An adult’s perspective on art therapy and eating disorders
In this short film, C shares her experience of group and individual art therapy for adults. The film illustrates her therapeutic process and how art making enabled C to express herself and reflect upon her eating disorder. Also, by experimenting with different art practices, C was able to find activities in her personal life that helped improve her mental wellbeing.
Therapist: Could you say a few words about how you were when you started art therapy?
C: I felt misunderstood, obviously lots of issues around the eating disorder. Just in that one session, just being able to get out everything, all of the fears, the anger, everything that had been growing and stewing inside of me that I had not been able to communicate to staff.
Therapist: So, you’ve had about six individual sessions and then you’ve had about eleven group sessions. Could you say a bit about the first piece that you’ve chosen?
C: I think I stuck to materials that I knew were safe. It was very important to me because we were talking about body image. The pieces like this are very helpful for me to communicate to the outside world how I feel about my body and how disgusted I am with it. Words can’t do justice to how I feel, so work like this is paramount to me. Feelings and things that I just cannot get out verbally.
Therapist: So, you’ve chosen a second piece as well. At what point in therapy was this? And what was it like making it?
C: Okay so, first starting the group art therapy, I would’ve had a bad week and my usual go-to materials are pencils, paper, that kind of thing. I thought, ‘Hang on a second, the other people are choosing different materials. Perhaps it’s possible I could too.’ So, I was inspired by the other patients in the group. I found myself ripping and tearing. I guess the movements that I made as I was making the piece were representative again of how inside I felt. I felt tied up in knots, there was anger there so I felt like I was coming apart. I was tearing the fabrics and tying the fabrics together and making holes in the fabric. So, I learnt a lot, I learnt a lot really. I really came out of my comfort zone, opened up, tried something new.
Therapist: So, you’ve chosen a third piece as well.
C: I guess it’s a collection of rubbings from the outside, mud. Down to rubbings of signs and drawing the bug that was on the sign, waving its angry eyes at me. And I dropped my paper in the water. I actually really liked the mud, and I wanted more mud because I was going around with a cigarette and realised that I could draw with it. And the marks that came out of it, I was like, ‘Wow, I didn’t realise I could draw with a cigarette.’
I’m going to use one word because they’re all unfinished. I’m going to use the word: potential. Excitement when I look at them. So, when I did my last piece, I will always remember in my mind going out into the environment to search for things and do you know that the eating disorder was not there? It did not come into that park; it was not whacking me on the head when I was looking for things. Not having any limitations on myself whatsoever. My eating disorder took a back seat, and it didn’t get a look-in.
Therapist: What would you say has changed for you between the first piece, going on to the second one and then on to the third?
C: Pretty much every art therapy session I’ve had has been based on thoughts, feelings, worries around the anorexia. How it’s made me possibly feel that week. The first piece was very controlled, it was a piece that needed to happen at the time. As things have evolved, I have experimented more, realising that I don’t just need pencils and papers. I can use fabrics, I can use anything, I can go out into the environment, collect things. Perhaps it might be a way to relax myself. Perhaps it might be a way to get rid of anger. You don’t have to suppress it; you can let it out if you want to scribble on your paper. And I wouldn’t necessarily have done that at the start with all these sorts of different experiences, different discussions, group therapy, the individual therapy. I’m in a much different place now.
Therapist: What is it about art therapy that made those changes happen?
C: It has been a safe place. And also, I find that as you are creating, making – your hands are sort of busy and your subconscious mind is sort of busy in the creating sort of a process. So, you are able to express feelings, angers, thoughts that you probably wouldn’t normally because your inhibitions are down because your brain is actively engaged in something, the other part of you that often remains silent and hidden can come to the surface. It has free rein to do so.
Therapist: How does it make it different from other sorts of therapy?
C: A lot of therapies are all about talking. In art therapy, it’s completely different. You almost feel like you own part of the space, parts of you that shut down, the bits of you that maybe clam up, and the bits of you that think, ‘Oh I shouldn’t say this, shouldn’t say that.’ Your inhibitions get so, so lowered, and you are free to express yourself. You can talk about the issues and with the help of the therapist and sort of the correct, maybe, questioning, or perhaps you know, ‘Could you tell me more about that?’ You are able to access answers for yourself. The trust builds with your therapist because they are with you in the experience, and they come on the journey with you.
Sometimes there was more discussion than with other times. There were times when there might be a silence that was needed to develop an idea or lots of open questions: ‘How do you feel about this?’ ‘Could you do this?’ You sort of know that the therapist is there for you. You are sharing something so, so personal and there’s just no judgement from the therapist whatsoever.
Therapist: Is there anything else you would like to mention?
C: I would say, hand on heart, art therapy is the only therapy that has ever worked for me. It’s the best therapy I’ve had here, gotten the most out of.