Dissociation And Art Therapy
Defenses are a truly amazing function of the human psyche. When a person is under a great deal of psychic pain or they are in danger, the unconscious has the capacity to step in and mentally contain the threat. Dissociation is one of many defenses that humans have the capacity to experience, which is a protective cutting off in order to create a safe distance from the trauma. In my NYC art therapy practice, forms of dissociation are common because, unfortunately, trauma is common.
In extreme cases of trauma, abuse, and torture, Dissociative Identity Disorder (or DID, also known as “Multiple Personality Disorder”) can develop. The victim of these horrific events experiences a shattering of self, which results in switching between separate and multiple personalities. Kim Noble is an artist with DID who is undergoing treatment to heal the horrifying trauma she experienced throughout her life in order to reintegrate these different parts of herself and become whole again.
In an article on Kim’s story for The Guardian, “Kim Noble: The Woman With 100 Personalities”, writer Amanda Mitchison highlights art therapy as a cornerstone of Kim’s treatment. After discovering art in 2004, Kim has created a huge body of work. Art-making has allowed her to get to know each of her personalities in a new way because whatever personality is present when she is painting is a distinct artist with a unique and identifiable style. She explains, “When I see [the other personalities’] paintings, I get excited. This is the nearest I am ever going to get to being integrated.”
Art Therapy Can Help With All Forms Of Dissociation Including Disconnection
DID, like Kim’s experiences, is on the most extreme end of the spectrum. What dissociation looks like can run the gamut. There are also softer versions of dissociation that might not even technically be labeled as such. I, instead, refer to these experiences as “disconnection.” Disconnection is when a person feels “checked out” or “cut off” from their bodies. This is especially common for people with anxiety, in which they have a ton of worry and a feeling like their head is separated from the rest of their body.
In my NYC practice, I use art therapy with patients, who experience both dissociation and disconnection, to give them the opportunity to connect with the parts of themselves that they have shut off. Dissociation does, in fact, serve a purpose as protection so it is important to recognize when reconnecting to traumatic material and/or parts that have disconnected that this happened initially for a good reason. With my patients, art becomes a way to reconnect to these parts of themselves in a gradual, incremental, and safe way. I see the art materials themselves as a means to encourage the artist to be present and stay in their bodies (rather than in a disconnected or heady state). Through images and symbols, the artist can encourage unconscious thoughts and feelings to come to the surface. This leaves them feeling seen and supported by me, as the art therapist, and discovering new insights about their history. I also employ art as a container to absorb the strong and painful feelings of my patients that arise during this process.