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The Art (Therapy) of War: The Power of Art to Heal Trauma

Bethany Haley Williams

Some evil wreaks suffering and trauma beyond words. But the power of artistic expression can open channels of healing even in such devastation.

My friend Joyce witnessed horrendous violence the day rebels of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) raided her home. Only a young girl at the time, she was forced to be an onlooker as LRA soldiers murdered her mother, father, and younger brother. She then watched her home go up in flames as she was tied up and taken into captivity to become a servant, sex slave, and girl solder for rebel commanders. After two years of her captivity in the bush, Joyce managed to escape and eventually entered into a long-term holistic rehabilitation program provided by the nonprofit organization I founded, Exile International.

“Joyce drew with detail. She drew with tears. It was as if the memories were etched permanently in her mind.”

One of Joyce’s first experiences in the program was an art therapy workshop. The pivotal exercise in the workshop involved guiding children to draw on large, white handkerchiefs.

They were given two handkerchiefs: one on which to draw a story of their sad tears (painful memories) and the other to draw their happy tears (hopes for their lives). I explained to the children that handkerchiefs are used to capture our tears, a tangible and expressive symbol of God keeping track of our sorrows and collecting our tears in His bottle (Psalm 56:8). Spurring these children to visually express their heartaches and hopes helps them find the words that seem to leave all of us in times of deep trauma. Each of their handkerchiefs quickly became color-filled storyboards, including Joyce’s.

Joyce drew with detail. She drew with tears. It was as if the memories were etched permanently in her mind. Her drawing was full of red and more red, representing countless wounds, flames, and pools of blood.

After several minutes, it was time for her and the other students to move onto their drawings of their hopes and dreams, or their “happy tears.”

But Joyce resisted, “Wait! I am not finished… can I go back to the other drawing? I need to draw my baby sister. She was crying that day, and the rebels took her and slammed her body against a tree so she would stop. I need to draw that. It is in my head so much.”

Setting Traumatic Memories Free

So we let her continue, turning trapped memories in her head into tangible evidence of everything she’d been through. That moment was the beginning of a journey of true healing for Joyce. She is now close to graduating high school and dreams of becoming a teacher and helping other children who have also been orphaned by the war. Her spirit today is strong, soft spoken, radiant, and full of hope.

“Trauma healing is as simple as it is difficult. It requires acknowledging, sharing, repeating and releasing the pain of our stories to safe people who will love us unconditionally and walk with us in the process.”

But Joyce did not get to a place of healing naturally. The nightmares did not go away without her doing the work to release the fear that fueled them. The flashbacks of captivity did not dissipate without her facing the dragons that created them.

Trauma healing is as simple as it is difficult. It requires acknowledging, sharing, repeating and releasing the pain of our stories to safe people who will love us unconditionally and walk with us in the process. It is only through, not around, that we find Time and God are beautiful healers.

However, for a survivor of trauma, finding words to describe why and how and by what means their spirit was crushed is sometimes as difficult as learning a foreign language.

Expressing Pain Without Words

That’s where the power of art comes into play. Art therapy as a means of processing trauma provides a safe medium to release pain. It is an often less intrusive method, and it spurs the creative mind – which helps humans feel alive in the middle of a wasteland of wounds. Creating art and engaging expression can provide a glimmer of newness and hope.

This is even truer for a child – specifically a child who has seen the mind piercing results of a war, including death, mutilation, forced slavery, and other acts of brutality. I’ve witnessed first-hand how art therapy exercises have helped these children find hope for surviving the tsunamis of the heart.

“Children do not have the same vocabulary as adults. They have images and memories and heartaches that they often do not have words to express.”

This is why I founded Exile International in 2008 after my trip to Kenya and Congo. I saw, with my own eyes, the effects on the spirit of a child after being forced to kill family members and suffer enslavement by rebel leaders. The children I worked with on that trip drew pictures of whole villages being burned to the ground as well as bodies being torn and chopped to pieces. Their traumatic experiences had inconceivable effects on their moldable minds; limited vocabularies withheld their ability to even explain or process what they’d been through. But through various forms of art and expression, including dance, music and drama, we were able to provide them with an avenue to expose and release their pain that didn’t require having the right words. In a way, it was freeing.

In my memoir, The Color of Grace, I write the following to explain the power of expressive therapy for children.

There is something divinely healing about using our hands to draw and our feet to dance and our mouths to sing. These expressions tap into a different part of the brain by bypassing language. Recent scientific research indicates that our bodies actually release a bonding neurotransmitter when we dance and sing together.3 Dancing and singing are universal languages that connect us. I had seen this power in art and expressive therapy with my clients back in the States, as well as in Sudan the week before. Seeing the freedom it brought was refreshing.

Children do not have the same vocabulary as adults. They have images and memories and heartaches that they often do not have words to express. Artistic expression is a unifying language in Africa—whether it’s dance, drama, drawing, singing, or storytelling. It is a language of beauty and a natural pathway to healing. Actually, The Bible itself is full of poetry, song, stories, and parables. Sacred acts of symbolic expression are found in communion, baptism, Jesus washing the feet of the apostles, and Elisha telling Naaman to wash in the Jordan River seven times to be clean. These actions are tangible expressions that tie the spiritual and emotional self to the physical self, and they also change the heart.1

The long-term work of Exile International is to provide art therapy and holistic rehabilitative care to rescued child soldiers and children orphaned by war. Our work is primarily established in Democratic Republic of Congo and Northern Uganda.

To learn more about the importance and life-changing work of holistic care for rescued child soldiers, please visit us at exileinternational.org. We would love to help you learn more about how you can assist in the healing process of trauma-affected children worldwide.

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