OCD, Art and Trees:
Art as a Tool for Recovery

Natalie Linn
Guest Columnist

I must have been fifteen years old when I developed a fear of trees.

I had no reason to be afraid of trees, just as I had no reason to be afraid of dry grass, or wire, or broken glass, or the lowercase letter “i.”  One day my brain decided I should be afraid of those things, and suddenly I was. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is neither pretty nor rational. It nestles into the brain like a raccoon in an attic and chews holes in all your mental wiring.

“What will happen if you write the letter ‘i?’” my therapist asked me once. 

“Something bad,” I said, because there was never one definitive answer.

OCD gives you rules, but the consequences of disobedience are left darkly ambiguous. What will happen if eight-year-old Natalie doesn’t wave goodbye to her stepfather exactly three times before she walks to school? What will happen if she doesn’t align her stuffed animals on the bed so that they’re all the same width apart? The fear is fueled by the unknown.

In eighth grade, I tensed up at the lowercase letter “i,”but I learned to push passed my discomfort for the sake of my essays. Trees were a different beast altogether. It wasn’t a matter of organization, or patterns. I saw a tree, and I couldn’t unsee the tree. I could turn my attention to the weather, or to my teacher’s lesson plan, but the trees were always there.  The trees were at the back of my brain, ready to spring up and distract me with their gross, alien limbs. If I let them, the trees overtook me, so that all I could think about was their sharp angles and gnarled bark.  

So my therapist told me to draw trees, which was all very paradoxical. I felt a bit like I was stuck in a hole, and someone had thrown down a pencil instead of a rope. I was dubious, but I obliged. I filled my sketchbook with the most scraggly trees I could find on the street.

“Why do you draw so many trees?” my friends asked, as they flicked through my sketchbooks.

“Because I have to,” I’d say.

“But why do you have to?” they’d ask.

“Because I hate them.”

I rarely elaborated on this point, because I valued my reputation as a sane person. I let the neighbors wonder every week, as I clomped outside with my sketchbook, squatted on the sidewalk, and drew a fresh clump of trees. Every night I took my medication, prescribed by my psychiatrist. Slowly, I got better. The medication lowered my anxiety levels. For months, I drew tree after tree, until at last they were demoted from a threat to a mundane chore.

Sometimes I wonder how much of my recovery can be assigned to the medication, and how much to the art. Art can do many things: spread knowledge, challenge systems of power, even normalize the concept of trees. In truth, many things helped pull me out of that hole. My pencil, the medication, my friends and family, music, Sherlock Holmes fan fiction, Warrior Cat roleplay and nearby park swings all contributed to my recovery.

I can laugh about it now: “Once I was afraid of trees!” Back then though, when my OCD was so bad I was scared to bike to school for fear of trees, I felt crazy and alone. I did not pick up my sketchbook one day and cry, “Huzzah! My sanity has been restored.” The climb up was a dirty, difficult business, and the fight’s not over yet. My OCD did not disappear with my fear of trees. I still struggle to write certain words.  I still wince a little when I draw overly sharp angles. The future will bring new challenges and new anxieties. Whatever happens though, I know I’ll have my art to lean on. If not to cure my disorders, I can always rely on my artwork to give me passion and purpose.

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2 responses on "OCD, Art, and Trees"

  1. Profile photo of Casey Roonan

    As someone with a family history of OCD, the struggles you describe in this piece are all too familiar. I’m not sure many people would ever think of a sketchbook as a therapeutic tool, but for me, at least, drawing has always been extremely cathartic – so I found this column very intriguing and even relatable. Plus, your tree drawings are incredible! Looking at your sketches I get an immediate sense of your complicated relationship with this subject. Great work!

  2. Profile photo of Alexander Rowe

    I loved reading this column! Not only is there a great David Sedaris-esque humor to writing about OCD, but it’s such a great conversation that all artist should be having. To anyone living and working with a challenge no one can see, coming to terms with it can be difficult – and I don’t know a single artist or musician in my life who hasn’t used their craft to work out a solution!

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