos can have a powerful effect on us, and how we see ourselves,” she says, while cautioning that the feelings selfie therapy can bring to the surface should not be trivialized.

“Art and images both can bring up really intense feelings,” Buonincontri continues. “I remember once this client was trying to lie to me about certain things that were happening in her life, and then it all came through in the art that she did, and she said, ‘Rachela I was trying to lie to you, but the art doesn’t lie.’

“Art doesn’t lie, and the selfies certainly don’t lie. They tell us the truth about who we are and what we’re wanting to express in this moment, and so as long as we can honour that truth, there’s healing in that truth in that moment.”

Mindful of our mirrors

However, sometimes along the path of reinvention, truth takes many different forms. The beauty of the selfie comes from our ability to use it as a mirror, suggests Calgary makeup artist and body painter Lianne Moseley.

Moseley, who first fell in love with body art as a teenager as a pathway out of heartbreak, has utilized her skills to compose several intricate selfie-portraits, all with their own unique inspirations and designs. Though selfies and selfie art continue to be criticized for their exhibitionism, Moseley maintains that the meaning of these selfies, for her at least, is not “found as much in the portrayal as it is in the reflection that happens when you’re creating a piece like this.

Calgary body painter and makeup artist Lianne Moseley believes the transformative quality of her art — and by extension, her selfies — to have an unparalleled impact on how she views herself on a day-to-day basis, and in the long run, the struggles she has faced to get to where she is today. “I’ve always seen makeup as a way to transform myself into something different for that moment. I think a lot of people who suffer from depression and anxiety feel that, and have those strong feelings of wanting to be somebody else or be somewhere else. Obviously there are harsher feelings that come along with that, but on the daily level, the stress those feelings put on you, I think you end up just always wishing you could transport yourself somewhere else. So being able to change myself, even if its just my physical form, in some way, it’s a way to feel different, to feel beautiful again,” says Moseley.
Photo courtesy of Lianne Moseley
“For me, I’ve always looked at makeup as a way to transform myself into something different for that moment,” she says of her choice to blend body art and self-documentation in a single therapeutic practice. “I think a lot of people who suffer from depression and anxiety have those strong feelings of wanting to be somebody else or be somewhere else. Obviously there are harsher feelings that come along with that, but on the daily level, the stress those feelings put on you, I think you end up just always wishing you could transport yourself somewhere else. So being able to change myself, even if its just my physical form, in some way, it’s a way to feel different, to feel beautiful again.”

Critics of using selfies in art therapy appear most concerned that the practice does nothing to actually help patients, but instead encourages them to be vain and narcissistic with such a heavy emphasis on appearances. This is not the true intention of therapeutic selfies, says Moseley. These images, which can be elaborately artistic like hers, or as simple as a cellphone snapshot as in the case of the “hospital” or “domestic abuse selfie”, are not taken for the enjoyment or approval of others.

“Changing your appearance is just one way of exuding a different part of your personality, to transform yourself, give yourself something different to focus on other than how awful you feel for five minutes,” she says. “And it’s fun! Look at Halloween — everybody loves pretending to be somebody else for a night. This is no different, but I’m using it to help better about myself.”

For Moseley, the images that she has created in response to her own anxieties will stand as reminders of the pains that were temporary, and vibrant portrayals of that anguish would remain the same without selfies. When all the paint is washed off and the memories of her struggles fade, these pictures remain as trophies.

“It’s almost like a right of passage,” she says, reflecting on the thoughts that brought her art to fruition. “Sometimes you have to battle a few dragons before you can get on with your life.”

Could selfie therapy work for you?

For someone suffering with a mental illness, even something as seemingly simple as booking an appointment and starting treatment with a therapist can be daunting.

While Buonincontri stresses the important first step of seeking out professional counselling as a means of dealing with issues causing “serious concern,” she explains that some people suffering from anxiety, depression, self-esteem, and body image related disorders might find it helpful to ease into treatment by making use of selfies as a form of journaling.

According to counselor April Dyrda, the act of transforming yourself as a part of your art therapy, though viewed as escapist by critics, can be useful in helping patients develop a better relationship with their mental illness. “I am a big proponent for the idea that we can have a positive relationship with our mental illnesses that we live with, it doesn’t always have to be negative. So I don’t know if it’s necessarily a form of escapism, because you’re still interacting with [your mental illness]. You’re still engaging with it. You aren’t running away from it or hiding it or ignoring it, it just changes your perception of what you’re going through.” Pictured above, Calgary body painter and makeup artist Lianne Moseley.
Photo courtesy of Lianne Moseley
“There’s so many ways to make use of pictures and writing, and it doesn’t have to be elaborate at all. Even just taking a single photo, and writing a five-word response to the image can sometimes be enough to get you started,” says Buonincontri.

Dyrda offers two essential guidelines:

“I advise people, first and foremost, to not be critical of themselves,” she says. “I think when we take selfies, we can have a tendency to be very judgmental of who we are, and that can be counterintuitive to what we’re trying to achieve.

“However, while you’re trying not to be critical of yourself, I would say you do need to be critical of the process. Be reflective and ask yourself those questions of ‘Why am I doing this? What is the purpose of this? What am I hoping to get out of it? What meaning do I draw from it?’ Because that’s what makes it therapeutic, and by extension what makes it healing, is when you’re reflecting on the meaning of your actions.”

Buonincontri supports those guidelines with a reminder that, far from only being useful as a tool for people actively suffering from a physical or mental illness, selfies can also be productively utilized to increase the quality of life of everyday individuals, by helping guide them towards a more self-aware mentality.

“Taking selfies can be a really good self-care practice, because the more reflective we can be about ourselves, the more conscious and aware we are of our life,” says Buonincontri. “The more present we can be in understanding this moment that we’re in, and accepting that moment, the clearer we can be about where we’re at in our life, and mitigate some of the suffering we have. So I believe the more we build consciousness into our lives on a regular basis, the more we can be ok with whatever life brings our way.”

mritchie@cjournal.ca