In France, IRCT member centre Parcours d’Exil uses a vast range of methods to treat their clients. Among these approaches are art therapy, language classes and cultural events, which can help accelerate torture survivors’ recovery. For one torture survivor art therapy proved the key to easing his fears and allowed him to deal with the horrific trauma of his past.
In August 2015, Parcours d’Exil was contacted by a volunteer of Iranian descent working for the Red Cross, who had benefitted from one of the centre’s training programmes. She asked the centre to make an emergency appointment for an Iranian asylum seeker who had arrived in France two days before.
On the day of the consultation, asylum seeker N appeared to be in a state of fear, incapable of uttering a word, watchful of everything and everyone and crying all the time. He made it clear that he was afraid of the therapist and he showed signs of being afraid he was being watched and threatened.
As the consultations went on, N slowly started to communicate with the help of an Afghan translator, who the centre had chosen to avoid bringing back his memories of the Iranian “aggressor”. He managed to tell the therapist about the traumatic events he had endured.
Parcours d’Exil quickly realised that verbal communication would be complicated, and could hinder therapeutic cooperation as they brought back N’s impressions of the interrogation. Centre staff decided to introduce him to their art therapist. Art therapy, in this particular form, proved to be the real entry point, helping N to accept and engage in the broader therapeutic process at the centre.
In their first meeting, N and the art therapist found themselves sitting on rugs, drinking tea while listening to classical music.
It became clear that N patient presented a post-traumatic dissociative disorder. He complained of anxiety, insomnia and post-traumatic nightmares (in which he found himself, for instance, in a bunker without any light), memory disorders and an inability to focus, which forced him to write down everything. He could not take the bus or metro for fear of not being able to exit it. He also complained of being unusually irritable, always fearing that the person he was speaking to would try to take control of him.
Like many other patients, N did not want any medication, having been exposed to “harmful” treatments in the past. Furthermore, he had been hospitalised in a psychiatric ward after two suicide attempts before being incarcerated. External elements exacerbated his symptoms, particularly when he learned of his mother’s hospitalisation back in Iran.
In order to familiarise him with Parcours d’Exil’s Health Centre, he was invited to attend French courses and music workshops that the centre organises, while continuing the art therapy. It soon became clear that participating in these classes, within the reassuring frame of the centre, had become a “necessity” for him, and his social behaviour changed dramatically.
He never missed any of the cultural visits organised by the centre, and he was gradually able to socialise again and regain some confidence. He put himself forward to sing Persian songs during music classes, started to communicate in French during the French for Foreign Speakers sessions and decided to try to learn how to play the piano.
Like in many cases, one simple detail or situation can easily trigger bad memories. During a French language lesson, N was shown a picture of a bathtub. He immediately froze and was overcome with an immense sadness.
Although the nightmares were a constant reminder of his imprisonment and torture, the courses enabled him to recover the long-forgotten feeling that life could be seen through a positive lens. Along with psychotherapy, art therapy, music and French language lessons were key aspects of the positive outcome of his treatment, in terms of his quality of life and speed of recovery.
All the more so given the fact that his case was extremely complex, and such patients often take years to recover. On numerous occasions, N was able to talk about the improvements in his life, and how he behaved and felt about himself. It took less than six months for N to make this progress.
N’s story confirms the idea that Parcours d’Exil promotes: That the inclusion of artistic and creative activities is a powerful catalyst to accelerate self-reconstruction.