What is a Therapeutic Collage?
A Therapeutic Collage is a therapy exercise we sometimes offer patients in treatment. In general terms, a therapeutic subject is considered and a title is given for someone to work to. Then some days are taken to create a collage around that subject. At Hay Farm we are blessed with a dedicated art room which is always open to the patients and you will usually find many pieces of gradually developing art in there. It’s not that everyone does a collage, far from it, but something about being in a treatment and delving into difficult emotions seems to act as a kind of creative stimulus. I know people often say that addictive behaviours trigger creativity but it is my experience that the opposite seems to be the case so when people come into a clinic, this is one of the many lovely facets of their recovery that their creativity and energy comes back and flourishes. I’m proud that we encourage this and other artistic and creative outlets as I think it helps people recognise some tangible measure of their recovery.
Why use art/experiential therapies at all?
Talking therapies are very helpful but sometimes we have talked about our problems many times it doesn’t seem to help any more ( in some situations, maybe it never did ). The problem can be that many things we want to recover from or consider in therapy, occurred to us through an experience which may not have had any verbal component. When we try and describe this back to someone via language, we are having to remove ourselves by one dimension away from that experience and therefore we will inevitably have to apply a form of ‘translation’, for which we may very well not have the appropriate vocabulary. Another problem is that our processing of these experiences via language will very likely end up having to be filtered by many layers of socially constructed interpretations and likely many distorted filters, as they put it in CBT. Therapies like CBT do a great job of exploring and trying to change these filters but also goes a long way to show how extensive and often ‘sub conscious’ or automatic these filters and distortions are. Then, in turn, the person listening to us will filter what they hear through their linguistic understanding of the world and apply all of their subconscious prejudices on it as well. This is why using any other medium other than language to explore problems has the advantage of bypassing so many of these limitations/distortions and can very quickly cut to the core of the problem. I think that’s the thing people will tell you who have used these other types of experiential therapies, they often say that the insight and the resolution they felt was very quick considering how often and for so many years they have tried discussing their problems, without seeming to make any impact. There are many of these experiential types of therapies but let’s look closer at how a therapeutic collage can work.
How does it work then?
I’m sure there are many ways of using any therapeutic exercise so I’m just going to describe a simple version here. The therapists will think of a subject that might be best explored through a collage. An example might be, my past, present, and future. The individual then has a chance to go and look through magazines and online to find images that seem to have a personal resonance relating to this subject. Sometimes people simply draw onto the paper and sometimes they even stick larger objects to it. It’s great to see people’s creativity run wild with this. One lovely feature of the collage is that we don’t have to be artistic in any way to use it for therapy. If you think about the subject you want to explore and then flick through any source of images, all you have to do is find those that ‘means’ something to you and then arrange them. The way it is presented can be quite varied but typically the collage is placed in view for the group to contemplate and then the individual talks about what the different images mean to them. The rest of the group then have a chance both to talk about what they get from the images themselves relating to their own lives and also what they observe, knowing the person as they do. An example might be that, using the past present future title, they notice a very dominant figure from the past that the grouacknowledgesge is still a burning issue for them to work on or they may have a sense that they didn’t feel much hope in the future part. They might have created representations for all of their family but then left a family member out altogether, or one of the representations seems out of kilter with the others. It’s hard to give you a sense of the feedback without raising the suspicion that there might be some sort of criticism there, which there definitely isn’t. One of the great features of a collage is the way that it brings into focus insights into our functioning that wouldn’t otherwise be apparent and the process of discussing this is all done via identification and with love and support. I feel the need to stress this as people who come to our clinics have already been on the receiving end of huge criticism, not least by themselves, and so therapy must be about building people up and helping them have insight and develop new confidence and new ways of coping, not being put down again, so all of this is done with a great deal of love and support.
What did I do?
I did one of these collages when I was in treatment some 26 years ago and I still remember it today as a very helpful exercise. I had the title above, the past present and future one, and my collage had a lot of, what I now see as being glitzy, showy, shallow things in the past section showing how my values had really gone awry as a result of my addiction. I don’t remember how I represented the present but I remember the future images were of having a family and living in the country, a much simpler life ( I was living in London at the time, working in the city of London ). What the collage showed me very clearly was the gaping difference between the lifestyle and the values that I was living, which were very enmeshed with my illness, in contrast to the values that I would say were more at my heart, or in my true nature. I am glad to say that in the next few years I was able to make that recovery and life transition and this collage still remains in my memory as a very vivid reminder of that conflict and contrast that using vs recovery represent.
Try it yourself?
I hope this has given you some idea of how these collages work. There is no reason you shouldn’t try this at home. Think of a subject you want to explore, or a decision you want to consider, and try making a collage out of it. You can interpret it all on your own or you can share it with someone close. If you want to share it with others, perhaps you can email it to me so I can share on this post and invite others to comment and compliment? The picture above and the picture below are both examples of collages people have done in treatment.