Art Therapy in Addiction Recovery
The Breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you. Don’t go back to sleep. ~ Rumi
As a survivor and “thriver” of a coma, 27 surgeries and a decade of medical trauma, I know firsthand 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 of the power of one’s internal resources. They make one aware of the human potential and spirit and that there are many ways to heal, externally and internally. They also raise awareness of gratitude. Every day and moment should be celebrated. 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. It helped me connect with that which I was too afraid to share or face.
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 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 freeform, 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.
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 newfound 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 important, 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 teardrop 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.
Here are some useful art therapy resources, courtesy of Addiction Recovery Guide:
- American Art Therapy Association (AATA) (referenced above)
- Creative Guide through the 12 Steps (not updated since 2013)
- Creative Source
- National Coalition of Arts Therapies Associations
Woman painting photo available from Shutterstock
Oestreicher, A. (2018). Art Therapy in Addiction Recovery. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 4, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/art-therapy-in-addiction-recovery/