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The Power of Creativity in Healing: Case Study

Lukenotes, Fall 2020

Sister Cecilia was raised in a small Polish town but often felt like an outsider as the only girl of nine children. Her father regularly drank to excess and was emotionally and verbally abusive. Her mother cowered from her husband’s anger and did not intervene for the children. Bullied in school, Sister Cecilia again felt like an outsider of little worth. As she had learned not to depend on her parents, so she also distrusted other people. This wariness eventually affected her relationships with community members and co-workers, leading to frequent angry outbursts, biting comments, and attempts to control people and situations.

As a child, Sister Cecilia visited the nuns at her church, with whom she felt affirmed, to escape family tensions and bullying. She flourished in this spotlight and went on to attend the university, where she built friendships and had academic success. Responding to God’s call, she entered the convent after graduation. During initial formation, her anxiety increased, and her self-esteem plummeted when she heard her formators’ guidance as criticism. Despite these issues, she professed final vows and enjoyed her work as a nurse at the order’s hospital. She returned to school, earning a degree in social work, and began working as a hospice counselor.

Sister Cecilia felt rewarded by her work with hospice patients and their families. Positive feedback from her patients increased her self-esteem.

However, the hospital staff had a different response to her. They resented Sister Cecilia when she challenged the quality of their patient care and publicly criticized the staff. Angered by her interference, the staff asked for her removal. Instead of taking this permanent action, Sister Cecilia’s superior counseled her about her interference and negative exchanges with the staff.

In the short term, Sister Cecilia responded to the feedback and tried to adjust her exchanges with coworkers and community members, but the problems resurfaced as she grieved a patient and family member’s death. This led to her reassignment to an independent hospice facility. Unfortunately, Sister Cecilia’s superior received new complaints about her interactions with others. A more significant intervention was needed.

A New Beginning

The Mother Superior recommended an evaluation at Saint Luke Institute in the United States in response to Sister Cecilia’s difficulties with interpersonal relationships. Sister Cecilia felt concerned about travelling outside of her homeland but was relieved to leave the conflict of community life. She hoped that this opportunity would lead to understanding her impatience and irritation. She knew of other sisters who had been referred to Saint Luke Institute; they returned to community life with an inner calm and spoke positively of their experience. She wondered if the same could be true for her.

When she arrived at Saint Luke Institute, a team of clinicians listened to Sister Cecilia’s personal history and completed clinical, psychological, and spiritual assessments. These provided the team with a full picture of Sister Cecilia’s life experiences and a deeper understanding of her needs. The evaluation team concluded that the women’s residential program (Talitha Life) would best support Sister Cecilia as she addressed past wounds.

The Shift

Sister Cecilia loved art, but she questioned art as a form of therapy. She discovered that her worry lessened as her art began to speak for her, especially as she was initially uncomfortable conveying her thoughts and feelings in English. During one session, she expressed her self-image through a mask; it was blank on the outside with a big smile on the inside.

As she shared her mask with her peers, they questioned the mask’s message and her attitude within the group. They voiced their fear of her harsh comments and her reluctance to fully engage in the group process. Sister Cecilia revealed to her primary therapist how hurt she felt by the feedback. As they explored her hurt feelings together, the therapist helped her reflect on how their response paralleled the comments from her community members and coworkers.

Gradually, as she poured her energy into the art therapy sessions, Sister Cecilia’s attitude changed. Her irritation, mistrust, and anger began to subside, and she gained the self-awareness to accept her peers’ constructive feedback, recognize that it was not connected to previous wounds, and offer feedback with kind assertiveness. Sister Cecilia realized how art therapy helped her safely voice her challenging feelings, thoughts, and experiences. With the clinical team’s approval, she began individual art therapy.

The art therapist planned individual sessions to address Sister Cecilia’s self-criticism, need for control, and anger. On a weekly basis Sister Cecilia was asked to identify positive actions and thoughts that increased her self-worth. To prepare for discharge, Sister Cecilia created a collage reflecting her hopes for her return to community identifying the recovery tools best suited to support her healthy reintegration into community life.

For confidentiality, reasons, names, identifying data, and other details of treatment have been altered.