Art Therapy: Symbols, Socks, and Suicide

Socks? Yes, Socks, and Some Aliens

Aliens in Art - Oil on Masonite by Ryan, 2001

How long have you owned a pair of socks?  I remember almost every sock I’ve ever purchased, and I have had most of my socks for more than 10 years.   

Following a fire alarm at lunch, I found myself back home on my balcony. The sky was ominous, a super cell thunderstorm was forming overhead.  Off to the northeast there were tornadoes, perfectly formed, and traveling west, part of a smaller cell. They were off in the distance. For once, finally, they were off in the distance. Small, unthreatening.

As I turned my attention back to the storm cell overhead which had grown darker.  I noticed a shape, slowly emerging downward out of the dark clouds.  A large square, metallic gray, with lights in a grid, spread across it’s underside, it’s sides rising up only about 1/16 the width of it.  In an instant, it went from slowly moving downward to falling at maximum velocity into the park below.  It was massive and made a huge hole.  Now I was looking down on it, and it looked almost like a metal silverware tray, open at the top.   I felt pensive, but not fearful. My uneasiness waned immediately when I saw a being, human like and female, gliding up toward me as though she were on an invisible escalator.  When she arrived on my balcony, I greeted her with a hello and she returned the salutation. 

“Don’t worry, he’ll be up in a minute,” she said to me and I nodded.  Sure enough, a few moments later, ‘he’ came gliding up the same as she had. I gave them a pair of shoes and we agreed to meet for dinner before they vanished.

It's been a long time since I've had an alien dream, and I’ve never had a dream where the tornadoes were not an imminent threat to my life.

When I was very young, my mother made me a pillow case that said "Bedtime is the Pits." She knew that I hated going to sleep.   When I went to bed at night, I would pray to God that I would have good dreams instead of the endless night terrors I had grown accustomed to.  As afternoon would turn to evening, anxiety would set in as I knew I would have to go to sleep again soon.

When I was a teenager, I would return in waking life to the setting of the only good dream I could remember from childhood, a dream that I had many times over the course of a few months when I was 5 or 6 years old.  A few miles outside of the town I grew up in was an area called Saffel Canyon, and on the backside of the canyon it opened up into a bit of a valley and there was a wash that ran down toward the south eastern part of town.  I would sit there on the side of the wash, near a lone scrubby piñonin the exact place I had stood years ago in dreams, trying desperately to remember something important. 

In my memories now, 25+ years later, I can still picture the most minute details of those dreams that had played repeatedly for weeks in my slumbering mind. I remember the color of the sky, the rocks in the sides of the wash, the southwesterly breeze; everything about my surroundings.  There is only one detail that eludes me, and has since I was a child.

In my dreams, I was alone except for the aliens that stood on the opposite bank.  They were there to teach me.  The lessons were simple, and all I had to do was remember.  From somewhere in front of the aliens, in midair, symbols would form, then float up in different sequences above the middle of the wash to form different patterns. 

My task was to remember the symbols, of which there were seven.  If I remembered the symbols, and then placed them in the right patterns in my mind’s eye, I would have the ability to control any electronic device.  Thankfully the aliens were kind enough to bring along a top loading VCR for my practice.  It only took a couple of tries for me to envision the symbols and the pattern properly for the VCR to pop it’s drawer open so I could take the tape out.  

The purple pin is where I sat, trying to remember.

One day the aliens stopped visiting me in my dreams and I returned to the usual nightmares.  I was sure I had done something to upset them. Worst of all, when they left, they blurred my memory, but the only part they blurred was the symbols.  I was devastated.

In the early winter months of 2001, I was deeply depressed.  It was my first experience with New England winter, and I was crashing down off the high of spontaneously moving across the country.  Short, dreary, cold days seemed to drag on forever.  I would drive to work in the dark of morning and return home from work in the dark of the afternoon.  My roommate was an artist, and so I followed his lead and started painting with him in the basement. There was no heat in the basement. It was damp and frigid, single light bulbs shining bleakly from their random fixtures tacked onto the joists supporting the floor above. This was our place to be depressed together, to create together, to fight our minds. He was lamenting the end of a relationship, I was questioning my existence.  

I say painting, but in reality, I moved colors around on masonite boards with my fingers.  Oil paint is the best for finger painting because it’s gloopy and malleable, like clay.  As I moved the colors around, the dreams of my childhood flooded back to me, and I remembered that I couldn’t remember the symbols from my dreams.  I thought perhaps they were still stored somewhere in my head, and maybe, just maybe, they would come out through my fingers into the paint.  My emotional self was still a child, wondering why the symbols were taken from me.

The winter days dragged on, and slowly, all of my clothes took on the palette of colors that I was pushing around on the masonite.  I was immersed in the paintings, and in my depression.  I was hoping for a breakthrough that never came.  Instead came the news via a phone call that one of my best friends from childhood was dead.  It was not confirmed if it was murder or suicide.  Maybe some drugs had been involved.  Maybe someone was to blame.  I decided that whether she took her own life or someone else had done the deed, it was murder.  

Murder for Money - Mixed media by Ryan, 2001

I started remembering socks when my friend died.  I was on my way home from work when I got the call that she was dead.  I went to the basement, kicked off my shoes and started throwing paint, broken glass, and anything that I could find onto an old serving tray that I had gotten from work.  I was frantic.  I created a scenario in my head of my friend’s last moments.  I broke more glass.  I ripped up the money in my wallet.  I cried while I threw the money and glass at the tray.  I called that tray Murder for Money.  It seemed fitting at the time.

My socks soaked up some of the splatters of lavender paint that hit the floor that night.  Each time I put those socks on, usually about 3 times a year now, I remember my friend.  I remember that day.  The memories are no longer as painful, and when I wear those socks, I remember my childhood, and the bright spot that my friend was to me, in an otherwise horrible life.  I remember riding bikes together.  I remember laughing together, and I remember her moving out of the neighborhood, and being alone again.

Ryan - Age 18 - 2001

I felt guilty for having such an emotional response to my friend’s death.  It had been such a long time since we’d been close that surely it was other people in her life that should get the right to be devastated, but not me.  I was spiraling deeper into depression. My emotional self was still a child, reeling from loss and not understanding my reactions.

My roommate became certain that I was also on the brink of ending my own life, and looking back, I think he was right to be concerned.  One day he left for work thinking that it was the day I was going to die.  In preparing himself for finding me dead, he stopped on his way home and picked up a baby book and a piece of driftwood. Maybe he was going to place them on my grave or something.  We never figured that part out, but finding that I wasn’t dead, it became quite funny that he chose those things to steel himself against the horror of finding my body.  The baby book still doesn’t have anything written in it, but the driftwood became a canvas for a carved staircase of clay.  The staircase I carved into the clay was the staircase I was giving to my friend for her climb to heaven.

As winter turned to spring, we painted, sculpted, drank wine, smoked cigarettes, and sang songs from RENT and Dave Matthews.  The gloom lifted into glorious summer.  The cold dampness of the basement became warm dampness, and I stopped painting.  Most of the paintings molded and were thrown away.  Another depression cycle had passed, and life moved on, leaving just these few blurry pictures as reminders of that time.  In that time, I felt as though I had nothing to live for.  As I look back now, I see a wonderful time of creativity, learning, and growth.