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Spiritual awareness through the arts

February 26, 2009
by Kimberly Dennis, MD
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A women’s treatment center finds that expressive therapies build confidence for residents

The body, mind, and spirit: Each is as important as the other in successfully treating addiction, eating disorders, and other behavioral health problems. But too often, behavioral health professionals neglect spirituality as an important dimension of their clients’ lives. While they address the more familiar medical and behavioral issues, spirituality is rarely discussed in any measured degree.

At the Timberline Knolls residential treatment center in Lemont, Illinois, recovery involves more than immediate physical and mental health treatment. We help women and adolescent girls work to achieve lifelong healing using the principles of 12-Step recovery, strengthening them spiritually, emotionally, and socially. With spirituality an integral part of their treatment, residents gain a larger, more objective perspective on life, as well as a firm foundation for their recovery.

In addition to more traditional therapeutic models, we have built a curriculum focused exclusively on helping residents understand and develop their spirituality. We want our residents to have fun, laugh, talk about spirituality, face their emotions, and examine their personal beliefs. Yet open discussions are only part of how we promote personal and emotional understanding. In fact, we have found that one of the most effective avenues to spiritual development involves expressive therapies such as music, art, and dance. These therapies can help residents unlock and nurture the spiritual aspects of their beings.

This creativity offers opportunities for residents to have truly positive experiences with a power greater than themselves. In the end, we believe our residents must find a loving higher power to draw from and to rely upon no matter what circumstances they might face. Ultimately, this strategy can smooth the road to lifelong healing.

Views on a higher power
A higher power can take many forms and often can be difficult to understand. Most of the residents we treat have come to be blocked off from the spiritual dimension of themselves. When new residents reach our facility and we ask them about God, the typical response is that spirituality is unimportant in their lives. They are likely to scoff at the idea of this kind of higher power. They’re mad at God and think God has failed them—or they simply don’t believe in any kind of higher power.

When residents offer these negative responses, we ask if the lack of a higher power in their lives has constituted an effective strategy. Clearly, it has not, since they continue to struggle with addiction and other behavioral disorders.
Certainly, most people think of a higher power as God, whether they see God through a religious lens or experience God through an aura or feeling of spirituality. But for many, especially those who say they don’t believe in God, a higher power also can be a negative force they cannot control. For those with an addiction, an eating disorder, and other issues, the higher power in their life might be alcohol, cocaine, bingeing, starving, or cutting. It takes control over their actions, time, and priorities, and becomes what they turn to in a time of need.
Describing their addictions as a higher power upon which they rely opens a door in residents’ minds to the higher power concept. This open-mindedness can be expanded upon and nurtured into a willingness to believe in a different type of higher power—one that is life-giving rather than life-destroying.
The next step is asking whether the resident is being helped or harmed by her current higher power. In most cases, it is easy for a resident to understand that she has chosen one that is harmful and has become a controlling force in her life. This opens her mind to consider replacing that authority with a higher power that, rather than hurting, might actually illuminate her and be a key element of recovery.
Including spiritual and religious elements as part of a holistic treatment plan assists residents in gaining a larger, more objective perspective of life. In fact, for true lifelong recovery, patients must address and strengthen all five core aspects of themselves: mental, spiritual, physical, emotional, and social.
This all starts with comprehensive clinical therapy and medical treatment, including medical stabilization followed by a powerful combination of evidence-based clinical treatments that might include medication, cognitive-behavioral therapy, Dialectical Behavior Therapy, integrative cognitive therapy, family systems therapy, and regular doses of 12-Step mutual support. While these standard approaches address four of the core elements (mental, physical, emotional, and social), we believe that spiritual growth calls for special attention and a special curriculum.
A spiritual curriculum
As a way to begin understanding their spiritual side, residents take part in weekly group spirituality sessions. They develop confidence by operating as part of a group, which has more strength than they do as individuals. Plus, the residents learn that they can turn to the group to survive challenges as they arise, thanks to the openness and support of these peers.

During a spirituality session, we encourage personal reflection and provide each resident in the group with a page of thought-provoking questions. For example, we ask if residents have ever had a positive experience with a force greater than themselves. Or residents might be asked to describe negative experiences and how those experiences affect their willingness to believe in a higher power.