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Emerging Artist Natalie Linn

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.

Sketchbook Drawings by Natalie Linn

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.

Sketchbook Drawings by Natalie Linn

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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8 responses on "OCD, Art, and Trees"

  1. I love that you’ve written this. It’s so relatable, like a nod from one artist to another that we have this special tool that can ease struggle and nurture our mental well-being. While I am not sure about the link between drawing and OCD specifically, I do know that drawing can be an amazing tool for unwinding acute anxiety. There’s a meditative tool that some therapists offer for fending off panic attacks where you try to label every item and every single one of its individual qualities in the environment that you are currently in. I find drawing a visual parallel to this technique. Your mind is so busy observing visual relationships that it eventually lets go of the panic button. It’s not perfect, but it does seem to help!

    • This is a SUPER LATE reply, but oh my gosh, you’re so right! I’ve actually been told by my therapist to count/list the items in my immediate surroundings when I’m feeling really anxious or detached…the connection between that method and observational drawing strikes me as interesting (and emotionally poignant in a way I’m not sure I understand yet). It’s definitely a topic I’d like to bring up with my friends and colleagues. Thank you so much for commenting!!

  2. Wow, thank you for writing this and sharing! It’s incredible to see how your verbal descriptions of trees, and your fear of them, translated visually in your sketches. They’re incredible, and so specific.

  3. 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!

    • Thank you so much! I’m really happy that that came across! Sorry for the late reply–I really appreciate you commenting.
      I’m sorry that you have a family history of OCD; it can be really hard when people you know and love struggle with this disorder. There’s just so much anxiety, and sometimes there’s not a lot you can really do to help…
      Sending good vibes your way!!

  4. 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!

    • Oh my gosh, I’m so honored to be compared to David Sedaris!! Thank you so much! And art is amazingly helpful in that regard; I feel really lucky to have it as an outlet for my anxiety. I’m so glad you liked the column!

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