The transformation and reparation of trauma through relationship is not a singular event; it involves multiple moments that support the unfolding of trust, safety, and co-regulation. Psychotherapy is one such corrective experience, because it includes a consistently empathetic relationship with another individual who can respond empathetically to anger, fear, and mistrust from the traumatized person. Verbal therapy contains valuable and effective relational qualities, such as well-chosen prosody, gesture and eye contact. Expressive arts therapy, however, adds something uniquely important to work with traumatized individuals, by naturally bringing in implicit sensory and body-based elements to psychotherapeutic dynamics that are not always available through even the most skilled verbal exchanges. In some cases, introducing expressive arts may be the only possible entry point to developing and restoring connection to others for those activated by personal narrative or unable to talk about any details even remotely related to their experiences. This is particularly true for individuals who have endured developmental, relational, and interpersonal trauma.
A Life-Saving Memory of Relationship
One client in particular taught me much of what I know today about the psychotherapeutic relationship formed through expressive arts therapy. I first encountered Christa with her mother Joelle and brother Joey at a residential shelter program. During the two occasions she resided at a residential shelter with her mother and brother Joey, I truly believed I had failed miserably to help Christa in any meaningful way, because of her lack of responsiveness to my many attempts to establish trust and communication. The impact of developmental trauma did not resolve with her subsequent stay at an inpatient psychiatric unit for intensive treatment of multiple challenges. Christa's experiences of interpersonal violence and assault continued into her adolescence, with prostitution instigated by her mother Joelle, despite Child Protective Services workers’ attempts to remove Christa and her brother from the home. At age 15 years, Christa finally decided to run away from home to escape more sexual assault and prostitution. Her dissociative disorder and depression became so overpowering that by age 16 she contemplated suicide. But she consciously decided not to take her life when she remembered what she later called a “life-saving memory” of time spent at the shelter with her brother Joey in our art and play therapy sessions. That memory really did save her life; because of it, she managed to get herself to a university neuropsychiatric hospital and present herself for inpatient treatment by reporting her symptoms and intentions to end her life to the hospital staff.
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