I have loved to draw ever since I can remember. I used to fill notebooks full of drawings of these 5 girlfriends that I would draw in a row, over and over again. There would be different themes to their outfits in each drawing - sometimes they would all be wearing party dresses or even ballgowns, and sometimes beachwear or jeans. I secretly had this fantasy about becoming a fashion designer when I grew up.
I would spend hours drawing, lost in this world that I’d created for myself. Hoping not to be discovered. I remember dividing my regular lined notebook pages into top and bottom halves, front and back, so that I could fit in four sets of drawings per page. Because I knew that I would get into trouble for wasting paper if anyone found out. To this day, drawing feels like such a guilty pleasure, especially when I’m using actual art materials.
I was almost always a good girl growing up, always doing what I was told and getting top grades. But my art became a painful source of conflict with my dad in Form 3, when it came time to choose my subjects for GCSE “O” levels. At that point, I had already decided that I was going to be a doctor, so that meant taking a heavy load of math and sciences. My housemaster Mr James encouraged me to balance my load by taking Art instead of History or Geography, but my father considered the arts to be frivolous.
I don’t know to this day what drove my father in his intensity and hatred of art. Perhaps he feared what he didn’t know - his own younger brother Stewart was a talented traditional Chinese ink painter, but they never spoke of his hobby. Perhaps like most Asian parents he was simply afraid that I would cast aside my medical studies and shame him by becoming the starving artist that he would have to support for the rest of my life.
My dad would somehow get so enraged when he caught me doing art. It terrified me to anger him, so I would only do it at school where he wasn’t around to catch me at it. And not having the time or space to do my Art homework might have been why I didn’t get such good Art grades at first, but I loved every minute. My best friend Isobel and I would sit side by side in class, painting or molding with clay, giggling and whispering.
When I eventually got an A for my “O” level grade, my gruff and unsmiling Art teacher Mr Mitchell pulled me aside for a chat. He knew that I was leaving Hong Kong early for college in the US at the age of sixteen, and he wanted to tell me to keep up with my art because I had real potential. And he warned me that if I didn’t keep doing art, I would eventually forget it, and waste my talent.
I would shame my dad by becoming a starving artist that he would have to support forever
I remember thinking only of how I would finally be free from my strict and sheltered childhood home. Art had been my refuge from an unhappy family and high school, but college was the ultimate freedom. I failed to see this as an opportunity to do art without having my disapproving dad hovering over me. Instead, I felt like the implicit deal with my parents was that I get good grades as a premed, in order to stay in school. They didn’t actually believe that I could become a doctor, but whatever else was okay, as long as I wasn’t in danger of being a starving artist.
Turns out that my freshman year was an orgy of rebellion and experimentation - I sowed my wild oats by seeking out all kinds of trouble and getting in head first. My mom told me later that her hair went all grey in my freshman year. It took me that full year to sober up and realize that I would never get into medical school, if I didn’t get my act together. The next decade was so packed with study, exams and training that there was no time for frivolity.
I used to think of those years as being virtually devoid of art, but then I recall the Hawkeye mascot that I painted on my dormitory door, And the one Art elective that I got to take in my senior year, just prior to graduation. During med school, I would do counted cross stitch embroidery, while my best friend Linda knitted beautiful complex patterns into sweaters and hats. My inner artist would also get a little action when my kids got to be old enough to have presentations and projects for school.
Even when I thought I was “being good” by forgetting about Art, it didn’t forget me. And I didn’t realize how much I missed it until I happened to be attending an AAMC Junior Women Faculty Development seminar in Santa Fe, more than ten years later, New Mexico.
I had signed up for an evening Art Interest Group on a whim, thinking that I could vicariously enjoy other people’s hobbies, since as a working mom, I didn’t have time for such things. As each of my doctor peers went around in the circle and introduced her art, we heard about watercolor painting, beading and quilting.
And then when it was my turn, I couldn’t speak. I found that my voice was wholly suspended with tears - I was so consumed with grief that I was literally speechless. In that moment, I realized that I had not drawn for pleasure for almost two decades. And I hadn’t even realized how much I had missed it. The ghost of Mr Mitchel’s warning had come back to bite me.
My inner critic
It took me yet another decade to slowly come back to drawing and painting more regularly. At first I didn’t understand why I would be hesitant or reluctant to get started, even though I knew that I would be fine once I got going.
And then I took this free online Coursera course from the University of Florida called Healing with the Arts, and we were asked to sketch our inner critic for the visual arts module. I had no idea how harsh and frightening mine was until I saw him.
In creating that drawing, I learned that having awareness of our thoughts gives us the power to choose whether or not to keep them. I see that my childhood self had internalized all of my dad’s fear, frustration and anger, and my mom’s disinterest and indifference. Looking back, I realized that they had not kept a single piece of artwork that I did as a child. Not even my final “O” level project.
My inner gremlin Milly had learned as a child that that art was associated with the pain of parental disapproval and rejection. And she had been working hard to keep me busy and distracted with work and family, so that I could get all the external validation and approval. And her inner critic voice would tell me that I didn’t have any talent, that art was frivolous and a waste of time. My art was forgotten and hidden in an attempt to keep me safe.
It has taken me yet another decade to reclaim my identity as an artist more openly. I’ve had to learn to make my art more public in the studio where others can see my work. I’ve even gifted my work and shared it through social media channels. I’ve done so ever so gradually, because showing your art to others often feels like walking out on a stage. Naked.
My art was forgotten and hidden in an attempt to keep me safe
And as I’ve gotten more used to being an artist, I have come to embrace my shadow self. I am no longer ashamed of wanting to make art, of wasting time or art materials. In fact, I’ve come to see how my inner child artist self Jian Jian had developed a trauma response, I had locked her away because I believed she was shameful and must be protected. It was up to me to make amends by creating safety for her, and for myself.
Painting has taught me to listen to my intuition, that it’s okay to mess up, and that the reward for being brave enough to try, is always worth it in the end. More importantly, I’ve learned that the voice of my heart’s desire is the truest and most important voice. I had suppressed it for so many years in the name of work or family that I had forgotten what it sounded like.
Engaging in creative activities brings multiple benefits for brain health, whether it is with visual arts, music, writing or dance. Studies have shown that making art impacts serotonin and dopamine levels, as well as increasing blood flow. We improve our focus and build neuroplasticity when we are in the playful or experimental flow state that is often induced by creativity. It’s no wonder that the arts are increasingly employed in healing environments, whether in the setting of cancer care or elder homes.
Showing your art to others often feels like walking out on a stage naked
I used to regret not having spent more time creating art during what I considered my “lost years,” but I’ve come to see that my life story is written in chapters. The early chapters were about loving art, and then they were about academic medicine and raising a family. These midlife years are about shifting to teaching, coaching, and caregiving.
I see that while I abandoned Jian Jian for a while, she never abandoned me. She pushed me to be creative by forging a new vision for Women’s Health, before it was its own discipline. And then again with Integrative Medicine. Whatever the next few chapters may bring, I know for sure that she will ensure that there is fun and magic along the way, because that’s how I will get to be healthy of mind and body at my 100th birthday.
Dr Em’s coaching tips
What does your heart desire?
What feeds your soul?
What did you love to do as a child or what do you do now that is so fun you lose track of time?
Can you challenge yourself in small ways to start listening again by trying something you’ve always wanted to do, but haven’t done yet?
Only we can choose how to live this one wild and precious life.
Free online program that can be taken at your own pace from University of Florida Drs Mary Rockwood Lane and Michael Samuels.
Healing With the Arts gives you the tools to heal what you need to heal in your life: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual, through art projects—including visual arts, dance, writing, and music—along with spiritual practices and guided imagery.
2. Book - Healing with the Arts
By Michael Samuels and Mary Rockwood Lane
A self guided program for getting in touch with your inner artist.