The contribution of art to addiction recovery
Studies have shown that there are significant changes in the brain’s chemistry when a person in recovery is doing something creative. By re-processing their stored memories, addicted individuals can get better and eventually heal themselves. How does it work?
The basic concept it this: using art as a tool in addiction recovery helps individuals express their emotions and thoughts, translating them into graphics with a unique meaning. Having the chance to express emotions greatly affects people in addiction recovery. It helps them face their thought process. It helps them track emotional progress. And when continued throughout the entire episode of addiction treatment can bring great benefit.
Painting your own recovery story: What are the benefits?
Using art as a creative tool can help people in recovery in many ways, including:
- Externalizing emotions through images
- Learning about the meaning of art-projected images
- Projecting trauma into art work
- Reaching balanced focus of control
- Recognizing the authentic self
In this exclusive Q&A we speak with Havi Mandell, Ph.D., LCSW, Reiki Master and certified spiritual healer, about using art as a tool during addiction treatment. Read further to find out more on the importance of implementing art and art techniques in addiction recovery. We encourage you to post all of your questions in the section below and we’ll make sure to answer to you ASAP.
ADDICTION BLOG: You are a therapist and an artist who sees the value in using the right and left brain in therapy. How can this approach help address and eventually heal trauma in individuals?
HAVI MANDELL Ph.D., LCSW: The left brain connects with the conscious, verbal part of our experience. The right brain connects with our subconscious, visual, imaginal realm of experience.
The experience of trauma is often, truly, beyond words. I have so many clients with severe trauma who can talk about parts of their story, but some of the horror, pain and grief of their experience cannot be expressed in words and sometimes there just are no words.
Bringing the story beyond words to canvas in colors, textures and images, creates an opening, a gateway to give some form and expression to the story and begin the process of uncovering the seeds of healing and transforming the story.
Intentional Creativity sets a focus on this healing and transformation and then invites and creates an ongoing dialogue, a dance, between the colors, symbols and images the right brain brings forth and the clarification and naming of experience of the left brain. The right brain opens and reveals, the left defines and clarifies. The right brain offers the metaphoric cues and clues for healing and takes us on a symbolic journey to transform wounds and stories. The left gives that journey words.
There is the saying that “a picture is worth a thousand words.” I have been brought close to tears seeing someone paint through layers of their pain and trauma into an image of empowerment, grace and deep meaning that becomes the “face” of their own transformation. When people arrive at that moment, their posture changes, their voice becomes fuller and there is a palpable shift and healing that is not just talked about, it is embodied.
ADDICTION BLOG: What is the therapeutic potential of art and symbols? Can you explain to our audience how the use of art and symbols can help people recover from addiction?
HAVI MANDELL Ph.D., LCSW: I think there is limitless potential. Art… and I would include all the arts… accesses the innate healing potential within all of us.
Years ago, I did some Metaphor Therapy work. In that process, it was always said that the seeds of healing are contained in the wounds and that if we can explore the metaphoric realm, the world of images, we will find those healing seeds, we will find an inner path of healing that we would not have consciously arrived at otherwise.
The creative process connects us to our “inner healer” and the images or movements or music that bring us back to our essence and back to embodying and expressing our feelings and our experience.
In my experience working with addiction, most, if not all, addiction seems to involve disconnection, an attempt to escape and disconnect from feelings, particularly painful ones, and from the stories held in our bodies, the ways being embodied has felt like a liability.
Creative process gives our feelings, again, often beyond words, a way to move from exile onto the canvas in a way that calls to us, that awakens us to what has been held within, to what needs to be expressed.
I know that when I paint, feelings rise to the surface as I paint and what emerges on canvas draws me in deeper and I feel shifts in my body as I work through the layers of painting. I have seen and heard that same opening to feeling and embodied shifts from many clients. When we can embrace and express our feelings and feel seen and heard and understood, even if that is just a part of us being seen and heard by another part of us, we reconnect to our feelings, our embodiment, and ourselves. And that, I believe, is essential to recovering from addiction.
And, art gives us a way to constructively and positively heal:
- our feelings
- our stress
- our guilt
- our confusion
- our shame
The left brain holds the inner critic. When we work with Art and symbol, with the right brain, we are working in a realm beyond the critic and the shamer. To recover from addiction, we need to find our way home to ourselves without shame, to our feelings without fear, to embrace life rather than try to escape it. Creativity can help this recovery.
The symbols that emerge are also so very powerful. Think of your favorite symbol and all it means and represents to you. A symbol carries a whole story, speaks volumes. The symbols that arise for someone in his/her art are particularly powerful because they speak to that individual’s personal metaphoric healing and a hero’s journey.
ADDICTION BLOG: What can behavioral healthcare workers do to stimulate someone’s creative potential? How can we as mental health professionals encourage creativity?
HAVI MANDELL Ph.D., LCSW: The very first thing we can do is to recognize and affirm that everyone holds creative potential and, in fact, everyone uses their creativity, even if not always constructively.
There is a meme: Worry is a gross misuse of the imagination.
Our creative thinking can be constructive or destructive. We have a choice to use our creativity as a path for healing or to feed fear stories or not-good-enough stories.
1. THE WHAT IF’s. One of my favorite ways to invite creativity in is to open up the concept of positive “What If”s. When we are in fear, it is easy to create negative “What ifs”…
- What if the plane crashes?
- What if I fail?
Opening to positive “what ifs” is a powerful shifter of perception.
- What if the old stories really aren’t all there is?
- What if I believed in myself?
- What if I can feel as fearless as I did when I was a little girl climbing through the trees?
- What if I have only begun to discover my potential?
- What if I really am lovable?
…These “what if” inquiries gently spark positive inquiry and creativity.
2. IMAGINATION AND MEDITATIVE TECHNIQUES. I love using Jung’s active imagination process to invite individuals to enter the imaginal realm and connect with inner archetypes of healing, empowerment, strength and identity.
Active imagination is part of the intentional creativity process that brings archetypes and symbols to life. Going into a meditative mode is calming and centering on its own and there is often a delight and surprise in what shows up in the process and realizing the wisdom they hold within.
I speak with clients about the metaphors of their lives and in their bodies. It is important to gently invite clients to attend to their breath, the places of tension and ease in their bodies. When they have a feeling or sensation, I will gently move them into the metaphors…whether that is as simple as identifying the “pain in the neck” that is a pain in the neck or if, for example, someone says she is depressed. I will ask where she feels that depression, if that depression had a color or shape or texture what would that be….?? The depression then takes form and can be attended to on another level. This also helps create containers around feelings that are overwhelming, giving them some boundary in giving them some form.
3. CREATIVE AND CALM ATMOSPHERE. I have art supplies in my office, as well as drums and rattles, so they are readily available. I also have a fountain, and art on the walls to create a calm and colorful atmosphere.
4. KEEPING A CREATIVE JOURNAL. I ask clients to keep a creative journal, if they are willing. They can write in it, paint, draw, they can scribble with a crayon and that counts. It is a way to, on a daily basis, connect to feelings and creative expression. I ask about the music they listen to and how they move their bodies. I think it is important to make it clear that they do not have to share their creative journaling, especially initially, so they do not need to worry about critical responses or fear having the expressions of their soul somehow analyzed.
5. A FEELING OF SAFETY. Most importantly, I create a safe space and witnessing presence that makes it safe to go into these places.
ADDICTION BLOG: Which art techniques and exercises do you recommend in the recovery process of people diagnosed with substance use disorders?
HAVI MANDELL Ph.D., LCSW: I always seek to work with clients in ways that they feel safest with.
One nice thing about art is that it is accessible to kids in homes who needed to keep secrets. These children often hold the “rule” that they can’t talk about something or write about it. Occasionally, any art they created as a kid got destroyed by telling the story, but far less often because it was often not so obvious.
If that is there or if they are highly critical about their art-making, I start with collage (choosing images rather than making them) or drawing with their eyes closed or with both hands (a good right brain/left brain process) or working with clay.
An art therapist I trained with insisted that I keep a creative journal and try different art media and processes myself so that I would be sensitive to how each felt and my own resistances to any of these. I would suggest anyone interested in doing this work do the same. If you are not comfortable engaging in a process yourself, you probably don’t want to bring it to a client and it helps you feel the possibilities of any process.
Collage is often the safest…whether that is the inner me/outer me or addict self/recovery self using a shoebox (inside and outside of box covered with collage words and images) or a vision board or collage of a feeling or Soul Collage (collaged cards representing different aspects of self and life).
Crayons are great for inner child work and avoiding the inner critic (I also like quick guided visualizations to let the critic take a vacation while we work).
Colored pencils and watercolor pencils can be great. I love a Judith Cornell process of starting with a piece of black construction paper (representing a sense of The Dark Night of the Soul) and bringing forth color and light with the colored pencils.
Watercolor pencils allow you to write out stories and wash them with symbolic healing waters.
Clay is a more kinesthetic process to dig into the clay, to let feelings out in the process of working the clay and can create a more 3D sense or physical felt sense of relationship between parts of what is created.
Intentional Creativity Painting is a wonderful way of painting through the layers…starting with intention (e.g. Show me how to begin to claim my recovery, Show me what I need to heal right now) and painting the story of the addiction (colors, symbols, textures), then painting the release of that story, the unraveling of old, stuck patterns, then painting a gateway to a new story and moving, layer by layer, into an archetypal image of the Recovering Self with empowering symbols.
All of these processes can also be calming as immersion in them bring one into an altered state…a nice affirmation that one can have relaxing or positively energizing states without a substance.
ADDICTION BLOG: Do you see patterns in colors and symbols that addicts associate with their drug or alcohol problem? Is there any commonality of expression that can be generalized? Any interesting or universal patterns in the work?
HAVI MANDELL Ph.D., LCSW: I have noticed that there is often some theme of a container with a crack or opening to something light and positive. Like one client who painted old, dying trees with the sun trying to shine through the branches. Or a client who painted dark forms (confining forms) with some light or color trying to come through in a crack or corner. Sometimes, the container seems like a wall to keep others out or hold oneself in.
I have seen several images of someone with a cave around them and the world is “out there.” Some describe that as trying to hide, or as feeling alone.
There can be sharp forms, true in trauma as well, and eyes (beyond eyes on a main face) that they describe as connecting to either shame or not wanting to see something or the eyes of all they have experienced or witnessed that have been silent.
Images that express fear, anger and shame (dark colors, hiding) may be present. I have seen a seductive image show up once.
There is a fair amount of variety, but that sense of seeking some light in the darkness, some way to break free, even amidst painful images is often present.
ADDICTION BLOG: How do you evaluate the content of art pieces? Do you evaluate the meaning of the painting using psychoanalysis, formal/classical interpretations, or do you ask the individual to interpret it?
HAVI MANDELL Ph.D., LCSW: I do not interpret the paintings of others and have deep concerns about doing so.
I still remember a teacher referring a child for counseling because he liked using a black crayon and she had read that using black meant someone is depressed and/or suicidal. This little boy just liked black, and especially Batman.
I do encourage clients to be in a process of listening and inquiry as they paint. I invite them to discuss what comes into awareness as they paint, as they “listen” to the messages from the painting they are creating and what they feel called to add as a symbol, a color, a certain stroke. And, in this process, you would be surprised what arises and alchemizes when you open to this deep listening between painter and painting. Often, as people are painting, memories, connections and “lightbulb” moments occur and I am there to hold the space and bear witness to their process.
I think that often the PROCESS of creation is the most significant. The end result holds the energy of the process that led to its creation and becomes a healing container and affirmation that they can continue to dialogue with and heal with. They may interpret it in the moment, what it expresses for them, but I don’t think it is that static. I have clients who place their painting somewhere special so they can sit with it and, months later, continue to heal and grow with their paintings.
ADDICTION BLOG: How do many people respond to this process of expressing feelings through creating art? What about those who do not consider themselves to be art gifted? How do you motivate them?
HAVI MANDELL Ph.D., LCSW: I believe that everyone is creative and everyone can create powerful art. I meet them where they are with my conviction that there is art within them seeking to be expressed. It is not there to be critiqued, it is a voice seeking to be heard, a story seeking to be seen. We all need that and want that.
With some clients, I will start with blind drawing or fingerpainting (I love fingerpainting and you can’t be a perfectionistic finger-painting) and they can focus on the process, not product.
In individual sessions, if there is a lot of inner critic, I have often started with having them print out (regular printer) a picture of themselves as a kid. There is an easy process of rubbing the back with watercolor pencil, turning it around and tracing the photograph that was printed out. It gives them a good outline to start with and then they fill it in with the watercolor pencils. I have had clients spend several weeks or months lovingly filling in that image and open the door to wanting to paint more.
With the painting process I use, they start by writing an intention and paint a gateway (a few colors swirled to fill the canvas). They no longer have a blank canvas and that takes some of the anxiety out. Painting in layers with acrylics, they can paint through the layers and know anything can be painted over as they progress. I show them how to make a simple face and help show them ways to paint their symbols that arise.
I have had so many people who claimed they were “kindergarten artists” or “draw stick figures” fall in love with their paintings and the process of painting.
ADDICTION BLOG: What do you use as a measurement to evaluate patients before and after the healing process?
HAVI MANDELL Ph.D., LCSW: I use self-report of clients, therapist observation of positive statements and changes in affect, posture, behavior and mood, and creative measures: the progression of art created and progression in client journaling and poetry.
ADDICTION BLOG: Can you tell us more about your intentional creativity movement? What is the purpose of its existence?
HAVI MANDELL Ph.D., LCSW: My teacher, Shiloh Sophia McCloud Lewis, brought forth the intentional creativity movement, informed by her mothers and teachers, Caron McCloud, Sue Hoya Sellars and Sue Hoya Sellars teacher, Lenore Thomas Straus.
To quote Shiloh: “Creating with intention is simply working with mindfulness in whatever we set our hands to. Whether it is creating a soup, a garden, a business plan or a painting. We are more present because we choose to be and the results are different than if we are not paying attention. Intentional Creativity is an approach to creating that yields greater access to who we are now and who we are becoming, and what is possible for us and our unfolding future.”
Often, we fear the places within us because we don’t understand them or don’t have any idea how to reach them. The wounds are many layers deep. How do you get inside to where the stories live?
In our work, it is at the canvas that the hidden stories start to come unraveled and revealed. The light pours into the wounds with brush in hand. This is Intentional Creativity. Wounds become tools for transformation, and then potential for teaching and healing others emerges.
This is the movement the soul has been seeking for so long – to be expressed. Self-expression is one of the keys to healing the past, living in the present fully-embodied, and authoring a fascinating future, a legend even. This is about fearless belonging. To yourself. To your life work. To the universe. To one another.
We belong here – when we create, we come to life. We tug on the red thread and realize we are indeed connected to everything – and that connection cries out for self-expression.”
ADDICTION BLOG: Do you have anything else to add for our readers?
HAVI MANDELL Ph.D., LCSW: I cannot begin to express the power of intentional creativity for healing, for visioning, for changing our stories, our lives and our communities. I continue to be amazed at the possibilities it offers and the deep and lasting changes that it brings.