Leaned up against the wall of my living room is a warped piece of wood.
From the grainy texture of its surface, a woman painted in acrylic stares back. Dark hair squiggles from her head in sporadic waves. Her complexion is punctuated by shadows that run vertically down her neck. Her lips are haphazardly painted in an expression that is neither happy nor sad.
It’s not a painting that employs any specific techniques, nor is it one that appears photo-realistic. Yet, it is a piece I have carried with me for five years.
I don’t keep the painting around because of its perfection or beauty. I keep it because it is a painting that I created at the very beginning of my sobriety five years ago. When I look at the painting, I understand a psychology unveiled in the chaotic brush strokes that, even as I write, I fail to put in words.
It is this very philosophy by which art therapy operates.
Why Art Therapy?
As a complementary method to the 12-step program, art therapy offers a divergence from the intensive work that comes with talk therapy. Through illustration, individuals can approach difficult issues in a less direct way by allowing the subconscious mind to play a more active role in recovery.
Art therapy has been used in the treatment of substance abuse since the early 1950s. As an alternative therapy, art therapy has been known to break down initial resistance to treatment. In addition, the physical act of using one’s hands and tangible material to seek self-awareness can potentially aid in the individual’s adjustment to recovery.
Specific ways art therapy has contributed to the recovery process include:
- Decreasing denial of addiction
- Increasing motivation
- Providing a safe environment to release painful emotions
The primary focus of art therapy is to help guide individuals back to healthy functioning. Art therapy tends to the social, emotional, and cognitive needs of participants and can be used to uncover the root of trauma that potentially led to the use of substance to self-medicate. Through this process, art therapy can be a way for people in recovery to understand their addiction as an illness.
Using Art, Not Words
Attempting to use a paint brush and fluid colors in order to tell a narrative inherently expresses the lack of control that comes with addiction. When an individual experiences this type of non-control, they may be more willing to accept their lack of control when it comes to using substances.
In other words, art opens doorways to attaining a deeper understanding of one’s identity.
When it comes to expressing feelings surrounding memories or emotions relating to substance abuse, words can prove to be a difficult vehicle of articulation. Instead, many people in recovery find art therapy a useful outlet. Using mediums such as acrylic paint, clay, or even a pencil and sketchpad, allows a more relaxing approach to expressing pain.
You Don’t Have to be an Artist
The success of art therapy in recovery does not depend on the level of artistry the participant hones. It is the act of participating in the creative process that’s important. Art therapy is not about producing museum-quality work, but rather about providing a relaxing inlet into turbulent emotions. In some cases, art therapy has led individuals to discover hidden talents or passions within the visual arts.
According to the American Art Therapy Association, art therapy has been shown to positively affect participants in a variety of ways, including:
- Aiding in emotional conflicts
- Helping to build self-esteem
- Encouraging self-awareness
- Reducing anxiety
- Developing social skills
- Releasing tension
Types of Art Used in Art Therapy
A 2014 study published in the Journals of Addictions Nursing defines art therapy as a way to employ a creative process for nonverbal expression surrounding trauma associated with substance abuse.
Creative processes may include:
- Incident drawing, where an individual sketches a painful incident that occurred during substance use
- Stress painting, where an individual paints as an active approach to relieving stress and anxiety
- Drawing and/or painting emotions, where the individual might be asked to just focus on expressing the colors of their emotions
- Creating an art journal, which an individual might use to create an emotional timeline of their experience
- Creating sculptures out of clay or mixed media, allowing the individual to approach emotions or stress through a 3-dimensional medium
Through the process of producing a visual component attached to the emotional landscape that follows addiction, participants are given a fresh way to perceive their past experiences and relationship to using substances. There’s something about being able to visually see an experience through the vehicle of the subconscious that our vocabulary usually blocks us from.
It becomes apparent soon into recovery that successfully sustaining sobriety involves more than just cessation of drugs or alcohol. While treatment centers provide the essential counseling sessions and groups to meet many of the challenges people new to recovery face, dealing with the emotions such as shame and depression may require an alternative approach.
Check with the counselors at Valley Recovery Center to find out more information about how you might participate in art therapy. Off campus therapeutic outings are available a few times per month for inpatient residents.
As a person in recovery, I am eternally grateful for having found painting when I did. Painting has become an essential component for the success of my sobriety.