Passing of the Storm: The Story of Art in Substance Abuse Therapy

Author: Jane Rolander, LCSW. Contributor Submitted.

It’s 8:30am on a Tuesday when I poked my head out into the lobby. “Hey guys, I need help carrying some stuff to group today. Any volunteers?”

A few lethargic women put down their coffee cups, grab their purses and follow me back behind the locked door into my office. I hand them my “group bin” (full of pens, a notebook, drug tests, a breathalyzer and my appointment book) and a few plastic bags from Michael’s Craft Store on them.

These women have multiple DUIs, sexual traumas, revivals from overdose with Narcan, and run-ins with Child Protective Services. Drugs and alcohol have ruined their lives, and they’re trying to put the pieces back together and build up a normal life all while staying sober. These are women who live in shelters, who work three jobs, who don’t have friends because they either stole from them or lost them because they decided to get clean and their using buddies are still out on the street.

“Oh boy, looks like we’re doing crafts today,” one of them comments as they walk back out to the lobby. I smile as I follow behind them dragging a giant blank canvas behind me as we all pile in the elevator.

We all make our way to the group room. The walls are white, with no windows. There’s a giant table surrounded by chairs. Each chair is occupied by a woman who’s here for Intensive Outpatient group therapy to work on their addiction recovery.

They come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and ages. They have various amounts of “clean time” ranging from a few days to almost a year. Two of them are pregnant. This group meets twice a week, for 3 hours at a time. It’s the most intense level of outpatient care our women’s program offers and for many of them it’s their “last stop” after multiple treatment attempts and difficulty achieving a sustained period of sobriety.

“So what the hell is that?” one of them asks while nodding to the canvas in the corner of the room. We’ve just finished checking in and discussed any “burning desires” they have that day. The canvas has created noticeable anxiety with them constantly glancing at it.

“Remember last week when you guys said you’re tired of doing worksheets?” I asked. “This is what we’re doing today. Art therapy.”

Panic ensues. They immediately erupt into a variety of reasons why this is a terrible idea.

“I can’t draw.”

“The last time I painted something was in kindergarten.”  

“I’m not creative.”

“Art gives me anxiety.”

One of them just sits silently in complete shutdown mode, staring at the wall without blinking.

They settle in and I explain the plan: work together to create a painting that illustrates their experiences in recovery. Everyone has to participate. The finished product will be submitted to the Art of Recovery exhibit at a local gallery downtown. The exhibit showcases artwork created by people with mental illness.

I want to make it very clear that I’m not an art therapist. I’m a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. My current title is Substance Abuse Therapist and I work in our specialized women’s program that focuses specifically on the needs of women with substance use disorders. Art therapists are their own specialty and deserve credit for what they do. While I am a creative person who loves and appreciates art and puts it into my clinical practice, I would never call myself an art therapist.

We start with a brainstorming session where I write different ideas, themes, and quotes on the whiteboard. They settle on the idea of a plant in the process of recovering from wiling, with the sun shining in the window after a storm clears. A few members draw up some basic sketches on paper while others google quotes about recovery and share their favorites.

The room is full of laughter and compliments and praise towards each other. Things like “oh, that’s really pretty” and “oh I like that quote, I’m going to write that down!” The project continues in-group over the next 3 sessions.

Throughout the process I see them talk to each other, problem solve, and ask for help. And as the paint hits the canvas, they start to relax and open up. Suddenly we’re talking about hard stuff without any fear or anxiety. Things like overdosing, divorce, losing custody of their children, sexual trauma, and suicide attempts. They are literally painting their experiences into the canvas and turning those experiences into art.

Several folks comment on how soothing they find the process of painting to be and wonder while they never tried it before. Even the woman who said “art gives me anxiety” was able to paint a small portion with encouragement and reassurance from her peers. Later in the process, they get more and more excited to start group when I get them from the lobby. They rush into my office to grab the painting and carry it upstairs. They ask for flyers for the gallery event to send to their friends and family.

When the painting was finished, they had to name it and price it. All pieces for the gallery are for sale and members of the local community can purchase them. The group immediately decides that if the painting is sold they want to donate all of the money to help pay for someone to go to residential rehab. And they come up with the title “The Passing of the Storm.”

The beautiful thing about all this is not only the process of healing for the clients, but the buzz around the agency and community. Co-workers stopped by to look at it and comment on how beautiful it is.

The painting spent a month in a gallery and then another month “on tour” participating in different exhibits around the state. It wasn’t purchased, and eventually came home. I asked them what they wanted to do with it and they told me to hang it in my office so that they can come and look at it, and others can see its message of experience, strength, and hope.  And that’s exactly what I see every day when I look at it.

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