Mental Health Education Scholarship 2020 Round 2 – The Alien and the Ax of Art
Name: Frances Heightchew-Howard
From: Tucson, AZ
The Alien and the Ax of Art
The Alien and the Ax of Art
As I write, the walls surrounding me have seen me at my lowest. I wonder if they are as astonished as I am to see me alive, happy, and healthy, heading to college to become an art therapist. Soon, I will be saying goodbye to this room. In time I will be entering new rooms where others are experiencing their own lows, and work with them to find what can pull them out.
I hit rock bottom my sophomore year of high school. A series of traumatic events led me down the path of anorexia, one I soon discovered was intertwined with my DNA, as generations of my family before me had traversed this rocky slope. My brain was tightly wrapped in nutrition labels. I could not tell how blatantly obvious my illness was to everyone around me. As time went on the lack of nutrition made my thoughts and actions became more and more irrational. I refused to eat what others were eating. I ate alone, only eating food that I deemed ¨healthy¨, and measured precisely. I excessively exercised while I could, but soon I could barely get out of bed. My vision became strange as bits of white and black encapsulated my vision. I saw tears in people’s eyes when they looked at me. I thought I would feel good, that when I lost weight I would look more androgynous and would find harmony in my trans body. When I looked in the mirror at my bare body the word on my tongue was ¨alien.¨
One day my step-dad took me to the store with him. He bought me a doll I showed him. It had perfumed hair and smelled just like a toy I had when I was small. We started driving to our friend’s house who we were pet sitting for. I walked into the living room and my oldest brother and my mom were on the couch, pensive, papers in laps. My stepdad sat down beside them. I realized what was about to happen. I ran to the bathroom, panicking and sobbing. A combination of guilt and regret filled me. Regret that I had hurt my family, that they had found out. My older brother called my stepmom and my dad from Colorado and I cried while they read letters to me. This memory remains blurry, but I did agree to get help. I performed at my last drag show before leaving for treatment. I was painted green and had antennae. I performed to ¨Space Oddity¨ by David Bowie.1
I was terrified that day I entered the treatment facility. I was immediately placed in a wheelchair. I held onto my stuffed bear while the adults talked about me. I felt so much younger than I was. They wanted to take me off of my gender-affirming hormones. I was under attack on the very first day I was there. I hugged my mom and my step-dad goodbye. I committed to getting better. I was quiet. I had never been quiet before. My anorexia made me quiet. From the beginning, I knew I had to get better. I ate every meal. I worked every day to defeat my eating disorder. I got loud. Throughout my treatment, I was misgendered, asked by faculty if they could call me he instead of they because it was ‘too difficult’. I said no. I got louder. One staff member tried to take my gender affirming undergarments away. She said that they weren’t allowed. I threatened to stop eating. She left me alone.
I was one of the many trans people I saw come and go from the treatment center, all mistreated. Multiple of the chefs, who also identified as queer, offered resources to the staff and asked them to get proper training. They didn’t. A study done in 2015 by the Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine (Harvey, 2019) showed that trans people are more likely to be diagnosed with an eating disorder than cisgender men and women. The healthcare disparities trans people face, despite being at high risk for many issues, is something I am determined to change.
All of the people with me in treatment were also creative. We would spend our free time together at a big table drawing, and I did people’s makeup. I knew it was a skill that could be used therapeutically. There was an art therapist there and my time with her helped me heal substantially. This was when I realized I wanted to be an art therapist. Art allows people to share their subconscious where words fail. I love people who have taken their own lives. They were never able to pull their issues up by the root. I am dedicating my life to help people who can’t express their feelings through words do so through art. In my practice, I will explore the world of performance art as therapy to heal others in the way it has helped heal me. I know the power of performance. I felt it that day I performed as an alien while I explored the way I felt and finally began to open the door of healing. I have taught a workshop (Workshop, 2019), been interviewed (McCarville, 2019) on the subject, and have worked with young people on therapeutic performance pieces through the School of Drag (Burke, 2019) I helped create. I believe deeply in the cathartic power of performing.
Today I am two years into my recovery. My art has morphed. Colors have become brighter. In the words of the artist Yayoi Kusama, who has used art as therapy for decades,
¨Every time I have had a problem, I have confronted it with the ax of art¨ (Kusama, n.d.).
Bowie, D. (1969). Space Oddity. [Recorded by David Bowie]. On David Bowie.
London, UK: Phillips.
Burke, E. (2019, February 21). School of Drag. Retrieved November 30, 2020, from
Drag as Therapy Workshop. (2019, October 26). Retrieved November 31, 2020, from
Harvey, R (2019, March). .Eating Disorders Do Not Discriminate: Trans Teens Face
Greater Risk – PR News. Retrieved November 30, 2020, from
McCarville, E. (2019, October 22). Q&A with Piranha: More to drag than racing. Retrieved
November 30, 2020, from
Rockefeller, Hall W. (2020, August 29). Biography of Yayoi Kusama, Japanese Artist.
Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/biography-of-yayoi-kusama-4842524