What you think that you are painting is often not what appears on the canvas. In 1983, I painted a water-color self-portrait for my partner’s birthday. I thought it would be enjoyable–colorful and fun. What emerged on paper though was very different from what I had imagined.
The picture was meant to be realistic and natural; I didn’t want to force a smile. But as the paints dried and the colors set, I saw that something was off—my startled eyes, my stiff jaw. How disturbing! I look as though I am holding my breath.
Here is a sort of snapshot, if you will, of post-traumatic stress (PTS)–a painting of a person in shock. At thirty-one years old, I am stuck-still to some early painful moment. Perhaps it was the infant intubation or the agony of the scalpel piercing my baby belly, or worse yet, cutting my very stomach, the organ itself! In 1983, I didn’t know about PTSD; I figured out that I had it in 2002 at age fifty. I have had it all my life.
As I’ve mentioned many times on this blog, I had undergone a surgery a few weeks after birth for pyloric stenosis, a stomach obstruction. Infant anesthesia was not standard in the early 1950s, and it is likely that I was awake for the operation, kept immobile by a paralyzing drug Curare.
So in essence, on my partner’s birthday, I was giving her a portrait of my pain. I had wanted my picture to be something pleasant, something nourishing. In the end, I settled for what was: I was a person in distress. I gave it to her anyway, trusting that at least she’d be moved by the effort. She was.