Fine Art of Healing

The Fine Art of Healing
Using creative art to heal both body and soul

Imagine a woman — your grandmother, a patient, a friend — with Alzheimer’s so advanced that she no longer can remember how to use a toothbrush. She stumbles through a confusing, frightening world through which she can only navigate with help from strangers. Yet as soon as she sits at the piano she is transformed into the women she once was. She can even play the piano; so well, in fact, that she still accompanies her church choir as she always did.

Norman, a mentally- and physically-disabled man who’s lived in a mental institution for over 20 years, has hardly spoken a word in all that time. After only a few hours of art therapy he begins to chatter animatedly. “I am removing the blindfold from my eyes and the gag from my mouth,” he says.

A family friend raped Bronwyn when she was four. She’s 35 and since age 13 has suffered from eating disorders. Although she’s tried different forms of therapy, it’s finally through dance that she is able to regain a sense of her body and eat normally. “I don’t feel that hatred for my body any more,” she says, “I can look in the mirror and like what I see.”

Greg is a 25-year-old man whose sight was destroyed along with his brain’s frontal lobes by a tumour. He sits immobile, almost in a trance, and can’t remember anything that happened to him even five minutes ago. Yet, writes neurologist Oliver Sacks in An Anthropologist on Mars, “games, song, verse, conversation, etc. hold him together completely.” He can sing, word-perfect, to the sixties songs he remembers and loves and through music is able to learn some simple tasks.

Art and healing aren’t words we tend to hear in tandem: Art, after all, is creative, the domain of the professional artist; healing the realm of medical science. Yet medicine is known as both an art and a science — a strange mixture of speculation, clinical experience, research, and individual idiosyncracy. To explore the interplay between art and healing, Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia brought together nurses, physicians, therapists, lay persons, artists, and others for the second conference on Healing and the Creative Arts. What emerged from the many workshops and lectures was that art can, indeed, be a valuable and integrated part of the healing process. It doesn’t and shouldn’t replace clinical competence — for post-operative pain you need morphine, not music — but as an adjunct, a prophylactic, art is means of enhancing, amplifying, and accelerating healing.

Art Therapy
“We don’t really know how art therapy works,” says London, Ontario art therapist and registered nurse Gaie Haydon, RN, MHSc. “All we know is that it helps with memory retrieval, visual imaging, and cuing.” For head-injured, brain-damaged, or mentally-disabled people, this can make an enormous difference.

The human brain, with its billions of interconnected neurological pathways and complicated circuitry is still one of the most fascinating mysteries facing us. Neurological brain damage from strokes, head and spinal cord injuries, brain tumours, Alzheimer’s, MS, schizophrenia, Parkinson’s, etc., affect nearly four million Canadians. The brain, unlike many other areas of the body, does not reconnect its circuitry and heal itself when it is injured. Nevertheless, as two American clinical psychologists showed some 20 years ago, systematic neuropsychological treatments (like art therapy, which helps the individual develop both intellectual and social skills) considerably improved the odds for head-injured patients far beyond what could occur spontaneously or through traditional rehabilitation methods.

In particular, says Haydon, art therapy can address issues of identity, loss, depression, self-esteem, anger, as well as help individuals deal with their feelings about their own condition. Pain, anxiety, anger, depression: these are all part and parcel of being ill or injured and “talk” therapy is not always the answer. For some patients it may be too confrontational — while some brain-injured individuals may simply not be able to speak. Art can help with problem-solving and can provide a means of self-expression and communication. It can be both liberating and therapeutic. In some cases, even miraculously so.

The painter Willem de Kooning was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in his mid-70’s and the art world mourned the loss of one of the greates abstract painters in the world. Yet only a few years later, de Kooning’s work began to fill exhibition halls and art galleries, writes Carlos Espinel, in the prestigious medical journal Lancet. Wonderful art, “an exuberant, carefree, art, full of life”. How did de Kooning reverse the deterioriating dementia of Alzheimer’s? “[His] treatment involved the cooperative effort of his wife, Elaine, and a group of friends,” writes Espinel. “He withdrew from alcohol; he began to eat a balanced diet and exercised daily, and regained strength. He returned to his brushes and paints … mixed colours .. mastered his fear of drawing. Like a beginner he copied and retraced images. Then he let himself go .. until a new image was born.”

Did doing art actually heal de Kooning or did he create new memories in a part of his brain that was still functioning? Would this work for someone not already an artist? We don’t know. But, writes Espinel, “in the search for a cure we usually approach the brain with psychotherapy, pharmacological agents, and, lately, tissue transplants. Yet the brain works with and through sensory pathways.” Colour and form were what restored de Kooning’s memory and enabled him to regain his “self”. Isn’t that what healing’s all about?

A group of mentally ill patients at a Montreal facility would respond with a resounding “yes” to that question. For them, the art therapy Suzanne Hamel brought to them became their ticket out of the facility and into a group home in the community. “Long-term hospitalization has insidious effects,” says Hamel, whose efforts helped establish La Fondation pour l’art therapeutique et l’art brut du Quebec. “Art therapy (allowed the patients) to show they still had a voice. It let them recover a positive self image, regain self-confidence and control.” For some, she says, being asked to choose from her “buffet” of art materials was the first time in many, many years that they’d been asked to decide on something for themselves — and it was a source of anxiety for them. Institutional life means being told what when, and where you can eat or sleep or dress. Decisions are made for you. The art was for many of them the first step to coming out of a shell they’d built up over a long period of time. “Chronic illness doesn’t mean you can’t have moments of joy,” says Hamel. And in the words of one patient, “joy” is exactly what doing art provides.

Healing through Dance
“Often victims of sexual abuse have no sense of safety in their bodies,” says dance therapist Sunita Romeder, MA. Dance lets them connect back to their bodies, to other people, regain confidence, sexuality, and express feelings. “Through dance many survivors are able to let go of that sense of ‘eternal vigilance’ which is a very common theme.” Romeder, who specializes in working with survivors of violence and sexual abuse also works with individuals and groups with special needs (like strokes or eating disorders) or simply with men or women who would like to explore dance as a means of enhancing or ameliorating their lives. “What I do is integrate the mind, the body, and the emotions,” she says, “and the spiritual aspects come automatically from that integration. As you become more whole, the rest comes.”

There’s little question that we live in a culture that denigrates and ignores the body. Even exercise is only too often something we do to get thin, or fit, or limber, not for the joy of it. Yet mental stress and fatigue all affect our physical body; muscles ache and get tense; we get stomach problems and headaches, suffer from eating disorders and other emotional and psychological problems. “I felt like a floating head,” says Bronwyn, who was sexually abused as a child and who never really got over her fears of intimacy. “My whole body was off limits.” Through dance therapy Bronwyn gradually was able to feel her body, how it felt, listen to its signals. “After each session I felt lighter,” she says, “and now I can talk to a man without being afraid. I can see the possibility of a normal relationship.”

The Sound of Music
Healing. It’s the complicated, often torturous path between disease and wellness; dysfunction and function, illness and health. But as the American poet Robert Lowell asked: “Is getting well ever an art, or art a way to get well?” Depending on the person suffering from the illness as well as the condition itself, art may in fact be the difference between thriving and surviving.

You don’t need to be a dancer to take dance therapy; you don’t need to know how to draw for art therapy. Too often we think of the arts as the domain of the professional; an area off-limits to the rest of us without the talent and the skill. Yet most of us are quite comfortable driving, even though there are professional drivers out there who earn their livings from something we only do to get between point A and B. Most of us cook, even though we’re not great chefs. Art is no different. “I love doing what I do,” says dance therapist Romeder. “I can people developing creativity .. and becoming more alive. It’s wonderful.” Beautiful, even.