Art Therapy Stories Continued

Frosty tree in Ann Arbor; photo by Sibel Ozer

Frosty tree in Ann Arbor; photo by Sibel Ozer

By Sibel Ozer

The arctic cold has taken a toll on many of us. The psyche desires to retreat with a cup of hot chocolate in one hand and a book in the other, preferably in front of a fireplace, all the while reality demands that we continue attending to our responsibilities and enter the cold over and over.

We didn't have enough participants for an art therapy group in January, so I ended up reminiscing about groups from the past.

Years ago I had the privilege to co-facilitate an art therapy group for refugees from around the world that were torture survivors. While some refugees come from camps with the U.N. status of "Refugee," others arrive, literally running for their lives, with no previous preparation, or papers, and have to face a grueling process to reach that status.

Their life is a gift no doubt, but the state of shock/trauma and depression continues, as communication with their loved ones are cut, and any picture of a secure and reunited future is far from a certainty.

A lot of thought is given to how a group is structured considering the unique needs of its participants. The refugees all spoke limited English, so creative expression would give them an additional outlet. The experience of trauma was both a common thread and a vulnerability, so the creation of safety within the group was our first priority.

We decided to start with the creation of Inside/Outside boxes as a way of getting to know each other, and to build safety, so that members would be able to share their stories. Participants were asked to represent their safe place inside the box the first week, and to decorate the outside with symbols and images that empowered them, that made them feel better, stronger, and more able to face adversity, the second week.

I’m sure we all have such moments, of previously stored data becoming a “Knowing” following a particular experience…

A member of the group, who had experienced heavy depression for months upon her arrival in the U.S., woke up one morning to see it snowing for the first time in her life. She was reminded of a story about God that she had theretofore not quite understood. I’m sure we all have such moments, of previously stored data becoming a “Knowing” following a particular experience… She created a box that was covered with white cotton on the inside and had images of snow covered landscapes on the outside, embellished with white sparkles.

She was able to explain, despite her limited English, how as she was watching the snow, she recalled words (origin unknown) that explained that God would take away our worries in the same way he would cover everything in white. As she was sharing the meaning of her box she said that that was precisely what happened for her. As she watched the snowflakes turn the world outside to white, a lightness came over her feeling state inside, and she felt her depression begin to lift for the first time.

One of the gifts of art therapy is that the art object that expresses the particular story continues to be a reminder of it and the feelings it held. In fact remembering that particular session enables me, maybe even you, to see the white outside, in a new light. Even if only for a moment…

In the following weeks we created dolls with a focus of what was left behind and what was gained, with dialogues addressing the dolls’ current needs and hopes.  I will never forget how the separation of the self from the doll had allowed one participant who had never shared her trauma experience to share it through the doll. Everyone knew that it was her story that was told, and everyone knew that it had to be told as the story of the doll so it could be tolerated. This is another gift of art therapy, the opportunity to address themes within the safety of a metaphor, through an object that holds that metaphor, without making the link to reality that would be overwhelming in that moment.

This is another gift of art therapy, the opportunity to address themes within the safety of a metaphor, through an object that holds that metaphor, without making the link to reality that would be overwhelming in that moment.

The group continued with creating lifeline pieces with a focus on giving meaning to the trauma experience through an evaluation of their changing roles and identities. The goal was to reach a sense of groundedness even as the refugees remained uprooted.

The creations of this group have stayed with me more then any other group I facilitated perhaps because of the potency of the stories. I think the power of what was communicated despite the limitations of language was a huge part of it. And the getting to be a witness to the limitlessness of human resilience… As humans we are capable to hurt one another to the point of destruction, and also to save one another from the brink of despair. Art adds to groups an added potential for finding the universality of our dilemmas, not only to learn and grow with one another, but to move into our altruistic nature.

Art adds to groups an added potential for finding the universality of our dilemmas, not only to learn and grow with one another, but to move into our altruistic nature.

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Sibel Ozer is a licensed professional counselor and board-certified art therapist currently doing private practice at The Parkway Center in Ann Arbor. She started her career as a clinical psychologist working with earthquake survivors in Turkey. She continued her work in the United States in hospice, hospital, and private practice settings further specializing in grief, loss, and trauma. She is a certified EMDR practitioner and a graduate of the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland. She gives experiential workshops nationally and in her country of origin (Turkey) on different art therapy topics. Visit www.sibelozer.com, call (303) 905-1109, or email he-artspace@hotmail.com.


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Posted on February 21, 2014 and filed under Art, Healing, Winter.