Ismael is about two years old. His grandmother who is here with him at the hospital isn’t sure of his age, but that is common. Often when you ask how old someone is, you’re given a ball park estimate. Birthdays are not celebrated here and people generally just don’t keep track.
Ismael is at the hospital because he was born with clubfoot. He has been coming for art therapy sessions for several weeks now. He’s been drawing and painting a little bit, but what he really loves is playing with the paint. He loves getting his hands in it and rubbing it on his face. He’s two (probably), after all.
I realized pretty early on that he is probably more suited to play therapy than art therapy. I took some courses on play therapy, but I am not a play therapist – however there is some overlap. He started playing with these little bells that I pull out for him every time he comes, and he loves playing with the magnets on the magnetic board. He just has a lot of energy and in spite of the fact that both of his legs are in casts, he moves around as much as he can.
The other day I got a wonderful donation from Chris. She brought me a box filled with toys. It was full of all kinds of things; matchbox cars, rubber animals, action figure guys, etc. I opened this box up after bringing Ismael into the room and I’m not exaggerating when I say he looked stunned. He had never seen anything like it. His eyes were batting back and forth, as though he was trying to take it all in at once. He would pick up one toy, but at the same time, he’d be looking at another toy. Then he would peer back and forth between the two, trying to decide which one was more amazing. I tried to put myself in his shoes. What would it be like for me if I were seeing all these amazing things at once for the first time? The fact is, I couldn’t even imagine it because I’ve been spoiled all my life with an abundance of…well, everything! The closest I could come to comparing our situations is when I’ve come back to the United States after a long time away, and go straight to Target or Wal-Mart. I remember on many occasions, the room literally felt like it was spinning because there was so much amazing stuff to look at and I didn’t know where to look first. Obviously that’s a poor comparison, but it helps me to at least attempt to understand a bit of Ismael’s experience seeing a box full of toys for the first time in his life.
Ismael quickly displayed a preference for the matchbox cars, and he did everything you could imagine with them. He drove them across the room, across his casts, he lined them up, he piled them up, and he studied each and every detail on every last one. He was in his own little heaven.
I am sure some of you may be wondering, “How does this count as therapy? Isn’t he just playing with toys?” It is a good question – actually, I get similar questions all the time about art therapy. “Is that a real thing?” people ask, or “So what, you just teach them to draw?”
In fact, play therapy and art therapy fall into the broader category of Expressive therapies. There are many other types of Expressive therapies as well, such as dance therapy or music therapy, and they go well beyond teaching kids to dance or to play music.
There are many ways to define art therapy, but for me, the healing takes place on 3 different levels.
First, there is something about creative expression that really helps people relax, and allows them to let down their guard. Creating a triangular relationship between the patient, the therapist and the art makes people more comfortable since they are able to focus on creating something rather than just talking or answering questions as in a more traditional therapeutic setting. So many of these children are so shy when they first come in, but open up when they are given something else to focus their attention on. This allows for a real relationship to develop.
Second, there is real healing and therapeutic power in the physical act of creation. Just as many people love to sew, or exercise, or dance or write, or play music, these kids are bursting with creative energy, eager to express themselves. When they find an outlet for it, the results are amazing, and often, especially with young children (but also with adults) they are able to communicate something through their hands or feet that they could never communicate verbally. It is not about the finished product – sure they might improve their painting or drawing skills through the process, but that is not the goal. I don’t care if they paint a “beautiful” picture – if they are able to bring what is on the inside to the surface (or canvas, or cast), then it is a masterpiece.
Finally, many of these kids have faced ridicule, neglect and have been ostracized by their communities, sometimes their own families. The process of being physically healed is a wonderful thing and it’s amazing to see their clubfeet turned straight, or their cleft lips turned into whole smiles. But often the pain and emotional scars are still there. They have been told their whole life that they are cursed, and that they do not matter. By having regular meetings with someone one-on-one, and being given the full attention of a grown-up, they are receiving a very different message. They are being told that they do matter, that they are important, that they are accepted and loved. That is where the therapy happens. Even if no words are spoken, the message is heard.