Restorative Creativity: Art and the Healing Journey

For many who enter the doors of a therapist office, finding words to accurately honor painful and abusive experiences is an ongoing challenge. For those with PTSD, Complex Trauma and Dissociative Disorders, gaining access to and giving an account of the trauma can be profoundly difficult. Offering “Restorative Creativity” sessions to assist in processing traumatic experiences has given many clients a visual language with which to explore unprocessed, fragmented layers of their history. The power of visual imagery and the collaging of multiple images that feel like “they need to be on the same page” appears to bridge feelings and words. There is often a raw and vulnerable level of expression in imagery that acts as a visual catalyst to promote deeper communication of therapeutic issues between client and therapist. There is much to be discovered, questioned, pursued, evaluated and processed in what a client weaves together in a collage. The meaning may take time and reflection but always inherent in each piece is an authentic attempt to find and express one’s voice and know one’s story.

A Personal Story

It was over 25 years ago that I first sat across from the therapeutic professional who I asked to journey with me to understand my heart’s wounds. It was a painstaking process, week after week, to mine for the meaning behind what had propelled me to cope in ways that were not life-giving to my body and soul. As a young girl, there was an internal bypass, a short-circuiting when painful and often terrifying feelings and memories would rush to the surface. Most often their origin and context to understand meaning was absent. These intrusions into my otherwise highly functional and “perfect looking” world exposed an internal fragmentation. These experiences were a persistent reminder that the past needed attending to. There were secrets to tell. I would come to learn that these unexamined stories of my history held the key to understand what I experienced and why I had navigated the world as I had.

The space I inhabited during any one of these dissociative intrusions in a therapy session would often echo with the silence of my inability to speak and give narrative. There was no voice, only shaking and tears. There were no words…only a desperate, internal terror which left my body and mind exhausted.  I longed to attach words to what lay deep beneath the surface and release the intensity of what I was experiencing. I needed to go back before I could go forward. I needed to know and understand the parts of my story, and the parts of myself, that had been compartmentalized, boxed up and hidden away. 

Healing Expressions

It was during a particularly difficult season of wrestling with harmful coping that my Therapist suggested I “find an image that resonated with what I was feeling”. I began a search through magazines and quickly found many images “choosing me” and reaching for something deep within my story. Although I did not always understand their meaning, there was a deep knowing there was meaning to be found. The unexpected yet powerful benefit was the sensation of the intense emotional affect decreasing. The drive to express past pain, with and/or on my present body, miraculously subsided. Rather than another scar or layer of shame, a new piece of my story had the opportunity to be seen and examined. Speaking by way of imagery can be a gentler and less threatening way of beginning “to tell.” I would use this tool over and over and create hundreds of collages throughout the early years of my healing process. 

Hope for Others

This experience was the beginning of developing creative processes that could offer expression, hope, healing, resolution and understanding. It was the sacred entrance into the work I would ultimately do as a Therapeutic Arts Facilitator and Trauma Recovery Mentor with survivors whose stories I would walk alongside. 

After working with art making over a period of time, a pattern of symbols and images, unique to a client’s story, begins to emerge. The sharing of these works with a therapist can often bring relief to internal distress and anxiety often caused when it was not safe in the past to share secrets or the sources of emotional pain. By understanding these traumatic memories, their impact can be evaluated and truth replace the dysfunctional narratives those experiences often have left behind. Stories that have been hidden in darkness may now breathe in the light. Clients begin to “see the connections” in the progressive nature of collage work and how their past traumas have impacted a life path and sense of self.  Through the collage work clients begin to acknowledge the wounds, express anger and rage at injustices, grieve losses, make new choices, navigate forgiveness (to self and others), explore their spirituality, transform and heal. 

In the years I have sat across those profoundly wounded, supporting their healing process, I consider it a privilege to hold these sometime voiceless yet emotionally prolific spaces with them. Working side by side, bearing witness to the revelation of abuse and watching survivors find the courage to speak through mixed media and the creative arts, is truly a sacred endeavor.  If you find yourself in the words of my early story, struggling to give a narrative to the painful emotions and experiences of your past….there is a way forward and a path toward healing. Exploring the creative and expressive arts, as a tool in the therapeutic process, is a beautiful gift for the healing heart.

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