Visual art therapy has been used to help treat substance abuse for over 60 years.One of the first people to pioneer art therapy in this field was Elinor Ulman, a woman who got her start working in alcohol rehabilitation in the 1950’s. AllTreatment had the pleasure of interviewing Marie Wilson, PhD, ATR-BC, ATCS, ACS, LPC, coordinator for Art Therapy programs at Caldwell College, about the addiction-healing properties of creative expression.
The Benefits of Creating Art
"Artistic expression fulfills both emotional and psychological needs," says Dr. Marie Wilson. Those who are engaged in art therapy have an opportunity to break down mental barriers in a less traumatic way, a cathartic process that can be extremely therapeutic for confronting violent emotions such as anger and denial. Artistic creation can integrate unconscious thought and conscious behavior as well as differentiate between feeling states, therefore lessening confusion.
According to Wilson, one of the most paramount characteristics of visual art therapy is that it assists in shame reduction by transforming feelings of guilt and allowing the patient to approach them on their own terms. Art gives adults permission to “play” in a healthy way, while letting them revisit missed developmental tasks. For people who come from a shakier or dysfunctional family upbringing, it allows them to safely look at the trauma that they have experienced.
Art Therapy for Addiction
Art therapy is a unique combination of the inherent healing qualities given by the creative process and the informed use of psychological principles in the service of compassion. As with practitioners in the other fields of clinical therapy, these professionals use a variety of philosophical perspectives and counseling theories, combining both person- and process-oriented approaches that are most effective when working with an addicted client.
“Addicted clients can begin to explore the use of art as a language for their thoughts and feelings.” – Dr. Marie Wilson
Use of creative modalities ininner child work is largely based on the belief that painful childhood memories associated with shame are preverbal in origin and not easily accessible through words. The creative process provides both emotional safety and containment through use of metaphor and personal symbolism, while facilitating direct expression of emotions and experiences through use of images rather than words. These creative modalities give patients' inner child a voice, and this helps them release pent-up emotions from past experiences that have become hidden in the confines of their memories.
Art becomes the language that the addict’s thoughts and feelings use as a medium. Unresolved emotional issues that have been kept under wraps by their addictions are now beginning to show. These feelings usually begin to surface in the early stages of treatment, and creativity helps them put together their own resources of inner wisdom and knowledge. Making art provides a sense of mastery or control, unlike the whirlwind of chaos that the person feels while in the midst of their addiction.
Oftentimes, addicts were raised in dysfunctional or abusive families and are frequently the children of alcoholics or drug users. These people unfortunately carry a larger burden than most, with a multitude of traumatic experiences that have still not been dealt with in a rational and logical way. These families did not provide the structure, predictability, or nurturing that is necessary for teaching self-regulatory or problem solving skills. Largely, these families tend to be emotionally unresponsive or extremely reactionary, fueled from crisis to crisis. Most adults who grew up in families like these remember feeling flawed or defective from an early age.
Making art provides a sense of mastery or control, unlike the whirlwind of chaos that the person feels while in the midst of their addiction.
Due to the very common nature of their upbringing, art therapy is an extremely useful avenue for addicted people to explore. These individuals don’t often speak about what has troubled them most in their past, and art allows the unspeakable to be spoken.
The Rewards of Being an Art Therapist
We asked Dr. Wilson what her most meaningful experience as a visual art therapist has been. The following was her reply:
“There are many meaningful experiences in my role as an art therapist and art therapy educator. In terms of clinical work, I most enjoy watching what happens when clients involve themselves with art materials. I enjoy seeing the creative, inquisitive inner child in each of them as they give themselves permission to explore, play, and create.
"Clients can explore and create without fear of reprisal. They are allowed to make mistakes and take risks. The simple act of building up and tearing down may be an activity never experienced by a client who was fearful that his every move was either under the scrutiny of critical parents or never tried because mistakes aren’t allowed. Creativity gives adult addicts permission to play without serious regression or significant loss of control, thereby nurturing the child within and providing opportunity to accomplish as adults what they could not as children.”