Free your mind through your body

Treating trauma and addiction with art therapy, movement, drumming, nutrition

By Tara Somerville
Posted 1/31/20

Walking through the doors of Trauma and Recovery Center in El Prado, one is faced with two rows of pottery wheels. Stroll past the clay vessels, dog- and dragon-like creatures peeking from the shelves, and you arrive in another room filled with hand drums.

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Free your mind through your body

Treating trauma and addiction with art therapy, movement, drumming, nutrition

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Walking through the doors of Trauma and Recovery Center in El Prado, one is faced with two rows of pottery wheels. Stroll past the clay vessels, dog- and dragon-like creatures peeking from the shelves, and you arrive in another room filled with hand drums. Shades of white beckon from the next spacious room reserved for mindful movement, light trickling through glass tiles.

"Trauma is recorded and accessed through the body. It's in the body and in images, and to access that part of the brain where the trauma is stored, you need to do body- and visual-based things so art therapy, trauma-sensitive movement, drumming the bilateral beats is part of the healing for the brain," explains program director Erica Jacknin.

This intensive adult out-patient program (IOP) treats trauma, substance abuse and co-occurring disorders. The center, at 1208 Paseo del Pueblo Norte, opened mid-October 2019 and has served 23 clients (a maximum of 12 at a time) who are paid $25 a day to attend the program, which is four days a week, four hours a day.

Attendees are asked to commit to coming every program day (with reasonable exceptions) for 16 weeks. The stipend is dispensed weekly and serves as an incentive for clients to stay committed to their recovery. They may use the money however they choose. Transportation to and from the program is provided, if needed.

The program founder, Teresa Dahlin, spent eight years gathering scientific research to write her proposal for the program and is licensed to open six of them in underserved areas of New Mexico. The pilot program opened about a year ago in Silver City, and Taos' is the second. The centers take, and are funded by, insurance: Medicaid, BCBS, Presbyterian, United Healthcare and Western Sky health insurances.

"So far the results are phenomenal - we're seeing people get better before our eyes. People are making better decisions, lowering stress levels," says Dahlin.

Harm reduction

Those struggling with substance abuse must be sober upon arrival to the program each day or they will be asked to leave, but since the treatment model is "harm-reduction" they are permitted to use outside of program hours.

"Harm-reduction incorporates a spectrum of strategies from safer use to managed use to abstinence, to meet drug users where they're at. We're addressing conditions of use along with the use itself. It's also a movement for social justice built on belief in and respect for people who use drugs," says Jacknin.

The program teaches skills to respond better to stress and chaos so clients are less likely to use, adds Dahlin. "We are seeing big improvements in substance abuse. Several people have come back and said they're still drinking but they're not using heroin anymore. Or they may be smoking marijuana still but they've stopped drinking," she says.

The treatment modalities include art-therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, individual counseling, drumming, yoga, meditation and nutrition. There is little to no storytelling of people's past, or discussion of current problems because that can be triggering for the listeners.

Releasing trauma

The emphasis is on trauma release because trauma is the root of a host of psychological disorders and substance abuse issues, according to the directors and a large body of research, which is well documented in the 2015 book "The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma" by Bessel van der Kolk.

Van der Kolk began his work in the 1970s with postwar veterans suffering from outbursts of rage, detachment from their emotions and strained intimate relationships. In 1980, after much research and advocacy, these symptoms warranted their own diagnosis (post-traumatic stress disorder) and inclusion in the DSM-3 ("Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders"), the manual that lists and lends credibility to disorders and makes them eligible for significant sources of research funding for their treatment.

When Van der Kolk later took a job in a childhood psychiatric care center, he noted how the children's psychological issues resembled those of postwar veterans. And yet the possibility of trauma being at the root of their disturbances was rarely mentioned at staff meetings. The emphasis was instead on diagnoses such as "oppositional defiant disorder" or "intermittent explosive disorder" that labeled children's exhibiting behaviors and dysfunction and often marred them with multiple diagnoses and medications.

Thus began Van der Kolk's exhaustive research which ultimately uncovered strong correlations of developmental trauma to emotional instability and psychiatric illness. Van der Kolk makes a distinction between developmental trauma (incest, rape, physical abuse or neglect suffered as a child, often over a period of years) and trauma suffered as an adult.

Movement to reconnect

The Trauma and Recovery Center aims to treat many types of trauma and while some of the activities are in groups, specific needs of clients are met through individual counseling and some clients opt to forgo group work until they are more stable.

Each day begins with a trauma-sensitive movement class taught by Roxanne Sanchez, who has been teaching those with substance abuse and poverty-related issues for the last couple of years at SPOT (Supporting Pride, Optimism and Trust in community wellness), in Peñasco.

This approach to movement aims to make participants feel as safe as possible so they can develop an attentive and loving relationship with their bodies. Each class begins with a check-in so students feel seen and heard and aware of their own emotional temperatures.

Movements and stretches are taught with an emphasis on process and making choices while feeling into personal edges and limits, rather than on achieving a goal. If students feel triggered during the class, they can step out at any time and a therapist is in the next room to help them process.

One of the symptoms trauma survivors often suffer from is disconnection from their bodies, explains Jacknin, and so they can miss subtle cues that might precede an explosive expression of emotion. The more they can learn to inhabit and befriend their bodies the more self-regulation becomes attainable.

After movement class, participants are offered a hot, organic lunch. Dahlin is emphatic about the importance of nutrition in healing.

Drumming

The afternoon schedule includes a drumming circle with Little Bear Maestas; art therapy with Sherry Murphy and Ben Fields; and other modalities including cognitive behavioral therapy with Kristi Nelson. Jacknin is trained in all aspects of the program and also leads groups.

Maestas runs a spiritual wellness center in Taos and has been a drummer and Sundance participant for over two decades.

"Drumming is for everybody. It's not just a native thing, it's a human being thing. My first teacher said to be very private, don't share it with anybody and that's the way I was: not sharing. But after what I went through fighting for my life, it's time to share. I'm letting my students drum whatever they feel and then I go into a drumming or Sundance song and they go with the same beat. We go into the zone. It brings tears to my eyes - we basically do ceremony together," says Maestas.

Along with the spiritual and attunement benefits, drumming rhythmically with both hands aids in right and left brain integration which is a key component in widely practiced trauma release modalities such as eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR).

"Some of our clients are participating in other programs and one of their therapists contacted me and said, 'I can't believe how well this person is doing - what are you doing over there?'" says Jacknin. "Another client told me, 'This has helped me so much because I feel like I want to live again.' That is healing."

The Trauma and Recovery Center is located at 1208 Paseo del Pueblo Norte, El Prado.

For more on the program, contact (575) 779-1010 or recoverytaos@gmail.com.

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