Beauty in pain: How art therapy works in rehabilitation

Hands drawing abstract images on paper
Ariel Lung/Staff

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In “The Art Therapy Sourcebook,” Cathy Malchiodi calls art therapy a “modality for self-understanding, emotional change and personal growth.” In the context of rehabilitation, art therapy is a tool for clients who are not entirely ready or completely able to articulate their emotions. It offers them a palette and a platform to represent their thoughts without having to string together words and without fear of saying the wrong thing.

“A lot of the people I work with are having comprehension difficulties early in recovery. A lot of people have some degree of brain damage because of how much they’ve used,” said art therapist Charissa Drengsen in an interview with The Daily Californian. “So to do something like read a text and interpret what it means and apply it to yourself to access your emotions can be very difficult in the beginning of sobriety. What art therapy does is give them another way to access emotion that’s not linear, that’s not about talking and hearing and understanding language.”

This is the core of what art therapy aims to do. It attempts to dissolve the boundaries and limitations that clients, especially those at the beginning of recovery, are facing when it comes to expression. And the work is reflective of the rehabilitation experience itself, emphasizing process over product.

“When I was at California Institute of Integral Studies, some of the courses that I took there exposed me to this way of making art that was different than how I’d been exposed to it in traditional art,” Drengsen said while discussing her first experience with this method. “It was a focus on process instead of the outcome, and it really appealed to me.”

For Drengsen and for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, art therapy is considered to be most effective when the focus is on the journey of creation — not on the message being conveyed. By making the decisions of which images and ideas they want to represent within their work, clients are, in their own manner, using nonspecific symbols to try and work through their subconscious struggles.

“When we make art, we explore what type of messages we are sending from our subconscious. And you can almost use it like a tarot deck, as insight into what is going on inside your mind that you don’t even know,” Drengsen explained.

To make it possible for those clients to be able to explore their underlying thoughts and feelings through art, however, it is crucial that they not be intimidated by the process — especially for people who don’t see themselves as artists, or even as creative, to begin with. This is the main reason that Drengsen uses crafts, mixed media and collage styles instead of strict painting and drawing structures. Drengsen emphasizes the importance of making workshops accessible to everyone — theme over form is a principle she practices.

And in a group setting, which is the typical structure of art therapy courses, Drengsen has seen these workshops help people who struggle to connect with others use this process to relate to their peers. She detailed a particular experience with a student she had while working with at-risk youth through a program at Oakland Technical High School.

“He was probably already a gang member at that time. He kind of sat in the back of the class, didn’t want to participate. We were doing a mask-making workshop, and after watching other people participate, he decided he would join in, and he let us put the mask on his face.”

What Drengsen took from this particular experience was that the process of creating art, and creating it as a community, can start to chip away at some of the walls and defenses that people going through recovery often have up when they first start.

“He had to show me how tough he was and how rough his lifestyle was. But he was still going to participate, and that was tremendous to me — to connect with a kid who was still just a kid,” she said.

Drengsen, who worked for two years at a Sonoma County recovery center called Olympia House, now practices art therapy and art recovery workshops from her home studio in Glen Ellen, California. When asked about art therapy programs within other rehab centers, Drengsen noted that although many centers in the Bay Area have people who teach art classes, those classes only scratch the surface of what art can do for people in recovery if they aren’t taught by a licensed art therapist — which they often aren’t.

This is clearly a missed opportunity when it’s so evident that art therapy accesses certain means of expression that a classic 12-step structure can’t get into. Having a resource that can not only take the pulse of someone’s subconscious but also assist them in exploring their thoughts without the limits of language should not go unacknowledged and unutilized.

“People can get sober without (art therapy),” Drengsen said. “But for some people, it can be the avenue with which they can get sober and stay sober. Not offering it is not being able to give an effective pathway to people who are going to continue to struggle.”

Maisy Menzies is the arts & entertainment editor. Contact her at [email protected].