Recovery from drug or alcohol addiction can be a painful process and many people struggle to verbalize their pain, anger, shame and other emotions. But many people in recovery are finding that they can express themselves through art – giving a visual image of their innermost emotions. Recovering addicts, troubled teens and anyone suffering from PTSD or other mental and emotional distress can benefit from art therapy.
The American Art Therapy Association (AATA) defines art therapy as, “the therapeutic use of art-making. Unlike your typical art class, an art therapy session focuses on the client’s thoughts and emotions, working toward developing self-expression rather than on building artistic skills.
For the recovering addict, art allows for a new form of communication and self-reflection. It is especially effective for those who struggle with internal conflicts and difficulties, no matter what artistic talent or experience they may already have. When other forms of communication fail, like talk therapy or counseling, art can play a huge role in helping the client make an important breakthrough, build trust with a therapist, and gain a feeling of self-confidence and self-worth. It also takes both therapist and client out of the “traditional” therapeutic environment of one-on-one or group discussions. This change may free the client up to identify and address issues that he or she was too guarded or hesitant to address in the course of traditional individual or group therapy.
Painting, drawing, and sculpture are often used in art therapy and, at times, clay and collage. Regardless of which art medium is chosen, the outcome sought is not artistic ability, but on using these different methods to assist in the healing process.
How It Works
The healing, meditative process of creating art has been well known for a very long time, but it wasn’t until the last couple of decades that scientists have focused on understanding exactly how it works to promote healing. In fact, research into this form of psychotherapy is fairly new. There are, however several recent studies that explore art therapy. What scientists do know is that, like other forms of alternative therapy, including equine and horticultural therapy, art therapy reduces stress and anxiety. Not only does this help the client feel better overall, it allows for increased feelings of trust and a change in perceptions of the pain and anxiety associated with withdrawal.
In addition, the process of creating visual art appears to involve multiple parts of the brain. It involves hand-eye coordination, which accesses the “creative” right side of the brain. In other words, art therapy allows the client to process the very abstract, such as fears, internal struggles and emotions into something more concrete that both the client and the therapist can analyze and appreciate.
Sherry Dansky has been an art therapist working in the field of addiction for 33 years, the past 18 in South Florida. She is a trained artist, holds a master’s degree in art therapy and is board certified. She is also a licensed mental health counselor.
She has seen many changes in addicted clients through art therapy. “It can be very powerful – many of these women have been through so much trauma – they find art is a safe outlet to stay grounded.”
As one woman who is involved in art therapy as part of her treatment put it,
“Art therapy killed my cravings. . . gave me a positive outlook about things. I feel good about myself when I do art. It takes all the negative thoughts away. It’s not about the darkness no more. . .”
Ms. Dansky said she usually starts art therapy with drawing because that and painting really bring out feelings. “They are usually comfortable in those immediately. Most have no previous experience, but they immediately find it relaxing. The purpose is to help them with coping skills for relapse prevention, to help them deal with anger and anxiety, and learn to be more assertive and more able to set boundaries.”
“The clients find it very relaxing. They feel there is serenity in there – another outlet where they can express themselves. It gives expression to things they have no words for. Some tell me that doing art projects has kept them from smoking, or hurting themselves.” Many continue with art projects throughout the week on their own and bring them to show to Ms. Dansky during the weekly sessions.
She works closely with therapists so that she knows if a client is working on a specific issue that she can help focus on through the art therapy. After years of watching the positive results of art therapy – its calming effects, how it helps women who have faced chaos and violence express their feelings even when they can’t put it into words, Ms. Dansky believes it should be a standard part of addiction therapy.
But, she emphasizes, treatment centers need to realize the specialized training that goes into art therapy. “You can’t just provide art supplies or hire an art teacher. It needs someone with special training.” They must be registered with the American Art Therapy Association, as a registered art therapist which includes a master’s degree in art therapy.
Even when they are ready to leave a treatment program, clients tell Ms. Dansky they want to continue with art – take classes, buy their own supplies. “I teach them how to mix colors and where to find materials,” she said.
For information on art therapy, go to www.waysidehouse.net or call 561.666.9162.
Marlene Passell is the communications and marketing coordinator for Wayside House, an addiction treatment program for women in Delray Beach, FL.