The Adirondacks have a long tradition as a place for healing, the most prominent example being the thousands who came to "take the cure" for tuberculosis at the Trudeau Sanatorium in Saranac Lake during the first half of the 20th century.
Not as well known was how the arts were used as a important part of the patients' treatment and recovery, a process that led to the establishment of the creative arts therapies. More recently, the benefits of arts was dramatically demonstrated when music was used as a critical part of Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford's ability to regain her speech following her having been shot in the head during an attempted assassination in January 2011.
While the injuries are not as dramatic, for the past six years Creative Healing Connections has been using the arts and nature to help active duty and veteran women heal from physical, emotional and spiritual injuries sustained during their military service. Held at Wiawaka Holiday House on Lake George, the oldest retreat center in the nation for women created by the suffragettes of Troy, the participants come from all branches of the service, many of whom are living with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, some with Military Sexual Trauma, Traumatic Brain Injury and addiction challenges, and some who are or have been homeless.
At left are women veterans who participated in the latest Creative Healing Connections retreat at the Wiawaka Holiday House on Lake George.
(Photo — Naj Wikoff)
These retreats for women veterans were an outgrowth of the retreats for women living with cancer and other chronic diseases established 16 years ago. The leaders of Creative Healing Connections had been reading about the brutal experiences of many women serving in the military, wondered if their programs could be adapted to support their needs, and tested out the idea. Now six years later, this pioneering program, the first of its kind in the nation, is being held up as an example for others to emulate by Americans for the Arts, the Arts in Health Alliance, and the National Steering Committee for Arts & Health in the Military.
Their most recent retreat, held this past week, was praised by those who attended, as well as by other women in residence at Wiawaka, who had an opportunity to speak with the veterans.
"I have been here with a group of friends at the same time as the veteran women," said Sue. "After breakfast today, I chatted with one woman a little bit. She had a walking stick that was decorated with lots of different colors and patterns of fabric. She said, 'You're going to ask me about this stick aren't you?' I agreed. She said the different colors and patterns represented different things that had happened to her. At the bottom was red, it was blood, and it represented anger. Then there was something black with bats on it. She said that was just a lot of other stuff in her life. It was a bit creepy, you know. Then she said, 'It is lighter up on the top, and that represents a happier time.' The stick was maybe 3 or 4 feet high. It was very cool."
"I asked her if she had made it at this retreat, and she said she had. So I said, 'It seems like you have gone through a lot in your life in a pretty short time.' She said, 'Yes, I went back. They have been telling me for years I should do it, and I never have, but now I think I will. I am going to go back so I can go forward.' It was so awesome talking with her."
"I was in the Army from '79 through '82," said Israel. "I started off as a Hawk missile technician, and then I became an administrative clerk. They changed my MOS. This event was healing, and it has given me empowerment. Listening to the others' stories and how they handled their stress and the everyday trials of life has given me new tools. There is so much love here. There is a lot of compassion and nonjudgmental."
"I was in the Pentagon," said Rita. "I am a Vietnam War vet. This retreat provided me time to come down a little bit and to slow down, meet other people, and just know that there are others out there that have similar happenings and feelings."
"This is my sixth time," said Connie, who served in the Army. "I have been here since the beginning. I have seen changes in everyone, changes in myself, and it has been just an awesome experience."
"I don't know how to describe the experience," said Kelly, who was based in Germany and drove trucks in the military. "It's been so beneficial to me. I met such great people, and everyone here was so nice. The staff was wonderful. I will miss them until I see them again."
"I want the women to know that they are loved, appreciated, and acknowledged," said Kathy Knight, the massage therapist.
"I did four years active duty and the rest Reserves. I retired with 20 years in the Army," said Sandy Arnold. "I started out as a private E 1 and ended as a captain. I gained so much from this experience. I don't know where to begin. I feel the love. The spirit thing, I know I'm not alone. I was really feeling down before I got here, and now I am looking forward to next year. The bad feelings sneak up on you. You try not to let them. Both my parents are dead. I have been feeling alone and vulnerable. I know I have friends, but it's hard to reach out to somebody. I was feeling just unworthy of love. When I am here, I feel that I am in a safe place where I can open up, share my feelings, and nobody's judging me. You feel good when you are here. It's just amazing."
"It is such a growing process to watch people open up," said artist Kelly Lindsay. "They come so closed up, and by the second day they are wide open exposing their feelings and their emotions. Many have said they have not exposed their feelings or cried since they were children. Immediately, a bond is created among the women. It happens every year. It becomes a sisterhood. It becomes a scared circle."
"I served in the Army 21 years," said Belinda. "I started in 1990. I left in 2010 August. I started as a medical supplier and after 10 years, I changed to recruiting. I deployed three times, and I am home now. This is the best thing. It's real right to the end. If I can, I'm coming back."
Creative Healing Connections' next retreat is for women living with cancer and other chronic diseases, Sept. 12-14. Learn more at www.creativehealingconnections.org.
(Editor's note: Naj Wikoff is the president emeritus and a board member of Creative Healing Connections and the founder of the Arts and Healing Retreat.)