How one artist helped bring healing to herself and a community struggling with addiction
Visual artist Swoon shares her experience growing up with trauma in her family and how that led her to help those affected by the opioid crisis in Philadelphia.
People are dying on the streets every day from repercussions of things that happened to them as children. We call it the opioid crisis, but I believe opiates are just an unsustainable and dangerous balm for a pain that, given the chance, can be healed. In other words, people in cities all over our country are dying by the hundreds — and they are dying of a treatable ailment.
Why some people get addicted to opiates while others do not is a question that haunts many of us. During my time working with a population of people who were living homeless and addicted to opiates on the street in Kensington, a neighborhood in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, I learned many things. But one thing was totally clear to me: Every single person that I spoke to, without exception, had suffered a history of severe childhood trauma.
Physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, neglect and abandonment all deregulate the nervous system. They create a situation where the person who has suffered these things can’t feel calm, can’t focus, can’t sleep, and may not ever feel comfortable inside their own body. Many people I spoke to feel constantly anxious in ways they couldn’t even describe. When you’ve been anxious since you were four-years-old, how do you tell the difference between anxiety and calm? Some people will answer this question by saying that the only reason they understand the difference is because the first time they ever felt calm or comfortable in their life was the first time they shot heroin.
My mother was one of those people, and living through her struggle was what brought me to Kensington in 2017 to work with an organization called Mural Arts. The nonprofit partnered with Philadelphia’s Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services to create the Porch Light program. Part of this program includes the Kensington Storefront, located in ground zero of the city’s opiate crisis.
Until I was about 35, I hated my mother for her addiction. I believed that she was a selfish junky who had consistently made the wrong choices out of a basic lack of love for herself and her children. In my family, everyone just shrugged and blamed it on “bad genes.”
Then one day I picked up a book by a doctor named Gabor Mate that changed my life. Dr. Mate compassionately illuminated the link between severe addiction and trauma, and when I studied the literature on trauma, my whole family stood out to me in living color. We were a puzzle that suddenly began making sense. Depression, dissociative mental disorders, drug addiction, all of these are ways that the psyche tries to cope with unhealed pain. I felt as though some armor had been ripped away from me. How could I hate someone for being in pain?
Once I understood this truth, my family started opening up to me about the trauma they had suffered. I learned about histories of sexual, emotional, and physical abuse that no one had ever talked about before, because no one had ever asked, and because they had remained hidden in the shrouds of familial shame and secrecy.
Both of my parents passed away shortly after this awakening, and so they were never able to connect with healing. But through this process of uncovering, I realized that I, too, had suffered trauma as a result of growing up amidst addiction. I began to look for ways to heal myself. While I never had a substance addiction, my life bore scars, and I suffered many symptoms and out-of-control behaviors. I turned to a variety of methods to try and heal myself. I’ve worked with talk therapy, EMDR, and psychedelics-assisted psychotherapy, alongside my lifelong history of healing myself through art. Through these therapeutic processes I’ve accessed deep stores of repressed trauma and have found a level of healing I never expected to find — the kind of healing that shows up through changed behavior and a changed life.
Through my personal experience and through a growing body of research, I believe that the people I worked with in Kensington are dying of a treatable ailment. They are dying because they have never received the help they needed, and they are trying to self-medicate the pain of a damaged nervous system. They are dying because the means that are available to them to treat the pain they suffer from are incredibly dangerous.
To offer healing to these folks would take comprehensive efforts. It would take deeply skilled and sympathetic therapists and social workers. It would take live-in facilities and a strong supportive community. It would take trained practitioners with access to cutting-edge and experimental therapies. Above all, it would take a radical revisioning of how we see addiction. From how many resources we are willing to provide to help people recover to how we will help people make contact with themselves again so that they can access their own innate ability to heal.
In its unlikely way, Mural Arts is showing us a tiny window into what this world could look like. They’ve opened a storefront on a street that is plagued by the crisis of homelessness and addiction. In that storefront, they teach art. It’s not a rehab center, it’s not a methadone clinic, it’s not a church. It’s just a clean well-lit place for people to come in, sit down, and get involved in something creative.
During my time at Mural Arts, my collaborators Jess Radovich, Julian Mocine-McQueen, Heather Box, and I did storytelling work with folks that came in off the street, we helped people make gifts for kids and loved ones, we led song circles, we created drawing exercises that were aimed at helping people visualize their own indestructible core, and we even had a manicure day where people could get a chance to feel clean and cared for.
The Mural Arts Kensington Storefront is a space where traumatized and addicted people can develop trust in the fact that there are others in the world who would genuinely like to help them. This trust is truly a first step. The regular staff at the storefront have found that after spending a few weeks or a few months connecting with their creativity and with each other, people are often ready to look for a rehab facility and to try to get clean. What Mural Arts is doing isn’t a solution in and of itself, but it is a node in what could become a web of safety that could nurse people back to wellness.
This is a public health crisis that no one vaccine or pill is going to cure. Complex as it is, deep in my heart, I hold out hope that one day we’ll say, “You know, unhealed trauma used to be a thing that could drive people to their deaths, but we’ve learned to take care of each other now.”