Artistic Expression as a Tool to Beat Addiction



Addiction is a problem in every community. Recent films, including Sean Dunne’s project ‘Oxyana’ and Greg William’s ‘Anonymous People’ are the latest in a long line of screen contributions from fresh young film-makers aiming to highlight the grittier facets of life. Premiered last month at the Tribeca film festival, documentary ‘Oxyana’ chronicles the lives of those affected with addiction in the small town of Oceana, Wyoming – a community notorious for its drug problems. ‘Anonymous People’ set for release this year, takes an honest look at addiction recovery; its effectiveness, and society’s perception of people who suffer with addictions. Director Greg Williams, himself a recovering addict, aims to break the anonymity of addiction and therefore the stigma that surrounds it. Naturally, it’s been quite the cathartic experience for him.

Catharsis, particularly in a creative sense is often utilized as a treatment for addiction. With 23 million people in America in long term recovery for their addictions, life beyond rehab can be tough – and many, like Greg Williams, turn to their art in order to lay old demons to rest.

Fortunately, Oregon is regarded as one of the best states for treating drug addiction today, having admitted almost 50,000 patients into drug rehabilitation treatment since 2009 – compared to just 21,500 in Kentucky.  But when you’ve been treated for addiction and make a fresh start within society, how do you move forward with your life? How can art help a recovering addict?

The Creative Cure

Art has become an increasingly popular treatment tool within traditional therapy. Going by the name of ‘Art Therapy’, the method was first used to treat children with psychological conditions, particularly trauma. Using art as a means for communication, the child would express themselves and their emotions via a painting or drawing, reducing the need to speak verbally to a therapist. This would in turn allow them to communicate in a less inhibited way. The method also works as a distraction technique, where a child can become engrossed within their artwork and feel more at ease whilst the therapist speaks with them.

In adults Art Therapy is also used in a similar manner, particularly within addiction. The obvious benefit to art therapy, whether it’s used by someone to deal with serious issues or someone who does it purely for a cathartic escape, is the sheer therapeutic nature of it. Sometimes putting how you feel into a painting or drawing is far more freeing than just saying it out loud.

A Tool for Addiction

Director Greg Williams has been an addiction advocate ever since his recovery, with a particular focus on tackling the stigma that surrounds addiction. A drug addict at 17, he initially felt very ashamed of his battles and was reluctant to open up about his experiences (which consequently inspired his film ‘Anonymous People’). As with any problem in life however, addiction or not, the first step towards fixing it is acknowledging it to its full extent. Art, in whatever form it’s expressed, and whether conducted within a professional treatment centre or not, can help an individual move past the denial and shame associated with their addiction. By taking ones feelings and putting them somewhere physical, like a canvas, it can allow a recovering addict to view themselves, their thoughts and emotions more objectively. This allows them to heal, conclude and move forward with their life in a much clearer way.

There is also evidence to suggest that art can actually counter the undesirable physical side effects of drug withdrawal. According to ABC, creating art can lessen painful symptoms. A study conducted amongst cancer patients concluded that those who had engaged in one hour’s worth of artistic expression per day were less tired, felt a reduction in pain and had a greater sense of well being. Combined with the cathartic nature of creative expression, art is especially beneficial for those in any form of recovery – be it illness or addiction, physical or mental.

Although art won’t heal an addiction by itself, it can certainly be hugely beneficial to a patient’s mental health as they embark on their journey to getting clean again – even decades into their recovery. Art by its very nature gives us the luxury of viewing ourselves through our work, holding a mirror up to who we are, and revealing things we might not have otherwise noticed. Whether this is a painting that depicts our trials or reaffirms our triumphs, or a documentary that focuses on a struggling community dismantled by drugs, art is a powerful tool to fight addiction and personal demons.

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