Express Yourself: An Interview with Janice Graham, LMFT, on Creative Recovery in Addiction Treatment

The art room at Alta Mira has only been open for a few months, but already the floor is covered in images made by clients and staff, including a paw print from Otis, a support dog whose stay clearly left an impression. The walls are adorned by drawings, paintings, and masks that will soon be accompanied by inspirational graffiti to spark reflection and creativity. The inviting space has become a refuge that draws clients in—even after their formal therapy is completed for the day—serving as an oasis for imagination, meditation, and relaxation. And the woman at the center of it all is Janice Graham.

Janice is a practicing artist as well as a licensed marriage and family therapist with over 15 years of experience working with people experiencing addiction, co-occurring mental health disorders, and trauma. She was first exposed to using art as a recovery tool in her work as Director of the Milieu at Life Healing Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where art was integrated in virtually all therapies, and she now spearheads the creative recovery program at Alta Mira. I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Janice, to learn more about her therapeutic approach and how creative expression can play a critical role in addiction treatment.

Creative Recovery

Creative recovery—a form of art therapy—draws on creative practices to engage you in the healing process. Through painting, sculpture, music, drawing, and writing, you can explore your experiences and emotions in novel ways and safely express yourself within a supportive group environment. Not only can creative recovery provide meaningful emotional experiences and insights, it also helps to reorganize the brain to integrate sensory and cognitive functions. As neuroscientist Lukasz M. Konopka points out, “Art-making allow[s] one to reframe experiences, reorganize thoughts, and gain personal insights that often enhance one’s quality of life. Art therapy has gained popularity because it combines free artistic expression with the potential for significant therapeutic intervention.”

Research has found that creative recovery helps people living with addiction issues develop better problem-solving skills, increased confidence, enhanced emotional regulation, and decreased social isolation. Moreover, it can be a critical piece in committing to discontinuing substance use and committing to sobriety.

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The Experience

During the group therapy session, Janice provides prompts by asking open-ended questions like, “What is the authentic self?” or “What is anger?” and provides materials for you to create a visual representation of your response over the next 45 minutes, while you talk to your peers and calming music plays in the background. The last 15 minutes are spent sharing your finished piece with your group, discussing your artistic choices and what the process of creating brought up for you. For many, the creative process offers a new language and opens the doors to profound self-discovery while encouraging relaxation. Natural artistic inclination is not necessary; the process and the sharing, not the product, is what matters. Janice says:

The reason I do it is that it increases self-awareness and reduces stress. It is less daunting than putting feelings into words. At the end of the class we all share and it’s amazing what comes out. The creative process is inherently healing as it draws on strengths to help you navigate the difficult terrain of life. It is a more peaceful way to explore yourself.

Activating The Brain

Creative therapies are used not only for addiction treatment, but for a wide range of mental health disorders as well as brain trauma, due to its ability to help you reach new levels of self-understanding and expression while having therapeutic benefits for the brain. Because it doesn’t rely on verbal communication, creative recovery activates other parts of your brain to unlock cognitive and expressive abilities while reintegrating the right and left hemispheres:

Art and music seem to draw from different regions of the brain than traditional talk therapy. They’ve recently discovered that dementia patients who can no longer communicate can use art and it bypasses their verbal expression. They can still communicate through art. It allows addicts to express themselves in a way they are unaware of because they are having fun and laughing and creative, and by the time the project is done they have learned a lot about themselves.

Many clients bring the insights they have gleaned through their artistic production back with them to individual therapy, having uncovered valuable insights through the process of creating. By opening up new avenues of expression, it is possible to enhance the complete therapeutic process and build on the gains made in creative recovery throughout the treatment process.

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Strength Through Art In Addiction Treatment

Creative recovery is particularly important within a residential addiction treatment program in which clients are immersed in an intensive therapeutic environment. The tactile process of creating provides a break from the deliberate emotional processing found within other therapies. “I think what happens with the clients is that they’re processing on a daily basis with such an intensity. I let them step into a different realm of exploring by doing art instead of processing constantly.” People living with addiction often see themselves as defined by that addiction, and that may be especially true when they are in treatment. Between the vital work of individual therapy sessions and supportive group meetings, creative recovery offers a chance to step back and focus on your whole self—your strengths and your identity beyond addiction:

It’s essential for a person to have all of their self activated in a healthy way. What happens when a person goes into recovery is that they see themselves as an addict. We try to empower them in other ways and remind them that other parts exist. Creative recovery provides a chance to explore identity independent from disease. It allows them to feel strength from the parts that are healthy, increases self-esteem, and allows for a new form of communication and self-reflection that you’re not going to get in a one-on-one therapy session.

With the new art room, Janice is able to bring creative recovery to the next level by offering a dedicated space for clients to experience the benefits of expressive art therapy. In fact, some clients who are initially reluctant to participate find themselves so drawn to creative recovery that they spend their free time in the art room to finish projects, work on new ideas, or simply meditate. “Some go into the art room just for sanity’s sake, to have access to a different modality.”


Alta Mira offers comprehensive treatment for people struggling with addiction issues. Contact us to learn more about how we can help you or your loved one start on the path to recovery.