To Soothe the Savage Breast…
Musick hath charms to sooth a savage Breast,
To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.
William Congreve, The Mourning Bride 1697
One summer when I was 22 I was sitting in a circle of singers in St Andrew’s in Scotland being taught advanced voice skills. The two course leaders were talking about having done a course in Counselling for Singing Teachers. ‘How pretentious,’ I thought in my immaturity. Little did I reflect in that moment on how music had been and would be therapy in my life, and that when I myself came to teach singing I would be pretty happy I’d studied counselling first. Singing is about telling stories, as is music, as is art and there is power in telling your own story or hearing part of it told in the art of another. I came to work for nearly a decade in the field of art and mental health, primarily with clients with acquired brain injuries, personality disorders, physical disabilities and depression and anxiety. There I saw the true power of art.
At the age of 23 I was wrongly diagnosed with a form of autoimmune arthritis called ankylosing spondylitis. Actually I had Still’s Disease, childhood onset rheumatoid arthritis. Many dark days followed in terrible pain and I thought I had lost the dreams I had been in St Andrew’s to follow on that far gone sunny day. I bought CDs and never removed the shrink wrap, and dust gathered on the piano. A family friend told me that I would be happier if I sang again… I thought this would just make me miserable. I had been headed for a classical singing career when my neck fused due to my condition. So I found a different way of exercising music, by writing and by singing non-professionally at first although I did end up going further.
In 2010 my health reached an all time low. I needed to use a wheelchair, I was constantly on buprenorphine and my doctors could not help me. I moved to Bath to be treated at the Royal National Hospital for Rheumatic Diseases and to study for a Master of Music degree in Songwriting. Both of these elements, medical care and music, working in tandem improved my health exponentially. I had difficult times while I was there, but I came to be able to agree with Anne Frank when she said ‘I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.’ Anne Frank never intended to be a famous author; sadly she never knew how her writing would change the world, only that it had changed her own.
This experience is shared by several people who I spoke to in writing this article. One lady described that her involvement with art was not just therapeutic, it had a very positive social aspect. Having developed mental health problems at the age of 12, she felt she ‘had never matured emotionally despite maturing intellectually’. Her psychiatrist recommended an art therapy group:
Throughout my teens I spent prolonged periods in hospital and engaged in several art forms to pass the time more than anything, but I guess art actually offered me an escape from the stress of my anxiety and disordered thoughts and the stifling powerlessness of the hospital environment. Making cards or gifts for people kept me to a degree connected to them, at the same time doing art with other people was a means of socialisation, an ice breaker.
Having done a science degree, this lady thought of the arts to be ‘useless’
However 2 years ago I had a minor breakthrough in terms of my eating disorder, breaking an addictive cycle which had been impacting on many aspects of my life for over 5 years. I’ve tried many therapies, met many therapists, talked and talked. I’ve spent so much time suspended, hanging in a colourless, joyless world, clinging on to fragments of colour and hope.
I said yes, when Dr M. asked me if I’d be interested in joining an art therapy group. I thought I might as well, I liked art, making things, it’d pass the time, wouldn’t do me any harm. I doubted it’d do me any good, nothing else had, I’d failed to make any other therapy work, why would this be any different, nevertheless maybe it was worth a shot!
All of a sudden, my two worlds collided; unexpectedly a chink of light penetrated the darkness surrounding me. I started to see, reality, the colour in the people and the world around me. I wanted to jump into that world or maybe dip a toe in at least. I felt the need to leave the bland, joyless, darkness I had inhabited for so long behind.
Paper, paints, glitter, pastels, pencils, shells, fabric, generating images and colour have allowed me to make a connection with my inner creative spirit and strengthened my resolve to reject my destructive status quo.
There’s a mountain to climb, but as a result of art therapy I can see the mountain amidst a rich and colourful landscape.”
Visual art had a similar impact on a lady whom I’ll call J.
I have been using art journaling for the past 23 years and in that time it has helped me monitor my mental health. I had my first breakdown in November 1998 and when I was finally allowed out of the locked ward to go to occupational therapy they were making Christmas calendars ..... I knew I needed to paint!!! So I sat on the floor and after a few formless watercolours ended up making a kit that looked a bit like the head and tail of a rattle snake .... the warning sign that had come before and I had ignored!! I have had to learn the hard way to say 'no' but my artmaking brought me back to myself and helped me return to wholeness!! My sketchbooks help me reflect and pause for insight in a busy world.... the pages open the door to my own inner truth.. discovering the treasure within. I can find it through dance/drumming/singing different ways to do some soul searching!
Where would I be now If I hadn't kept this practice? Probably back in the locked ward!!
J. uses art to help herself quite purposefully, and is now an art therapist working with cancer patients, passing on these skills.
There can be a downside to using art to create self identity, according to some people involved in their artforms professionally. James, a producer and musician, told me
In my years in music I've come across too many people who
think that creative expression is going to solve their problems on its
own, which it can't. These people decide that their art is going to be
their career, whereas in fact the very problems that are fuelling
their creativity are the very same things that are preventing them
from becoming successful in their art or in life. Because creating is
cathartic for them, they get themselves into a mindset that they don't
think they need to do anything else and their art becomes a way to run
away from problems that they don't want to confront.
As a former professional in the field, I would say that in art therapy, music therapy etc. the therapists are exactly that: they are trained in mental health as well as in their artform. But what of the Amy Winehouses of this world, the tortured geniuses whose art does not save them? Is it possible to hide behind the applause of an audience, to see it as acceptance and love when that has been lacking elsewhere? Quite possibly. I am sure as a musician I have met many songwriters whose songs said things they should have been saying to a counsellor, and maybe by putting it into song they felt it had been said so never sought out appropriate help. However, I don’t feel those people are the majority of those who use art for health.
I think back to a girl I knew when I first started working with clients with brain injuries, E. She had been a celebrated cellist before being hit by a car and becoming very disabled. She had lost most physical function, had to be peg fed and spoke with a lightwriter. She would certainly never play again… but did that make music any less part of her, now that she had lost the ability to perform, to be applauded? We talked about music a lot. I brought her a copy of Bach’s B Minor Mass one day. She said it made her herself again. Maybe it wasn’t all that she needed to do to accept her new life, but listening to Bach was certainly a huge step forward.
Sometimes you can have too much of a good thing, though… when songwriting became an every day activity, and one to be analysed and assessed, I experienced what Wordsworth must have felt when he said ‘we murder to dissect’ for a short time. Then I took up baking and churned out chocolate brownies by the tonne… or I used art (baking is an artform in my world) to get away from art!
In this current climate arts projects are losing money as the arts are not considered to be an essential service. From my personal and professional experience and from talking to people to write this article, I would claim that they are, that they are a cost effective and powerful tool in overcoming the epidemic of depression and anxiety of the recession. Arts are not only cathartic, they create social contacts as in the case of the lady interviewed here, they teach coping skills and practical skills as demonstrated by the story of J and they can reconnect the traumatised with themselves, as shown by E. They are a fundamental part of living a healthy and fulfilled life.