Survival Art: Using Art Therapy to Heal

We are pleased to bring you this guest post from our new friend Elf Lady.  Her post originally appeared  here on her blog Elf Lady’s Chronicles, where she shares personal stories of surviving domestic violence, divorce and motherhood.  Elf Lady’s blog is wonderful narrative of her journey in healing, we think you’ll enjoy reading her work. 

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“Art opens the closets, airs out the cellars and attics. It brings healing.”
-Julia Cameron

As women we are artist of our own lives.  We exercise our creativity by providing healthy, hearty meals for our family, creating a cozy home, planning birthday parties and organizing holidays.  We are constantly creating.  In addition, women are the natural nurturers and healers in our society.  So what happens when we need to be healed? What happens when we need to be healed of the trauma and abuse we have experienced at the hands of an intimate partner?

As a survivor of domestic violence myself, my therapist, Michelle, recommended journaling as a means to deal with the emotions surrounding my abusive relationship and pending divorce.  I tried journaling, but it was too painful writing down my thoughts.  However, I knew from my sessions in Michelle’s office, her specialty was art therapy.

What is Art Therapy? According to the Art Therapy Alliance, art therapy is “the deliberate use of art-making to address psychological and emotional needs.  Art therapy uses art media and the creative process to help in areas such as, but not limited to: fostering self-expression, create coping skills, manage stress, and strengthen sense of self.  Art therapy has provided mental health treatment for clients who have experienced trauma, grief & loss, depression, chronic illness, substance abuse, and more.”

Michelle works with foster kids from abusive homes and other children dealing with various challenges.  She predominately uses art therapy for these children and teenagers as a means in dealing with their pain.  Her office is filled with pastels, paints, markers and sketchbooks.  The office walls are painted with colorful, bold pictures of flowers, vines, phrases, bricks and snowmen.  The paintings give me a sense of comfort and warmth regardless of not contributing to the collage of images myself.

I had been seeing Michelle for six months before I asked if I could try Art Therapy.  I considered myself a creative person.  As a child I sketched eyes and faces and wrote poetry, but that ended as I entered college to become an engineer. Today my creativity is expressed through every day activities such as cooking, decorating, gardening and at times photography.  I know  I don’t have the skills to be a true artist, and that’s okay.  Art therapy does not require skill.  It only requires you to try.

Gretchen Miller, MA, ATR-BC, CTC, writes, “Through art-making, survivors can make sense of and find their way out of chaos, frightful memories, and the raw emotion of their abuse to discover a sense of grounding, strength, safety, understanding, and hope.”

So I bought a pack of pastels and got out my sketch book.  One of the first pictures I drew in my sketchbook was of my husband.

My Husband

I wanted to draw a picture showing how I saw him that night and other nights when he was angry.  The dark blue is the coldness in his heart, my feeling of dread, and the darkness of my depression.  The fire represents how quickly my husband could explode transforming himself from a civil, normal man to a heartless, angry monster.

My next attempt expressed my feeling of being shattered and surrounded in a sea of chaos.  My marriage was shattered, my sense of self was shattered, my belief system was shattered.  Things I believed to be true were no longer true, so what was real and what was not?  Who or what could I believe anymore?

Shattered

After these short drawing sessions, I was always a little more at peace.  I felt a sense of relief getting these pictures and feelings out of my mind and soul and onto paper.

Although I could not afford it, in August I decided to rent a beach cottage for the week before my son returned to school.  He brought his beach toys, matchbox cars, and books.  I armed myself with my sketch book, pastels, and colored pencils in addition to my self-help books, camera, sunscreen, and beach chair.

The sound of the ocean and the warmth of the sun has its own healing properties. Sitting on the beach listening to the waves and watching my son play in the water, I could finally relax.  I began to capture this peace and solitude with my pastels and pencils.

The Beach

I first drew the view from the front porch of our little cottage.  I could sit on the porch in my rocking chair and watch the breeze blow the dune grass and lines of pelicans fly by.  Often I would see fishing trawlers and sailboats in the distance.

Colors of Seashells

Another favorite pastime that week was searching through the vast amounts of seashells deposited on the sand after high tide.  There were so many shells it looked like a dump truck had driven on the beach in the night and unloaded an entire load of beautiful, multi-colored seashells.

The sifting and searching for my favorite shells became meditative and therapeutic for me.  I was fascinated by the palette of colors nature applied in creating the shells. So, one night while sitting at the kitchen table, I laid out an assortment of my shells and captured their colors on paper.  Using pastels, I was able to blend the colors into shades that matched my shells. I realize my drawing doesn’t look like much, but I was pleased with the result and looking at the colors has a calming affect for me.

Finding Peace and Solitude

My last drawing at the beach was a sketch in a struggle to find some peace and solitude one day. As I drew this scene of my beach chair and umbrella, I was in reality having an anxiety attack.

My mom had decided on her own to follow us to beach for four days during the time my son and I were there.  Upon arrival, she proceeded to take control of my son and whisk him away for putt putt golf or swimming at the pool of the condo where she was staying regardless of any plans I may have had.  While I was grateful for the time my son was able to spend with his grandmother and the hour or two for a long walk on the beach, I felt these decisions were made for me and my peaceful vacation had been hijacked by my mom.  Striving to set boundaries, we eventually had words resulting in her leaving in a huff.  But I was much relieved to have regained control of my vacation.

Coming full circle, I want to share a drawing of one of my injuries I received the last night my husband assaulted me. I did not draw this until the end of September, a full nine months after the assault.    Creating this drawing was triggered by registering for a 5K benefiting Interact of Wake County, the local non-profit supporting victims of domestic violence.  As a survivor, I felt a duty to run in this race.  In the days leading up to this race, I started to relive that night.  I felt the sense of betrayal and shame all over again.  Finally, I decided to capture what happened that night on paper, hopefully coming to terms with it in some fashion.

Me & Betrayal

My sketches have brought me peace during and after drawing.  At times, the drawing has brought clarity to how I felt about my abusive relationship.  At other times the benefits of drawing cannot be put into words, but I know a small tectonic shift has occurred leading me further along my path of recovery.

While we may never pay our bills with our endeavors of painting, drawing, or sculpting, we are all artists of our own life.  Every day we create a beautiful mosaic of our lives with connections to our loved ones, our friends, our hobbies and passions, and events in our life.

As women, we are accustomed to the art of creating and the art of healing. We create nutritious meals for our family, beautiful gardens, and cozy, inviting rooms for our homes.  We heal our children when sick, our partners and friends when they are down and out.  Why not combine these two worthy and natural skills to heal ourselves through art?

10 Ways Art Helps to Create Good Health

10 Ways Art Helps to Create Good Health

When you have your health, you have everything

The World Health Organization has defined good health as the complete state of physical, mental and social wellbeing, not just the absence of disease or illness.  This definition of health acknowledges that good health and wellbeing require not just physical health, but also psychological and social wellbeing, it is a definition that recognizes that body, mind and community are all essential to good health.

It stands to reason, then, that if we wish to have good health we must care for not only our bodies, but also our minds and our communities. Our wellbeing depends on our connections with others and our emotional state, along with our physical fitness.

Art positively impacts both individual and community wellbeing. Incorporating art into own daily life, into our community and into our health care systems will help us all create good health.

10 Ways Art Helps to Create Good Health

(1) Creating and viewing art increases relaxation, enjoyment and inner calm and reduces stress

(2) Art provides individuals a way to express thoughts, feeling and emotions that may be difficult or impossible to communicate

(3) Including art in healthcare settings improves the environment for patients and healthcare staff

(4) Arts improves the quality of life for those with chronic health conditions

(5) Public art creates gathering places in the community, encouraging social connections, reducing isolation and makes community spaces more live-able

(6) Incorporating art in healthcare provides opportunities for artists to develop their practice, grow professionally and contribute to the community

(7) Art is used to educate medical professionals; Analyzing art provides a new way of “seeing” and helps medical students become more skillful at diagnosing patients

(8) Creating and viewing art offers individuals opportunities for social interaction and community involvement, and connections with others is important in good health

(9) Including art in healthcare allows healthcare professionals new tools for diagnosis and improve communication with the patient

(10) Art is used to promote positive health messages and address public health issues

 

 

 

More Information on Art and Health

Society for the Arts in Health Care

Art For health’s Sake: Art Can Provide Healing for the Total Being

The Arts, Health and Well Being – The Arts Council of England

Art and Wellbeing in Rural OZ blog

The Use of Art in Medical Health Care

In recent years there has been a growing interest in incorporating the arts in the medical health care field.  Research has shown that the arts decrease stress, improve communication, and help the healing process. With this information, hospitals, medical centers and care facilities are beginning to incorporate visual arts, music, and writing programs into medical care services.  This more integrative model of health care recognizes the connection of body, mind, and spirit.

Though I do not have a background in health care I am always interested in learning more about how art influences well-being and given that November is Art and Health Month I have been reading information on this subject. I thought I would share a few examples of how different art forms are being used in medical care.

Visual Art

With the recognition that art actually helps people feel better and heal more quickly, Sacred Heart Medical Center in Oregon has worked with an arts consultant for hospitals to select artwork intended to be comforting, orienting and calming to patients and, as a result, help promote their healing.

Another example of the use of visual arts is the Art-Cart program in St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital in Houston, Texas, where a rolling gallery of photographic art work makes the rounds, allowing patients to select images for their room.

Music

Eisenhower Medical Center in southern California has had an arts program in place since 2001 and has a staff of nine musicians, four visual artists and a writer.  The Healing Harps program at this medical center offers patients and staff harp lessons.

“Studies and statistical evidence from major hospitals across the country have shown that relief from anxiety, pain, difficult breathing, nausea and depression are often addressed by the use of live harp music, the special timbre of which induces a deep relaxation response which in turn allows the body to heal itself at a more rapid rate.”

– Healing Harps program description.

Writing

Hospitals around the country have writing groups to help patients heal physically and mentally.  US News carried a story about Sutter Health Systems in California offering a range of writing workshops t patients as well as family members and care givers.

Research indicates that after writing exercises the levels of cortisol, a stress-related hormone that may affect immune levels, are lower and studies have shown that writing about trauma improves the health of people with chronic disease.

Use of the arts in health care is steadily moving forward. The small but growing body of research is demonstrating the positive impact art has on health, healing and well-being.  Further research on this subject along with partnerships between art institutions, schools and heal care organizations will allow for more research and greater engagement between the arts and health.

For More Information

Current Research in Evidence-Based Art Programs From American Art Resources
Future of the Arts and Health Care Green Paper

Domestic Violence & How Art Can Help

My First Job

My first job after college was in a domestic violence shelter.  I served as the Donation Coordinator and most of my time was spent helping women who were leaving the shelter get the basics to set up a new home –  toiletries, drinking glasses, and bedding were always in demand.  I also coordinated with other community-based organizations so that we could refer women to agencies to help them with traveling to a different city or finding a new apartment.

Some of the women leaving were overwhelmed at the idea of starting over, finding a new place to live and piecing together a household from hand-me-down items is not easy and can be especially difficult when your body and soul are wounded.  I know that some women returned to an abusive situation because they were not ready to brave a new beginning.

Supporting Women

Since that time I have continued to think about how we can best support women who are trying to leave an abusive situation so that they do not feel as if they have no choice but to return.  Clearly, more funding and greater legal protection would have a positive impact, but beyond that how do we support women so that they can find their strength to create their own future?

Domestic violence is not easy to talk about.  People often feel a great sense of shame for being in an abusive relationship and are worried about being judged or seen as victims. Leaving any relationship is complicated, there may be children, a shared household, financial dependence and a romantic relationship that had some really great times, untangling feelings of fear, anger and love is difficult. Sometimes the emotional abuse is more damaging than the physical violence, causing women to question their own thinking.

Art Heals And Offers Hope

I believe art has a tremendous potential to help women begin the healing process and in exploring new possibilities for their life.  Creating art can be a healing experience, helping us to relax and open ourselves up to new ideas.

Art is a great way to share an experience and make sense of complex emotions.  Sometimes speaking about an experience is just too difficult, there are things that are hard to say out loud or the experience is beyond what words can convey.  Here, art can be used to share information and to help express feelings.  Creating art it is a safe way to work through emotion and is also not limited by language.

Art is also a great way to help to generate a sense of possibility.  Creating art can helps you get in touch with yourself and allows you to begin exploring new ideas.  Using our imagination opens the door to all endless the possibilities, helps move us one step forward in creating something unique, and personal.  For those who have lose a sense of themselves art helps to restore who we are and opens us up to new ideas.

More Information on Domestic Violence and Art Programs

Telling without Talking: Breaking the Silence of Domestic Violence

Art Therapy and Domestic Violence from the International Art Therapy Organization

A Window Between Worlds is a non-profit organization dedicated to using art to help end domestic violence