Art therapy is the deliberate use of art-making to address psychological and emotional needs. Art therapy uses art media and the creative process to help in areas such as, but not limited to: fostering self-expression, creating coping skills, manage stress, and strengthen sense of self. Art therapy has provided mental health treatment for clients who have experienced trauma, grief and loss, depression, chronic illness, substance abuse, and more.
-The Art Therapy Alliance
Savannah is a quiet, responsible, young woman. She is a natural rule-follower. In many ways, she is what most people expect when they think of a first-born.
She also has a challenging time processing difficult emotions.
We saw her tendency for avoiding and ignoring hurts long before Asher’s abuse was exposed. I had many conversations with her about acknowledging painful experiences and the need to be vulnerable with trusted people. She would sometimes heed my encouragement and break down with me. But usually, she just nodded and then hardened her resolve even more.
I distinctly remember the way she choked back a sob when we told her of the abuse. She blurted out, “NO!” before nearly collapsing on our bedroom floor. At that moment, I saw the beginning of her well-formulated plan to go through life without ever dealing with high highs and low lows crumble. And I was actually grateful for the possible opportunity that this would bring to heal an already unhealthy means of handling painful realities. The abuse was not something we could ignore. It was not something she could avoid. And our whole family would be diving head-long into counseling. These things allowed Savannah to enter counseling without admitting she was failing at the impervious, strong personae to which she clung.
She hated counseling.
Admittedly, when Savannah says, “I’m not familiar with that/them,” and “I don’t like that/them,” they are entirely interchangeable in her mind. The unknown, by definition, is not enjoyed. Therefore, any new experience comes against an already well-established prejudice that it will be bad. I cannot think of a single instance when our first-born did something new and immediately liked it – food perhaps being the one exception. But even activities that she now greatly enjoys and pursues all started with her avid assertion that she couldn’t stand them. If I could have money for every time I told her that she had to give it a second shot, I would be a wealthy woman.
Knowing all of this, it would be easy to assume I recognized it in her counseling. And to some extent I did. She was scheduled for two sessions and I made her attend both. But when she still detested the counselor, the mode of counseling, the idea of receiving counsel after that second session, I didn’t have the wherewithal to fight her. Plus, we were starting neurofeedback because of complex PTSD in Georgia. Our victim benefits allowed secondary victims to also receive neurofeedback and I understood that one of the benefits was its ability to address physiological markers of trauma without requiring the client to cognitively acknowledge that trauma. This meant that Savannah could begin to heal from her unwillingness to address hardship without needing to address it.
Or at least that’s what I thought.
In hindsight, and without the total shock of our present circumstances waking me in a fog every morning, I can see the absurdity of that assumption. The rest of us all benefitted from neurofeedback. But we also, all, received traditional cognitive-behavioral talk therapy, too. This allowed neurofeedback to take advantage of neuroplasticity while our talk-therapy used the neurofeedback side-effects of healthier brain-wave patterns to get better results. It was a win-win. However, for Savannah those positive neurofeedback side-effects produced a calm that masked the reality that she was, in no way, addressing the truth of her pain.
We saw pesky signs of depression and anxiety continue to creep up in her attitudes and behaviors. We eventually went to see a doctor and discuss the possibility of adding medication to neurofeedback to help regulate her ups and downs. It was agreed that she would do well to add an anti-depressant. Again, we believed that the medication would biologically aid her mood stabilization while we continued to discuss, in detail and at length, the hard emotions.
And we did discuss those hard emotions. Our family sat down to countless conversations to address challenging triggers and PTSD episodes. We openly acknowledged the reality that each member would experience the healing process differently and therefore would often be at odds with other family members in their process. Our children grew bolder in owning their feelings – towards Asher, one another, themselves – in the months and years that followed the disclosure. Savannah appeared to grow as our other children did and we believed the combination of neurofeedback, medication, and an open home were doing the trick to bring mental and emotional health to our daughter.
We also knew that Africa would be a challenge.
Suddenly experiencing new things on every front, Savannah was thrust into an environment that required quick adaptation. She had to shelve her belief that anything unknown was also unwanted. She was forced to confront the reality that she needed her family and was not nearly as independent and stoic as she assumed. She discovered that a deep inner-strength existed inside her and that God was a present reality who loved and cared for her personally. She grew bold in addressing situations when her modus operandi at home had always been, I don’t want to bother them. We were grateful for the ways Africa was opening her eyes but we also knew that coming home would present its own challenges. And anyone who has moved away from home and then returned knows the difficulties inherent in that transition. Simply put, it is ridiculously easy to slip back into old patterns and beliefs when you re-enter that familiar dynamic.
Savannah returned to us a nearly 5 months ago. The original plan was to get a job, live at home to save money, and then travel to Florida to audition for Disney in January. She may still be on that same course, but what her life consists of during this interim phase has changed dramatically.
It became evident, nearly immediately, that much of the anger and bitterness Savannah held against Asher was still fresh. While she spent nearly a year living away from our family and the day-in-day-out reality of Asher, the rest of us worked tirelessly to learn how to cope with the inevitable ups and downs of healing from abuse. We all mistakenly believed that Savannah was coming home with more stability and regulation in her emotional well-being. What we discovered was that living apart from the constant reminder of the abuse only allowed Savannah to push it further down into the black pit of hidden emotions. And now we didn’t have neurofeedback providing any buffer from her outbursts and dysregulation.
We were also perplexed by an apparent unwillingness to adjust to the expectations of adulthood. Joseph and I were at a loss as we dealt, again and again, with missed appointments, flakey commitments, and an overall sense of immaturity that we did not believe commensurate with her nearly 20 years.
Soon, Savannah’s behaviors were flirting with rebellion. She is still fighting to truly engage with God. She refuses to connect with other young believers who could encourage her and provide accountability. She shaved her head and is now wearing a(n albeit fake) nosering. And during a “date” with just the two of us, she acknowledged struggling with the temptation to drink or even smoke marijuana. Granted, some of these are not big issues (I don’t believe long hair or a pierce-less nose equal godliness) but when taken together, they paint a picture of someone desperately trying to figure out who she is by pushing all the boundaries.
Joseph and I grew frantic in our efforts to confront her disrespect for our family and guide her to a course correction in life. The only option we could see was an ultimatum that she either move out immediately or seek weekly, professional therapy. She recognized her emotional brokenness and openly acknowledged that she wildly vacillated between anxiety/depression and insufferable critical-mindedness. She relented and confessed that she needed help understanding how to cope in healthier ways and agreed to seek counsel. But because she is dealing with near-crippling depression, she has almost no motivation. That conversation was over two months ago and today was only her second weekly appointment with her new counselor. Procrastination and inertia lent to weeks of delay with paperwork and scheduling her first appointment.
We are praying that God is guiding her to the right counselor with the right resources. She is working with a therapist trained in the use of art therapy – a medium right up Savannah’s alley. We hope that somehow these weekly appointments can begin to sort through the mess of dark emotions inside our daughter and bring us back the sweet, caring girl we once had.
I know that Asher’s abuse only exacerbated Savannah’s already unhealthy manner of dealing with emotions and didn’t cause it. I am working hard to not project my anger at the pain our family is absorbing on behalf of Savannah’s fragility onto Asher. He really has very little to do with it. But I also know that were we not fighting so very many battles with him, I might have more resources to invest in Savannah. As it is, my weakness and finiteness are abounding.