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The Creative Mind: Art Therapy in Recovery

Despite my tendency to draw stick figures and bubble letters when presented with a blank page, I believe deeply in the power of art therapy. It is a form of magic that I have witnessed working in my own life, and a voice that I have heard speaking even in the quietest of rooms.

As a teenager, I was bullied in school. In what seemed like an instant, I felt my bubbly spirit evaporate; I spent many days in silence, with former friends’ backs turned to me at the lunch table.

My saving grace was art class. It was there, and only there, that I thought of silence as a friend. The quiet meant that I was creating; the quiet meant that I was safe.

I didn’t realize it then, but the hideous, lopsided clay fish that I produced in that equally hideous time of my life was the result of hard work. It was the imperfect product of a therapeutic process that I did not fully understand, especially when it had taken everything I had to walk through those school doors each morning.

With the guidance of an incredible art teacher, I eventually found that imagination was all I needed to become an artist–whether painter, writer, or clay-fish-sculptor. The things that I created were not necessarily beautiful to others (or even to me)—but they were healing the spirit I had lost, or at the very least, giving me the tools to do so myself.

What is Art Therapy?

Art therapy aims to improve a person’s physical, emotional, and mental well-being. Through exploration of the imaginative senses, individuals are able to both process and release emotions that are associated with past experiences, discovering coping skills in the process.

When practiced by those who have suffered from traumatic events, art therapy stimulates awareness of self and others, while also promoting personal development and growth. In regards to addiction treatment, this practice allows an individual to reconnect with his/her most authentic self.

Many of the emotions that are experienced in recovery are not easily articulated with words. The work produced in this time of transition can often convey emotions that one may not be completely cognizant of in day-to-day interactions. Gifted with the freedom of artistic individualism, a person experiencing creative release becomes more and more adept in nonverbal communication.

No matter the medium, creative arts produce a channel of self-expression that goes far beyond the confines of a notebook or palette. As you develop a sense of comfort with this voice of creativity, your capacity to create meaningful associations with your artwork increases, therefore also increasing levels of calmness, patience, and self-esteem.

As a healthy and rewarding activity in recovery, art therapy introduces individuals to possibility, and to the capability they have to create it for themselves.

The Inner Voice

You do not need to be artistically gifted in order to experience the many benefits of art therapy—take it from a stick-figure-aficionada herself. Art can be as traditional or nontraditional as you want it to be, and can consist of dozens upon dozens of mediums of creativity. In fact, it is more often the fear of this creativity that holds us back from actually creating.

Elizabeth Gilbert best explained this in her book Big Magic. In it, she writes, “Fear is always triggered by creativity, because creativity asks you to enter into realms of uncertain outcome, and fear hates uncertain outcome.”

The moment you leave behind any expectations of what you will create, you will create. No matter what form your artwork takes, the only tool you absolutely need is the courage to make it.

“Do you have the courage to bring forth this work?” Gilbert later asks. “The treasures that are hidden inside of you are hoping you will say yes.

As a student of creativity who is still learning right alongside you, I’m hoping you’ll say yes, too.


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