I made it almost all the way through college without figuring out what I wanted to be. I was one credit short of graduating with a degree in political science, but I had no idea what I was going to do with it. I had some extra credits to take before graduating, so I signed up for a photography course on a whim.
I would never have classified myself as an artist or creative, but I was interested in visual arts and was blown away at what a transformative experience the class was for me. When someone asked me if I’d thought about being an art therapist, I did some research on it, took a bunch of prerequisites, and got my master’s in art therapy. And I’m very glad I did.
I started working with eating disorders also quite by accident. I had to fulfill practicum requirements as part of my master’s degree in order to graduate. And it just so happened my practicum was at Rogers Memorial Treatment Center with people who were struggling with eating disorders. People really responded well to the expressive process and art therapy.
Since I am licensed both as an art therapist and a licensed clinical professional counselor, I can do art therapy or talk therapy with people, whatever they prefer.
Art therapy is often intimidating to people. They say they’re not artists or they can’t draw or they’re not creative. And I always say that we’re talking about the creative process—not the creative product. It’s about tapping into and connecting with their inner experiences and finding authentic expressive representations for them. This representation can be as simple as a line, or a color, or a shape. But it can be profound when it feels “true.”
You don’t need technical or artistic skill to do art therapy. It’s my job to help you connect with your own unique inner experience, whether it’s a thought, an emotion, or a physical sensation—and find a way to make it visible. Once it’s represented visually, then we can work with it, understand it, and, when necessary, transform it.
Using a nonverbal modality, such as art therapy, you can find a way to express something that you may not be able to do easily with words—and get a sigh of relief.
That’s one reason art therapy is a natural fit for eating disorders. It takes away the shame and helps people feel empowered.
It also offers people who have been in therapy for years and are still struggling to find words for what they want to say a completely different way of working. Maybe they’ve tried umpteen different therapists and feel like they’re still having trouble talking it out or not making progress. It offers a fresh start.
Here’s how a session may go:
I offer a range of materials, from a #2 pencil to chalks to oil pastels to watercolor paints. Different materials have different qualities. So I try to guide my clients to the medium they think will best meet their needs therapeutically to help express whatever process or conflict they’re working on. If someone is coming in feeling anxious, overwhelmed, or out of control I might offer markers or pencils, which help foster a sense of control. Someone who is feeling “stuck” or needing to break out might try a more fluid media, like watercolor paint. And someone who doesn’t want to draw at all can use collage.
For example, someone comes in and says they felt triggered by an interaction with their boss at work. We could talk through what that experience was like, or I could ask what the conflict would look like visually. The art materials can be used to visually represent the conflict – an abstract depiction using line and color of the client and her boss. They could be on opposite ends of the paper; there could be an explosion between them; there could be a loss of boundaries or a differential in power.
Looking at the visual representation provides helpful understanding of the emotions involved. Then we could progress into how they want this relationship to feel or what this conflict needs to be resolved. So we can examine how they feel and behave currently vs. how they want to feel or behave and explore what’s keeping them from functioning the way they want to in the situation or relationship.
It’s a skill that can be transferred into practice at home. As you develop a sense of what makes you feel anxious or afraid or whatever, you can use this as a positive coping skill to get some relief.
Of course, you can also do talk therapy. I use an integrative approach, which combines CBT, DBT, and IFS. But we can also do a combination of both.
Clinicians talk about the experience burnout, but, for me, it’s incredibly energizing for me to see people connect to an authentic part of themselves through the creative process.
–Amanda Bechtel, ATR, LCPC
Pershing Turner Centers