How sketching women is helping me heal from a life of sexual abuse

How sketching women is helping me heal from a life of sexual abuse

At the age of 19, I got into my first serious relationship. It was with a boy who'd been my best friend in middle school, a boy with whom I'd lost touch for three years. But time can build trust, and despite our separation, it was easy for me to fall back into a routine of faith with him.

The relationship began with a playful air. I felt that I could be completely at ease around him. He made me feel loved and supported. He would consistently encourage me in my passions and writing, and he seemed to appreciate our times together.

At Christmas, he gave me a promise ring. He met my family. We would spend time at each other's homes. It was a real relationship, and I—who had been adamant in my stance against jumping into commitment—was firmly bound to a man. It was exhilarating. Euphoric.

I let him take the reins because I doubted myself. He was confident in his know-how in a relationship dynamic, and he'd routinely point out the fact that he'd been in long-term relationships before, an area in which I greatly lacked expertise. My desire in life was to be enough for him. I wanted to be sure I stepped lightly. I would not—could not—become one of the ex-girlfriends he took such pleasure in criticizing.

As time went on, I became isolated from my friends and my family. I was consumed with him, constantly sacrificing my happiness and dignity in the name of being a good partner. He sensed it and eventually began to exercise control over me—in virtually every area of my life.

I blindly went along as he abused me emotionally. As the emotional abuse turned physical. As I sat with a concussion on a doctor's table, staring at my hands.

A couple weeks later, I ended the relationship. But the ties that bind are not easily severed, and I was still contacting and seeing him. He was from my hometown, and the summer consisted of breakdowns and calling him up whenever I became overwhelmed. It was a constant spiral of damage and pain since he never once stopped hurting me.

I'm accustomed to being mistreated by men. I know how to act around a manipulative, intimidating and aggressive man. After all, I grew up with plenty of them. My problem was based, then, on a collective host of problems—an entire childhood’s worth of sour internalization to sort through.

After this experience, I’ve endured nightmares, flashbacks, mood swings, depression, anxiety and extreme alertness. I'm not alone. These unfortunate realities make sense only from a psychological perspective. It's how the human brain reacts to trauma.

According to The Trauma and Attachment Report, if trauma occurs repeatedly or over a prolonged period, cortisol is released far too often, activating the amygdala and causing even more cortisol to be released. It results in the victim's experiencing heightened sympathetic arousal. In other words, the individual is constantly in fight-or-flight response mode.

Post-abuse, one of my main struggles has been finding healthy ways to deal with the constant state of alertness, anxiety and depression.

This semester, I picked up sketching as a means to cope. It was a process, since I never thought I would or could draw. Originally, I'd dabbled in water colors, but I found that I needed to first sketch what I wanted to paint. Sketching has been my peace time. My aching mind slows, and I find my flow while creating—often while listening to music.

The calming effect that sketching and painting has granted me could be attributed to its effects on my cortisol levels. A study from the National Center for Biotechnology Information found that adult participants had lower cortisol levels after a 45-minute period of art-making. It makes sense scientifically.

But I've found a sense of relief in the telling of my own story as I draw.

I sketch minimal nudes of women, usually with added watercolor. It's an odd pick for a subject, objectively. But as I'm sketching a woman’s body—even one with minimal details—I'm beckoning a healthy perspective on my own.

I've been sexually assaulted and physically abused in my life by multiple men.  Naturally, my perspective of my form has become tainted and ugly. I never viewed my anatomy as beautiful or as a complex creation, but rather a fragile tool to be used by men.

While I draw the bodies of women, I rediscover them as complex, beautiful and unique. The amount of time and care I put into creating the line for a something like an ankle—using little to no detail—never fails to astound me. I compare the simple drawings I create to my own, three-dimensional body and became thankful for the time the Master Artist put into designing my frame and my skin.

I’m still no expert. I sketch and paint at least once a week to calm myself when I'm on the verge of another panic attack. Sometimes I need to draw as a means of processing what I'm feeling. It's healing me, day by day.

And I’ve found other ways to cope and work towards becoming whole again.

A good support group is important. I learned to let those I trust know about what I was going through.

Unfortunately, physical and sexual abuse like I’ve experienced is not uncommon. According to global estimates by World Health Organization (WHO), about 1 in 3 women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime.

The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs defines intimate partner violence (in part) as the following:

  • Physical Violence: hitting, pushing, grabbing, biting, choking/strangling, shaking, slapping, kicking, hair-pulling, restraining

  • Sexual violence: attempted or actual sexual contact when the partner does not want to or is unable to consent (for example, when affected by alcohol or illness)

  • Threats of physical or sexual abuse: ways to cause fear through words, looks, actions or weapons

  • Psychological or emotional abuse: name-calling, humiliating, putting you down, keeping you from friends and family, bullying, controlling where you go or what you wear

  • Stalking: following, harassing, or unwanted contact that makes you feel afraid

Additional resources if you or someone you know is in abusive relationship or is dealing with trauma:

The National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE(7233)

The Campus Counseling Center or other counseling resources

If someone attending Lee has abused, harassed or sexually assaulted you, you have options for help on campus.

File a Title IX report:


To those who have been the recipient of abuse, I appeal to you to fight back. Don't let your hurt and pain define you. Don't let your abuser choose your quality of living. Decide on a life of freedom, dignity and health. Get help when you need it, and remember the Great Artist designed you. Your worth is determined by Him and Him alone. I promise you: He thinks you're pretty great. 

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