Lee Ann Thill is a beloved diabetes blogger at The Butter Compartment. I remember when she appeared on the scene a few years ago, and told us what she did for a living. All I could think at the time was, “what the heck?” Sounds like I am not alone. A big hug goes out to Lee Ann for breaking new ground — and of course for sharing her thoughts with us today at the ‘Mine!
A Guest Post by Lee Ann Thill
“So… what do you do?”
“I’m an art therapist, and I specialize in treating people with diabetes.”
Pause. If I had one of those cool cartoon X-rays, the kind I vaguely recall Bugs Bunny having, I got the feeling I’d see the cranial wheels spinning wildly as my curious conversation partner tried to envision the mutant offspring of two seemingly unrelated vocations juggling defunct beta cells. Occasionally, I’ll encounter someone who has some familiarity with my profession, but compared to, oh, let’s say, accountants, art therapists are few and far between. The wheels stop whirling, and the momentary pause is followed by:
“What exactly is that?”
I’ve had countless variations of this exchange over the years. The short explanation is that I provide psychotherapy, but instead of only talking, clients also make art with me as a way of expressing and exploring both the problems that brought them to therapy, and the possible solutions to those problems. While I’m one of many in my profession who help people with problems like depression or relationship conflict, I’m one of a very few who do so specifically with diabetes patients.
I waited for the response to my brief description, and not unexpectedly, my conversation partner waved a hand, as if I had offered them a box of markers and a drawing tablet, and demanded they be the next Picasso, and they emphatically exclaimed:
“I couldn’t draw a straight line if I had a ruler, and never graduated from stick figures!”
Little do they know, the beauty of art therapy is that there is no talent required. When you stare at various BG readings day in and day out, readings that can make you feel “bad”, or like you’ve done something “wrong”, doing something that’s always right – and I mean, ALWAYS – can be an oasis in a sea of used test strips and nutrition labels. Anyone who can pull a pencil across a piece of paper to make a mark, or glue magazine images into a collage is qualified to do art therapy. In fact, as counter-intuitive as it seems, it can be surprising that people with formal art training sometimes become frustrated with art therapy because they tend to get overly concerned with being technically proficient. Instead of letting go and enjoying the process of freely creating, they’re inundated by their self-critic. However, once an artist, or a non-artist for that matter, can set aside their inner critic, he or she can see that art therapy is an art activity in which you can do no wrong; everyone is considered an artist, and every piece of art is valuable because it’s infused with personal meaning, created within the context of a trusting relationship with a supportive therapist who will probably make you feel like you are the next Picasso, even if you haven’t taken an art class since you were in 5th grade.
What does art therapy have to do with diabetes though, some of you might be wondering. Consider this your spoiler alert – diabetes can be frustrating! Some people experience depression or anxiety. Some have issues with body image or food. There are people who have a lot of relationship conflict over diabetes care. Diabetes can leave some people feeling angry, resentful and bitter, or sometimes it makes people close their eyes and stick their fingers in their ears, so to speak, because the closest any of us can really get to escaping from it is ignoring it, which needless to say, never ends well. This is true of the newly diagnosed, diabetes “veterans”, young and old, type 1’s, type 2’s and type 3’s.
Just as we are all vulnerable to the wear and tear diabetes puts on the body, we are similarly susceptible to emotional wear and tear, and diabetes can dole that out like fountain of glitter – it gets everywhere, it’s hard to clean, and you’ll be finding the evidence for years to come. Letting the emotional wear and tear persist can add to the physical wear and tear, and it becomes a vicious cycle. (Disclaimer: I actually love glitter, mess or not.)
Maybe you’re nodding because you get it. You know. However, did you know that a paintbrush or papier-mâché could potentially break that pattern, possibly reversing some of the wear and tear?
Sometimes we can shake a diabetes funk on our own, or with the help of family and friends, but sometimes we need extra help. While most people looking for help in the form of counseling automatically turn to traditional talk therapy, like with a psychologist or social worker, to resolve issues, art therapy is an option that is at least as effective, and is often more efficient because artistic expression is like the non-stop route to some of our stickier, more uncomfortable emotions, provided you work with a trained art therapist. Trying art therapy for the first time can be intimidating, but once you get past the initial discomfort, then you’ll start to let go of the voice in your head that says you aren’t a good artist. Once you’ve done that, it’s not a far leap to dismiss the voice that criticizes your diabetes-related choices. If you do the best you can with modeling clay, and you can be proud of your efforts, why can’t you be OK with your best effort at being a surrogate pancreas? Whether you’re at the easel or programming your insulin pump, good enough IS good enough!
Most people are genuinely surprised at how much they like art therapy once they try it, how much they learn about themselves from doing it, and what a difference it makes in how they cope with diabetes. Just as no one really “gets” diabetes unless they live it, the same can be said of art therapy. So find an art therapist, and dive into that sea of colored tissue paper because “getting” art therapy, means getting your hands dirty, both figuratively and literally.
Lee Ann’s art therapy practice is located just outside Philadelphia in Oaklyn, NJ. In addition to individual and group services for patients with diabetes, she offers off-site workshops for both patient and professional groups. To locate a credentialed art therapist in your state, visit the Art Therapy Credentials Board.