Monday, February 7, 2011

Multi-Generational Impact of Art Therapy

I go to the homes of my clients when necessary due to their mobility limitations. I visited a client today, I’ll call him Steve, but that’s not his real name. Steve is recovering from traumatic brain injury (TBI). Steve also has severe symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) secondary to the car accident that caused his TBI. His symptoms are very hard to tease out and separate. They are all tangled like a ball of yarn after a cat attack. Today we talked a little bit about art therapy and we made some art.

Sleep is a challenge for Steve. Sometimes he can't sleep. Sometimes he gets too much sleep. He is on a complicated regimen of medications, each with its own side effects. Sometimes he has vivid and disruptive nightmares. Today Steve worked on a recent dream that had disturbed him. My thought was to help him externalize the dream in order to create a therapeutic distance from it. I showed him how to make an accordion book with four pages. The structure and limitations might really help him contain his distress. Being able to open and, more importantly, being able to close the book gives him some much-needed control. Steve was really forced to compress his dream into a tight space. But he made it happen. Steve worked silently at the table beside me. He was able to tell his story in four pictures, including an introduction and conclusion! He drew images and wrote words with a pencil, and then colored his pictures with markers. He told his story in very concise imagery and language. It was an impressive accomplishment.

When he was done, we talked about the process.

Without prompting, Steve reflected on his changed perspective at the end of the story. In the third picture he was depicted as small as a speck, nearly invisible, a microscopic dot on the paper, overwhelmed by a gigantic mountain seeming to block his path. The very last picture showed him big enough to fill half the page as he changed the dream channel. The image progression showed a remarkable improvement in self perception, and a sense of personal power. Again, this was quite a feat. It likely would have taken multiple sessions to get there without the art’s assistance.

And then Steve thanked me for helping him to “complete something in one hour.” Yeah, that’s important, too. He struggles with distractibility, and it can take him the whole day – or longer sometimes – to finish a simple task.

Later, toward the end of session, Steve told me, “You know, art therapy is affecting multiple generations in my family.” Oh? “Yes. Now when my grandchildren come over they all want to make art with me. They are not interested in TV anymore.”

And he’s told me this before, but somehow today, in these words, it stayed with me differently.

Nice one. Truth is, getting to work with people like him changes my life, too. Thanks, Steve.