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When Words Fail

Written by Morgan Coyner, Grant Coordinator, and Cindy Birdsong, Art Therapist

Our residential and partial hospitalization clients have weekly art therapy sessions. Cindy Birdsong, TND’s art therapist, curates a safe, nurturing space for women to open their minds and create.

Observing art therapy is not allowed. Cindy requires everyone to participate. That’s how I found myself in a smock, painting a white canvas turquoise, cutting paper, and gluing it onto the background. I wasn’t sure what I was making, but Cindy kept reminding me, “there’s no mistakes in here.” It surprised me how that simple phrase made me feel like whatever I made would turn out well. It gave me freedom to be patient and see what I needed to express.

As I worked alongside the clients, they talked about their lives outside of treatment. I was with the partial hospitalization group, and they come to treatment five days a week but live at home. As they worked on projects, they shared stories and encouraged each other in their recovery. There was freedom in the air, freedom from judgment or expectations. Each woman was free to be who she was. Her struggles, her flaws, and most importantly, her successes.

Cindy says, “The process of creating art in any form is healing for the heart, soul, and mind.  Clients at The Next Door often share their personal journey with addiction not only verbally but through symbolism in paintings, collages, clay-making, and mixed media activities while they are in treatment.  Each client is encouraged to express themselves without judgement in a non-verbal way that tells a story.  Art Therapy classes allow the clients to be independent thinkers, develop self-esteem and self-worth, and find the person they used to be before their addiction took over. I’ve heard clients say things like this in class: ‘My day has felt meaningless. The opportunity to create something of my own has helped me to process my negative feelings and turn the day around.”

Trauma, the main root cause of addiction for our clients, creates certain neuropathways in the brain that are helpful for survival in that moment, yet these same behaviors end up being harmful when the body is no longer in danger. Art therapy is so effective because it helps a person express feelings that have been so deeply buried that they no longer have words for them. It creates a safe environment to work through pain. As the artist Edward Hopper said, “If I could say it in words there would be no reason to paint.”