Art Therapy and Addiction-Effective or Bullshit?
Interested in whether art therapy actually works to help addicts recover from substance abuse disorders? In this post, I will share personal experiences with art therapy and addiction, as well as explain what art therapy for recovery is. I implore you to read this article with an open mind. Afterward, by all means, make your own judgment whether art therapy is an effective recovery tool for an addict.
Hello readers! It has been a while since I have published a post on the site. I apologize for keeping everyone waiting, but aside from working two jobs on top of maintaining two blogs while attempting to write a book (phew that is a mouthful!), I have been consumed by a new project.
Yup, you guessed it, I have been working on a new art project, more specifically, experimenting with a new medium I have never worked with before. Therefore, I have been consumed with completing a bunch of different pieces, each one using a different method, trying to perfect my skill. I have grown to love the work, more than other arts and crafts projects I have worked on in the past.
An Addict and An Artist
Both art therapy and addiction play a huge role in my day to day life. Obviously, art therapy is a healthier hobby than getting high. I am constantly trying to crafts and hobbies to fight my substance abuse. The more art therapy hobbies I identify as enjoyable, the more tools I have in my toolbox when I need to adjust my thinking, in other words, stop major urges to get high. Amazingly, my tendencies to crave getting high have been quelled many times with art therapy.
I have always been crafty. Since I was a child, arts and crafts always excited me, but I was never considered particularly talented. Judging off my final art pieces, it seemed I was great at following directions or copying other artists’ methods, but I was not known for original creations and I was never able to create anything eye-catching enough to set me apart from millions of other artists’ creations.
I still do not feel I am exceptional at this new medium I have been experimenting with. However, I enjoy this work more than any I have ever done in the past and in return, my pieces are turning out beautiful. I am proud of them and others seem to think I have some skill. (Whether they are protecting my ego is yet to be determined :)) Either way, the feeling of accomplishment after completing a piece is more than I ever could have asked for so I am happy with this hobby of mine!
As stated above, in my thirty years of life, I have found a few artsy projects that I was decent at, but none of my final pieces reflected those of a naturally gifted artist. It became easier to say “I am not artistic” or “Creativity is not my strong suit” than to apply myself to a hobby that I could potentially fail at.
This fear of failure was holding me back. Interestingly, creative people do a few things differently than those of us ‘non-creatives.’ Check out 22 Things Creative People do Differently Than the Rest to help yourself identify where you may be holding yourself back creatively. This article sure inspired me and it may also help others struggling to stay clean.
What do you have to lose? It may feel good to get your creative, hobby-driven mind juices flowing.
A note to my fellow substance abusers: Did you ever carry around a bunch of markers in your bag while on the streets? Does the following picture get you excited? Could you spend hours in the marker aisle at Michael’s Arts and Crafts store? Do you remember spending hours tweaking out on adult coloring books? Did you ever sit, tweaked out of your mind, writing raps or poetry? This may seem like total G-ed up from the feet up behavior, but you can not tell me you did not enjoy yourself while doing these activities. Imagine what beauty you could create with your mind at full clarity, off of drugs.
Art Therapy and Racing Thoughts
If you are an avid reader of my blog or know me personally, you know I am the queen of taking on too many things at once. Reading the list of projects (described above) I am working on currently; you may be tempted to diagnose me ADHD. Well, I do not have attention deficit disorder, even though I frequently feel like I do!
In my recovery, I have accepted that it is normal to have racing scattered thoughts when a person tries to take on too many things at one time. I have always been like this, in school, in work, and even within my own family, playing the family mediator role in adolescence.
It is no wonder I loved the way Adderall (and eventually meth) made me feel like Superwoman. In the beginning. I could get ten times as much done when on stimulants. Obviously, I took it way too far, like many of you I am sure. (Taking a downer to fall asleep in the evening should have been a huge red flag back in the day of law school exams and all-nighters :/)
Eventually, the uppers did not work the way they did at the beginning.
My mind became tolerant of them.
Less superwomen, more tweakerwoman.
Not quite as glamorous.
Action Items vs. Self-Care Items
Art Therapy and Addiction
Obviously, taking on too many things at once is an issue of mine, as well as many others who have substance abuse disorders. It has the potential to create great stress in my life, which we automatically want to fix with drugs. Since I started my recovery journey, I have tried to be very cognizant of this issue. I keep my to-do list short and I break each item into little steps, trying not to overburden myself with action items. I also make sure I have a steady, healthy balance of action items and self-care items on my list.
Action items, self-care? What the hell are you talking about, ANA?
Don’t worry! You know I am going to tell you.
Action items are important, must do, potentially, if put off for too long, stressful tasks.
Self-care items are activities that help you stay healthy, mentally and physically. Most self-care activities help you relax while accomplishing them, like art therapy, meditation, or journaling. Occasionally, self-care activities are daunting, but they will always help you feel more relaxed when accomplished, like exercising or taking night classes.
Self-care is incredibly important for a successful recovery. Other forms of self-care are eating healthy and spending time with the people you love.
Self-care activities require a clear mind, imagination, and force you to stay grounded.
For example, exercise gets rid of excess energy and keeps our bodies strong. Spending time with family increases bonds that are very important for helping a user stay clean. (Sometimes spending time with family helps you identify bonds that will not help you stay clean. It is important to identify these as well, so you can break them.) Art therapy is not only relaxing, making it a great self-care activity, but, when a project has been completed, a substance user wins back some pride lost while using drugs.
Trying to Find a Balance
-Fill out five resumes (Action Item)
-Finish entrance essay (Action item)
-Meal prep for the week (Self-care item)
-Finish Resin Art project (Self-care item)
-Post a new article on my blog (Action item)
Note: Doing an art project does not count as an action item on my increasingly large list of daily action item tasks. It will always go on the self-care side of my list.
(If your profession is art, this will be different for you. Most of us are not able to earn enough from our craft projects to support ourselves. However, sometimes, if we are lucky, we can have a decent side gig selling our art!)
If completing your art therapy projects starts to feel more like an action item than a soothing self-care item, reassess the project you have picked as your art therapy. Maybe it is time to try something new! There are, after all, countless, different art mediums to try out there, some that are yet to even be discovered. Maybe, you will be the one to discover them!
Take Away: Tread carefully if an art project becomes stressful. Stress will not help you stay clean.
How to Know an Activity is Self-Care
Art Therapy is a Form of Meditation
Art or other hobbies you are passionate about fall into self-care and will help with staying clean if they are relaxing. When working on a project, you should feel relaxed, some even report feeling meditative.
The focus required to learn a new craft forces the user to clear their mind of distractions, just like meditation. A clear mind is required to create something beautiful.
Note that even your breath becomes steady as you work on a project you are passionate about completing.
After completion of an activity, you feel a sense of accomplishment. Own this.
Let the haters hate. Do not let anyone take away your BIG. Trust me, beauty is completely subjective. In one person’s eyes, your work may be hideous. The same work may be stunning in another person’s eyes. Have you ever seen famous paintings that look like they could have been done by a three-year-old? Look how much the following pieces sold for. (Bet you can do something a bit more creative than these!)
This 1961 untitled painting by Mark Rothko sold for $28 million!
Art Therapy and Addiction-Talent not Required
As described above, I have some ADD tendencies when creating, but I promise you arts and crafts have played a HUGE role in my recovery.
Wow, that statement sounds ridiculous and you are probably wondering if I have officially fallen off my rocker… I promise I have not. Still safely rocking in my rocker, knitting needle in hand!
Okay, okay, my art medium of choice is not and has never been knitting, but you get the idea. I have tried all sorts of art projects throughout my life. I made lanyard key chains at summer camp as a child. In elementary school, I was pro at creating friendship bracelets with all sorts of colorful thread. Here are some pictures of some of my earliest craftsmanship:
So, nothing to be too excited about, obviously. I already told you though! I have always been creative, but never an art world prodigy.
Art Therapy and Addiction-Just like Xanax?
In college, I started having panic attacks. Whether the cause was family problems, taking on too much in school, boyfriend drama, or everything mixed together, I started to have trouble calming myself down naturally. A university doctor kindly prescribed me Lorazepam after a particularly frightening panic attack landed me in the E.R.
Lorazepam, like Xanax, worked wonders for relaxing me, but ultimately, I would fall asleep after taking a pill and that did not do much in the way of helping me to navigate my anxiety. Asleep, it is difficult to identify the cause of anxiety. Without identifying the cause there was no way I could put a plan in place to prevent another attack a few weeks later.
After running out of my prescription of these magic pills a couple of weeks earlier than I should have, I found myself feeling antsy as hell, using all my energy to fight off panic attacks. Impending doom with every breath I took knowing the pills were gone.
I had some acrylic paints and a few canvases lying around my apartment and decided painting would provide a welcomed distraction from the anxiety I was feeling. Hopefully, I would be distracted enough to avoid the inevitable panic attack I knew would arrive sooner than later.
Sounds awful right? I would become more anxious just knowing I was out of the very medication that helped control my anxiety. What a catch 22!
Group Art Therapy and Addiction
That evening, I set out to paint and something interesting happened. My mind started to clear with each paint color I chose. My thoughts slowed to the pace of my paintbrush. My heart rate slowed and became the beat to which I created a wonderfully colorful, albeit not a masterpiece, acrylic painting. Here is a picture of one of my paintings from around that time in my life:
You can see there is a lot going on in this painting. Interestingly, each part of the painting means something to me, even if some parts look a little ‘schizo’ to my readers.
As friends would visit my apartment, they would ask about the mess of paint and canvases I had on my kitchen table. Surprisingly, most wanted to come over and paint with me. I started leaving my working canvases on the living room table and when friends came by, they could pick from my many art mediums, including acrylics, puff paints, paint markers, spray paint, and much more, and add whatever they wanted on the canvas.
Interestingly, every single person, the majority of whom were college-age at the time, whether they came over to eat dinner or just to watch the U of A game, ended up contributing something to a canvas. Instead of drinking games, we were painting. In the photo below, two of these collaborations hang behind me on the wall:
Fall of my Freedom of Expression
Unfortunately, when I started getting into hard drugs, I stopped expressing myself artistically. I carried my paintings with me from apartment to remind me how I felt when creating those. Eventually, as I sunk deeper into addiction, it became harder to remember this feeling.
Finally, everything started to catch up to me and I was evicted from my apartment. I asked a neighbor to hold on to my paintings. I had her hold four or five pieces that meant the world to me. When I returned a week later to ask her for the paintings, she said she had given them to Goodwill. (Along with my flat-screen television, which looked strikingly like the new one she claimed to have, but that is beside the point!)
I was pretty much devastated that I lost those canvases. I had spent hours, my friends had spent hours, painting those. There were memories attached to those canvases. No one else would appreciate those. In fact, someone probably bought them at Goodwill to paint over them for their own art project.
The paintings above, in the background of the picture where I have on a “Make Art, Not War” tank top, are the very paintings that ended up at Goodwill. The photo I posted here is the last remaining image I have of them. I was lucky to find any record of the paintings. Thank God for Facebook!
The whole photo is a sign for me. Some sort of cosmic message to start creating again because I promise you, I did not plan to be photographed in that very shirt in front of my own paintings!
Who knows, maybe someone reading this found them at Goodwill and will return them to me one day.
Inmate Creativity: Art Therapy and Addiction
This is not uncommon among substance abusers. I can not stress how much talent is wasted when drugs enter the picture. Take inmates in jail for drug crimes, for instance. It is unbelievable the creativity expressed by inmates. You would be amazed by how many talented artists, rappers, vocalists, even sculptures there are in there.
During my jail stint, our dorm organized a talent show once a week to keep our minds distracted and remind us that we were not just trash even though society had thrown us out like we were. I know, very “Orange is the New Black” of us, right? I guess, but honestly, we just needed something to keep our mind from turning to mush.
There is not enough opportunity in lockup to express yourself or learn new skills.
I was blown away by some poetry I heard.
Some girls had voices you could easily hear on American idol.
A couple of girls had a talent for stand up comedy and the images some inmates could draw with only a tiny, eraser less, golf pencil were unbelievable!
All this talent locked behind bars for using drugs.
What a waste.
Here are a couple of pictures of some art I was gifted in there:
I recently found an event showcasing artwork done by inmates. The event is a professional art show in Tempe featuring artwork by inmates. After some more research, I found two fantastic online resources featuring brilliant inmate art pieces. The coalitions who run these websites also host art showcases and mentor events around the U.S. so follow them on Facebook if you are interested. If you are or were an inmate and would like to submit artwork I highly suggest you GO FOR IT!
My Art Therapy and Addiction Today
Recently, many hours of my free days from work involve a new type of art. I have been learning the intricacies, techniques, do’s and dont’s of pouring onto a canvas. I started with pouring epoxy resin I had colored with acrylic paints. Eventually, I began experimenting with alcohol inks, mica powder, and even nail polish! The first piece I created was inspired by the following video:
Mrs. ColorBerry makes some coolest geode art I have ever seen and, after watching her video, the technique looked so fun to try. Here is how my first piece turned out:
After creating my geode, I was hooked. Hooked. Ha, it seems odd to use that word to describe my relationship to anything besides substances. Here are a few more of my pieces:
I started my own Etsy shop recently and I am proud of the work I have created. I have also started experimenting with acrylic paint pouring techniques. The method involves mixing acrylic paint, Floetrol (or some other paint pouring medium: even Elmer’s Glue-All works!) and a bit of silicone oil. Here is one of the most recent acrylic pour paintings I created:
My intent in showing you my work is not to gain credit or recognition. My intent is to inspire you.
Whatever type of art relaxes you, distracts you, or even just catches your interest, you should not be afraid to try it.
What do you have to lose anyway? If you are trying to get off drugs, read How to Get off Drugs: The Power of Imagination. Maybe you can add Purchase Art Supplies to your new to-do list.
In conclusion, you do not need to be a prodigy to enjoy art. Creating something is therapeutic. It relaxes your mind, ridding you of stressful thoughts that may trigger using thoughts.
Art as a therapy is not a magic pill with the potential of curing substance abuse disorders, but it is a tool to help build that drug-free lifestyle we all crave eventually. Art therapy and addiction pair well together. With an addictive personality, art gives an outlet to be obsessive in a healthy way, as opposed to obsessive about staying high.
Stay tuned for an article about the best art therapy activities for recovering addicts.
Thank you for reading and please share any artwork you have created in the comments below. We would also love to hear your personal experiences with art therapy and addiction.
If you have any questions about how to get started with your own paint or resin pouring projects, feel free to ask. All the best to each of you and happy creating!