Editor’s note: This post is a part of an educational series for Tempest Membership. Throughout July, the content within the Tempest Membership program will be focused on Creativity in recovery. You can learn more about Tempest here.
Scribbles. Doodles. Scratches. Inky black makes way to color throughout dozens of notebooks, interspersed with splotches of bright highlighted bubbles circling thoughts, feelings, and general ideas. I have stacks of notebooks that have become outlets charting the choppy ups and downs of life in recovery, sketches that have been seen by no one but myself.
It is in the moment when pen touches paper that I can escape a buzzing, distressing mindset and enter a state of flow that is usually prompted by meditation — or occasionally, TETRIS.
And although I’m no van Gogh, my creations are art, and art is therapy.
The term “art therapy” has grown in popularity over the past few years, being used in psychometric and personal circles in a number of ways to aid the recovery journey.
Art therapy, when used in correlation with an addiction treatment program, acts as part of the healing process. This type of therapy is an alternative to talk therapy, providing people another way to work through their struggles and develop coping skills.
Jeff van Reenen, Addiction Treatment Program Manager at Priory Hospital Chelmsford is keen to talk about the art therapy on offer, citing benefits such as “stress reduction, resolving conflicts, developing interpersonal skills and managing difficult behaviors.”
Art therapy, when used in correlation with an addiction treatment program, acts as part of the healing process.
“Those taking part in art therapy do not need art skills or even to like art in order to participate,” van Reenen said. “It allows you to create without judgement of your artistic ability. Being creative can lead to creative thinking and enables you to gain a new perspective of yourself and others.”
As art can be incredibly personal, it makes sense that programs would offer a wide range of mediums for people to explore. Chelmsford provides an array of options for its patients, stocking heaps of clay, paints and inks, oil pastels, pens, textiles, different paper/card, magazines for collage, tapes, boxes, wood, and solvent-free glue sticks.
The mediums used by the patients may change or be adapted, depending on that person’s needs, which the art therapist will continually review.
“The range of textures and how the materials behave can help people connect to their and other people’s thoughts, feelings and experiences,” explained art therapist Sarah Bracey. “How materials are used by people can be discussed in relation to their addiction and emotions, for example, if materials are used excessively or restrictively. The different qualities of art materials can help (the patient) reflect or realize how a patient feels or wants to feel,” she said. “Loose ink or paintwork can feel messy and uncontained or feel relaxing and liberating. When using clay and other 3D modeling materials, the rolling rhythmic actions can help regulate and calm people both physically and emotionally.”
Many of the hands-on materials used for modeling and molding, Bracey explained, provide a safe way for patients to physically express pent up emotions.
Perhaps one of the greatest strengths (and joys) of art therapy is the sheer flexibility of the modality. It doesn’t necessarily have to take place in supervised sessions for it to be beneficial — after all, not everybody has access to such extensive resources when trying to get sober.
When Irina Gonzalez, managing editor of The Temper, first went to rehab, the coloring books for adults trend was first starting to take off. Like most of us, she had painted a lot while growing up but simply didn’t have the time to focus on creating art following college. But rehab offered the space to reacquaint herself with an old creative outlet. Though painting wasn’t an option in rehab, Gonzalez did have access to a coloring book and bright colored pencils.
“It turned out to be absolutely perfect. Every night, after a full day of meetings and therapy, I would settle down to do some journaling after dinner — and then ended my day with my coloring book,” Gonzalez explained. “It gave me something that I hadn’t realized I needed at the time — a path into mindfulness. Spending an hour with art therapy allowed me to sit there, in peace, sometimes thinking about the day or my feelings and sometimes just relaxing.
“Art therapy continues to be a great way for me to connect with myself during times of stress whenever I need a little bit of quiet alone time.”
Aside from mindfulness, Gonzalez also realized that coloring was enhancing her recovery process.
“As I colored more and more every day, it helped me to heal and slowly strengthen my sobriety. It has been four and a half years since that time and I still turn to my coloring books frequently,” she said. “Art therapy continues to be a great way for me to connect with myself during times of stress whenever I need a little bit of quiet alone time. I joke that I suck at meditating because I just can’t sit still, but my coloring books are how I meditate and continue to stay sober.”
The theme of mindfulness goes hand-in-hand with the concept of art therapy. Crouching over a coloring book for half an hour or so, perfecting deep swirls of color and creating something beautiful is so obviously rewarding. As is warming red clay with your fingers, rolling that clay into sausages, and squishing them in your fists — all provide that sense of space and self that can often feel so distant during recovery periods.
Carving out those moments for ourselves, while balancing our mental wellbeing against a demanding modern schedule, can feel empowering. For artist Sharon Walters, her carefully assembled collages have helped her on her journey of identity and sobriety through creativity — scalpel included.
Walters originally found a balm for her buzzing brain through running and found herself surrounded by supportive peers on a similar journey. But after suffering an ankle injury the following year, Walters was left without her normal coping mechanism.
“My brain runs at 100 miles per hour and when I collage, everything feels alright. Almost medicinal.”
“The injury affected my running, so it then affected my stress and anxiety — so then there was no booze or running! It was then that quite a few people said I should focus on my art, she recalled. “I set on creating a new piece every day, but I couldn’t stand and paint, so I started looking through magazines and looked for women who looked like me, with natural afro hair. Every time I would find one, I would cut it out and create my collages.”
It was from here that Walters began her ‘Seeing Ourselves’ series, which explores identity, beauty standards, and race through papercuts and hand-assembled collage.
“Art, podcasts, exhibitions all help me focus and stay calm. My brain runs at 100 miles per hour and when I collage, everything feels alright. Almost medicinal.”
As a result of her work, Walters has also led a number of workshops alongside Love Sober’s Kate Baily and Mandy Manners, where guests work with art and collage as she shares how imperative being sober is to both her mental health and creative practice.
The philosopher Alain de Botton argues that art is a cure for all ills — love, work, politics, self, anxiety — that should help us better endure and enjoy our lives.
He’s right. There’s the calm that comes from viewing an oil seascape when you might struggle to control your breathing. When anxiety creeps and jitters along our limbs, scratching a page with a biro helps get it out. Spending an hour crafting something small and sweet that invokes a spark of happiness when we put it on a shelf because hey, I made that! is invaluable.
Art can be interpreted and contextualized differently by each viewer and creator – allowing them to interpret its messages in a way that can provide comfort or stability at difficult times. And that’s the real pricelessness in its worth.