Art Therapy, Big and Small

Latest posts by Olivia (see all)

Prior to my most recent treatment, I’d always considered myself a serious writer, exclusively. Writing felt justifiably academic, and I was good at it. I didn’t judge others for their skill level, but if I wasn’t any good at drawing, painting, poetry, sculpting, photography, why should I bother? More importantly, my OCD-related imperative that I be as unselfish as possible manifested in a curious way; I considered my potential participation in these things to be selfish because I saw them as extraneous. If I wasn’t any good, it would be an activity I was partaking in solely for myself. That felt dissatisfying, uncomfortable, wrong.

These ideas persist in me to this day, but through treatment I’ve come around to the idea of letting myself do something just for me. Right now, that looks like reading fiction novels and purchasing a pool membership at my local recreation center. I don’t often practice traditional art individually; in fact, the only one of the aforementioned artistic activities I do for myself is write poetry, and the most common moments in which I do so are extremely painful and suppressed, ones in which I might have engaged in far worse coping mechanisms than I did when I let it all spill out in ink. I’ve never shared any of my pained poems with anyone. They are worthwhile not for their quality but for what they say about the unique suffering I was experiencing when I wrote them.

Art therapy is a crucial element of every inpatient and residential treatment program I’ve been a part of. My residential facility scheduled art therapy for us several times a week, as well as sent a few kids off campus to a local art studio to sculpt with clay. When I was in treatment for Anorexia, one of our projects was taking cheap scales and painting, collaging, and drawing on them until they were recognizable only by their shape, for they were so inspirationally decorated (I covered mine in royal blue and painted it with a golden “expecto patronum!” and trails of stars). The facility also has a long-running art and writing magazine that publishes the works of patients. Even my special needs school, somewhat thin on therapy, tried to incorporate art therapy and boasted several art classes.

The inclusion of art therapy in group treatment is standard practice. All art therapy sessions I’ve attended follow a similar format (especially in the hospitals I’ve spent time at). We’re given a purposely broad assignment- paint a landscape that you escape to when you’re stressed, close your eyes and scribble with a pencil, collage with these magazines- and we have around forty five minutes to complete it. When finished, the art therapist asks each participant to explain the symbolic meaning behind their piece. If the therapist is well trained, they’ll know ways to pull the meaning out of the participant with poignant questioning.

There’s an unexpectedly (at least, for me!) high degree of therapeutic value in using art to both access and express your emotions. I’ve observed this subtle value both statistically and personally. While I am generally well attuned to the emotions I’m experiencing, transferring them into visual form, unwritten, forced me into the role of an objective, passive observer of my experience. When finished, I could step back from what I’d created and build an abstract, yet clarifying summary of the emotions I saw before me. I don’t know if art therapy helps me actually understand myself better; my best guess is that it doesn’t, though I know it does for plenty of other folks. What it does often do is allow me to actively organize my understanding of my emotional world, and once the pencil, paint, scissors are going, they really organize themselves. If nothing else, it simply lets me express.

“You can tap into your emotional world in all kinds of little artistic ways; it doesn’t have to be done solely across from a 100-an-hour therapist, once a week.”

I strongly recommend that you find a way to incorporate art into your life. This sounds broad but it needn’t be; there are so many options! Take a bit of time to consider what medium might make the most sense for you, if you aren’t already involved. No matter your experience level, there are classes in community centers, art facilities, dance studios, ceramic studios, workshops, that will welcome you. If those options are unaffordable or impossible, simply take a trip to Michaels for craft materials, or even CVS for a stack of magazines to collage with. You can tap into your emotional world in all kinds of little artistic ways; it doesn’t have to be done solely across from a 100-an-hour therapist, once a week.

I’ve decided to share a few of the pieces of art and writing I made while either in pain or in treatment. The following pictures were made in treatment while the poetry was written just prior. I’m going to annotate each one with an explanation on significance that I would give to an art therapist. I hope doing so will exemplify the kind of reflection you could be doing with your own art, of any skill level or ilk and at any time.


The following poem was written during a particularly lonely period of my life. Its symbolism is simplistic but is able to succinctly capture my somber musings on whether or not I’d ever be able to truly connect with another person. This doubt is a common symptom of depression.

I just have a suspicion that

My fingertips are too blue

Awaiting bluer ignition

To ever be reddened

At this fireside

Further, even

That they wouldn’t know how

to clasp another’s

Let alone reinvent themselves

if they ever did bloom

How long has it been?


I took a short break from poetry writing and resumed with this little guy. I think I read the previous poem and the question “how long?” was one I wanted to use again. I was very deep into my eating disorder and while this poem isn’t necessarily about that, there is perhaps something to be learned from its portrayal of sourdough bread with a negative connotation and pita bread, one of my “safe foods” back in the day, with a positive connotation….

Sourdough bread

Promises a cozy comfort

               Back of the freezer

(I know how I like my sandwiches)

How long has it been idle?

It nearly thaws, fooled me

Teeth sink and still concealed

I don’t remember it this way


Oh well, pita in the cupboard


I tried a rhyme scheme! Unusually, of the poems in this post, this was likely written during the most painful time period, which I would have assumed to have ruled out a conscious rhyme scheme but I made some effort. I remember hating (I still harbor some ill will) the quote about the definition of insanity. OCD dictates that I do things over and over again, and I resented people who could hear it and actually, simply, make a change based on the inspiration they got from it.

The definition of insanity

or whatever it’s called

Does it apply

that hoarded, touted thing

when it’s yourself you have walled?

A rallying cry, a bedtime story

Not meant for clawing, scraping

at interiors

Splash your face, double your eyes

This quote is designed for

your body

Not doctor recommended for mirrors


Still stuck on that insanity quote, some time later! I wrote this early in treatment when it was brought to my attention that my aversion to reading fiction was actually pathological: OCD related. I’ve loved fiction since childhood but wrote it off years ago because it would be a purely “selfish” activity, in my mind. That doesn’t mean that I didn’t want to read it, however. I was just stuck. Noteworthy; I wanted to pick a randomly high number and, presidents on the mind, I chose forty four….

He isn’t wrong

about insanity

His words have been bent


The same dance really could

reel a mate, just

the forty fourth time,

This we choose not to know

He knows

my insanity is

exclusively reading presidential biographies

and weeping onto

Lincoln’s first inaugural


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A mask I painted in treatment. The assignment was to paint a mask that shows your true self. I portrayed my tears, of which I cry plenty, as floral growth.
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The assignment was to watercolor how we felt that day. I’d recently gotten some devastating news, so the orange line represented my flatline shock and the lighter and darker themes, above and below respectively, describe my range of emotions that lurked underneath the shock. Even the lighter (upper) half was contaminated by the dark (blue tones).


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