Art After War

Drums at the hearth of Sanctuary Weekend for Women veterans.Drums at the hearth of Sanctuary Weekend for Women veterans. (Photo: Susan Avila-Smith, Founder and Director of VetWow)The arts are moving center stage as providers brace for the coming tidal wave of war-related post-traumatic stress disorders in troops and veterans, especially those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. For some who’ve seen war, the arts – including music, creative writing, dance, drama and painting – offer relief from depression and anxiety where traditional treatments, such as talk therapy and medication, may not have succeeded. Art therapy is based on the idea that the creative process of art making is healing and life enhancing, and is a form of nonverbal communication of thoughts and feelings, according to the American Art Therapy Association.

When used in conjunction with counseling and prescriptions, which address the mental and physical aspects of trauma, art therapy is a powerful form of complementary care that can induce a liminal state. The gateway to healing the metaphysical dimension of trauma lies in the in-between. Trauma, particularly combat trauma, is tri-partite, damaging the body, mind and spirit, as indigenous cultures have long recognized. Any attempt to heal it will be incomplete without incorporating methodologies that offer salve and salvation for the spirit.

“Art heals the soul,” said Sean Davis, an Iraq War veteran and Purple Heart recipient. Davis earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in Writing from Pacific University on the G.I Bill, and published his first book, The Wax Bullet War, earlier this year.

“After I was critically injured in an ambush in Taji, I was sent home bone-broke and soul-wrecked. The combat I lived through is an echo that never goes away, and when I first came home, that echo was so loud I could barely hear anything else. Art is what helped me through it. Once the war is inside of you, it never leaves, and many veterans have low times because of it. When those hard times happen, many of us tend to isolate. Art is a way back from that self-imposed isolation.”

Davis, along with Tiziana DellaRovere, recently coordinated several group painting sessions for veterans and their families at Portland’s Six Days Art Gallery.

“Art bypasses the linear mind. It’s a safe, self-paced way to unlock the psyche and reveal a hidden part of the self,” said DellaRovere.

“I really hope that the arts are going to be seen as a powerful tool for healing the soul and restoring the heart.”

DellaRovere’s father was an Italian World War I veteran, suffering what was then called, “Soldier’s Heart.” She channeled the pain of her childhood into the storyline and Libretto for an original, contemporary opera premiering in Portland, Oregon, in September. “The Canticle of the Black Madonna” depicts a soldier’s journey from the desolation of war to the healing embrace of love, and his wife’s courageous struggle to stand by him.

“Homefront 911: Military Family Monologues” was borne of my struggle to stand by and care for my soldier-husband with severe PTSD and a TBI. “Homefront 911” is a performance art piece based on actual accounts of how more than a decade of war has affected the families left behind. We secured an historic invitation to perform at the US Capitol in 2011, and the mother of 12-year-old Daniel Radenz, who committed suicide during his father’s second tour, was adamant that she read the monologue about it. When Tricia got to the last three lines, she stood on stage, with then-Secretary of the Army John McHugh and several Senators in the audience, trembling with grief and fury and who knows what else, and she read:

Now he sits in the room where he last held his boy.

And waits for the pain to subside.

On Father’s Day, the Colonel remembers cutting down his boy, howling with grief, and unwrapping the rope from his neck.

In the telling, writing, and performing of true stories of the war at home, we were able to process and release some of the fear, sadness, anger, and anxiety that we had been carrying for years. And at least for a time, we didn’t feel so alone.

Isolation is a hallmark of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), which create constant, life-changing burdens for the veteran as well as the caregiver, frequently the spouse, and almost always female. Male civilian spouses tend to divorce women veterans at a rate nearly three times higher than their female counterparts. Women veterans, many of whom are also struggling with military sexual trauma, have found music therapy to be particularly beneficial.

According to the VA in Palo Alto, California, “Music therapy is the evidence-based use of music for a therapeutic purpose.” The Palo Alto program is recognized as one of the premiere PTSD treatment programs in the nation. The Palo Alto VA campus has two “full-time, board-certified music therapists who use musical interventions with Veterans” to facilitate relaxation, reduce pain, depression and anxiety, and improve social skills and functionality.

Drumming does all that, and more, which is why it was included in the Sanctuary Weekend for Women Veterans retreat I piloted in 2009. The rhythm of drumming promotes bilateral stimulation of the brain that ” ‘jump-starts’ the natural information processing system that shuts down during trauma,” according to the Virginia Center for Neurofeedback.

“When drumming, we experience something called hemispheric synchronization, where both sides work at the same time. Scientists believe this is the basis of transcendent states of consciousness,” said Psychotherapist Robert Lawrence Friedman, author of The Healing Power of the Drum.

The physiological shift has a profound genetic counterpart. According to a 2005 study, “drumming changes the way an individual responds to stress on a molecular level,” Muhammad A. Sharof, PhD, senior staff scientist at Applied Bio systems, stated. “We showed for the very first time, that we could turn off the DNA-based switches that literally turn on components of human stress responses.'”

A subsequent study (“Drumming Through Trauma: Music Therapy With Post-Traumatic Soldiers,” Science Direct Journal, 2008) reported “a reduction in PTSD symptoms was observed following drumming, especially increased sense of openness, togetherness, belonging, sharing, closeness, connectedness and intimacy, as well as achieving a nonintimidating access to traumatic memories, facilitating an outlet for rage and regaining a sense of self-control.”

For one female veteran who had swallowed her rage and traumatic memories of being raped by her commanding officer for years, the drumming circle created a safe container for finally breaking her silence about the assault.

“This,” she said, “would have given me a reason to live in my first year after the deployment.”

As the wars wind down, and the deployments end, there will be a tsunami of warriors struggling with the psychic equivalent of a sucking chest wound. Until we the people have evolved to the point where we are willing to cure those wounds by preventing the wars that inflict them, applying the arts to the gaping holes in our soldier’s souls may be some of the best medicine around.