Wednesday, Jan 11 2012 04:50 PM

Art therapy: 'Healing from inside out'

BY CAMILLE GAVIN Contributing writer

On some days when she was very young, Bakersfield native Lia Mendez's panic attacks kept her from attending school. Despite having supportive parents who took her to counselors and other therapists, she often was too scared to leave the safety of her home.

"I had a severe anxiety disorder from about the time I was 5," Mendez said in a phone conversation. "By the time I was 8 or 9 it had really started interfering with my functioning."

But by the time she was in her teens, she had discovered creative ways to overcome the disorder.

Now, at 26, Mendez is using her personal experience to help others find more joy in their lives. She has designed a series of free workshops for the Art for Healing program at Mercy Hospital. The first one, "Blissing Out and Tuning In," will be held on Tuesday.

"It's about reconnecting to the wisdom in our guts," she said. "It's about healing from the inside out."

A major objective of the sessions is to explore ways of dealing with stress and other emotional roadblocks by losing yourself in the creative process. To achieve this Mendez uses various exercises such as visualization, working with clay, paint, collage and journaling.

"It's not for artists, it's just to play," she said. "You don't have to be technically skilled at all."

Her personal path to wellness began when she was about 10 and it started with music.

"I got a guitar, learned to play and starting writing my own music and lyrics," she said. "It had a way of numbing out the overpowering symptoms (of anxiety)."

Soon she started to draw and paint and those creative pursuits also took on a therapeutic quality. Mendez did well in school and graduated at 17 from Stockdale High. She went on to UC Irvine, where she earned a degree in literary journalism.

Another important aspect of her life is world travel coupled with teaching.

"During my sophomore year at Irvine I studied in Rome (Italy) and that sparked my love for travel," she said. "It keeps me in the moment; it's very liberating."

In 2008 she taught preschool in Thailand and a few years later spent about 10 months in a small town in Estonia teaching English as a second language to high school students. Currently she's working in the cosmetics department at Lassen's Natural Foods and Vitamins and hopes to save enough money to return to Estonia in June to see her students graduate.

"While I was (in Estonia) I decided I was a country mouse; I definitely appreciate the peace and quiet of a rural environment," she said. "I could walk out of my apartment and within 10 minutes be walking in the woods."

Regarding her upcoming workshops, Mendez said she specializes in facilitating classes aimed at putting people back in touch with their hearts and higher selves.

"Sounds heavy, I know," she said. "But the process is really about adopting a joyous, childlike outlook and abandoning self-judgment."

Although it's not necessary to attend each session, Mendez feels participants will get greater benefit by attending the entire series. She also emphasized that even though Mercy is a Roman Catholic hospital, the Art for Healing program is non-denominational.

The first session will start with a 15-minute introduction by Mendez about what to expect from the series. The second one, "My Life in High-Def," is a two-part workshop scheduled for 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. on Feb. 7 and Feb. 21. The series will conclude with "Behold, the Power of the Doodle," 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. April 3 and April 17.

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