In a spring of “New Beginnings” – reflections on recovery from abuse
I just returned from the Virginia 27th Annual Training on the Management and Treatment of Sex Offenders, where art therapists are few and far between. But, the rewards of combining art-making with cognitive behavioral techniques in this area of treatment can be quite far-reaching. I’m reminded of one past client whom I’ll re-name Sagan for his story.
He arrived in the art room like so many other 16-year-old boys who’d been assigned to work individually with me – guarded, a tinge of curious, and a bit reckless with his words. But Sagan was different – he lacked the stereotypical entitled attitude so many “SO’s” often carry, and he immediately began asking me the questions. “Who are you?”, “Art what?”, “Where’s the game (video) screen?”, “Do you have kids?” – sometime pretentious, often incongruent, he “needed” the facts, a trait that came in handy when the tables were turned.
Sagan was in treatment for severe ADHD and sexually offensive behaviors, the only details provided with his referral. It took only a couple art assessments (8CRT and KFD) to begin to determine two exceptionally important clues to his excessive and repetitive, socially unacceptable behaviors: Asperger’s Syndrome and his own sexual abuse. Throughout the next year he embraced art therapy and increasingly found a new voice for embedded frustration and anger through a combination of expressive and problem-solving techniques. Steadily, we unraveled his distorted perceptions of sexuality, which were rooted in his own victimization beginning at the tender age of four. Far more effective than his previous singular verbal therapies, Sagan developed significantly improved communication skills and self-esteem, a more discerning level of trust, responsibility for his wrong behaviors, and a healthy understanding of the hardest concept for offenders – empathy.
It’s these “New Beginnings” through art therapy that I most treasure in what my first graduate school professor called “the coolest profession in the world,” and even in the smallest steps forward, it’s my qualified secret reason when similar kids now ask, “why would you want to work with me? ”