by Morgan Blair
Throughout my recovery from an eating disorder, I found art to be an essential tool in my healing, because it helped give me another means of communication when words failed to depict my experience. When I found a way to express my internal experience, I was able to start truly healing and move towards recovery. This is why I am now studying art therapy in school – because I wish to gain insights which can be pass along to others who might find art-making as beneficial as I did.
Art therapy is a therapy form which involves art medias in addition to the verbal processing of the image created. This process is used to help people resolve, release, or understand various struggles and is used as an alternative means of communication for those who cannot express particular mental health conditions with words. Combining the ability of art-making to reveal thoughts and feelings with a therapeutic environment has proven to be an effective means of treatment for various mental health disorders, such as eating disorders.
Eating disorders are complicated because they not only affect a person’s mind, but also their physical body. Many eating disordered behaviors involve the denial of the body’s physical needs such as not eating when hungry, not stopping when full, vomiting when not sick, or exercising when injured. When I was struggling with my eating disorder, these behaviors taught my body to stop communicating with my mind. Therefore, this left my mind and body to act as if separate from one another. Thus, when my eating disorder progressed, I stopped feeling hunger or fullness. My body had simply stopped communicating with my mind because my history of behavior use had taught my body that its need would be denied.
This disconnection with my body was an obstacle when seeking treatment for my eating disorder, because recovery from an eating disorder forces the individual to stop abusing the body and start relearning how to take care of it. The process of reconnecting with one’s body is challenging, and often involves a complex team of professionals in order to be successful. A common approach to eating disorder treatment is to assemble a team involving a dietician, therapist, and psychiatrist to help the who is individual struggling. A dietician can help the individual learn about the body’s nutritional needs, a psychiatrist can help administer the appropriate medications for co-occurring disorders when needed, and a therapist can work one on one with the individual to process the emotions underlying the disordered behaviors. But what happens when this approach is not successful in sustaining eating disorder recovery?
Unfortunately, relapse among individuals with eating disorders can occur even after adequate treatment is obtained. Although those initial steps in treatment to educate the individual on the disorder (as well as determine what emotions they are using behaviors to cope with) are necessary, the dietician, psychiatrist, and therapist are not a cure. Therefore, after being educated on the disorder the individual affected may need additional resources to help continue towards total healing.
After being educated by a therapist, psychiatrist, and dietician about the ineffectiveness of my eating disorder behaviors I knew that I needed another outlet. Prior to treatment, I always turned to the eating disorder to help me communicate my pain or discomfort. Since my disorder was no longer an option, my recovery journey required adding in expressive therapies to help me release my emotional experience in ways other than disordered behavior. Leaving behind the eating disorder and learning to engage in expressive therapy became a turning point in my recovery. It helped bridge the disconnection between my mind and body which resulted from my years of behavior usage, allowing me to create a lasting foundation for my recovery.
When I think about the disconnection between the mind and body among eating disordered strugglers, I can’t help but wonder about this concept’s significance in relapses. I know that in my own personal recovery from an eating disorder, one of the most complicated challenges I faced was my inability to trust my body. I could not believe in the meal plans given to me by dieticians, because I had developed a belief that my body did not require what others’ bodies did to survive. I could not come up with an answer for how I was feeling when a therapist asked me, because I had severed any intuition I may have had previous to my eating disorder. I could not figure out what was causing my lack of sleep when prompted by my psychiatrist, because I failed to recognize any discomfort or tension found within parts of my body, leading to an inability to sleep. Trying to navigate recovery on grounds such as this – grounds which left the mind and body so severed from one another there was no communication at all – left me feeling as though the task of recovery was insurmountable.
Art therapy can help by revealing new insights into areas of recovery which traditional forms of treatment may have failed to previously uncover. There is a science behind imagery and a vast array of therapeutic potentials housed in textures and colors that art therapists are aware of. Art therapy uses the powerful insights of metaphorical imagery, the emotional responses of certain colors, and the visceral impact of textured surfaces to evoke in the participant some kind of emotional release.
I can distinctly remember one art therapy session where I had over an hour to simply make art, no prompt, no plan. I painted two hands reaching towards one another and little square boxes falling out of the space in between them. After processing this image with the therapist, I came to realize I had painted the longing to reconnect with my true self. One hand represented my body, the other hand represented my mind, and the blocks in between, responsible for keeping the two apart, were my eating disorder. I hadn’t known what I was going to paint, and when I saw the finished product was shocked with the power the image held. I found myself hanging up the painting in my room for the next year or so as a motivator for recovery.
Now, I would have never come to this image through traditional talk therapy. I know this, because I had been in traditional therapy for years previous to making this painting and never found myself speaking about a longing to reconnect my body and mind. It was because the art’s ability to dip into my unconscious mind that revealed to me my inner struggles. This is why among those struggling with eating disorders, art can be a healing tool. It allows the individual to dip beneath the surface level struggle between food, weight, and behaviors towards a deeper emotional conflict. It offers a space where the mind’s obsessive thoughts and worries can be silenced and the body’s creative nature can come out and speak.
My mind was always the one formulating thoughts in talk therapy, in dietician appointments, in psychiatry offices, but when I am making art the body finally has a space to be heard. Art therapy has helped me make large strides in my eating disorder recovery, because it is strengthening my body’s voice so that it may, once again, communicate with my mind.
Art therapy is a visual means of communication. I cannot count the number of times have I talked with or witnessed someone with an eating disorder say “I can’t explain it” when trying to communicate their internal struggle with the disorder. An inability to feel as though you can effectively communicate what is going on for you can result in feelings of isolation. Art therapy can be beneficial because it offers another means to express your experience. As in the example I shared earlier with my painting of the hands, art therapy proved not only to be a gateway into a new form of communication, but it also offered insights into my struggles I wasn’t previously aware of. Talking requires a lot of brainpower and thought in order to formulate sentences. Sometimes what is going on for a person exists first on an emotional, bodily level before it can be translated into words. As a result, imagery and the metaphorical expression of art can be important.
Art gives the body a chance to speak and the mind a chance to listen.