Art Therapizing

Just drawing to relax, while my daughter naps and my son watches a movie. It’s a Good Friday

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Eight Hundred And Fifty Nine

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Adina at 7 weeks

859 days ago, on October 5, 2011, I said goodbye to my precious second-born son, Adina. In Hebrew, Adina is a male name meaning “delicate,” and what better way to describe a 10 week baby? I know in my heart of hearts he was a boy. I’ve known all of my children’s sexes. I do not have many eloquent words today, but I desperately miss him today. I keep a journal for each of my children. I’ll share a few of the entries I’ve written for him. Here is his first entry:

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Today, Daddy and I found out I was growing you inside my tummy! We are so very excited! Let me introduce you to your family. You have the best daddy you could ever want. He is strong, funny, loving, and he will adore you more than you can imagine. You also have a big brother. I found out 2 years ago yesterday that I was growing him in my tummy! That means he is going to be about 2 years older than you. He is silly, smart, and he loves giving hugs and kisses. Then, there is Mommy. I already love you so much I could cry. Daddy and I decided we are going to wait to find out until you are born, whether you are baby girl or a baby boy 🙂

And here is the entry when we first got home after we found that we had lost him. This was a few hours before I held him in my hand.

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We found out today that we lost you 😦 Daddy and I are so sad, and we miss you so much already. You looked so healthy on the first ultrasound. Seeing the ultrasound today broke my heart into a million pieces, when I saw that you weren’t going to be in our lives anymore. I love you, sweet baby.

Here is the entry from his due date.

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Tomorrow would have been your due date. I cannot stop thinking about the day I said goodbye to you. I held your tiny body in my hand. You were the perfect size, maybe about 2 inches long and 1 inch wide. Your arms and legs were only about a quarter of an inch long, but I could still see your beautiful fingers and toes. I hated so much saying goodbye to you, and I think about you every single day.

One of my first art journal drawings. I consciously chose not to take a photo of his tiny body because I knew I would never forget it. Almost a year later, I drew him to the best of my ability. Then I traced my hand, and then my husband let me trace his hand. Beautiful. My favorite art journal entry in the whole world.

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And here is today’s entry.

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My precious Adina. I miss you so much today. My heart has been aching for you as I watch your baby sister grow. I am missing out on holding you and nursing you. The other night, your sister was wide awake at 2am trying to play. I was doing my best to not respond to her as I fed her, and then I tried to burp her. She sat straight up and grabbed my face with both of her hands, and waited… and waited… If I made eye contact with her, I knew she would start cracking up. Instead, I closed my eyes and enjoyed her little hands on my cheeks. And I missed you. I miss you so much, my beautiful baby.

Alternatives to Self-Harm

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Common coping skills offered for self-harm often include a less intrusive form of self-harm, including snapping a rubber band on your wrist; squeezing an ice cube; digging fingernails into your skin; scratching; or taking a freezing cold shower. All of these provide a minor level of pain and the brain still releases the ever-satisfying (and potentially addicting) endorphins. I have also heard of people drawing hash marks in place of using a blade, sometimes using red ink. I have encouraged these as alternatives when people believe they truly need to feel pain. However, I believe all perpetuate the self-harm cycle… just to a lesser degree than a blade (squeezing an ice cube has also been shown to cause nerve damage). It’s one step down, but it’s not where you necessarily want to be.

Some healthy coping skills I might encourage are: drawing a picture of something sweet (like a butterfly) where you would self-harm; write an encouraging quote (a Bible verse?) where you would self-harm; drinking juice or eating a healthy meal (if you have not eaten recently, your hypoglycemia may be perpetuating your cycle); or healthy exercise.

However, I have found art therapy to be the most effective coping skill in managing self-harm. It’s cathartic, it tires your arm if you scribble hard enough, and if you use bright colors it will improve your mood (whereas the dark colors- especially red- may perpetuate the cycle). This drawing is beautiful because it was used as an alternative. And it worked. I encourage you to try it too.

A Therapist’s Son

I asked my son what he was drawing and he said, “I’m drawing what’s inside my heart.” I asked him to tell me about it and he replied, “I can’t say. Let me draw it. I’m drawing my heart.” Here is what he drew. He is such a therapist’s son.

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My therapist has always told me to re-do my art therapy when it is dark; do an opposite. While my inside feels dark, bruised, and bloody, this is what I want my heart to feel like. I want it to feel vibrant, happy, and colorful. I used a lot of yellow because it’s light; I used a lot of pink because it’s one of my favorite colors; and I used orange because it’s my son’s favorite color. I noticed that using so many colors requires more effort. In order to fill all the gaps with different colors, it takes time and careful calculation. I believe this is how much of my life is. I can allow my life to be dark, black, and red. It’s easier to allow the darkness to overtake me. But if I put just a little more effort in and add a few vibrant colors, perhaps just a tiny bit of light will shine through. That is all we need to have hope and endurance; a little bit of light.

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Art Therapy

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An example of art therapy when the prefrontal cortex is functioning

When a person experiences trauma, the brain may shut down the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for higher functioning such as language and reasoning. The brain then uses its basic brain, which is where the limbic system is located. The limbic system is responsible for, amongst many other things, the storing of memory and emotion. It stores memory in fragments, so anything from a smell or a sound can trigger memory of the trauma. Because the brain views the trigger of a traumatic memory as a threat, it shuts down higher functioning and once again, the brain is storing the trigger as trauma.

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An example of art therapy during basic brain functioning (during a trauma response)

When I process trauma with clients, I find that the means of processing largely depends on where they are at in their own journey. For instance, if they can recall the trauma without their brain shutting down, we can process the trauma using language. If they are highly sensitive and begin shutting down when they are triggered, at times they can write, but it may come out in rudimentary words like “scared” and “help.” Their handwriting is often basic as well. However, if I provide the same clients with colored pencils and a blank paper, they can draw but in much the same form that a child would- with stick figures, and coloring very hard when very stressed. If they are willing, they can begin to process the memory through these drawings. If they are very creative people, however, they will attempt to shut this process down. This is because, I have noticed, when I hand creative people art supplies, they feel the need to perfect the art. While art therapy is useful for very artistic people, this is not usually what I use art therapy for in either my personal (I am not artistically inclined) or professional life. I use it as a means of communication and emotion regulation during a strong trauma response.

Ideas for art therapy:

Colors, how hard the colors are applied, objects, size of objects, objects in relation to one another, and placement of art onto the paper are all symbolic. The more a person is able to take these things into account, the greater they will be able to communicate through art. Keep in mind that conscious symbolism requires higher brain functioning. However, the unconscious brain often uses the same symbolism in art therapy; this is the means therapists use to interpret client art… particularly when treating a child.