Dolls are ancient healers.

I teach my students how to use ancient creative technologies alongside a computer, canvas, paper, and google searches. This is the story of Lily, a 17-year-old teenager who came to see me because her mom thought she needed to create a new story for herself, after recovering from a tumultuous dive into addiction. She had been an in-patient at a local recovery centre for six weeks, where she had learnt a lot about the reasons for her addiction. This knowledge was liberating, but she needed to re-story herself. The addiction narrative was no longer a fit.

As Lily entered my virtual studio, she looked vulnerable, yet expressed her curiosity about narrative arts therapy, hoping it would help her to find steady ground, and help her heal the profound sense of sadness and dislocation she felt.

After our introductory session, I suggested to Lily that she tried doll-making as a way into expressing her new self. It was an invitation to craft tangible representations of herself during her healing journey. Lily tentatively embraced the idea.

In the early sessions, Lily's fingers hesitated over the clay I offered her. The raw material mirrored the malleability of her own emerging post-addiction narrative, waiting for her to shape it and direct its form.

The first doll Lily created bore the scars of addiction – fragments of brokenness held together by delicate threads of hope, in the form of colourful string she wove around her small clay figure. The act of shaping the clay became a silent dialogue with the fragmentation she had experienced. Her process was both cathartic and challenging, much like a mirror reflecting the complexities of her journey to recover herself. She took pictures of it with her phone.

As Lily progressed, she experimented with colours and textures. Her dolls evolved, each telling a chapter of her recovery story. Strong girl, angry girl, compassionate girl… She added details to her dolls, with fabric, beads, colour paint and marks that she felt expressed who Lily really is.

One particular doll held profound personal significance to her. Lily crafted her with a pair of hands reaching skyward – a visual metaphor for her aspiration to break free from the memories of addiction. She craved a new self-story. The hands, imperfect and beautifully flawed, represented the journey toward a new sense of self. It was a declaration that recovery was not a straight path, but a series of steps, each bringing her closer to wholeness.

The doll-making sessions extended beyond the dolls. I introduced journaling exercises, encouraging Lily to articulate her thoughts and feelings. The written narratives flowed seamlessly alongside the dolls she had made, forming a cohesive story of Lily's recovery journey. Words became bridges, connecting the visual expressions to the depths of her emotions.

Through the amalgamation of clay, textiles and storytelling, Lily found her new voice. The dolls became silent companions, witnesses to her triumphs and setbacks. In their presence, she continued to confront the shadows of addiction with courage and creativity.

As weeks turned into months, Lily's dolls became emissaries of hope. They adorned the studio shelves, a testament to the transformative power of narrative arts therapy. In a culminating session, Lily stood amidst her creations—a visual timeline of hope and resilience and we took a photo for her journal.

I acknowledged the profound metamorphosis, and remarked, "Your dolls tell a story of rebirth, of you reclaiming your narrative." She loved that thought and wrote it in her journal.

The studio, once a space of uncertainty, had become a sanctuary of empowerment. Lily stepped out into the world beyond the art therapy sessions, carrying not only her dolls but a newfound understanding of her strength. The journey of recovery, embodied in the dolls she created, echoed a truth she now held close—the power to shape her narrative rested in her own hands.

When Lily completed her course, she took her dolls home. I asked her to consider the dolls as a silent testimony to the transformative journey of a teenager who, through the arts and a healthy dose of self-compassion, had nurtured her inner being and found her way back to herself.

P.S. Did you know that doll making is an ancient healing technology in cultures across the globe? Russian dolls, for example, also known as Matryoshka dolls, have a rich history rooted in Russian folk art. Inspired by Japanese nesting dolls, it is a set of wooden dolls that fit one inside the other, symbolizing the concept of nested generations and the continuity of life, embracing the maternal and nurturing aspect of our being.

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