There comes a point in nearly everyone’s life where they decide they need help. Whether it’s with opening a tin can or asking for something larger, like emotional support, it’s something we all experience.
Take anxiety for example, people often presume that the hardest part of asking for help is the request itself but it is usually what follows that is the most trying. After admitting there is a problem the person is immediately confronted with the absolution that there is a solution and they will get better. The problem is no longer just theirs, they’ve lost control of it and there’s no going back.
However, time and time again therapy has brought about positive changes in those who struggle mentally in today’s society. There’s no belittling it, yet why do so many people claim not to believe and discredit it?
Coming from someone who has always said therapy doesn’t “work” for them it may surprise you to hear that art therapy changed my mind… eventually. I had been for counseling sessions to “improve” my self-esteem and confidence but always brushed off the therapists as dusty old bags that were just seeing another surly textbook case of anxiety sat in front of them.
It annoyed me there was nothing personal in my sessions, each time they had a planned exercise ready and visualisations I could see them doing with every one of their clients. How could something so personal as therapy feel so devoid of uniqueness and boring as Ikea furniture? Where was the challenge?
A friend recommended art therapy to me and not wanting to be rude I went along to a group class with him. I figured it would be a load of people sat in a circle “painting their feelings” and all taking themselves very seriously but annoyingly, it wasn’t like that.
When I arrived a thoroughly unremarkable, middle-aged woman sat me down with a coffee and introduced me to the rest of the group. The overall purpose of that particular session was to “lose yourself in repetitive geometric patterns without any particular end goal”. Thrilling. At first I was terrified people would ask questions in a kind of “what are you in for?” style and stare at me. I sat down and tried to do neat organised squares that measured equally and ignore the whispers I was certain concerned me.
"I can’t even walk down the street without thinking people are staring at me,” I kept thinking, my brain was shrieking to get the hell out of there and I dare not move my arms in case everyone saw how sweaty I had become. Consequently, with all these distractions, the meant-to-be-anally-neat-squares were not going well; they were wonky, sloppy and began to make me itch with irritated boredom. The more I looked at my failed attempts at perfection the more I began to understand the purpose of the class and therefore resent it.
I decided to take the piss and “emotionally invest” in my artwork; as a result, the pencil work became heavy, rapid and full of movement. I abandoned the idea of squares and picked a central point from which I let lines “explode” out. I layered lines over and over each other until I lost the original drawing and the thoughts of people staring and whispering.
At the end of the class we were obliged to proudly display the “inner workings of our souls” to complete strangers, which of course I loved. Not. I think my exact words were “So urm, yeah, it’s my first time here.” Not exactly soul bearing but it was certainly the most I was going to give at that time. Asking a person who suffers from social anxiety to speak in a social situation? Excellent idea.
After the class I found myself going back time and time again to my decision to stop drawing the squares and go “freestyle”. My overactive thoughts concocted a theory that I chase perfection in my life and when I inevitably fail, I beat myself up and believe everyone else is better than me. I tried to shake the idea off but it just seemed to fit much to the horror of my self-depreciating humor.
Now I’m not saying art therapy cured me after one session, because it didn’t, but as much as I hate to admit it, it did help and I ended up going to a weekly class. The thing about it that worked for me was that it became a space and time for me to be on my own, with no one in “my face”. It was something so personal as I was always creating something that was purely from and about myself. Someone may have initiated the subject matter but the end result was all mine.
Art therapy for me is a way of coping with my anxiety in a non-confirmative manner and in a way that I can control, I’ve found I do it outside of the classes and as cheesy as it sounds, I do feel a little “cleansed” after drawing. I think the most powerful thing for me about the practice of art therapy is that you can observe your own journey, taking out the patronizing element of a therapist constantly telling you how to deal with your condition and guiding you through sleepy visualisations. You realise you can effectively be your own therapist and what’s more personal than that?