Local artist discusses role of art therapy in her battle against eating disorders

When Aimee Gilmore checked into Roxborough’s Renfrew Center, the country’s first residential eating disorder treatment facility, she said she had “lost all of my words.” The center’s art therapy program provided an outlet for her, one that the public has a chance to see at Chestnut Hill College on Friday.

Gilmore, who grew up in the Fairmount section of Philadelphia and still resides there, suffered from anorexia and bulimia throughout high school and college, and had no way to examine or express the underlying wounds.

“For whatever reason, picking up a pen and some paint was so freeing for me, and for the first time in so many years I was able to say visually all these things I was never able to communicate verbally,” said Gilmore. She entered Renfrew in 2004.

A different kind of therapy

Renfrew art therapist Sondra Rosenberg agrees that the arts can unsnarl painful thoughts and emotions in ways that medicine and more traditional therapy forms cannot.

For patients, there’s great pride in “actually creating something: taking their experience, taking their pain, [and] making something really beautiful out of it, and sharing it with people in a way that other people can understand,” Rosenberg explains.

She says that the outward trappings of an eating disorder are often “lost in translation.” Healthy people fixate, for example, on the thinness or eating habits of anorexia sufferers, and fail to understand the mental and emotional tumult underlying their behavior.

“With an eating disorder, all of the things victims need to express [are] expressed through their use of food and their bodies,” Rosenberg says. Her goal is to help patients discover, through the arts, healthy ways of communicating.

The truth about eating disorders

Gilmore says it took her a long time to face her illness, partly because it’s so poorly understood.

“The non-eating and the controlling weight and the obsession with being beautiful and perfect is just a symptom of deeper issues going on. It’s about control,” she explained.

She suffered from anorexia and bulimia in high school, and the problems only intensified when she went away to college, derailing her first attempt at an undergraduate degree.

For years, she suppressed her pain, telling herself that losing a few more pounds or getting more exercise would solve everything. But the art program at Renfrew was a major turning point.

Inside the sessions

Gilmore and Rosenberg explain that the program includes a variety of sessions, some structured around a particular inspiration or “trigger” (a memory, a place, or even a certain food or odor).

“At the end of the session, everybody hangs up the art, and we look at it all together,” Rosenberg said. Everyone has a chance to speak about her own piece, and the group discusses the reactions and themes that emerge in their own work and in others’.

The pieces also serve as a new reference-point in traditional therapy sessions: “through the stepping back and reflecting on the art, [patients] can discover a lot of things that they would not have been able to just say from the get-go,” Rosenberg added. “It forms a metaphor for their recovery process.”

A second chance

Gilmore has had an artistic bent for most of her life, but her ongoing recovery has inspired her to pursue a career in the arts. She enrolled at Moore College of Art and Design, and at 30, she will receive her bachelor’s degree this spring.

With a total body of work now inspired by her battle with eating disorders, the artist marvels that the same thing that “devastated” her first attempt at college has been the key to her success the second time around.

“Something that was so traumatic and inhibited me from getting this degree propelled me to be doing so well in school,” she said.

“A real window” to recovery

While Gilmore’s work won’t be appearing in this show, about twenty pieces from other Renfrew patients will be featured. Rosenberg hopes that this curated collection of collages, paintings and drawings will highlight the journey of recovery: some of the work is “dark,” and some is more hopeful. (The show is sponsored by the Renfrew Center Foundation, the non-profit arm of The Renfrew Center.)

“I wanted to show the whole spectrum of emotion that is part of the recovery process,” Rosenberg says, calling the show “a real window” into the struggles of an eating disorder.

Gilmore hopes that viewers will come away with better insight. “There’s a certain stereotype or misunderstanding about eating disorders,” she noted – the public thinks it’s a superficial problem for supermodels and ballerinas, and don’t understand “the severity and the complexity” of the mental illness.

Gilmore hopes to pursue her MFA, and has already returned to Renfrew’s Art Therapy program as a volunteer.  “Let’s have a conversation,” she said of the program.  The more we talk about the reality of eating disorders, “the less isolating it is for [sufferers] and the easier it is for them to ask for help.”

“The Art of Recovery” will appear on Friday, April 12th from 5-7pm at the Rotunda of Chestnut Hill College.

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