I trained to be an Expressive Arts Therapist in 2012. Expressive arts therapy is the practice of using imagery, storytelling, dance, music, drama, poetry, movement, dream work, and visual arts together, in an integrated way, to foster human growth, development, and healing. It is about reclaiming our innate capacity as human beings for creative expression of our individual and collective human experience in artistic form. It is also about experiencing the natural capacity of creative expression and creative community for healing. Counseling and talk therapy are an integral part of the work of expressive arts therapists and are used as very strong aids to process the work created by the client.
In July 2014, I had my first baby. What followed was postpartum depression. Overwhelming feelings of sadness and unstoppable bouts of crying. When it happened, it took me a few days to realise and to completely accept that this had happened to me, a trained therapist! This was the real test of my training. To be able to apply all my belief in therapy and art. The first step to healing is always acceptance. Acceptance of feelings, acceptance of behavior of self and acceptance of the situation. No healing can take place in the absence of acceptance. I accepted that I was undergoing postpartum depression. I accepted that there were inexplicable feelings and I accepted that I needed to reach out and seek help. I also completely accepted that my ‘symptoms’ were separate than me, the person.
On one such evening of depression, I opened my diary and wrote a journal entry. I wrote about how wanting a daughter had been a childhood dream and how I felt when she was born. I felt better. The next day I wrote some more and I painted. Within the next few days, I also went and consulted my homeopath. She listened to me for close to two hours and just that made me feel a lot better. As a habit, I also shared my everyday feelings with my husband, close friends and my mother. I also cried a lot, without feeling ashamed. A combination of writing, painting, talking, crying and sessions with my doctors ensured that I was on my way to feeling better and feeling healed. It took four months for me to get over my postpartum depression. Some feelings of depression come and go even now, but the deepest feelings of sadness have disappeared.
I share this very personal journey with all of you to bring to light the importance and the beauty of healing. How it is imperative that each one of us recognise feelings that need a way out and then choose a way to let them out. The process of ‘letting out’ needs an anchor. An anchor can be an art form, a close family member, a spouse, a friend or a trained therapist or a clinical psychologist. This is a personal choice and one that has to be made with trust, openness and no judgement.
As a trained therapist and as someone who has herself made this journey of seeking help to ‘let out’, I would always recommend finding an Expressive Arts Therapist or a combination of seeking an art form and going to a therapist.
Please consider the following factors before making a decision about your therapeutic process:
1. Self-Expression: All therapies, by their very nature and purpose, should encourage individuals to engage in self-exploration and self-expression. A platform where this is made possible becomes effective from the beginning.
2. Active Participation: The experience of doing, making, and creating can actually energize individuals, redirect attention and focus, and alleviate emotional stress, allowing one to fully concentrate on issues, goals, and behaviors. How will a process of active participation be facilitated?
3. Safe-Space: The space where therapeutic work happens has to feel safe. The concept of safety can be relative and its notion is as much psychological as physical. Aspects like trust, rapport with the therapist, confidentiality, a non-threatening and a nonjudgmental environment, all of these contribute to safety. It is important that you ask questions related to the physicality of the space which will be used for your sessions. A neutral space is always a good idea – neither your house nor the therapist’s.
4. Affordability: You have to decide what works for you. There are clinical psychologists associated with every hospital, there are expressive arts therapists- difficult to find but they exist and there are therapists running their independent practice. There is also a lot of pro-bono work happening in the field of therapy and while individual therapists may not offer these services, there are organisations and NGOs and online channels which provide free services.
5. Stigma-Shame-Marginalisation: There is NO shame in seeking help. There is NO shame in going through depression, battling mental illness, fighting feelings of suicide. There is no shame in accepting that maybe your mental health is affected and it needs healing. Each one of us goes through cycles of a low tide in our mental health. Marginalisation begins with oneself. When you choose to go into a shell because you are ashamed of what is happening in your mind, you initiate the process of stepping away. It is crucial to remind ourselves every day that each of our journeys are sacred and precious and difficult. When there is no shame, stigma and marginalisation affect us less.
6. The Person You Are: Who you are and what you want is the most important. How you want to heal is of primary concern while making this decision. How much time you want to take before seeking help, is your decision. A dear friend I know doesn’t take medication for her schizophrenia. Another friend I know takes medication for her depression and goes to a psychologist.What works for another person may or may not work for you. Rely on your intuition and your own understanding of yourself.
7. Seek Therapist Information:
a) Ask for information about where the therapist is trained from and what the body of work is like. This is important because when you make an effort to do research and seek information, you also take the responsibility for your therapeutic process.
b) Ask if the therapist is registered and works independently or is attached to a therapeutic establishment.
c) How will goals be identified for your therapy sessions? You may go with a set of goals you want to achieve, but as you make this journey, you will realise that the goals might change. For e.g. you may decide that you want to do seek therapy to improve your self-esteem. But in the process you will discover stored up anger from childhood experiences. The goal of the sessions will then switch to the theme of ‘anger’. And will eventually lead to enhanced emotional expression and self-esteem.
Mental health is imperative for a healthy society. I have witnessed some fantastic work that is being done in this field and I have also witnessed the evolution of people from ignorance to awareness to healing and then to empowerment.
And NO, therapy is not just for ‘the not normal’. We are all normal neurotics.