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?

Writing and Healing: 3 Lessons I Have Learned

Writing and Healing: 3 Lessons I Have Learned

By Jennifer Lucas  – We are pleased to bring you this guest post from Jennifer Lucas. In addition to writing, Jenn does web design, practices Bikram Yoga, dabbles in various art forms and has an interest in non-profit management. Oh yea, she was also one of SpeakArtLoud’s first volunteers!  

Writing is My Art

Writing has been an important part of my healing process for as long as I can remember.  I’ve dabbled in painting, collage and other art forms, but I always come back to writing.  I write poetry, short stories and I have started a memoir a thousand times over.

For me, just taking a few minutes to write down my thoughts and feelings is a healing experience. Sometimes just the act of getting the words out of my head and onto paper makes room for what is even deeper and that is where I find I really heal.

I was in an abusive marriage for 15 years; I’ve been divorced for six years and have three children.  I was also raised in the LDS (Mormon) religion and was married in the Mormon temple.  I raised my children in the Mormon faith and did the best I could to live “in” that religion, though I could never really “be” in that religion. I struggled with my belief in the Mormon Church for most of my life.

After I got married I had to hide the physical abuse from almost everyone, leaving me feeling empty and alone. I made my way out of the Mormon Church while still married, causing my ex-husband to ramp up the emotional and financial abuse.

It was ultimately my writing that helped me get away, but it was also my writing that cost me dearly and I’ve learned some valuable lessons over the years about art and the healing process.

Lessons I Have Learned

(1) Turn Off Your Inner Art Critic

For years I was lucky enough to be able to write unfiltered.  I wrote poems and short stories and I blogged online.  But after my blog was discovered (more on that in a minute), everything I wrote was tainted by my inner critic who told me my writing was terrible, that people would make fun of what I wrote and that no one was interested in what I had to say.

After my blog was discovered I was unable to write for years. I would start writing and within minutes what I saw on the page was white-washed words that held no meaning to me.

It took some time, but after struggling with my inner critic I started writing about how much I disliked my critic and how much I hated what she was telling me.  In many of my writing sessions I had a pit in my stomach, I squirmed in my chair and my anger would spill out on to the page, but after I got all that out of my head my inner critic left me alone to write what was in my heart.

In the last year or so I’ve been able to put pen to paper and really get back in the groove of writing and really feeling that healing process that comes from my art.

(2) Your Artistic Process Is A Powerful Part Of Your Healing, Be Careful Who You Share It With

About nine months before I left my ex-husband I decided to start writing online.  I started writing online because I wanted desperately to connect with people and deep down I wanted validation that getting divorced and leaving the Mormon Church was not selfish.

I had reached out to Mormon leaders in the past, talking to them about the physical and verbal abuse, but many of the leaders (all men) told me to honor my husband, read my scriptures and pray and everything would be fine.  I was counseled that leaving my husband was a selfish act and would harm my children.

By the summer of 2004 I was struggling so much that I told my story to the world, publishing it all online. I used a fake name, showed only a baby picture of myself and never used anyone else’s real name, but as my blog became more popular it was only a matter of time before it was discovered by people I knew.

The fallout was epic.  I lost a lot of friends and my ex-husband and I, who had a tenuous co-parenting relationship at best, could not overcome the fallout.  We haven’t spoken in years, and while that may seem like a good thing, it makes life very difficult for our children who’ve grown almost to adulthood with parents who do not communicate.

There is a deep connection between art and healing. Make sure that the people you share your art with love you, care about your feelings and can be constructive (if need be), but are also understanding of the relationship between your art and your healing.

(3) Be Gentle With Yourself and Respect That Healing Is A Process

When I was 9 years old my dad left our family while we were on vacation; he left our family in a small town with nothing but our suitcases. I wrote a play soon after that scared me so badly I had to sleep with my mom for a week.

I’m 43 years old now and I am still writing stories that touch me deeply.  Some days I let it all out and feel replenished and vibrant. Other days, I’m writing about feelings and memories and places I’d completely forgotten and by the time I’m done I’m exhausted, my head aches from crying and I crawl in bed, pulling the covers over my head just like I did when I was 9 years old.

I was abused by a man and by a patriarchal belief system that upheld that man’s power for over 15 years. Before that I took care of my mother and my little sister after my dad left our family.  I’ve been away from my abusive ex-husband for six short years, while I’ve made leaps and bounds in my healing and have radically changed my life and how I chose to live it, I am still healing.

Sometimes I wonder why I’m not done yet and sometimes I get frustrated with the tears and the post-traumatic stress. But then I remember to be kind to myself, to give myself space and time to recover.  I must be gentle and respect my process.

I am always healing.

The Canvas for Dreams of the Heart

The Canvas for Dreams of the Heart

A guest post by Teresa Robinson of Right Brain Planner

“The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams”
– Eleanor Roosevelt

The dark shadows of illness can preclude the light and beauty of our dreams. Thus, even the ability to recall our dreams in the midst of chronic physical challenges proves daunting. However, with a few gentle brushstrokes of creativity, the outlines and muted hues of our dreams rise into view once again. Sometimes doing so in a gently altered version — redefined to accommodate those things we accept as unchangeable, in order to empower us in discovering the courage to change the things we can.

How does art therapy serve as the basis for discovery and accomplishing the beauty of the dreams within the heart?

I would be hard-pressed to explain the physiology regarding the healing properties of art therapy. What I can describe is the ease and the healing that resulted after I accepted a friend’s invitation to an art therapy event. I quickly realized art could be my secret weapon against the battles of cancer. And it continues to be a way to win the proverbial war of acceptance with regard to my physical realities “after cancer” and the symptoms of multiple sclerosis.

Art therapy is a calming, radiant light in the constant noise and darkness of chronic pain. The mental escapes of guided imagery, various music genres, landscape photography and creative writing provide me with a place of ease — a reprieve from daily rituals and realities. Collage art is a daily practice for me. It allows me to visually (and figuratively) assign elements of color and variety (and absolute randomness!) “over” the stress (and distress) of chronic health issues.

The practice of incorporating art into my therapeutic activities has facilitated my goal of positivity in the midst of chronic, limiting physical conditions. It also produced a paradigm shift for my professional pursuits, blending creativity with the business management and personal planning services I offer as a freelancer at Right Brain Planner.

Collage, art journaling and creative planning offer a creative and eclectic alternative to white-paged, text-only documents and spreadsheets. Offering my clients a liberating and inspiring alternative as they compile, collage and journey in the direction of their dreams!



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

Five Reasons Why We Need Art

“If I could say it in words there would be no reason to paint.”
~ Edward Hopper

Edward Hopper - Eleven AM

Art, in its many forms, exists in every community, every culture, and every country. Art has been created since time began, evidenced in cave paintings and rock art, and in today’s world we know that art can be a major economic force, yet we continue to question the worth of art.

Often I have heard someone dismiss a work of art by saying, “I could do that” or “I don’t understand it”. Perhaps not placing value on something that we ourselves could make or expecting things to be easily understood speaks to the loss of thoughtfulness and creativity in our world and only magnifies our need for the arts.

Here are five reasons why I believe we need art:

1. Art is a Natural Human Behavior: Creating art is a primal behavior. Children, the world over, instinctively make. Every culture has art. Like language and laughter, art is a fundamental human behavior. Put very simply, art is a part of who we are.  We need art because it makes us complete human beings.

2. Art is Communication: Art, like language, is a medium to express ideas and to share information.  Art offers us a method to communicate what we may not necessarily fully understand or know how to express. Art helps us to share thoughts, ideas and visions that may not be able to be articulated any other way. We need art to have a full range of expression.

3. Art is Healing: Creating or experiencing art can relax and sooth us or it may enliven and stimulate us. The process of creating art engages both the body and the mind and provides us with time to look inward and reflect.  Experiencing art also gives us reason to think and be reflective or may inspire us to get up and dance.  Art provides a release, a place for reflection and away to engage our whole selves. .We need art to keep us healthy.

4. Art Tells Our Story: Art is a history lesson, an historical record, a preservation of culture, and an autobiography all in one.  Art documents events and experiences and allows us a richer understanding of history. Art reflects cultural values, beliefs and identity and helps to preserve the many different communities that make up our world. Art chronicles our own lives and experiences over time. We need art to understand and to share our individual and shared history.

5. Art is a Shared Experience: The creation of art is a collective activity. Art forms such as dance, theatre and choir all require a group of artists and an audience. Even the solitary painter or poet relies upon the craft of the paint-maker or book-binder to help create art. Art offers us a reason to come together and share in an experience. We need art to keep us connected.