Pretty much all of us experience some kind of trauma in life. How does creative expression help people deal with it?
How do people make use of traumatic experiences in their creative work?
What impacts on mental health can trauma have, and how can people regain mental and emotional health?
Trauma takes many forms, and has different sources and levels of impact for each of us.
Here are some examples of well-known people: perhaps you can relate to some of their experiences.
See multiple resources to help deal with traumatic experiences and feelings at the bottom of this article.
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Patrick Stewart is an example of many creative people who have been deeply impacted by trauma in early life.
An interview article notes he “was for decades a man plagued by fear and stifled by rage. The roots of his struggle go back to a difficult childhood, marked by poverty and abuse that took him years to understand.”
“I have been inclined to be solitary in huge chunks of my life,” says Stewart. “I don’t think that’s a good thing anymore. I think the interaction of being with people, especially people you like, is very important for keeping you sharp, alert, active, connected.”
He notes that when he returned from military service, his father became “a weekend alcoholic who beat up my mother and terrorized the house. For years I thought of him as the enemy.”
Stewart says his father never hit him, but he wrote in an article for the Guardian in 2009 that, by age 7, he knew “exactly when to insert a small body between the fist and [my mother’s] face, a skill no child should ever have to learn.”
He was cast in a school play at age 12, and says, “I found the stage a very safe place to be. Everything is predictable when you’re in a play. Because of the chaos in my life, I loved the certainty – and the opportunity to become somebody else and not myself.”
In 1981, he was offered the role of the “brutally savage” Leontes in a Shakespeare play, but Stewart initially turned it down.
“For years a part of my acting suffered because I was not prepared to embrace rage. I said I couldn’t do it.”
But after encouragement from a director, Stewart said, “I realized I could use those feelings and not only would nothing bad happen, but quite good things might happen.”
He has also learned his father’s violence was based in part on his own traumatic experiences in war and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), called shell shock at the time.
“I didn’t know,” Stewart says. “I don’t think my mother knew. I don’t think anybody knew. Civilian slaughter, his life endangered, the possibility of being captured and in a prisoner of war camp for who knows how long,” Stewart explains. “He never got treatment. He was told to pull himself together and be a man.”
From article: Finding a Light in the Darkness By Meg Grant, AARP The Magazine, April/May 2014.
Patrick Stewart has become an active supporter and patron of Refuge, a safe house in England for women and children, and Combat Stress, a British charity that supports veterans struggling with mental health problems.
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A news story about actress, singer, film director, and screenwriter Sarah Polley and her documentary “Stories We Tell” notes a traumatic experience of hers:
“Hours before she was to introduce a Montreal screening of ‘Away From Her’ — her first film as a director and one that would land her an Oscar nomination — a secret that had been buried all of her 28 years suddenly burst into the open: Michael Polley was not her biological father…
“The revelation of Polley’s true parentage landed her in bed for two weeks, ill with a long fever. ‘My body went into shock and sickness, and every time I’ve gone to Montreal since then, I get really sick,’ she said.
‘I think it’s a lot to absorb and kinda difficult.’ “
From “Sarah Polley explores her uprooted, twisted family tree” By Nicole Sperling, Los Angeles Times.
[Photo from www.storieswetellmovie.com]
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A similar physical reaction affected Julia Cameron, acclaimed for “The Artist’s Way” books and workshops, who was previously married to filmmaker Martin Scorsese, and later to entrepreneur Mark Bryan.
In her memoir “Floor Sample” she writes about Bryan divorcing her: “Mark left on March 15, and I spent the next month going to my bed at seven o’clock at night, sleeping like I had been clubbed.”
[From book excerpt blog post “Lonely” Didn’t Begin to Cover My Emotions on her Julia Cameron Online site.]
Learn more about Cameron on my page Multitalented creative people.
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Several years ago, I did an interview with psychologist Stephen A. Diamond that probably started my interest in this topic of trauma and creativity.
[Hear my comments in the radio program excerpt under Resources below.]
He writes about a number of prominent and accomplished artists who express their demons, their inner and outer conflicts, in positive ways.
One example he gives is French sculptor, painter, and film maker Niki de Saint Phalle (‘du san fal’, 1930-2002).
He noted her famous ‘shooting paintings’ resulted from firing live ammunition at paint-filled balloons mounted on canvas.
Dr. Diamond commented that “rather than becoming a crazed killer or vengeful victimizer of men, de St. Phalle’s fury — some of which stemmed from having been sexually abused by her father — fostered a fecund creativity, that served her well throughout her prolific career.”
He talks about how rage, when “channeled into their work, gives it the intensity and passion that performing artists such as actors and actresses seek.”
He also mentions that Picasso was also someone who prolifically expressed much violence and dark emotion through his work, but was, Diamond points out, “also quite destructive, especially regarding the women in his life.”
From The Psychology of Creativity: redeeming our inner demons, an interview with Stephen A. Diamond, Ph.D. [website]
Also listen to our audio interview: Stephen A. Diamond, PhD on Anger and Creativity
Stephen A. Diamond is author of the book, “Anger, Madness, and the Daimonic: The Psychological Genesis of Violence, Evil, and Creativity.”
In his brief foreword to Diamond’s book, psychologist Rollo May introduces and defines the classic Greek conception of the “daimonic” or darker side of our being, noting that “the daimonic (unlike the demonic, which is merely destructive) is as much concerned with creativity as with negative reactions.”
For more on the daimonic, see post Creative Passion and Gifted Adults: Prodded by Our Angelic and Demonic Muse.
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Psychologist Alice Miller said in a lecture that in her book “The Untouched Key: Tracing Childhood Trauma in Creativity and Destructiveness,” she mentioned “the severe trauma that the child Pablo Picasso underwent at the age of three: the earthquake in Malaga in 1884, the flight from the family’s apartment into a cave that seemed to be more safe, and eventually witnessing the birth of his sister in the same cave under these very scary circumstances.”
She adds, “However, Picasso survived these traumas without later becoming psychotic or criminal because he was protected by his very loving parents [and] he was later able to express his early, frightening experiences in a creative way.”
From article: “Alice Miller: The Childhood Trauma” – From a lecture she gave at the Lexington 92nd Street YWHA in New York City on October 22, 1998.
In her acclaimed book The Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search for the True Self, Alice Miller, PhD wrote “When I used the word ‘gifted’ in the title, I had in mind neither children who receive high grades in school nor children talented in a special way. I simply meant all of us who have survived an abusive childhood thanks to an ability to adapt even to unspeakable cruelty by becoming numb…
“Without this ‘gift’ offered us by nature, we would not have survived.”
More examples of artists who have experienced trauma
“People are strange: They are constantly angered by trivial things, but on a major matter like totally wasting their lives, they hardly seem to notice.”
Photo with text from post: A Smile To Remember – Charles Bukowski, by Suzy Hazelwood .
Charles Bukowski, a profile article noted, experienced a childhood home “where his father would preach the values of the American Dream: Be industrious, make money, buy a house, have a family. But while his father was proselytizing, he was also meting out brutal beatings to the sensitive young boy several times a week, from age 6 through his teens…
“Explaining the title “Ham on Rye” [the novel based on his childhood], Bukowski wrote to a correspondent in 1982: ‘My parents were the two pieces of bread, and I was the ham that was continually getting bitten into.’
“In this home, Bukowski encountered a powerful force that he would spend many years reacting against: He would become a writer, an artist, a common laborer, a bum even — but he would not be them. Out of this early experience came much suffering but also self-reliance, individuality and an incredible strength.”
From article The Bukowski tour [LA Times, May 23 2004] By John Dullaghan, maker of documentary film “Bukowski: Born Into This.”
Another profile article notes “the frequent beatings he endured from his father’s razor strap in the family’s Long-wood Avenue home and the disfiguring acne vulgaris the young Bukowski developed in response to the trauma.
“The hardship burnished his tough-guy mask and steeled him for the fight ahead. For more than half a century he wrote with a workman’s tenacity, producing more than 3,000 poems, six novels and hundreds of shorter prose works in a voice of brute clarity and lyrical flourish, infused with great humor, empathy and humanity, and a blunt acknowledgment of quotidian struggle and ache.”
The article writer adds that “his tales and observations resonate as well in the offices of today’s gleaming towers; his affinity with the marginalized is relevant as ever among our present-day legions of underemployed.”
One of his oft-quoted poems:
“it’s not the large things that / send a man to the / madhouse … / it’s the continuing series of small tragedies … / not the death of his love / but a shoelace that snaps / with no time left … / with each broken shoelace / out of one hundred broken shoelaces, / one man, one woman, one / thing / enters a / madhouse. / so be careful / when you / bend over.”
From “A lyrical, graceful Charles Bukowski” by John Penner, Los Angeles Times, March 08, 2014.
he sat naked and drunk in a room of summer
night, running the blade of the knife
under his fingernails, smiling, thinking
of all the letters he had received
telling him that
the way he lived and wrote about
it had kept them going when
From The Last Night of the Earth Poems by Charles Bukowski.
“Some people never go crazy. What truly horrible lives they must lead.”
From Barfly – The Movie by Charles Bukowski (The screenplay of the 1987 movie)
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J. K. Rowling says, “I came from a difficult family. My mother was very ill, and it wasn’t the easiest.” When Rowling was fifteen, her mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She has said her father frightened her. “I did not have an easy relationship with my father… We’ve not had any communication for about nine years.”
[From a 2012 interview, quoted in post: Traumatic Childhood, Creative Adult]
She was teased about her name, with schoolmates calling her ‘Rowling Pin,’ she says “I know what it is like to be picked on, as it happened to me, too, throughout my adolescence. Being a teenager can be completely horrible…I wouldn’t go back if you paid me.”
[From post: J.K. Rowling: an ordinary and extraordinary childhood.]
Ashley Judd (a Phi Beta Kappa grad, by the way) became a “hypervigilant child” – “raising herself under unpredictable circumstances, becoming lonely, depressed, isolated—all feelings she kept under wraps for years,” according to an article.
[Follow link from her name to her site, where she has a post on recovery from PTSD.]
In her New York Times bestselling memoir All That Is Bitter & Sweet, she reveals being sexually abused. She also noted about her family:
“We have come far. In our individual and collective recoveries, we have learned that mental illness and addiction are family diseases, spanning and affecting generations.
“There are robust strains of each on both sides of my family — manifested in just about everything from depression, suicide, alcoholism, and compulsive gambling to incest and suspected murder — and these conditions have shaped my parents’ stories (even if some of the events did not happen directly to them) as well as my sister’s and my own.”
Gwyneth Paltrow said she was in the throes of despair for a really long time after the death of her father. But she said it also gave her strength and made her realize that, “Wait a minute, nobody is ever going to be able to take away my problems…it has to be me. I mean, I have to love myself more than anybody else. I have to take care of myself, and I have to find the answer.”
[From interview: Amanda de Cadenet and Gwyneth Paltrow on Fathers, by Amanda de Cadenet.]
Actors who have been suffered from being bullied in school include Zooey Deschanel, Lily Cole, and Viola Davis.
Lady Gaga was bullied, even thrown into a trash can. She said, “I was called really horrible, profane names very loudly in front of huge crowds of people, and my schoolwork suffered at one point. I didn’t want to go to class. And I was a straight-A student, so there was a certain point in my high school years where I just couldn’t even focus on class because I was so embarrassed all the time.
“I was so ashamed of who I was.”
James Dean reportedly once told Elizabeth Taylor that he was sexually abused by a minister two years after his mother’s death.
Shia Labeouf started acting at age 12 to support his mother when his heroin-addicted father abandoned the family. LaBeouf has said he was subjected to verbal and mental abuse by his father, who once pointed a gun at him during a Vietnam War flashback.
Musician will.i.am of The Black Eyed Peas often went hungry as a child. He had to leave home at 5 a.m. every day because he went to a school in a ”better” area of Los Angeles than where his family lived and that meant he often missed meals.
Jennifer Lawrence [‘The Hunger Games’ and ‘Silver Linings Playbook’ says she was “a pathological liar as a kid and in elementary school, “I told everyone I had a leg problem and it required a lot of attention, my imaginary leg problem.”
When her mother found out about her lying she made her purge, “and I had to wrap myself up in a blanket and go underneath my bed and I had to spill out all my lies…And now I can’t lie, I get anxiety over it.” [vanityfair.com and other sources]
See more quotes in post: Traumatic Childhood, Creative Adult.
Fame and invasion of space
Alanis Morissette said:
“I still have PTSD from the ‘Jagged Little Pill’ era. It was a profound violation. It felt like every millisecond I was attempting to set a boundary and say no and people were breaking into my hotel rooms and going through my suitcase and pulling my hair and jumping on my car.
“There was a period of time during the ‘Jagged Little Pill’ era where I don’t think I laughed for about two years. It was a survival mode, you know. It was an intense, constant, chronic over-stimulation and invasion of energetic and physical literal space.” [ww.femalefirst.co.uk]
[Also see post: Alanis Morissette: Channeling rage and finding joy in creativity.]
Dealing with fame – or not – comments by Gwyneth Paltrow, Jennifer Lawrence, Sarah Polley, Winona Ryder and others.
Helping recovery from trauma using creative expression
“I think I’ve spent my adult life dealing with the sense of low self-esteem that sort of implanted in me. Somehow I felt not worthy.”
That quote by Halle Berry about being abused as a child by her violent father, who also assaulted her mother, indicates how much impact trauma can have.
She commented about acting in her intense movie “Gothika” (2003):
“Although physically I would feel exhausted and tired, my back would hurt, my arms would hurt and my feet would be raw from running through all the stuff, there was still something about it that felt good, like I had a cathartic experience.
“I got a lot of stuff out of me that was pent up in little corners of myself, so I felt good at the same time.”
Roxanne Chinook is a Native American painter and has found her art helps in healing from the traumas of her past. She said “The process of creating strengthens and restores my spirit, and has rendered me a relationship with the sacred.”
Marlene Azoulai was introduced to Art Therapy while in a psychiatric institution. She had Dissociative Identity Disorder: DID/MPD, formerly known as Multiple Personality Disorder. “I am also bipolar. I do not consider my being a multiple to be a disorder, however. I see it as an elaborate system that my/our psyche devised, in order to deal with severe trauma.”
She quotes Persian poet Rumi: “Be a full bucket, pulled up the dark way of a well, then lifted out into light.” – and comments, “This is what telling the truth means to me.” Her site: sacredmonster.com
[Above two artist quotes from the page Healing & art.]
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Charlize Theron, as a teen, saw her mother shoot her father in self defense.
She said in a 2004 interview that her work has helped her deal with it:
“I think acting has healed me. I get to let it out. I get to say it and feel it in my work and I think that’s why I don’t go through my life walking with this thing, and suffering.”
In a later newspaper interview she added more perspectives: “People want to think that I am this tortured soul, that my work is drawn only from this one well.
“And though I would never sit here and say that it didn’t mark me, or mold me into the person that I am, my life has had many painful journeys and heartbreaks since my father died, many of which I draw on for my work.”
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Many writers express traumatic experiences in their work.
In her novel “The Lovely Bones,” Alice Sebold recounted a disturbing rape scene in great detail, an experience Sebold had personally experienced herself as a young woman.
In her interview article Above and beyond (The Guardian, 23 August 2002), Katharine Viner noted that the director of the movie, Peter Jackson, “chose to omit this section of the book, feeling that the re-enactment of the ordeal would have, not just overwhelmed the film, but been too traumatic a sequence for the young Saoirse Ronan to endure.”
Before the novel, Sebold had published a memoir about her rape, title “Lucky” and Viner comments, “It is understandable that Sebold fights analysis of the parallels between getting over rape in her own life and getting over grief in The Lovely Bones – artists often resist the idea that their work is informed by their experience, fearing it belittles the imagination. The suggestion some have made that The Lovely Bones is ‘working out’ her rape infuriates her.”
“First of all, therapy is for therapy,” said Sebold. “Leave it there. Second, because you’re a rape victim, everyone wants to turn everything you do into something ‘therapeutic’ – oh, I understand, going to the bathroom must be so therapeutic for you!
“After I’d started The Lovely Bones, I decided to break off and write Lucky, to make sure that Susie wasn’t saying everything that I wanted to say about violent crime and rape. OK, there aren’t that many women who come out and say they’ve been raped who also write a novel about violence. But when people discover you’re a rape victim, they decide that’s all you are.”
As part of her recovery from a water-skiing accident and brain surgery, actor and singer Charlotte Gainsbourg [in French something like ‘ganz bur’] was evaluated with MRI scans, which can involve weird mechanical noises up to the intensity of a jet plane taking off.
Her album, developed with Beck, is titled “IRM” – derived from the French for ‘MRI.’
Read more in post: Charlotte Gainsbourg: MRI scans and vulnerability.
When actor Charlotte Rampling was 20 years old, her elder sister Sarah killed herself after giving birth prematurely and losing her child. Rampling was devastated by this loss, which she experienced as an abandonment by her sister. Many years later she made a film in which her character was named Sarah.
SARK (Susan Ariel Rainbow Kennedy) is an artist and bestselling author of fifteen books. She is an acclaimed speaker and teacher, and CEO and founder of Planet SARK, a business that promotes empowered living, and her writings and artwork.
“I’m a survivor of incest. That was a period of seven years and it pretty much, at that point, destroyed my life. Then, from the ages of 14 to 26, I had 250 different jobs because I was trying to figure out what I was supposed to do [with my life].
“During that time period I was also living a very self-destructive life and I wasn’t at all creative in any kind of physically manifested way. At 26 I finally turned to dedicate myself to art and writing, and proceeded for the next ten years to be rejected in every way that you could be.”
She said she knows that art is healing “because of how it heals me and how I see it healing other people every day. Through art, we come alive through the deep connections to our souls and spirits.”
Director Allison Anders made her film “Things Behind the Sun” as a way to deal with her rape.
The late actor Charles Durning killed a German soldier in hand-to-hand combat during World War II. After killing the boy, who may have been 14 or 15, Durning said in an article, he “held him in his arms and wept. He said the memories never left him, even when performing, even when he became, however briefly, someone else.”
“There are many secrets in us, in the depths of our souls, that we don’t want anyone to know about,” he told Parade magazine. “There’s terror and repulsion in us, the terrible spot that we don’t talk about. That place that no one knows about — horrifying things we keep secret. A lot of that is released through acting.”
[From Charles Durning, Prolific Character Actor, Dies at 89, by Robert Berkvist, The New York Times, December 25, 2012.]
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More sensitive – more vulnerable
Being highly sensitive probably increases our vulnerability to anxiety. I’m sure that has been the case for me, and I have had varying degrees of anxiety for most of my life.
Elaine Aron, PhD thinks “high sensitivity increases the impact of all emotionally tinged events, making childhood trauma particularly scarring.” [From the post Elaine Aron on High Sensitivity and the Undervalued Self – about her new book.]
That is a helpful concept, I think: that being highly sensitive increases the potency of any experiences with emotional elements.
In her book The Highly Sensitive Child, Aron notes that some sensitive adolescents may drink and use drugs to try to overcome anxiety or depression through self-medication.
Also see my article Gifted, Talented, Addicted.
But even if anxiety doesn’t get so extreme we feel a need to self-medicate or get professional help, feeling anxious adds to our unease and general discomfort with situations and other people – and ourselves.
Read more in the post Sensitive to anxiety on my Highly Sensitive site.
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“Things can happen to you, but they don’t have to happen to your soul.”
Jennifer Lawrence [imdb.com]
Photo: Jennifer Lawrence as Tiffany, and Bradley Cooper as her bipolar friend Pat, rehearsing for their dance competition in “Silver Linings Playbook” – a wonderful, nuanced movie about, among other things, people using therapy, medication, creativity and positive attitudes to deal with their traumas and mental health problems.
You can get the DVD on Amazon.com.
Read comments about the author of the novel Matthew Quick in my post
Can Depression Help People Be More Creative? Part 2.
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Frozen from trauma
Director Elgin James writes about being invited to Sundance Institute for their screenwriter and director labs. His movie “Little Birds” premiered at the film festival.
He had learned violence as a way to cope with being attacked by his father as a boy, and explains: “The world only stopped kicking me when I started kicking back harder, my father only stopped hitting me when I raised my fist in response.
“But, having experienced violence in his youth himself, [Robert Redford talked to me and] broke down that negativity and rage.
“But it was love and compassion, learned specifically from my mother, that had gotten me to the labs. And those were the traits that would make me a better artist.”
He writes of his childhood: “I’d grown up terrified of the world. Nights spent curled in a ball trying to disappear in the crack between my bed and the wall while my mother screamed for my father to stop.
“The worst thing about a 7-year-old being punched by a grown man is that you become emotionally frozen at that age. Whatever suffering you go on to inflict as an adult feels justified because of what you endured.”
Getting past pain to be more creative
In her article Affect Regulation and the Creative Artist, psychologist Cheryl Arutt writes that “Many creative people carry the belief that their pain is the locus of their creativity, and worry that they will lose their creativity if they work through their inner conflicts or let go of suffering.
“Learning how to regulate internal states, how and when to use self-soothing techniques, and how to know when we are actually safe — these are key to emotional well-being for anyone, but for artists, they are especially useful.
“The ability to self-regulate provides an all-access pass for traveling the internal world, allowing the artist to mine for the gems that can be found there . . . without losing touch with the light of day.”
Also hear audio interview and read more in post:
Psychologist Cheryl Arutt on Mental Health and Creative People.
On her site www.drcherylarutt.com she says, “My understanding of recovery involves more than learning how to function again after a trauma, but also extends to regaining the capacity to be present, feel safe, and learn to better understand and regulate your responses to perceived danger in the present.”
TEDx video – Cheryl Arutt, PsyD – That Good Feeling of Control
‘This talk explores self-regulation as the basis for mental health, how trauma disrupts this, and ways new technology and discoveries are creating exciting opportunities to teach, learn and treasure what one self-regulation pioneer referred to as “that good feeling of control.”‘
“Curing is the work of experts, but strengthening the life in one another is the work of human beings… Sometimes the deepest healing comes from the natural fit between two wounded people’s lives.” …
“At the deepest level, the creative process and the healing process arise from a single source. When you are an artist, you are a healer; a wordless trust of the same mystery is the foundation of your work and its integrity.”
- Rachel Naomi Remen, MD, holistic health physician and author of books including Kitchen Table Wisdom.
Michele Rosenthal, a survivor of a horrific medical trauma as a teenager, and struggled with PTSD for over twenty-five years.
But today she “joyfully lives 100% free of PTSD symptoms.”
You can hear her inspiring and informational podcast “How to Access Your Healing Potential: Taking Control of Your Path to Recovery” by purchasing the package of recordings by the Mental Health Telesummit, which includes a number of other speakers on healing.
I was a guest on the show, in the episode Creativity & Trauma: A Powerful Combination.
Here is a brief excerpt. Follow link above to hear the full length program.
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Trauma in fiction
In her article 3 Things To Learn From The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – A Gifted Trauma Survivor, Lisa Erickson, MS, LMHC writes about Lisbeth Salander – the fictional heroine of Steig Larsson’s trilogy The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.
“As the heroine, Lisbeth Salander embodies certain characteristics of giftedness, and these characteristics help her survive terrible, long-term physical, sexual and emotional abuse…
“Lisbeth Salander survives traumas that might lead to addiction or the suicide of a less resilient character. Giftedness contributes to her resiliency by aiding her problem solving, which increases her ability to cope.”
Emotional Health Resources: Programs, books, articles and sites to improve your emotional balance and wellbeing for a better creative life.
The Mental Health Telesummit MP3 recordings package.
The 12 Mental Health Experts:
Neseret Bemient / Darlene Barriere / Eric Maisel /Robert Burney
Andy Behrman / Karuna Cayton / Maggie Reese / Cathy Taughinbaugh
Thomas Sterner / Andrea Paquette / Michele Rosenthal / Sophie Skover
Host Neseret Bemient:
“Our speakers have done the work necessary to heal their own lives. They KNOW what it takes to Heal and Return to Wholeness. They are absolutely passionate about sharing with you the real scoop on how they did it and how you can do the same!”
Other, shorter versions of this article – titled “Creative People and Trauma” :
Slideshare presentation – with audio narration
Scribd document – PDF – read online or download
Joomag interactive – desktop and mobile
More related articles
> Also see a number of articles listed in the comments below.