Category Archives: Writing

Opening Up – Illness, Trauma and Transformation Through Art

Finding meaning and purpose amidst pain, tragedy and loss.

I am an artist and I suffer from Crohn’s Disease; a gastrointestinal disorder. This has resulted in six abdominal surgeries, as well as, the removal of my colon and part of my small intestine. The disease has caused a lifetime of pain and suffering. Art has provided me with the tools to transform that pain and anguish into beauty and healing. Line and color provide a conduit through which I can reach into the deepest part of myself and share the treasures that lie within.

This has been a war — the life or death battles, the inability to process emotion while trying to simply survive — but it is not the war we see on TV, online or in print. It is a much more familiar war, one that takes place in the human heart as we struggle to find meaning and purpose amidst pain, tragedy and loss.

2013-05-24-OpeningUpbyDanielLeighton1000x1364300dpi.jpg

This painting is called Opening Up. It represents a moment in time during the process of transformation. The figure in the painting is exposing himself, opening up his wound and finding beauty and treasure where there had once been pain and agony. He is opening himself up now, whereas in the past he had been opened by others. He is still too vulnerable to look at the viewer, so he looks away as he exposes himself. He wears a mask and a full body suit as an added layer of protection, to boost personal power and offset trauma.

I was first hospitalized in the mid ‘70s, around the age of five. It was a horrifying experience; both because of the procedures I went through and because of the way they were handled by the people who performed them. I felt dehumanized during this experience, because I always knew that if they saw me on a human level, at the level of their heart, they would have handled things differently. Instead, they taped me up, tied me down, and shoved a tube down my throat, leaving me defenseless and completely vulnerable. This was the first in a relentless series of traumas, physical and emotional, medical and otherwise, which still haunt me today.

Trauma occurs when the amount of emotional energy, which is generated from an event, exceeds the amount that is discharged afterward. As a five year old, I did not know what trauma was or what to do with these feelings. Something inside of me did, though, and it ignited a quest to find a way to process what happened and find peace again.

Trauma occurs when the amount of emotional energy, which is generated from an event, exceeds the amount that is discharged afterward.

I decided early on that after everything I had gone through and everything I had to deal with on a daily basis, I refused to be unhappy. After all of the pain and suffering, shame, fear and humiliation, insane choices regarding treatment options and the innumerable challenges I faced, I was determined to make it all mean something. Painting is that something.

I see feelings as images. Before I started painting, I spent a lot of time trying to explain to people (friends, family, therapists) what I was seeing in order to get them to understand what was happening inside of me. That never worked all that well. Eventually I turned to filmmaking. I received a degree in film from UC Berkeley and won a few awards along the way. Though I still love making films, painting has given me a level of artistic satisfaction I had never experienced before.

Several years ago, I experienced a major flare-up of my Crohn’s Disease. My doctors couldn’t explain what or why this was happening and I knew that this was something beyond their scope of treatment. The symptoms were not unfamiliar: diarrhea, spasming in my throat and stomach, piercing headaches, back pains, nausea and fatigue. I started to sketch to express myself and to be able to show some of the people close to me these visions that I had been trying to describe in words for all of these years.

During that time, as difficult and painful as it was, I discovered something wonderful; I drew and I painted and I felt better. Spasms and pain would ease and I was releasing some of the emotional energy that I had held within for so many years. I discovered that I had the ability to portray emotions I had once believed I was all alone with and that people who saw my work, whatever their circumstances, were moved by it. Perhaps most importantly, I could draw and paint for hours on end and I always felt better when I did; I had found my calling.

The piece above was originally published on The Huffington Post

Also posted in Art, Biographical, Crohn's/Ulcerative Colitis, Featured, Health, Inspiring, PTSD Tagged , , |

New Huffington Post Blog: An Artist With Crohn’s Disease Looks Back at Living Without A Colon For 35 Years

First Surgery - A painting by Daniel Leighton

First Surgery (2011) A depiction of what I was like when I was in ICU recovering from that first surgery. My intestine was coming out of my body (I had an ileostomy), along with 5 or 6 tubes.

35 years and 1 week ago today I had my entire colon (large intestine) removed (known as a “colectomy”). I was 11 years old. 6 years earlier I had been diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis.It was the first of what would be 6 surgeries. I had one each at age 11, 12, 13, 14, 17, and 21.

When I had that first operation, part of what we were expecting was that I would be cured. That was the language and thinking used by the medical community and the CCFA (Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America), one of the primary funders of research for Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD, which includes both Ulcerative Colitis and Crohn’s Disease). The idea is that you if you take out the colon, you can’t have Ulcerative Colitis. This didn’t work out for me, though, because when I was 20, I was re-diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease. Even if it did work out I think the word “cure” used in the context of removing your entire colon which alters your life permanently in big and small ways is misleading to patients and their families. To their credit, some, including the CCFA, have stopped calling colectomies cures.

Anyway, when they told me I had Crohn’s, it meant that I was not cured and I thought I was going to have to go through all the horrible things I went through in the first 20 years of my life again and I just really didn’t think I could. So far, it’s turned out that I had one more surgery at age 21 and haven’t had to have one since. I do have number 7 coming up but not for Crohn’s, for a torn rotator cuff. One fear I have about it is that I will get sick again as I did before my last surgery. I was so terrified of having another surgery that I think I stressed myself into sickness because I took a major downturn that began when we finalized the date and ended with the removal of more of my small intestine (some had previously been removed in other surgeries).

Read the rest on Huffington Post

Also posted in Art, Biographical, Crohn's/Ulcerative Colitis, Featured, Health, Inspiring, iPad Art

New Huffington Post Blog: “In the Cave — Going Into Darkness”

In the Cave by Daniel Leighton

In the Cave by Daniel Leighton

“The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure that you seek.” – Joseph Campbell

“The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure that you seek.” – Joseph Campbell

Experiencing pain and loss is part of every human’s experience, but too often we skip over the feelings that come with it. Experiencing those feelings is a way to understand what we have gone through and to learn and grow from it. It is a pathway into the deepest part of ourselves. If we skip over those feelings, we relinquish a critical opportunity to create positive change in our lives.

The painting above is called In the Cave. I’ve had recurring visions of cave scenes for much of my life. I view a cave as a “container” which causes fear and provides protection. On the one hand, there is the fear of collapse, as well as one of the hidden terrors lurking in the dark. But there is also a sense of safety from various threats and invasions, both physical and emotional, that comes from the insulation that a cave can offer from the outside world. Since you are often alone in a cave, you need not worry about causing upset or judgment in others when you express your feelings. I imagine we all feel that need at some point. Having been ill as a child, and having, at times, a tenuous hold on life, I often felt the eyes of those around me were fixated, looking for the slightest indication of which way I was headed. I noticed that the slightest reaction might evoke an intense response from those around me. This feeling became very uncomfortable to live with.

A purple giant releases a primal scream in his cave. It is the only place where he can express himself without having to respond to others’ reactions. He needs to express himself because he knows that if he doesn’t, it will kill him. The energy that he has released through this expression, gathers at the top of the cave. It is a brew of molten, lava-like energy that vacillates between receiving the expression and transmitting protection. In this scene, the angel protects his more fragile parts, his inner child. His expression fuels the protection. Together, they are a more powerful force, moving towards integration.

There are ways in which my illness has been a blessing. Right now, as I am writing this, I am lying in bed because I feel so exhausted. I am nauseous and every cell in my body is oscillating to a shaky, staccato beat that I can’t quite catch up to. This feeling is not fun and is, in fact, sometimes downright depressing. When I am able to let go of my judgment and be present with the feelings, it creates an opening into a deeper part of me. If I can isolate myself from the noise of the world – much of it requests and demands that I can’t possibly meet in my current condition – I can enter that opening and access a level of connection, to myself, that can bring great peace. This is not an easy task to achieve; it takes both training and practice. It takes courage and commitment. You must be willing to face the darkest and most painful parts of yourself. It is can be a long and arduous process, but it is work worth doing because it expands the terrain of our heart and our ability to feel and experience emotional connections to other human beings.

I move in and out of this process. I must dole out the time spent in the darkness, often across days, months, and decades, so that it does not become overwhelming. That’s why my mind stored it away in the first place and I need to respect its wisdom. It’s astonishing how well bodies and minds can recover from severe trauma when they are given the space and support to do so. To whatever extent possible, we must give this to ourselves and those around us.

When I do go into the darkness, I need to constantly monitor myself to make sure I can find my way back; that is when I must let go and simply rest, or get up and tackle some task which feels, as least on this day, like it will require a Herculean effort.

It is a deeply felt life which is not the same as an easy life; far from it in many ways. But it is a richer life and, regardless of any of that, it is the only life that would allow me to, as the great Mahalia Jackson sang, “leave this old world with a satisfied mind.”

The piece above was originally published on The Huffington Post

Also posted in Art, Featured, iPad Art Tagged , |

“Many Faces, One Head”

Many Faces, One Head

Moving through the world, he has taken on many roles. Some of these he’s chosen, some were forced upon him. Now he has come to a place in his life where he can decide for himself which of these he wants to keep and which he wants to discard. At any moment he can choose to step into any of his possible selves and immediately embody all of its attendant traits and characteristics.

Also posted in Art, Featured, iPad Art Tagged |

Go Into The Story: Screenwriting 101: Alvin Sargent

A great quote from a great screenwriter via Go Into The Story my favorite new blog:

“You must write everyday. Free yourself. Free association. An hour alone a day. Blind writing. Write in the dark. Don't think about what it is you're writing. Just put a piece of paper in the typewriter, take your clothes off and go! No destination… pay it no attention… it's pure unconscious exercise. Pages of it. Keep it up until embarrassment disappears. Eliminate resistance. Look at it in the morning. Amazing sometimes. Most of it won't make any sense. But there'll always be a small kernel of truth that relates to what you're working on at the time. You won't even know you created it. It will appear, and it is yours. Pure gold, a product of that pure part of you that does not know how to resist.”

— Alvin Sargent (Paper Moon, Julia, Ordinary People)

Also posted in Quotes