Maria was a 31-year-old artist who sought help to disentangle herself from a dysfunctional relationship with an emotionally abusive man. For the past few weeks, she had been seized by a compulsion to paint self portraits. She portrayed her likeness from various angles, experimenting with different hues and styles. She explained that she had “lost herself” and was painting her way back.
Sam, a 24-year-old recent college graduate, also complained of feeling lost. He slouched as he described a lingering, low-grade depression that he attributed to unemployment and living with his folks. Yet, when he read his poetry, he grew animated and stood up straight. When I pointed this out, he remarked that poetry helped him feel connected to his true self.
Similar things could be said of Ralph, a pot-smoking film student who succumbs to fits of self loathing when he isn’t working on film projects, or June, a depressed want-to-be screenwriter whose affect brightens whenever she makes progress on her script.
As I observe similar patterns among many of my psychotherapy clients, I can’t help but wonder—what exactly is the self, how does it get lost, and where does it go? And how is it that creativity can serve as a homing device, retrieving our wayward sense of “me-ness” and returning it to our awareness?