Using Art to Heal
In today’s Medical Report, we welcome guest contributor Amy Oestreicher, who shares her experiences with art therapy and discusses its benefits in addiction recovery.
“The world is all gates, all opportunities, strings of tension waiting to be struck.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
As a survivor and “thriver” of a coma, 27 surgeries and a decade of medical trauma, I know first-hand the healing power of the arts.
As a child, the arts were my passion and identity. When my traumas occurred, they became my lifeline. Now that I am out of my medical crisis and into a life of health and vitality once again, the arts are how I can reconnect with the world, make a difference and raise awareness—awareness of the power of one’s internal resources, awareness that there are many ways to heal externally and internally, awareness of the human potential and spirit, and awareness of gratitude—that every day and moment should be celebrated, that life is a canvas, an open score, a bare stage, waiting for us to join the dance!
When I discovered painting, I had suddenly found a way to express things that were too painful and overwhelming for words. Painting was how I connected with what I was too frightened to share or to even face myself.
Using Creative Therapies in Addiction Recovery
Although creative therapy healed me from the emotional trauma I experienced after a decade of medical interventions, it is also an instrumental tool in recovering from another type of crisis: addiction. Through the arts, you can stay in touch with your inner self, your aliveness and what makes you “you” underneath the façade of addiction.
Creativity can be used on a canvas at first, but then it has the power to unlock all the creative coping tools we have within. According to the American Art Therapy Association (AATA), art therapy is “the therapeutic use of art making, within a professional relationship, by people who experience illness, trauma or challenges in living, and by people who seek personal development.” Art therapy helps us with our internal struggles, and by tapping into our passion, it reduces anxiety.
Creative Affirmations Help You Push Through
Creative affirmations often help us get through day-to-day struggles of recovery along with questions to periodically ask yourself, such as: Is this decision I am making supporting my aliveness right now?
Affirmations can even be a starting prompt to a creative exercise. For example, how would you paint this affirmation? “My inner voice is warm, compassionate and loving.”
I love visual metaphors to help stay on the right track. I like to imagine anxious, addictive thoughts as red frantic tadpoles along a river, swimming swiftly through one’s mind. I imagine myself kneeling by a riverside, just calmly noticing those tadpoles passing down the river. I see the tadpoles pass on by and leave my view. As I notice these thoughts come and go, I say to myself, “My anxious thoughts are like tadpoles in a river. They keep swimming toward me and quickly swim away as I let them pass.”
The best way to use visualization is to create one yourself. This is where art therapy can be instrumental. A person can be guided through an exercise with a prompt, or the exercise can be more free-form, and she can paint what she feels or the first thing that comes to her mind. Often, it is intimidating to start, but when encouraged to just make a mark on the paper, her subconscious often will take over and even she will be surprised by what she sees.
Art Therapy Does What Talk Therapy Can’t
By helping the individual reconnect with her true, authentic self, she taps into the stronger part of herself—who she was before the addiction. With this new-found confidence in who she is, she will amass the power and inner strength to live life without habitual addictive behaviors and coping mechanisms.
When we express ourselves in a healthy way rather than taking behaviors out on ourselves, we find what we are looking for—maybe a void that the addiction was trying to replace. Through drawing, sculpting, painting, music, dancing, poetry and more, we can convey our experiences in expressive ways where words sometimes fail. Sometimes sitting in a chair talking to a stranger is intimidating. Art is the vessel we need at this moment.
Usually addiction doesn’t just happen because we “really want something.” Often it is a way to cover up some psychological issue or past trauma. Art therapy can uncover this. Our minds wander with free associations when we start to create, and often we can even decipher the symbolism in each creation until we come back to it.
When I paint, I paint those terrible anxious feelings that eat away at me. My paintbrush is how I pinpoint what’s really going on when I’m anxious or stressed. Even if I end up painting my sadness, at least I am feeling, which feels so much better than staying numb and feeling nothing at all. I paint my tears, broken hearts and life-shattering thunderbolts, but I also paint my joy in flowers, dancing girls and singing trees. Most importantly, I paint whatever I feel from the heart. Over the years, I have found recurrent symbols appearing in my paintings—a red blob of paint usually shows me I’m feeling anxious, whereas a blue tear drop shows me I am caught up in a trauma from the past and I need to take some time out for self-care and reflection. Art will always be my lifeline to myself, and I’m so grateful I’ve discovered this powerful tool.
I found art accidentally on my way to healing physically, emotionally and spiritually, and I have learned that it is one of the most rewarding, forgiving and beautiful ways to find my way through the darkness and into the light.
“The Breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you. Don’t go back to sleep.” – Rumi
Here are some useful art therapy resources, courtesy of Addiction Recovery Guide:
American Art Therapy Association (AATA)
Learn about the process of art therapy, who benefits and how to become an art therapist. Click on Find-A-Therapist on the home page for a directory by state and by top cities in the U.S.
Creative Guide through the 12 Steps
This blog page offers specific instructions for using creative arts projects as a supplement to working the 12 Steps. It suggests activities and projects for both groups and individuals that address the meaning of various steps in the 12-step program.
Adriana Marchione, MA, CHT, specializes in working with recovery from all forms of addiction. Her work offers creative healing opportunities that complement psychotherapy and 12-step programs. Her approach draws from a movement-based expressive arts therapy model and Depth Hypnosis—a method of hypnotherapy that utilizes hypnosis, meditation and shamanic techniques. Through individual and group sessions, this therapeutic approach uses a variety of methods to support emotional and physical health, creative growth and a deeper connection to life. Recovery groups and retreats are also available, offering participants the opportunity to express their stories in words, images and movement both in the studio and in natural surroundings.
National Coalition of Arts Therapies Associations
Founded in 1979, this coalition brings together the professional associations dedicated to the advancement of six creative arts therapies. Their web site provides basic information on each approach: art, dance/movement, drama, music, psychodrama and poetry. Each modality uses the creative process to support health, communication, self-expression and positive change.
Amy Oestreicher is a 28-year-old actress, musician, teacher, composer, dancer, writer, artist, yogi, foodie and general lover of life. Surviving and thriving through a coma, 27 surgeries and other trauma has inspired Amy to share her story with the world through her passionate desire to create and help others. Amy has written, directed and starred in a one woman musical about her life, Gutless & Grateful, has flourished as a mixed media and acrylic artist—with her art in multiple galleries and mounting dozens of solo art shows—and continues to share her story through her art, music, theatre and writings. More information on her unique story, as well as her creative ventures can be found at amyoes.com, and you can visit her blog for her newest art, music and inspirational musings.
About the Author: Guest Blogger