Claire reflects on her experience of art therapy, adolescent trauma and emotional dysregulation
At the age of 17, Claire accessed art therapy for approximately nine months. Having already accessed other kinds of therapies, she said she struggled to describe her feelings. However, with art therapy, she was able to express herself through the work she created. This not only helped others understand her thoughts but allowed her to visualise her emotional state.
Therapist: So, can you say a few words about how you were when you started art therapy?
Claire: I had just come out of hospital, and I was on a high that I was expecting to crash. And I still hadn’t sorted through a lot of the mess in my head. And I was still experiencing quite strong emotions and I didn’t really know how to deal with them because I was on such a high.
Therapist: Can you say something about the first piece that you’ve chosen?
Claire: I was very angry when I did this piece; angry at life, and family and circumstances. So, I just started pointing with my fingers and it turned into this. It was a good way to get my emotions out.
Therapist: At what point in the therapy did you make this? Do you remember?
Claire: Around two months into therapy, yeah
Therapist: And what was it like making this piece in art therapy?
Claire: It – I didn’t think I was a very angry person. And then I started doing this piece and I became very agitated and angry while I was making it. But afterwards, I felt a lot better. But during it, I felt very angry, which is why it’s so messy.
Therapist: What do you think – what’s your feeling about it, looking at it now?
Claire: I think it’s quite nice actually. I don’t like the fingerprints around the edge, but I quite like it.
Therapist: You don’t like the fingerprints?
Therapist: Why’s that?
Claire: That was me just stabbing the paper with my finger to try and get my anger out. But I like the other things, I think it’s really nice.
Therapist: I remember us having some conversations about the fingerprints, and it felt really important for you about, almost like, you putting your paint fingerprints on the paper was like you grounding yourself as part of your identity. When everything else was very difficult for you to ground yourself in life.
[Therapist: Is there anything else you’d like to say about that first piece?
Therapist: [For] The second piece is in fact four pieces. And you specifically wanted this to be forming one image, didn’t you?
Therapist: So, [could you-] what would you like to say about [these-] this piece made up of four images?
Claire: I have always counted my head to be very messy, and therefore I can’t access anything. Especially about things that my body and brain doesn’t want me to think about, and my illness doesn’t want me to think about. So, I drew this to kind of – as a metaphor of what my brain felt like.
The first top left picture is just a room where my brain is completely out of control and messy. My second picture, the bottom left picture, is a safe – a big safe where I keep the things I don’t want to think about, but I can’t access it. Then the third picture, top right, is a box being held down by a metal pole and chained to the floor with alarms. And that’s the things I don’t want to think about or can’t think about. And the bottom right picture is what is in that box, and what I need to access in order to get better.
Therapist: I remember when you did this – you did it quite quickly, didn’t you?
Therapist: [They came –] They were very spontaneous.
Therapist: Does that feel important to you?
Claire: Yes, I’ve always described my head as being quite messy and I’ve never been able to put it down on paper, because it’s too messy to even think about. So, it felt quite good to finally understand and have a visual representation of what I was feeling.
Therapist: And at what point did you make these?
Claire: I made them three months into therapy.
Therapist: It was about half-way. Did you want to add anything else? What it was like doing it at the time?
Claire: It was weird because I’m quite a contradictory person, so I had to think quite carefully about what I was doing so I wouldn’t then think, ‘This isn’t right, I don’t feel like this.’ But I do still feel like this image is relevant. So, it felt quite important to me at the time to get it right, and I think I did.
Therapist: You said you think these images are still relevant. How are they relevant to you?
Claire: I still feel like I have quite a messy head. Not as messy as it was before, but quite messy. And I’m still struggling to access some of the worst memories of my life and some of the best, like, hopes for the future. I’m getting better at breaking in to the safe and having moments where I can sort through and open that chest. And just relish feeling positive and knowing that from bad comes good.
Therapist: What do you think about the piece now that you’ve made it?
Claire: I really like it. I like that it’s a sequence, and it kind of goes through places. It feels like it’s a maze and it goes through. And I think the colours are quite important to me; the red and the green and the yellow and blue all represent different things. So, the red is like danger and unhappiness. The green is positivity, and the blue and yellow are kind of everything in between.
Therapist: Could you say a few words about how you are now?
Claire: I feel a bit better. I’ve realised I need to sort out my head more, and I’m figuring out how I can do that which is through art. I’m still struggling but I’m getting there. I have more hope for the future now, and it’s given me kind of a new outlook on life, I guess.
Therapist: Could you say a bit more about what that new outlook is?
Claire: I spent a long time thinking that I wanted to die, and it was the only way. But now I realise that I owe it to myself to live, and it’s actually just my illness telling me that. And I need to be alive basically, and I deserve to be alive, so that’s my new outlook.
Therapist: So, in comparisons to other sorts of therapies that you’ve experienced, what else have you tried? What other therapeutic approaches have you tried? And how is art therapy different from those?
Claire: I’ve tried a lot of different therapy. I think I’ve tried six different types of therapy other than art therapy, and most of them were talking therapies. A couple were physical, like hypnosis and pet therapy, but most of them were talking. But art gives me a way to visualise what’s going on and makes sense of it, because I find it quite hard to make sense of my head, so it helped me to visualise what was going on.