Art and Recovery

Art and Recovery

[tw: mention of CSA; harsh/unsupportive teachers and therapists]

Art and Recovery

"Salmon Derby" silk-paper collage by Laurel W. Carnahan

“Salmon Derby” silk-paper collage by Laurel W. Carnahan

The first time I ever went to see a therapist to deal with the sexual abuse I experienced as a kid was when I was in my early twenties. I had just graduated from college with a fine arts degree, and was getting married within the year, and was suddenly feeling overwhelmed with thoughts and memories of my abuse. I had always known that I’d eventually need help dealing with my memories and the effect they had on me, but had been very very good at shoving the worst bits of my childhood away in a box in my mind, never to be looked at too closely, and certainly never to be spoken of out loud. There had never really been any sort of secret about what had happened to me, but due to my tendency to severely dissociate when it was brought up, my adoptive parents choose to let me work up to dealing with it in my own time.

One of the first things my therapist asked me to do was keep a daily journal to document my feelings, memories etc. This was extremely difficult for me, as I’ve never been all that great with words. Gradually, I started substituting sketches. My therapist was shocked when I showed her the journal, now filled with rather horrible panic and depression fueled artwork. She had had no idea that I was an artist, as at this point I had shared very little about my current life. She asked if I had any other art I could bring in for her to see… hoo boy, did I! Years and years worth. I’ll never forget what she said:

"Snow Flurry" silk-paper collage by Laurel W. Carnahan

“Snow Flurry” silk-paper collage by Laurel W. Carnahan

“I get it now. THIS is what kept you alive all that time.”

She was probably right.

Art has always been my happy place, both making art and enjoying and appreciating the art of others. Most of the time, I’ve noticed, people seem to think that therapeutic art is always about expressing your pain and negative feelings. While drawing out images of exactly what the pain and terror of abuse feels like can be cathartic and hugely helpful, art that is about joy, comfort, beauty and color can act as a sort of refuge. Even highly abstract work, or crafts such as pottery, weaving, knitting or jewelry making are all ways of expressing your feelings and of creating something new and beautiful that is yours alone. It can be about creating a world where the awful stuff can’t reach you, where you can rest and feel safe.

Visual art is, of course, not the only option. Dance, music, writing etc. are all ways to use creativity to help in recovery. Dance was of immense help to me, as using my body for my OWN joy and pleasure was a way of reclaiming a part of myself. All of the physical, movement-based forms of creativity, yoga, martial arts, etc. can also be helpful with staying physically aware and present, especially for those of us who tend to disassociate, or to feel hatred or disconnection from our own bodies. I also used to do a bit of nude modeling for art classes when in school… a thing that shocked my friends since they all thought my lack of interest in sex meant I was “prudish”, and therefore must be bothered by nudity. For many survivors this might be triggery, but for me, actually seeing my own body in other peoples artwork, through eyes that saw me as a form and shape, rather than sexually, was incredibly therapeutic.

In terms of using art as a practical tool in recovery, I think it’s important to know that while an art therapist might be a wonderful resource, its not a necessity if you don’t have access to one. Doing art or craft on your own, or with a class or friend group can be good as well. The only concern might be that if you are using it as a way of actually purging, drawing out, or expressing the events and feelings of your trauma, you may need to have someone there who can support you through the feelings this will bring up. This can be an incredibly emotional experience. I once went to see an art therapist to help in my own recovery, and was horrified when she kept insisting that she didn’t want anyone in her incest recovery group who was prone to “getting too emotional” when dealing with their issues. What? Of course you’re going to get emotional, that’s kind of the point! I did not join this particular group(!), but I did go on to find other art therapists who did not operate this way at all, and who were very helpful.

"Raven Aurora" silk-paper collage by Laurel W. Carnahan

“Raven Aurora” silk-paper collage by Laurel W. Carnahan

There are more types of art therapy than just the traditional western clinical sort, of course. My local Native hospital offers a wonderful form of therapy in which you can go once a week and just sit with a group of (mostly) older women and do beadwork. The whole point is that it’s soothing, quiet, and offers a sense of community. If you wind up talking out some of your hurt while learning stitches, all the better.

I’m an artist professionally and have worked as an instructor with art therapists at my old group studio, mostly with clients who had TBI, and the main focus there was to give people a skill they could work on that was not so stressful or practical as many of the other things they were having to relearn or regain motor skills for. This is another way in which I feel creative work can also help in trauma recovery. Sometimes it’s good to get out of your own head a bit… focus on something else, something fresh and new that has no connection to your trauma.

Although I’m wanting to keep this piece very positive, one tough topic I really want to touch on here is fear. For many people, creativity can dredge up huge amounts of fear and insecurity. When I have taught art, I’ve often been shocked by how frightening creative work is for some. Whenever this has come up, the culprits have tended to be: bad art teaching, bullying, harsh critique and perfectionism. I’ve often found myself trying to reassure people that:

“It’s just art… it won’t hurt you!”

But they have been hurt at some point, and getting past that can be difficult. Some ideas for dealing with this are: choosing a medium that doesn’t involve expensive or “precious” materials (if you mess up, so what?), planning ahead of time to not keep (even to destroy) the finished piece, choosing a medium that is so beautiful just by virtue of its materials that there is no real way to “ruin” it (silk painting, simple bead work, paper collage, flower arranging etc.). My experience has been that once the first hurdle is past (just getting something out and done for the first time) these fears tend to dissolve really fast.

Over the years as I’ve continued to work on my recovery, artwork and other creative pursuits have never stopped being important tools. When I was young, it really was my only voice, and the one thing I could claim as entirely my own. Now, its still incredibly important. I have other “safe havens” in my family of choice, my friends and my home… but art is still my number one source of comfort, and the best way I have of sharing myself and my life with others.

I hope some of the ideas here might be helpful! This is a topic I’m always eager to talk about and offer any advice that I can on.

Art by Laurel W. Carnahan, featured with permission. All are silk-paper collages; titled “Salmon Derby”, “Snow Flurry”, and “Raven Aurora” respectively.


About the Author:

Visual artist, asexual, and survivor of childhood sexual abuse. Denizen of the Very Far North, so if we chat, be prepared for lots of bitching about the weather. Learning to kind of enjoy my newest incarnation as a slightly grouchy old woman


  1. theanonymousasexual July 8, 2015 at 5:50 am - Reply

    This is some really great advice. I’ve had so much trouble doing any kind of creative pursuit for a long, long time. I used to like a lot of creative things and can’t do them so well anymore, so I have a tendency to just see loss when even thinking of doing creative things, which amplifies perfectionism x1000 to try to prevent more feelings of loss. Which just means I don’t end up doing art for the most part.
    If I was just going to get rid of what I might make though, perhaps that would help. The perfectionism/sense of loss isn’t the only thing between me and art, but it would be a pretty huge barrier out of the way.
    Thanks for the article!

    • Raven July 8, 2015 at 8:00 pm - Reply

      Making art that is non permanent can really help when perfectionism becomes overwhelming. Another trick that can help is doing something in sheer *large quantity*…because hey, no time to fuss, gotta move on to the next one! I once got past a bad art block by doing hundreds of flower crowns for a Renaissance festival. They were a great exercise in just putting colors together, and looked pretty on some lovely persons head, no matter how I might have felt I had messed up!

  2. Queenie July 8, 2015 at 7:41 am - Reply

    I really love this post; thank you so much for writing it!

    I dealt with my first traumatic experience by…writing a vampire novel, actually. I look at the piece now and go, “Oh god, this was actually about PTSD and how to deal with massive trauma in your past,” but at the time I was just trying to write a story I would be interested in reading. Also, yes, so much on just sitting in a group and working together; I really enjoyed knitting circles/crafting circles in college for that reason.

    • Raven July 8, 2015 at 8:10 pm - Reply

      I’d like to read that!

      Doing art as a group/social experience is something I think is incredibly underrated. Western culture has this odd idea of the artist as the Lone Eccentric Genius, for some reason. It’s wonderful to be able to turn to the person beside you and say: “Is this working? Where am I going wrong?” And get instant feedback or reassurance!

  3. Elizabeth July 8, 2015 at 4:20 pm - Reply

    Art has been super important for me to cope with everything, too. Primarily writing, but also visual stuff like designing and crafting. Even just stuff like home decor—painting a room or rearranging the furniture—can really help sometimes. When I was young I did a whole lot more traditional visual art, but I sort of fell out of that habit as I grew older. I’d like to do it more, but I tend to get perfectionist and frustrated with it. I’ve never really done collage though, so maybe that’s worth trying. If I could learn to make paper that beautiful and work with that, it probably would take that anxiety away!

    I hope we see a lot more discussing art and crafts here. It would be lovely to host little tutorials for various types of art here every so often. They’re such a wonderful way to de-stress!

    • Raven July 8, 2015 at 8:29 pm - Reply

      I’m up for tutorials! Silk fusion (my primary medium) is a bit on the obscure and technical side…but I’m game if anyone is interested.

      One of the things that worries me a little about suggesting art as a recovery tool, is that there are lots of barriers for some folks…physical, financial, etc. So, if people are interested in doing art together here, I’d like suggestions and opinions to help come up with a wide variety of ideas that wouldn’t all be expensive in terms of materials, or impossible with various disabilities.

      • Elizabeth July 8, 2015 at 11:21 pm - Reply

        Silk fusion sounds like something that would be pretty easy for me, considering I’m a lot more comfortable working with fabrics than with paper, and tend to have scraps around. I don’t know if there’s a particular kind of silk thread that you’d use though, or where to find it if so.

        I could probably contribute some tutorials for crafty things, too. I’ve found tons of ideas on Pinterest for inexpensive and clever art projects, so maybe that could be a start? Paper flowers, origami, simple wire and bead jewelry… some things can use things like newspapers or paper towel rolls. I think the key would be keeping a balance of different types of projects, in terms of cost and levels of dexterity required, weighed against the anxiety-reducing potential of things that might be more demanding.

      • theanonymousasexual July 8, 2015 at 11:33 pm - Reply

        Me and my friend recently were doing a project with scrap fabric. We just went to Goodwill and bought all these cheap clothes and cut them up. It’s nice because there’s such a random variety of fabrics at a tiny fraction of the cost compared to fabric/craft stores.

  4. Raven July 9, 2015 at 12:04 pm - Reply

    Some misc. examples of art therapy projects my studio partners and I did, at various times, just for ourselves:

    Magic wands…we all made these out of whatever materials had meaning for us…old paintbrushs, beads, wool felting, etc

    Crowns. ..again, mixed media out of whatever was handy, (clay, cloth,felt ,beads,wire, paper etc) with an eye towards making them very personal

    Personal Alters…collections of small items that feel sacred or significant, charms, feathers, stones, bits of poetry, anything really

    The anonymousasexual’s idea reminds me of a cool thing one of my studio mates used to organize for her students: she called it “Reclaiming Old Clothes”. People would bring in worn out old favorites and then over-dye, patch,stamp, batik, paint on them etc to give them new life

    • Elizabeth July 9, 2015 at 2:38 pm - Reply

      I have so many ideas for reclaiming old clothes it’s kind of ridiculous, lol. I don’t know how many people would be interested in sewing around here, but it would be pretty easy for me to come up with little projects of that sort!

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