Creative Arts as a Treatment for Addiction

Creative Arts as a Treatment for Addiction

Creative Arts as a Treatment for Addiction

Creative Arts as a Treatment for AddictionWhen most people think about therapy, what comes to mind is two people sitting in an office: the clinician and the client. The client speaks about his or her emotional challenges and the therapist listens and offers sage advice. Since there isn’t a cookie-cutter method for treating addiction that is effective, there are alternatives that reach people where they are. One example is non-verbal approaches to recovery.

We discussed some of these approaches with Peggy Tileston, a board certified music therapist with a master’s degree from Lesley University in what was called holistic counseling (in 1984 there wasn’t a term for integrative wellness). Peggy is trained in psychodrama, Neuro-Linguistic Programming, yoga, meditation and Laughter Yoga and has worked in schools, psychiatric hospitals, residential treatment centers, community clinics and private practice in the U.S. and Europe.

Q: What are the benefits of verbal and non-verbal interventions in recovery?

A: Combining verbal and non-verbal forms of therapy involves the whole person, and so do addictions and eating disorders. These diseases take over every part of one’s being, and a whole-person approach to a whole-person challenge simply makes sense to me.

Many clients are dealing with some form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or have experienced trauma in their lives. Especially when it comes to trauma work, deep healing needs to meet deep wounds where they live and gently assist in the movement from fragmentation and lack of awareness to integration and greater awareness. These wounds and memories occurred and are often stored in pre-verbal or non-verbal parts of the body, brain and psyche in the form of images, physical sensations (including all five senses) and emotions. When we invite a client to process their experience through imagery, movement or sound and then add in the verbal component associated with the higher functions of the brain, they are able to move at their pace toward coming to terms with what happened and telling a new, more empowering story about who they are.

Many clients have become “artful dodgers” of their own emotions, preferring a numbed escape into intellectualization or addiction to feeling the truth of their own, often devastating, emotions and experiences. They trust no other way. When we offer them opportunities to experience, explore, express and then verbally process their feelings through movement, music or art in safe and structured ways, they learn to trust both these alternatives and their ability to manage their emotions. They become “artful warriors” in their recovery.

Q: What about people who don’t view themselves as creative? How can they incorporate creative arts into their healing process?

A: Every client I have worked with in the addiction or eating disorder field has survived as long as they have precisely because of, among other things, their creativity. It doesn’t take much to harness that creativity in service to their recovery. One of the biggest blocks is the cognitive belief – the lie – that they aren’t creative.

In the beginning, I often avoid words like “creativity” or “arts” because they conjure up beliefs, expectations, comparisons and judgments that can immediately stifle the creative spirit. Saying “Let’s explore…,” calling the intervention a non-verbal experience, or even saying, “I invite you to play around with…” takes some of the pressure off.   

Q: How can non-verbal modalities bypass blocks we may have to words?

A: The process of making art, music or movement accesses and engages many different parts of the brain simultaneously, and whether verbal channels of expression are blocked physiologically or psychologically, these non-verbal experiences can activate, energize and become precursors to more direct verbal processing.

A client may not be able to verbalize what they are experiencing or thinking, but they may be able to draw it out, play it on a drum in such a way that it echoes their sentiments, or hold themselves in a physical position that feels like an accurate portrayal of their insides. The art materials, instruments and their bodies become the medium of expression when words fail.

A client may feel uncomfortable talking about an experience but be more than willing to share an mp3 of a song that describes what they’re going through or point to an image in a magazine that reflects how they feel. Non-verbal interventions are like gateway interventions; they lead to more ways of connecting to themselves and to the therapist.

Q: Describe some specific experiences you have had with art, movement and music therapies.

A: A 15-year-old never allowed himself to speak of years of abuse until several sessions of playing on an African hand drum called a djembe. In the third session, he was able to find his voice enough to whisper “No” as he hit the drum, and in subsequent sessions was able to tell his story, bit by bit, through rapping and chanting as he played. Toward the end of our time together he created an empowering chant that he called “Never Again.”

In a “musical psychodrama,” three women supported each other as they danced and sang their journeys from victim to survivor to thriver while the rest of the group provided musical support and accompaniment on percussion instruments. The verbal discussion at the end was so much richer than had we simply discussed the process of moving from victim to thriver, and the feeling of mutual support in the group was palpable.

A woman who participated in the centering classes (participants learned how to return to a centered and balanced physical position when off-balance, breathe in a balanced way, and use imagery and chant to return to center) said she used the practice to avoid a relapse when her old dealer approached her on the street.

A woman who was able to finally articulate her story after completing a series of five clay figures she titled “Metamorphosis.” I asked her to become each figure and give each one a voice, which she was able to do through writing.

By utilizing art, movement and music therapies, clients can successfully move beyond words into healing feelings and reclaiming themselves.

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