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Addiction and Art Therapy

August 17th, 2021

Jennifer Jensen AKA OEFY (“Oh”-“Fee”),has more than 20 years of experience as a Registered Art Therapist. With the end-goals of facilitating self-awareness and positive change, she uses art to elevate thinking, address trauma, and process emotions with her clients. After witnessing the healing effects of art therapy as she worked with psychiatric patients and the incarcerated, OEFY took her therapy to addiction and recovery centers. You can learn more about Jennifer, OEFY Art Therapy, and her art therapy kits at Oefy.com.


Welcome to Recovery Radio by Landmark Recovery with your host, Zach Crouch. In this program, we’ll discuss the root causes and treatments of alcohol and substance addiction, speak with experts in related fields and help navigate the road to recovery. Now, here’s the host of Recovery Radio, Zach Crouch.

Zach: Hey, everybody. Zack Crouch here again and you’re listening to Landmark Recovery Radio. We are your source for addiction and recovery news and knowledge. As always, you can find us online wherever you get your podcasts. Please hit that subscribe button. Some certain people and cultures have done help us out.

We have great new content coming to you guys each week and great new guests, too. Today we have a guest, Jennifer Jenson, joining us on the show. She’s also known as OEFY. Jennifer has more than 20 years of experience as a registered art therapist with the end goal of facilitating self-awareness and positive change. She uses art to elevate thinking, address trauma, and process emotions with her clients.

It’s a very important piece. I hope you guys got that processing emotion. After witnessing the healing effects of art therapy as she worked with psychiatric patients and the incarcerated population, Oefy took her therapy to addiction and recovery centers. You can learn more about Jennifer at Oefy Art Therapy and her art therapy kits at O-E-F-Y.com. Jennifer, welcome to the show.

Jennifer: Thank you for having me, Zach.

Zach: Pleasure to have you on and such a great topic. I think experiential work in our field is something that is kind of misunderstood at times because not a lot of people know about the benefits of it. I’m pretty sure we’re going to get to a lot of that today and why that’s important. It is because as you can attest, many people can’t talk about their thoughts and feelings.

They know how to access them. So, having things like our therapy and things like music therapy are very beneficial to the people that we both serve. I want to get into a couple of things. From what I’ve read about your work involved, these are great artistic escapes that can inspire healing, can you talk more to the audience about how art encourages creative wellness and things like improving mental health?

Jennifer: Art making can be considered a second language and expressing emotions, processing your feelings, being able to put them out. As a former psychiatrist, I worked with what goes on in the head and can come out on paper. We would always request to see the patient’s artwork before he made any medication changes. We wanted to see if they were shaking or trembling more, or did that reside?

How is their hand-eye coordination? Is it improving? What are they drawing about? Is there a sense of resolve, remorse, or peace in their art? Also, we want to focus on what they are creating. What are they thinking about and what sort of symbols? Quite often people struggle to come out on paper. The incarcerated folks would commit their crimes as well and their victims would come to mind.

Zach: I love that. Without going into a whole sort of dissertation on art therapy, tell our audience like if someone were to draw themselves on a piece of paper and maybe they’re even encouraged to write or draw rather some family members on the paper as well, you’re a therapist, what are some things or cues that you look for when you look at a piece of art that a person is done like that?

Jennifer: Sometimes the order of the family members that are drawn, or how much detail is added to each person, or how much distance or closeness, proximity, these often-key indicators of their feelings of that person.

Zach: Jennifer, talk to us about color. How does that play into making some insight into what the people are drawing on the paper?

Jennifer: Dark colors and lack of color can indicate certain things. Other colors would indicate positive feelings or emotions. There are also certain people and cultures that have used more colors predominantly than others. So, what could be red or black for some people? That would be negative and could be very positive for others. So, it’s very important to think about looking at things very personalized rather than generalized.

Zach: Over your time doing this work especially with folks, come in to have a significant amount of trauma in their past, there are some themes that you noticed over years that you can sort of share with the audience that someone who’s been through a series of traumatic events over their life, how art helps them out to express that?

Jennifer: I think the biggest thing that helps them is cope. That’s really where our therapy is very positive for people who are recovering from addiction. It gives them an opportunity to move past those tough moments where they’re hitting struggles, or cravings, or triggers, or someone who’s hurting themselves that’s been traumatized, or abusing substances that they could engage in art.

It takes their mind and focus away from that moment into something else and passes that tough moment with something tangible rather than just seeing on the phone you don’t have anything to gain. After an hour or 2, there’s nothing tangible in front of you but through art-making, you have something we created. You spent so much time and engaging in that project that you’ve got that as a tangible keepsake. Surely, you move past that tough moment.

Zach: I did some work with some inmates. This was probably 5 or 6 years ago. I was in there and we were bringing recovery because I’m in recovery in the jail. We go in there and there’s a lot of meditational pieces that were involved in what we did. Also, some elements even like Buddhism in a way that I think a lot of people connected with. I’m curious. In your time, especially working with that population, have you found some resistance to doing some of these activities? And if so, did that change once they started to participate in the activities?

Jennifer: The people who were most resistant to our therapy in the prison population in addiction centers and detox centers were the ones who benefited from the most. Mainly, it is because they came in with the misconception of what it is. They would be coloring books and sort of preschool sort of level activity. Once they realized that there was a much higher level or higher order of what they’re being called to do, they immediately engaged. I think that the idea with the whole brain integration of not just talking about your problems but using your hand in both sides of the brain you have resonated with them.

Zach: That’s interesting the way that you put it with what they were being called to do because I think there’s a lot of probable misconceptions about our therapy in general. What’s the sort of biggest stigma that you’ve encountered? Have people’s perceptions changed after they tried it for themselves?

Jennifer: The coloring books are the big thing in using the Crayola crayons and that sort of thing. Once they realize there’s much more to it and there’s a lot more material that you can use and supplies to express your thoughts and come up with symbols and convey new thoughts to these problems rather than just using words that they realized the power of it.

Even if it’s simply cutting out words and images from a magazine to express something or using stencils and stickers or painting will play. There’s so much more in different ways that they can express themselves and their thoughts. It just becomes very calming for them. Once they resolve whatever the issue is, they feel more resilient than they can move on from it.

Zach: Tell us more about your journey. How did you get into this professionally and then number one? And then also, tell us more about your journey into an addiction to the recovery center, specifically?

Jennifer: Back in high school, I switched high schools and went to a special high school that had different vocational programs so you could do regular, typical high school half the day. And then, you pick which sort of program you wanted to do for the other half, whether it be architecture arts, mechanics, beauty swan, whatever. I picked advertising art. I was always interested in art.

Zach: Advertising arts like madmen kind of stuff?

Jennifer: Yeah. It comes up with graphics and logos and marketing material for companies. That was served to get a head start back in the 90s and computers were coming up. It was a very exciting time. And that, we sort of had was a very exciting career option at the time but I do not want to be a suit. I grew up on Long Island and everybody went to college and then to work in the city. I do not want to be a suit.

Zach: Everybody shows about that now.

Jennifer: My teacher always wishes for an art therapist. It’s all we ever talked about. He did not like using art for financial and monetization. He felt Mart was much more powerful and that just really resonated with me. That was why I took advertising art. I can spend half my day in high school doing art. Once I went to college, I realized I focused on our therapy. That was how I evolved.

Zach: Absolutely. We’ve talked about trauma like a lot of people who come into addiction treatment typically have a history of this. Did you sort of intentionally decide to get into addiction and recovery treatment centers?

Jennifer: From my experience, I always worked with people with addiction issues. I was working in a psychiatric hospital or a prison hospital because most people I encountered were diagnosed with a tool diagnosis. They had a mental illness and they had an addiction issue. How they got the addiction issue and mental illness always varied.

Typically, the people in the psychiatric hospital would be in California. At least, they would be heavy drug users and then they would get a mental from that whether it be host nations, voices, and it’s noted as all from heavy drug use, whereas other people who were more traumatized or they would self-medicate from their illness with an abuse. There’s always a variation there.

Zach: Maybe you can tell us more, too. You’ve been trained in art therapy or you got one heck of a career. You’re 20 years into this now. It seems to me like the more that comes out about the brain. We’re still learning a lot about how the brain, the neural pathways, the plasticity, the different parts of the brain, how they access stuff, how they can access things, things like that. Talk to me in the audience about how your form of art therapy can help people access those. Perhaps, pieces have been forever hidden from them. Why is talk therapy not effective?

Jennifer: Talk therapy uses one side of the brain and to invoke true genuineness. Whole integrated healing, you need to use both sides of the brain to create those neural pathways. That’s why art therapy is so important in someone’s journey because you form those new connections, the pathway connections in your brain when you are using both sides of the brain. Studies are it’s very difficult to do that when you’re just doing talk to her because people talk all day long. You think about it. All we ever do is talk. You talk to other people. But for genuine healing, you’ve got to use both sides brain to reignite those pathways.

Zach: What would you say is often the last part to get healed. You mentioned whole integrated healing. There’s often a part that gets healed but there’s often a part that doesn’t. Can you clear that question? I was wondering if you could specify from your experience. Is there a part that finally gets healed for people that makes them sort of hold?

Jennifer: I think accepting that we’re all on a journey and we all have our highs and lows in life and the sun always rises the next day. That’s the way we need to look at life. The important thing is the sun will always be up in the morning and it’s the first start. I think that’s the important thing. Everyone still has a journey to go and they can make what they want of it.

Zach: So, this is part of this narrative. The narrative of their life starts to change, right?

Jennifer: Right. They say the highest mountains that you climb gives you the best to use.

Zach: I love that.

Jennifer: I do a project where we do a timeline and talk about the journey and how you have so much more ahead of you, what’s behind this behind.

Zach: Absolutely. The narrative piece that I mentioned, I’m sure that you probably encounter is working with folks. There’s probably a message that they picked up on or adapted or made up themselves at some point in their lives and that message starts to lose some strength and power in their lives. I guess that a lot of that is shame-based messaging that they’ve made of themselves adapted for someone, somewhere. Is that pretty accurate?

Jennifer: Yeah. That’s why it’s really important to focus on those self-affirmations and things that you can control and things that make you feel good and make you feel empowered.

Zach: From your perspective, is art inactivity? I guess they know that people in the recovery process could just turn to in moments of stress or even cravings. Is there more to it than that?

Jennifer: Absolutely. I think it’s very important for people in recovery to engage in art therapy or any kind of alternative therapy that they feel drawn to. The healthier coping skills that people have, the better they are. Having those things ready to go when you have those trading’s or triggers, or you get cut off on the road, or you’ve had a really bad day, or whatever it can be. You hurt your finger slammed in the door and now you’re in a lot of pain but you don’t want to take pain medicine. It’s really important to have those distractions right at your fingertips so you can move past those tough moments.

Zach: I love that. Let’s just say that as maybe even someone who’s been in the recovery process for a while. And maybe they’re five years removed from going to treatment but they’ve hit a rough patch in their life. They don’t know where to start with doing art therapy themselves or maybe just where to turn to. I know that you have a website. Can you tell us more about your website or the things on there that people could sort of dabbling in to start getting started in this?

Jennifer: Sure. I’ve created it because of the lockdown and all the social distancing and whatnot. Art therapy was the first to go in many places. If you look at a therapy group, people are sitting very close together, their shared materials, they’re in a private room. What I did over the lockdowns was I took all of my projects, the best projects, and then I put them into a book and into activities for people to do at home and created kits out of that with everything included. It’s just perfect for the low bandwidth person.

There’s nothing they have to do. They can just open up the kit and there are things for them to do right away and different types of activities for whatever people want are interested in. I think what’s important is that when people do feel success with those coping skills is that they build up resilience and inner strength. It seems that when the person hits their finger in the door, they’re in a lot of pain. They can look back. I passed that tough day. I didn’t go back. I didn’t pull off the train. When you build up that resistance day after day, it just makes life so much easier.

Zach: The piece that you said about resilience, I’m also thinking about another word, momentum. You start getting some of that going. It’s one of those things where it only takes just a little nudge, a little push, and you cannot stop a boulder rolling down a hill. I have to believe that it’s that first step that people have to take. So, talk to us a little bit about the different types of activities for your kids. What do those look like? What would you say to someone who is maybe a little not threatened but maybe it is sort of on the fence with doing some stuff like that? What would you suggest that they try out?

Jennifer: We look at different boundaries, evaluate boundaries, affirmations are really important, relationships, relationships that you cherish, relationships that you need to ditch. And then, also create different things of wellness that just seem to pass the time. So, even little stress balls, different low fund activities to bring a smile or just something to do that can get your head off of whatever is troubling you. And then, more in-depth things as well like creating those healthy coping skills and relationships with others.

Zach: Absolutely. I think you mentioned the affirmation. If people start to do this more and get started in the process, what are some other coping skills that people start to develop from themselves?

Jennifer: Looking at what you can control and what you can’t is really important and organizing your thoughts. Sometimes people are so overwhelmed with all the things they’ve got to do or they can’t get done just prioritizing them and eliminating what’s not important can help.

Zach: As you’re talking, I was thinking about that’s a pretty common feeling especially with where we are. People’s workloads increase. If you’re staying at the house, there are benefits but there are also drawbacks to that where everything does in time that seems overwhelming because it can be right for folks that you worked with on these sorts of projects, the art therapy pieces that you’ve done with them, the prioritizing piece can be pretty huge. From your understanding of it, how does art therapy help just in that aspect? You’re starting to maybe process some deep emotions. That’s a pretty practical thing to prioritize stuff. How can our therapy help out with that?

Jennifer: I usually include journals. In that, you can write or use symbols. Sometimes the color coordinates make a grid. There’s a lot of different ways you can do that. Sometimes people just want to use a pencil and paper. Other times it makes it a little more fun to use different color markers or pencils. If someone knows how to mow the lawn, they can just color grass on their to-do list.

Zach: They can draw the Friday night pizza with the family or something, right?

Jennifer: Yeah. They can draw pizza. Sometimes it feels different about the things you have to do when you have to draw a symbol for it. Find a symbol as well, like in a magazine or stickers or something, and use that.

Zach: Jennifer, I want to thank you for coming to the show today. And again, guys, this is something that I think has a really practical purpose for people in their lives where you don’t have to go full bore and go out and get an easel for your house or you can just go to oefylive.com and check out Oefy stuff there. I think that’d be a great start for a lot of people, especially for folks who are probably even early on or later on in the recovery process themselves.

Jennifer: Thanks so much for having me on, Zach. I appreciate it.

Zach: I appreciate you. If you know someone who’s struggling with an addiction and you’re searching for answers, you can visit us at landmarkrecovery.com. There, you will learn more about substances, programs that are about saving lives, and especially empowering families. Until next week, I’m Zack Crouch with Landmark Recovery Radio, wishing everybody well. Take care, everybody.

Thank you for tuning in to Recovery Radio. New content for this program is available every Tuesday at (12) Noon Eastern Time and 09:00 A.M. Pacific Time with all episodes available on-demand on the Voice America Health and Wellness Channel and through our Content partners, iTunes, Stitcher, Tune in, and Google Play PodCast. Please remember to subscribe, rate, and review so we can continue to create quality content to help save 1 million lives in the next 100 years. You don’t need to struggle through addiction alone. Live the life you dream of on the road to recovery.

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Landmark Recovery was founded with a determination to make addiction treatment accessible for all. Through our integrated treatment programs, we've helped thousands of people choose recovery over addiction and get back to life on their own terms. We're on a mission to save one million lives over the next century. We encourage all those struggling with substance use to seek professional help.

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