Asking for help looks differently for many people. Sometimes the cries for help are screams, other times they are subtle, but regardless of the volume, the cry is there.

I participated in the Something For Everyone Market in December. I met a lot of people looking for a way to express their life stories and life transitions in a healthy, fun and creative way.

With the people at the market, I shared my visual journals from the beginning of my journey to now. I showed them how visual journaling has helped me through a lot of hard times and that the pages are not always beautiful or technically perfect, and they aren’t always about being creative and making art.

The most powerful encounters for me were with two teenagers. Over the two days at The Something For Everyone Market, one beautiful teenager kept returning to my booth to look through my visual journals and my art. She didn’t say a word to me, but kept returning, leafing through my journals. She reminded me of me, a quiet teenager, interested in learning, but too shy to initiate conversation.

It appeared from the outside that she had it all, long straight blonde beautiful hair, and she was tall and thin, had a clear complexion. However, she lacked the confidence to initiate a conversation. When I tried, she closed up the journal and left. When I was painting at my booth or when it got busy, and I wasn’t paying attention to her, she came back to look some more.

The other teenager, stood at my booth for a very long time staring at my art, at the closed journals and at my display. I encouraged her to take a peek into my journals. I left her alone for quite sometime looking through my journals, then I walked over to her and she said to me,”I think this is what I need. I suffer from mental health issues and I think this would be good for me.”

I told her it is a perfect way to work through problems. I told her about my struggles with the winter blues that used to hit me hard in January of each year. I told her that since I started visual journaling, I haven’t experienced the blues.

I showed her my ugly pages where I journaled my thoughts and feelings and then covered up parts or exposed parts to help reveal what I was going through or what I needed to get through what I was experiencing when I was experiencing troubles in other areas of my life. I explained it was a way of letting go, seeing what was really bothering me and then moving forward in a positive manner.

Now this girl was quite opposite of the first girl. She slouched, her hair not perfectly straightened, her appearance screamed a lack of confidence and “coolness” that the other teenager had, but she had the confidence to admit to a complete stranger that she was going through some hard times and was reaching out.

To me, in their own way, they both seemed to be reaching out.

What I am getting at is this, be aware that appearances are very deceiving. There is a reason someone is shy. There is a reason why your child confides in a complete stranger. In their own way, they are telling you they need something.

At my booth, I learned that two teenagers lately have committed suicide, and everything seemed okay and ended not okay.

Introducing your teenager to visual journaling could be a way to save their lives. It is a healthy way to express thoughts, feelings, ideas, new learning or revelations, problems, and successes.

Instead of grabbing a needle, a razor blade, a bottle of booze, pills, a cell phone, they can grab a pen or paint brush and express all of the things they are experiencing as they transition from one stage of their lives to another, so they actually can transition from one stage of their lives to the next!

I am not a therapist, but I do know personally how visual journaling has helped me through many rough times. When I got my feelings out of me and onto the page, I felt a sense of relief and things didn’t seem so bad. My visual journal is my friend. It doesn’t judge me or give me advice, it is always there for me and never is too busy for me. It never gives me excuses that something has come up and it never lets me down.

I decided after the market, that I wanted to work with teenagers. It is such a hard time of change moving from being a child towards being an adult. As a teacher, I have seen way too many times the negative ways teens try to move through this transition, and I know that visual journaling is a positive way with handling difficult transitions.

The universe must have listened, I received a phone call from a caregiver. She felt that the girl she worked with and her shy daughter would benefit from visual journaling. Let me tell you the results. My first Visual Journaling Sessions for Teens just ended.

One of the teens arrived on the first night all anxious with a stress tool, a spongy coffee cup, that she would squeeze when she felt anxious about unfamiliar experiences or new people. She squeezed it at the beginning, but once she started creating, she put it down and didn’t touch it again until her caregiver came to pick her up.

As the teens were creating, I asked the teens to think of the prompt, I am. The one teen wrote over top of her darkly painted background surrounded with a snowflake, and very quickly drawn, misshapen hearts, “I am depression.”

On her second equally dark painted page she wrote in stars the words broken, unfixable, no hope, anxiety… she felt her life was written in the stars, and there was no changing it.

She told me she was an anxious person who also suffered from depression, and that she breaks out in hives when she is anxious. She said that she feels shy and doesn’t talk much about her problems or feelings because she doesn’t feel people will understand her. To me, she seemed to be the opposite of that. She talked the entire night, revealing family heartbreaks and experiences.

We talked about letting go, forgiveness, celebrating the positive things and I used metaphors like the rear view mirror is small to only spend a little time looking back and the windshield is large to help us look forward.

We also talked about how important it is to release in positive ways such as visual journaling, talking to people who you trust and not holding in unpleasant memories and feelings, because it makes our bodies feel unwell. She said she used to go to therapy, but therapy doesn’t work for her. She was broken and she was okay with that. We talked about not allowing other people’s bad choices determine who we are, that things happen through us, not to us, and if we allow other’s bad choices to determine who we are, we will never have peace, happiness…

I gave her a small visual journal to take home. She wanted to turn it into a flip book, showing a broken heart with stitches and band aides and then show the heart healing, then at the end show a healed heart, but with scars.

The second night she arrived with that same stress tool, but didn’t use it at all. She said she had found her second happy place. The first place was at her grandma’s place in her tree hanging upside down and being with her dog. The second place was Thursday night at my studio, making art, eating popcorn and drinking pop. She even wore her popcorn and pop socks.

She was disregulated though and couldn’t settle to get started, so I tried having her play a drawing game I call Predator and Prey, but she wouldn’t even try. She watched the other teen and I, and did discuss the benefits of this type of activity, focusing our minds, forgetting about what is bothering us, to help us move forward and try new things.

In her visual journal, she wrote words like love, hope, peace, positive words. When her caregiver arrived, the night ended with the teen sharing a song she wrote about being broken and holding everything that happened to her in. I felt honoured that she trusted me enough to sing her very personal song to me after only one night of art lessons. She had tears running down her cheek. She said she had never shared her song with her dad. We encouraged her to do this. She left smiling and gave me a hug.

I asked the teens what they would like to work on, and they both said faces. One said manga faces, the other regular faces. I practiced different faces that week.

The third week she brought another song and said that she had shared her song with her dad. He asked her why she had never shared her songs with him. She wouldn’t even try to draw the faces, she said they were too hard, so I simplified the faces and she tried a few. I encouraged her to try a game where we roll a die to make creative Picasso faces, and she refused. Instead, we worked on drawing hearts. She seemed to be afraid of making mistakes and I had to draw things for her to trace or have tracers for her to use. She traced a giant heart and we worked on drawing band aids and stitches.

The forth week, she brought her entire scribbler of songs for me to read. She asked me to carve my name into the front cover of her book. This week her goal was to draw another heart that was healing, it no longer had stitches but still a bandage.

The fifth week, she brought the first sound she sang for us and ripped it up as a way of letting go. She glued her broken pieces into her journal surrounding her healing heart. Again, she sang a song. She said she was looking forward to the weekend because her dad was going to be home from work, and they were going to discuss coming back for more visual journaling art lessons.

The final week, she arrived with tears strolling down her face. She had an argument with her stepmom and almost got grounded. Her caregiver and I talked to her about anger and letting go, and moving on. She dried her tears, we got her laughing, and surprisingly, she did move forward. She showed me that she wore her popcorn and pop socks again to celebrate her time with me at my studio. To regulate herself, she made both me and the other teen a loop ring, while we were setting up for the next visual journaling page.

She drew another heart. We took actual band aides and she adhered them to her heart. She added words like almost healed. She took another piece of paper and wrote almost healed and covered up her front page that said, “I am depression.” On the back cover of her journal, she wrote all positive words almost healed, peace, love… She sadly announced that her dad said she couldn’t come back for more lessons because he couldn’t afford them. 

If she can one day re-attend, her next visual journaling goals are, with my help, to draw a heart with wings and a scar to show that she was healed but there is still hurt, and draw the nightmares she has on so many nights.

At the end of the last session, she shared another song of hers, this time it was about letting go, and not holding feelings in and not letting the actions of others hold her back. She gave me a big hug, she spread her wings and off she flew.

In just six weeks, there was a transformation, less negative talk, more positive risk taking, less anxiety, openness to share, listen and learn, words of hope and moving forward. The teen said that her teachers at school had noticed a change in her confidence and anxiety level. She was feeling more brave and positive. I was very sad to hear that she wouldn’t be returning. She wasn’t the only one who looked forward to our evenings of visual journaling together.

I wondered, what else is possible for this teen? My husband suggested that I look for sponsors. As a community, we sponsor children to play sports, why not sponsor teens and other children in need for art? 

Do you know anyone who would be interested in sponsoring her and other teens or children who will greatly benefit from visual journaling? If so, please share this and let me know if you or others will help. You will be helping them to express their life stories and life transitions, thus helping them to live a happier, healthier and creative life.

Renee Dowling, Reflections Art Studio and Community Classroom, 403-952-9475, [email protected]

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