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Ben: Ink About It

“Now, he communicates through his art – it’s becoming his language…”

It’s snack time in Ben’s art therapy group for emotionally troubled teens, but while his peers are busy munching on chips and sipping juice, Ben clutches a glue gun and carefully maneuvers it around a cardboard box.

Ben, who came to the group as a 12 year-old boy with trouble expressing his feelings, is learning a new way of speaking. He’s using art in the form of pipe cleaner, felt, and glue to form the words he could never express out loud.

“If I follow the rules, I’ll get what I wish for,” he writes, so immersed in his project that he ends up skipping the coveted snacks altogether.

Rules and Ben didn’t mix well, and his low grades and lack of friends didn’t help him feel any better about himself. At home, he would stomp off in defiance and yell at his parents and sister, wanting to escape into his world of video games. His school counselor referred him to Dena, who runs an Art with Heart group for emotionally troubled teens at Sound Mental Health.

Ben, now a 14-year-old eighth-grader at a Puget Sound Middle School, has been a member of Dena’s group for two years. Art with Heart’s Chill & Spill and Ink About It books have helped the aspiring football player to tackle his anger.

Like a coach with a goal in mind, week after week, Dena led Ben through various pages in Chill & Spill. He completed the “Me, Myself and I” activity, which asked him to depict who he is and who he wants to be. The result was a painting showing him moving away from anger with a picture of open hands.

Weekly meditation helped him to envision a safe place inside his mind. Next, Dena led him through a collage activity in which he chose images that made him feel “powerful,” and others that made him feel “powerless.”

He was ready to combine his safe place with the images to create a box to symbolize what he discovered. That’s when Ben had his breakthrough, huddling in a corner using pipe cleaner and glue.

“It was the combination of all that, finding the materials that felt good,” Dena said.

To anyone else, the project looked like a simple cardboard box, with a clutter of magazine pictures, glue, and pipe cleaner. “To him, it was huge,” Dena said.

Ben started to listen to his parents at home, and was rewarded with more time to play his video games. Things started to improve at school as well. Ben’s poor grades improved so much that he was allowed to play football.

“He relaxed. He started to smile. He was starting to be not so uptight and edgy,” Dena said.

Once Ben gained yards toward his progress with Chill & Spill, he tackled Ink About It. At first, the words in the book intimidated him because of his low reading skills. But the art soon won out. Dena gave Ben a gel pen, and he spent one session carefully filling in some of the many blue-and-white sketches that pepper the pages.

From there, he used some of the blank spaces to mimic the art. Soon, he drew a huge football in one of the blank spaces. He doodled designs around the ball to create the same busy, cluttered effect of Ink About It’s art. “He had discovered another form of expression. In his language, he has no adjectives, no way to decorate what he’s saying,” Dena said. With Ink About It, Ben “took that example and ran with it. He literally began to decorate his language.”

“Now, he communicates through his art – it’s becoming his language,” Dena said.

During one session, he created an art piece called “Sad Hall,” after he’d been bullied and beaten up at school. Ben, who couldn’t express the helplessness, frustration, and anger he’d felt in words, sighed in relief when he finished the piece. “I feel better,” he told Dena.

It’s been two years since Ben joined Dena’s groups, and the 14 year-old has no immediate plans to stop.

“His mother begged me not to stop the Ink About It group because he’s happier,” Dena said.

NOTE: To protect the child’s identity\, the image does not necessarily match the story and names may or may not have been changed.