[tw: mention of CSA; harsh/unsupportive teachers and therapists]
Art and Recovery
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:
“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.
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.