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Pain Words Cannot Express

Art Therapy and Anorexia

Pain Words Cannot Express

“I’m not hungry,” I would say with conviction as I stared at my dinner plate and felt my stomach grumble. This had become my catchphrase when I was a young teenager, and most of the time, I could get away with it. It was easy to skip breakfast on a school day—I could slip out the front door to catch the bus before anyone else was awake and could monitor my eating. During lunch hour I would lie to my friends and say I snacked on my lunch throughout my classes and was no longer hungry. Dinner by far was the hardest to get around, with both my parents and all four sisters carefully observing my dinner plate. If I was lucky, I could serve up my own food in tiny portions. But when my mom finally suggested to me that I might have anorexia nervosa, I was in denial. I felt there was nothing that could set me free of the trial I was being devoured by, especially since I wouldn’t admit my own weaknesses. That was, at least, until I was introduced to art therapy. Finally, through this process of self-expression, I was directed down a path where I accepted my eating disorder and reached out for the help I so desperately needed. Because of this experience, I have since learned the benefits of using art in recovery, and am a strong advocate of it. Art therapy should be used in every anorexia treatment because it easily connects the patients inner-turmoil to verbal expression. I believe this is an exercise than can benefit anyone struggling with an eating disorder.

This trial I have endured throughout my life is not unique to me. In fact, at least 30 million people suffer from an eating disorder just in the United States. These disorders affect all races and ethnic groups all around the world (“Eating Disorder Statistics”). But what causes these eating disorders to arise? Is it a product of mental illness, imbalanced brain chemicals, or genetics? Unfortunately, the exact cause of eating disorders, specifically anorexia, is unknown. But Jane Wolf argues that anorexia may be a “failure in the developmental stage of separation/individuation.” If so, then anorexia represents “an attempt to solve a psychological issue or conflict through the concrete manipulation of intake and body shape” (Wolf, Jane M. pg 186).

Whatever you may believe or argue to be the cause of anorexia, it proves common these patients approach treatment with hesitation and even great resistance. How can you help someone who doesn’t want to help themselves, and let alone doesn’t see or want to admit a problem with their eating habits? The answer is simple: you can’t. This is why I wish to stress the importance of art therapy in rehabilitation, for its purpose is to reveal to the professionals and the patients the severity of the disorder, and eventually lead the patient to accept the dysfunction.

So, how does art therapy build a bridge between inner-turmoil and verbal expression? The answer lies in the regions of the brain. Your brain is divided into two different hemispheres—the right side, and the left side. The left side of your brain controls the right side of your body, and vice-versa. While these hemispheres are similar and work together to function a human being, they are responsible and concerned with different attributes. For example, the left side of the brain administers speaking, reading, analyzing, logic, etc., while the right side manages visual information, emotion, imagination, music and art awareness, etc (“Right Brain Injury”). Therefore, depending on our activities we shift from using different parts of our brain. By using art, we shift into the right side of the brain, and it unlocks a “creative process which often taps into a deeper subconscious awareness that may be missed when merely asking direct questions” (Schwartz, Deah). Art, in this light, can allow externalization and reflection of internal feelings and attitudes, and a shift occurs where the clients move from explaining their feelings to actually feeling them.

Because the thought of creating art is more appealing than having an interview on the topic of anorexic problems, art therapy is a creates a non-threatening environment where clients are relaxed and therapists can evaluate the products. Art creates a ‘safe zone’ where patients can focus on creation and not necessarily the finished products. When given the opportunity to use a free expression instead of structured tasks, they can formulate art that expresses their deepest feelings and concerns without necessarily recognizing that is what they are doing. In this process, “feelings, attitudes, and conceptions can be formulated, clarified, and symbolized in art before exposing them to the potential confusion and diffusion of talk” (“Schwartz, Deah).

Now, I understand that there are several ways that one may go about the rehabilitation process for those with anorexia nervosa, and I understand that each of us is unique in what is beneficial and what is not. I am not claiming that art therapy is the only correct and only successful resource for recovery. I claim this approach offers additional opportunities for healing that involve the mind, body, and the spirit. I know for myself that art gave me an opportunity to express the emotions I could not express verbally. It gave me a meditative process that led to self-discovery, acceptance, and healing. That is why I believe art therapy should be used in every anorexia treatment: because it connects inner-turmoil to verbal expression.

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