ST. GEORGE — From the shadows of childhood trauma emerged a man on a mission—to transform pain into purpose. 

Artist and author Michael Guynn shares his story of trauma and triumph inside the St. George News newsroom, St. George, Utah, March 5, 2024 | Photo by Jessi Bang, St. George News

“Art has probably saved my life multiple times,” Michael Guynn said. “It’s directly therapeutic. That’s been the reason I’ve continued to create and share that with other people. There’s always hope, no matter how hard it is. You just have to find a way to express it and find beauty in the change of your emotions.”

Originally from Salt Lake City, Guynn said he came to St. George for the first time at 16. But this trip was anything but a vacation. Due to his struggle with depression and anxiety, his family sent him to Southern Utah to seek help at a residential treatment facility.

Before entering the facility, he had tried a variety of treatment modalities including medication monotherapy. After seeing countless psychiatrists and even electroshock therapy, he said doctors still weren’t sure how to “fix” him.

Guynn said it all started when he attended a private school in Salt Lake City, where he was surrounded by kids from affluent families who often had pressure to be perfect. He didn’t fit in, he said, adding that teachers singled him out as rowdy and rambunctious.

Artwork by Michael Guynn is inspired by his own life experiences, which he hopes will spread light to others, location and date not specified | Photo courtesy of Michael Guynn, St. George News

“I was just 4 years old,” he said. “And I wanted to create all the time. I would just sit down with Legos and want to do that forever, and when they would take me away from it, I would freak out.”

Because of his behavior, he said the private school officials recommended that he be moved to an assessment school, and he was soon kicked out. The moment he stepped into his new school, he knew something wasn’t right.

“I never really felt like I knew what was going on,” he said. “But I was treated like I was a problem. Like there was something really wrong with me, and I couldn’t figure out what it was.”

Guynn said the school included “de-escalation rooms,” in which he was often placed for throwing a tantrum about wanting to go home. He said these stark rooms were devoid of any furniture or distractions, and he remained locked inside until he stopped crying. While it was known as a form of behavioral therapy, for him, it was traumatizing. He found himself trying to be expressive, and instead, was silenced. 

Advisors told his parents they weren’t sure what was wrong with him and that they needed more treatment. As he got older, he was still able to make friends and live a “normal life.” That was, until adolescence.

A younger Michael Guynn is housed at a residential treatment facility in St. George, Utah, date not specified | Photo courtesy of Michael Guynn, St. George News

As he became more aware of society and of himself, his early trauma began to rear its ugly head. He began isolating and feeling ashamed, confusing his parents and others around him.

He was soon put on antidepressants and began various treatments, but he said not one doctor asked him about the root of the problem — his childhood and his belief system about himself.

With every failed treatment, he began to associate mental illness with who he was, reinforcing his trauma of not being understood or heard. His parents feared for his life, and as a last resort, sent him to a St. George residential treatment facility.

Guynn described treatments such as “The Wall,” which meant scooting a chair as close to a wall as possible, ensuring the wall was the sole focal point. The boys had to stay in the chair staring at the wall all day until they were told they could move. Because he broke a rule when he first entered treatment, he said he was punished to The Wall for two weeks straight.

At the beginning of the two weeks, he had frequent panic attacks and dreaded waking up. He knew he had nothing to focus on each day but his own pain and had no way to escape it. But one day, something happened. Previously required to memorize the poem “Invictus” by William Earnest Henley, the last two lines struck him: “I am the master of my fate/ I am the captain of my soul.”

Artwork by Michael Guynn is inspired by his own life experiences, which he hopes will spread light to others, location and date not specified | Photo courtesy of Michael Guynn, St. George News

“For the first time, I asked myself if I was the captain of my soul, if I was the master of my own fate because I’d been acting my whole life like I wasn’t,” he said. “Instead, I’d been acting like diagnoses they gave me, the labels they gave me. And I never questioned it. I always thought I was just broken.”

At that moment, his whole life changed. He began the slow healing process, but this time, it was for himself. His parents had given him a journal and he began writing as much as possible. Out flowed poems and with them, drawings. By the time he left the facility, he was ready to start over. 

“I realized maybe there’s more to me than all this pain,” he said. “Maybe there’s something within that is actually beautiful or worth saving. And that feeling was so incredible; it was like a mystical experience. Like someone threw me a lifesaver in the middle of a raging ocean.”

After finishing his last year of high school, he returned to St. George where he began college with a focus on psychology. While there, he knew he wanted to make a difference for other struggling youth, and accepted a job at the same treatment facility he had once attended.

Michael Guynn installs lights inside schools as a service project shortly after leaving residential treatment, Maasai Village, Tanzania, date not specified | Photo courtesy of Michael Guynn, St. George News

After two years of working at the treatment center, he diversified his experience by working at various treatment facilities including assisting children with disabilities and supporting adults with substance abuse challenges. He then ventured into wilderness therapy before transitioning to his current role as a life coach.

“I’ve continued to follow that healing path because I love seeing that light that I felt in other people,” he said. “The first time they realize they want to change for themselves. That’s everything.”

He also discovered a passion for travel and has explored places like India and Tanzania. He spent a summer in China where he taught English, and recently returned from a seven-month backpacking expedition throughout South America. He shares about his world travels in his podcast “LOL Adulthood.” 

Guynn hopes to use art as a way to articulate the depths of his pain and heartache while also spreading messages of hope to others. Combining hand-drawn art with digital tools, many of his art pieces show timelines of life experiences and growth. His art is available on merchandise ranging from stickers to apparel, mugs, totes and skateboards.

His work can be found on Dryfire Design on Etsy. He also wrote a book, “To Hold a Stolen Flame: Writing Through Recovery,” which depicts a full account of his life story. He can also be found at the St. George Downtown Farmers Market on Saturdays at Vernon Worthen Park.

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