Emotional Healing Through Creativity (Or: How Creativity Got a Bad Name and What We Can Do About It) By Doug Foresta, LICSW on 8/28/12 - 12:40 PM

As a therapist and theatre instructor, I hear many stories about creativity. It usually goes something like this: Creativity is something you either have or don’t have, and if you have it, you’re probably manic, anxious and neurotic. Certainly, very few clients come to me complaining that they don’t have enough creativity in their lives. However, I’ve come to experience that healthy creativity (and yes, I believe that this exists!) can help in the process of emotional healing.

For the past several years, I’ve hosted an internet radio show about creativity and healing, and this has deeply informed my therapy practice. The stories that my guests have shared go against the narrative that creativity is associated with madness and neuroticism. One guest who continues to inspire me is Ray Johnston, and I’ll share his story to illustrate the power of creativity.

Ray Johnston grew up with one dream: to play professional basketball. However, he went to a small college, was not drafted or even scouted by an NBA team, and eventually graduated from college and found himself working in real estate. However, Ray was living in the Dallas area, and would get tickets to see the Dallas Mavericks. As he began attending games as a fan, he started connecting with former NBA athletes, who encouraged Ray to try out for the Dallas Mavericks summer league. Ray did try out and was eventually chosen to be on the summer league.

If that were the end of the story, it would be remarkable enough, but that’s not where the story ends. Soon after being chosen to play on the summer league, Ray was playing a pickup game of basketball with some friends and banged his shin. The next morning, Ray woke up and his shin was swollen to twice its normal size. Ray went to the hospital and as he recalls, “It was July 2004, and I passed out in the emergency room. When I woke up, I was in a hospital bed and George Bush had just beaten John Kerry for the Presidency of the United States.”

Ray was horrified when he learned that he had been in a coma due to leukemia. He was even more horrified to learn that seven of his toes had been amputated and that he would never play basketball ever again. Ray fell into a deep depression, and wondered what he would do now that his only dream had been taking away from him. Ray could have stayed in that depression, but as he lay in his hospital bed, he decided that he was going to create a new life for himself, given his new circumstances and conditions. Ray decided that he was going to pursue his only other passion—music—and decided to start a band. His doctors and friends told Ray that the stress of creating a band and touring would be too much for his body, and they urged him to stay home and rest.

But Ray did not stay home. He went out and started a band, created music and began touring. As he did this, his depression began to lift. Ray felt like he had a new purpose and mission in his life. He began donating a portion of his proceeds towards leukemia research. And much to the dismay of his doctors, he is still very much alive and touring with his band, the Ray Johnston Band, and working towards his dream of playing in the Dallas American Airlines Center. He has been able to overcome his depression and lives a life of joy, meaning and purpose.

To me, Ray’s story illustrates the power of creativity to overcome emotional pain. Ray made a choice to create, rather than to stay stuck in his depression. Whether or not he becomes a famous singer, he is already successful. Likewise, in my work with clients, I want to know more not only about their symptoms, but also about their hobbies, their dreams and their creative interests. And for all the people who have told me they are “not creative,” I’ve yet to meet a human being who does not possess the ability to be creative in some way.

As therapists, we can be advocates for creativity, and pay attention to the ways in which our clients are already creative. We can hold the possibility of creativity as an asset that helps our clients thrive, instead of as a burden that they need to live with. Finally, we can see the therapeutic process itself as a creative practice, something which I’ll write further about in future posts!

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy, Musings and Reflections