Emily McGuigan, an artist working in substance abuse, shares a personal story about how art helped her to face past trauma and to begin the healing process…

When I’m asked for an example of how I’ve used art therapy in my own recovery, I instantly think of a recent time in my life where my art actually resulted in me discovering some past trauma that I suppressed and also where it resulted in me addressing major contributors to my depression. These projects impacted my life more than any other pieces I’ve created, and for that I am grateful. They allowed me to begin the healing process after one of the longest depressive episodes I have faced thus far.

Over the past spring semester, my main focus was figure drawing and painting from nude models. It has become my favourite subject matter for my work because studying the human body has changed my perspective on my own. Every model’s body is different and imperfect - just like mine. A person completely comfortable with his/her own body enough for strangers to use as a muse is completely inspiring to me because I have struggled for so long about how my own body looks, a big contributor to my depression. After working with models, I began to look at my body objectively and see that all my curves are vital, not “wrong.” Without my imperfections, I wouldn’t be me. I began to see my body and mind as art in itself.

Emily McGuigan, Lonely Love

Lonely Love

Later in the semester, I was assigned projects that I could choose whatever I wanted to focus on. One was a woodblock print, one was a 5x4 ft painting, and the other was a collage of 12 8×8 inch squares. I started with preliminary drawings of different concepts I could explore for each, but ultimately decided to do a series on the impact of sexual assault and the mental trauma associated with it. I chose this subject because I spent the months leading up to the projects unable to escape my depression surrounding my own sexual assault. For a long time, I wasn’t sure why I was experiencing certain anxieties and behaviours but I knew there was a bigger picture I needed to explore. Apprehensively, I used the opportunity of these assignments to start digging.

A woodblock print is created by using tools to carve out designs in a piece of wood, inking it, then rolling it through a printing press onto paper. Our assignment was based on a pop culture icon, so I chose Lady Gaga because of her recent work in sexual trauma awareness and mental health. I carved Gaga’s silhouette instead of defining her features - that way the figure was more ambiguous. The rest of the block was filled with phrases some sexual offenders say to their victims, some of which that have been said to me. I chose these words carefully and as I physically carved out every single letter I realised the attachment I had to them. It was uncomfortable and intense. The act of carving is as harsh as the words themselves. Doing this project was the first time I began to recognise what I went through and how I felt about it. But it was just the beginning.

Emily McGuigan, Drowning


For the next project, the size of the canvas intimidated me because I have never worked bigger than 16x20 inches. I chose the most intense colour palette I could think of - black, grey, red and white. These were the colours I felt expressed my purpose the best. I painted a self-portrait triptych, but each version of me was different. The figures became ghostly and anguished and detached because I was detached. The facial clarity became blurred with each one. Everything felt distant and blurry and I lost myself for a while. For months, I felt like I was wearing different faces when it came to hiding my struggles.

Because of the size of the painting, I was more physically engaged. Working with the black paint and palette knife brought out the anger and resentment I felt and adding red splatters into it intensified that. It was a physical release. During the two weeks of working on it, I unintentionally isolated myself socially. Sometimes I had to leave the studio to gather myself because staring at this reflection of how I felt - staring at this reflection of me - was incredibly hard. But I knew how important it was to finish it.

At the same time that I was finishing my painting, I was working on my other project as well. This also included self-portraits but was more specific about different emotions I have experienced in consequence of the assault. I used photos of me covered in charcoal handprints in the collage. Because I drew the rest of the self-portraits in charcoal, I wanted to tie in the photography aspect by using the same medium on my skin. Working through each square started to bring back suppressed memories and feelings that overwhelmed me. But once it was all assembled, I was proud of my ability to face it.

Emily McGuigan, Inspired


My figure work and series are an external portrayal of my internalised hardships. I forced myself to face my demons and throw myself into my work. The expression allowed me to find talking points to address in my therapy sessions. I have decided that my next series will be called “Seratonin”. It will be based on the highs and lows of serotonin imbalance, a visual representation of my anxiety and depression.

The thing about recovery is that it can be messy. There is no “right” way to go through it. Often, one has to revisit unwanted thoughts and feelings and face the displeasure of it all in order to learn how to cope with it and progress. Choosing to take on these art projects reopened old wounds and gave me new ones. This may seem counterproductive but if I didn’t explore my depression I wouldn’t have known how to help myself. Every time I see those finished projects, I feel strength.

My art is my story.

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Emily McGuigan graduated from West Chester University of Pennsylvania with a Bachelor of Fine Arts, concentrating in painting and drawing, and with a background in Psychology and International Business. Emily currently resides in Philadelphia, USA, and works full time in substance abuse. She will be continuing her education at Jefferson University to receive an MS in Community and Trauma Counseling, Art Therapy Specialization. Art has been a consistent form of therapy for Emily as she navigates life with Generalised Anxiety Disorder, Major Depressive Disorder, and PTSD.

All artworks by Emily McGuigan. A version of this article was originally published by the International Bipolar Foundation (IBPF).