I graduated from my Diploma in Art Therapy in 2009. It was a two year full time course and I absolutely loved every minute of it. At the time I decided to study it, I’d just returned to Melbourne from London with my two month old daughter Isha. I had just left an abusive relationship with Padma, had no money, no self-esteem, and moved into my parents’ house after having them disown me four years prior. I chose art therapy because I felt it could assist me in uncovering the deeper parts of myself which I felt so far away from. I knew I needed healing and knew my suppressed anger was blocking my creativity and joy. I also liked that it didn’t involve the dependence on a practitioner or person in power. The modality of art therapy did not need to be interpreted or manipulated by others. I wanted to work on trusting myself and finding my own expression and sense of power, after the abuse that I had just experienced over the last few years of my time away overseas.
Currently I am studying to receive my Masters in the field which will take me 6 years. I have learnt that art therapy is quite misunderstood and I wanted to clarify some issues around the naming of the therapy. I will talk about the two types of art therapy, as I work in both.
Firstly, there is Art as Therapy.
This is referred to as the art making process itself being therapeutic. This kind of art therapy includes focusing on a creative task and it being relaxing and enjoyable. It can be helpful in improving fine motor skills, focus and attention, and encouraging playfulness and imagination. This is the type of art therapy I use with my position as an Art Therapist at Regis Aged Care Facility. I have been working at Regis with the elderly residence once a week for over a year and a half.
I have gotten to know the group of ten elderly individuals and love to learn more about them and their life stories. All of them are well over the age of 70 and some close to 100. They vary in their physical and mental capacities, from the very bright with quick wit, to those who are experiencing mental deterioration and are in early beginnings of Alzheimer’s or bordering on Dementia. I have seen four of my residence pass on in my time there and quite a few leave as they move onto a higher need facility.
For my regulars that remain with me now I can honestly say I thoroughly enjoy their company. They are so pleasant to be around and very kind, generous and loving. I feel very lucky to watch them engage in the art process and feel proud of the work they do.
When I first began, there wasn’t a single person who didn’t say, “Oh I can’t do art! I’m not creative. I’m a terrible drawer. I can’t see properly. I’ll ruin the colouring in page because I’ll go outside the lines and make a mess of things.” They were genuinely frightened and some of them had never even used colouring textures or paint their entire lives.
One gentleman, who I instantly warmed to, who had never handled a paint brush or texture, literally began to tremble in fear as he had to decide which colour he was going to choose. I guided him, but not until I allowed him to feel his fear of making a choice and possibly getting the colour wrong. I then later learnt that he was a Holocaust survivor and at the age of 9 had watched his parents get decapitated by the Germans. He was literally riddled with fear in every part of his life. I asked him to paint a rainbow and gave him the direction of the bow curve and he told me he could not recall the last time he’d seen a rainbow and couldn’t remember what they looked like. Skip was only with me for 6 months before moving into the higher needs facility where most residents there have dementia.
Another lady was also terrified that she would make a mistake with the colours for her rainbow and then went on later to explain, although not consciously making the connection, that she had been raised and taught by nuns with whom she feared and always did exactly what she was told.
Another lady painted her first colouring page of a princess with a dog. She was so proud of herself, not because it was perfect, but just because she had accomplished it, and received such praise from the group that she began to stick every picture she did with me on her wall in her room. Her room now is the talk of the facility as it is fun, decorative and inspiring.
The thing I love the most about being there, is I get to imagine being their age and part of their world. I get to put myself into the shoes of an elderly woman and feel into many different aspects of life. When I first started the group I would come home quite scared and often in tears. I felt that if I didn’t emotionally work through some of my own childhood injuries that I too could develop the disease of Alzheimer’s. I believe that the emotional root of the deterioration of our memory is caused by the soul based choice not to remember our childhood memories. The human soul is so incredibly powerful that the decision to avoid and supress our pain from early childhood and subsequent painful memories, can literally create the physical manifestation of the dis-ease in the brain. (Jesus speaks about this topic in great length in many talks @ Divine Truth )
I knew that I was also purposely choosing to supress and deny my pain associated with my early childhood memories, and also knew that it was very possible for me to end up with that disease and at worst, dementia in my later years. I had attracted to myself a group of people who, due to their unwillingness to release their childhood pain, developed neurodegenerative diseases. This was a wakeup call for me to see the serious potential consequences of my choice to choose resistance over feeling.
I now love asking them lots of what they remember the most in their life, what they have learnt and also what they would change. My dear elderly friend Sheila reflects constantly, and tells me every week, “When I first started art class I said, ‘Oh no that’s not for me!’ but look at me now. I’m here every week and I love it!” The reason she tells me this so often, I actually kid you not that it’s been every week for well over a year, is that she has surprised herself. She felt she knew herself and felt strongly that she didn’t like art and wasn’t going to be a part of it. Then something changed. Something inside of her embraced a new opportunity and now she really loves it and never misses a week. Sheila has never travelled overseas and apart from moving interstate once, has not experienced much change in her life. Despite the change in her suddenly liking art is a relatively small things to others, to her it is a big declaration that she has changed. What was once ‘her’ was now not the same person on that one topic. She likes this and she feels inspired that personal growth and change is possible. I feel this is a great lesson to learn at any age.
Here are some photos of my art group and their art.
Now secondly, there is Art in Therapy.
This is what I am really passionate about. This is a different process than described above. Although they are both known as Art Therapy, there is a huge difference in their design, intention and process. This is the juicy soul expression that I find rewarding, insightful, emotionally opening, cleansing and incredibly healing. It is the work that can only be done by those individuals who are willing to open and know themselves. When art is used in therapy, there is a specific purpose to receive truth, awareness, feel the emotions that are being suppressed and come to a greater understanding of their current soul condition.
For this to occur the art therapist must be able to hold a safe space where they are comfortable with emotional expression, particularly anger and grief. As I have yet to find such an art therapist, I am both client and therapist to my art therapy sessions. I am the client when in the process and then therapist after when I write the process in my journal and pray to see what I can’t currently see. I have to be willing to see the hard truth about myself and feel the emotions that are uncomfortable or too ashamed to admit. If the session is not uncomfortable, then I am fooling myself and staying in my comfort zone.
On the 1st of January 2017 I made the choice to wake up at 5.30am every morning and paint a picture for the duration of 30 days. I didn’t believe that I could keep to my commitment, but surprisingly I did. I hear people all the time say to me, “Oh you’re an art therapist, you must be an artist. Could you put your work online so that others may view it?” And I reply, “God no! I’m an art therapist not an artist or an art teacher.”
The art that comes forth from the soul is not usually the kind of art you would hang on your wall or show off to your friends. It is not usually art you want anyone to see. It is personal. It is raw and real and doesn’t want to be judged, just as we do not want to be judged. In saying this though, I have decided to share my paintings from my 30 day process with you for a purpose, and that is to show you that the art need not be beautiful or ‘good.’ The paintings are messy and childlike and came forth without me thinking with my mind about what I was going to do, what colours I would use or any of the usual thinking that most of us do the minute we get a paintbrush ready to touch a big piece of paper.
I woke up in the morning, usually cranky and still tired, and just had a glass of water. My art space was already set up with the paint tubs laid out before me and a big poster size paper stuck to the wall, as I’d prepared everything the night before. I would walk into the room, close the door behind me and get a brush and without thinking at all, I would start to express how I was feeling in that very moment and put that onto the piece of paper. No considering, no editing, no pausing, just painting. I likened it to the paintbrush being an extension of my soul and the passage way to allow my toxic vomit to come right out on the paper.
This is the painting for day 1. It was literally nothing. A cranky nothingness fuelled by the belief that I have nothing to offer, nothing to share, to give, to express or create. I hated the moment. I hated the process. I was in passive aggressive silent emotional shutdown, and all I knew was that nothing was going to happen. And it did and didn’t at the same time.
Day 2. I felt shit. This was shit. The process was shit. Waking up that early was shit. Everything was shit.
As the mornings passed by, I began to ‘loosen’ up and my drawings began to shift. I was aware that lots of emotions were locked away in inside, but I was tight lipped and refused to emotionally open and let out any sounds.
I really believed that love was so unattainable and just too hard to access and the barriers and blockages were too impossible to break through.
After a few more days I slowly began to crack. I was very afraid.
I felt I was on shaky ground. I felt very unsettled and could not access a safe home or safe people or a feeling of stability and security. Here, God was indifferent to my fear, there, but not noticing or caring.
I went into full panic and protection mode. I wanted to protect my fear, protect my heart, and protect my pain. I believed that protection and holding all my pain inside was more loving than expressing it.
I became very angry and very loudly and aggressively heard the words, “Stay away!” Although the words and feelings were mine, I could also feel spirits warning me not to go there. They were also under the false belief that staying away from unpleasant feelings was better than exposing them and releasing them.
It wasn’t long after I’d expressed my resistance that I began to see the reason why I wanted to avoid my feelings that were arising. I had been avoiding the confrontation of the feelings I had in relation to my mother. My own terror of her rage and hatred towards me.
In the days that followed I began to be conscious that my terror of her affected every part of my life. It was constantly eating away at me and felt like eerie nails or claws behind me that I could not escape from. The fear overshadowed any light and I was lost and felt alone.
I then had begun to express my pain of the suppression I felt from my mother. I felt caged and felt that was how my mother wanted it. If I stayed small and confined, this would make her feel better about herself and would not threaten her and expose her own pain.
Days went by and I expressed how I felt I could never please her.
How I could never measure up to her demands and expectations of me, and never feel good enough for her to love me.
How being happy, playful and in my passion exposed my mother to her own pain and therefore had emotionally shut me down creatively. Although her words of encouragement may have been expressed a few times in my life, the feeling coming from her was the opposite. It felt like, “Stop being creatively free and enjoying yourself! I was not allowed to feel like that and it hurts too much to see you having something I could never have!”
I often felt like I was betraying her if I moved forward in my life without her.
Days became weeks and I soon began to feel how rejected, repulsive and hideous I felt. God could not possibly love me. My personal shame was revealed.
Then my physical shame.
Then my sexual shame.
There were days when I just felt overwhelmed.
I just wanted my mum to love me and for us to be close. I allowed myself to feel that pain and how deeply I wanted that connection.
A little shift one morning happened and this came out.
The 30 day challenge/ commitment became effortlessly extended to another 3 weeks and often multiple paintings in one day. In total I did 87 paintings, each one of them ending with at least a page of writing in my journal. I had a dialogue with the paintings and asked certain images to voice the reason for their presence. I would just write what came to me very quickly without thinking about it. It was a highly expressive and sensitive time for me and I found it extremely helpful and did feel a few things shift in my life. I just really allowed myself to feel and express on paper exactly how I was feeling in the moment. I didn’t have a plan or a direction or any other intention, other than feeling and knowing and understanding myself more.
Since that time, which has been about 16 months now, I have not woken up feeling like a grumpy bear. I still wake up at times feeling sleepy and not fully present in my body, and at times quite angry, but I don’t have the heavy grumpy cranky feeling that I’ve had since I was a teenager. (Most people I know have this feeling and mask it with a morning coffee, cold shower or early run. I do none of those.) All the other feelings about my mother still arise, but without so much intensity. Something definitely dissipated and now the feelings are a little softer, with the exclusion of my terror based feelings. They are still quite intense and I still avoid experiencing those.
Writing this article has inspired me and I think I will do this process again. It’ll be so interesting to see what paintings come out of me this time. The very thought of it is actually quite exciting!
See you in 5!