This is a story about how art therapy changed a young boy’s life.
The Setting of Art Therapy
It was an Aussie Summer. It got me thinking how much time we spend in the pool.
The Manifestation of Anxiety
I got a call one day from a mum who was quite distraught. Her primary school aged son was anxious about upcoming swimming classes at school. This meant leaving the school grounds as a group, travelling by bus to a nearby public pool. It meant getting changed into bathers, entering the pool, following swimming instructions, changing back into school uniform and then heading back to the school grounds. All would be fine for the average kid. Here there was one small difference.
The Traumatic Event
Months before the mother called me to say her son had an incident in a friend’s private pool. The boy had been swimming together with friends and family. Everyone was doing their own little acrobatics and having fun. His father was on the other side of the pool fence watching his younger sibling. Amongst the hive of aquatic activity, an older cousin noticed the boy face down in the water, for a bit too long. He turned him over, noticed he had changed colour and wasn’t breathing! There was absolute panic.
The cousin yelled. The father tried to run as fast as he could, but was blocked momentarily by the locked pool fence. The boy was pulled out of the water and given CPR. Unfortunately, there was no response. The paramedics arrived. Still there was no response. During those few moments he was pronounced “clinically dead”. The paramedics continued frantically to work with him and bring him back to life.
Suddenly, with nothing short of a miracle, his breathing returned. The boy was taken to hospital where he had open heart surgery and was nursed back to a full recovery. Physical recovery, that is. His mental health was another story.
How the Art Therapy client presented
I met this brave little boy. He was smiling, talkative and engaging. He told me stories of his family and his joyful time on the beaches during his Summer holidays. As he drew and painted sunshine and beaches, he narrated about his happy school days, family and friends.
Themes in the Art Therapy sessions
Within two weeks, his drawings had transformed from blue water and yellow sandy beaches, to red water and black sharks. The red water was messy, chaotic and filled the whole page. There was no sand on the beach, no space to run for refuge. The water was full of scary large black sharks that circled. There were no people in the mage. He painted sharks week after week, as he processed the fear and danger that they represented. Sharks and water became a consistent theme.
Progress in Art Therapy
One week I suggested “perhaps we make a shark?” He jumped at the idea. Using chicken wire, plaster and black paint, he made a shark with sharp teeth! It took a few weeks to construct as he carefully moulded his sculpture. He smoothed the plaster with his hands and worked the plaster to fill any gauze gaps. He was focused and intense. The shark needed water and so we built a “pool” lined with plastic to fill with water. Once the pool was full, I suggested “Let’s put the shark in the water?”, followed by “What about taking the shark out of the water?” and then “How about you stepping into the water now?” Lo and behold, the young boy couldn’t contain his excitement!
Processing anxiety and trauma through Art Therapy
Some weeks this client would dip string in red paint and paste it on the water. There was a fascination with thin strings and red paint. He would cut many strings in to little pieces and then gingerly place them on his image, as though he was performing some delicate procedure, sticking the strings down with glue. When I mentioned this in the parent review, asking whether strings held some significance in their life, they explained that the boy had a scar of stiches from open heart surgery as a result of the pool incident, but because the family didn’t talk about it they were sure that he wouldn’t have even noticed it, and it probably wasn’t an issue for him. It seems the young boy had noticed the scar on his body. The mystery played on his mind and this was his way of making sense of that event. Art therapy is the language that can access subconscious memories, thoughts, events and beliefs in a way that the verbal conscious vehicle may simply not have access to.
How Art Therapy works
The ability to externalise his fear and make sense of the trauma in a non-verbal context allowed this young boy to completely process his experience. He was able to witness his emotions, release them from an internal space of holding, and empower himself to reconnect with water in a safe and harmless context. The art therapy offered him a vehicle through which to understand on many levels. It worked on a cognitive, kinaesthetic, emotional and behavioural level. His cognitive thoughts were altered regarding water. He was able to re-experience water safely. He released his emotional fears and behaviourally, eventually the young boy could re-engage in the swimming activity with his class.
Neurophysics and Art Therapy
Metaphors. Symbols. A change in the brain’s thinking. This young boy articulated his fears by using sharks as a metaphor. String dipped in red paint was his processing the scar on his chest from open heart surgery. Giving a child the opportunity to be “larger” than their fears and greater than their anxieties gives them a sense of control. When they experience trauma, adrenalin rushes through the brain, and some parts are affected. These parts are known as the prefrontal cortex (“Thinking Center”), the anterior cingulate cortex (“Emotion Regulation Center”), and the amygdala (“Fear Center”). By recreating the experience in a supported environment we allow the brain to rethink, re-regulate and re-categorise what has happened to them.
Success through creativity
After three months of art therapy, our young brave boy went to school, got on the bus, travelled to the nearby pool, enjoyed his swimming lessons and then rushed home to tell his mum how good it was. Art therapy brought success and Summers are now fun!
Indigo Art Therapy