Even after her husband began recovering from vasculitis five years ago, Lisa Wadler struggled with fear and uncertainty about the future.
Romance novels and taekwondo with her young son and daughter had helped Wadler stay strong during her husband’s exhaustion and shortness of breath brought on by the potentially deadly disease, which causes blood vessels to become inflamed.
But Wadler, 47, needed more grounding to deal with the emotional residue of her husband’s illness, she said. So she turned to her own untapped creativity and wrote “The Draig’s Woman,” a historical romance about a heroine who rescues herself and the man she loves. The heroine uses her martial arts training to overcome villains and her inner strength to deal with life in 13th-century Scotland.
“In creating the strong heroine, I found strength within myself. … If the seemingly regular character I created handled the situations I put her in, I must be able to face my own real world,” said Wadler, a sales rep for an integrative medicine lab who lives in Glencoe, Ill., with her husband, daughter, 13, and son, 11.
“Without the crisis, I never would have written,” said Wadler. “The writing gave me an outlet, if in fantasy form.” She had never written fiction before.
Research has shown that art can be therapeutic for people during stressful times. A 2015 review of past studies in The Lancet found that listening to music before, during or after surgery helped recovery.
For Maria DeCaprio-Sunta, painting with acrylics and watercolors, and making collages started as a creative way to make peace with her brother’s death. Art soon became a way to make something beautiful out of loss.
Even as a child, DeCaprio-Sunta, 54, enjoyed crafts and painting. Robert, her brother, was a graphic designer and photojournalist, as well as her “soul mate.” He died in a motorcycle accident 27 years ago.
After his death, DeCaprio-Sunta and her parents donated money to Moraine Valley Community College in Palos Hills, Ill., for an art gallery in her brother’s memory. She had been working as an assistant to the vice president of a bank but, after her brother’s death, decided to become a full-time artist.
“I started to really feel I needed something to express my grief and my art started to really become stronger in my personality,” said DeCaprio-Sunta, who lives in Palos Heights with her husband.
“I felt art was something I wanted to give my life to, not only to remember my brother, but it was an inner calling I really needed to address with myself.”
About a decade later, DeCaprio-Sunta began teaching watercolor painting in her basement studio, where today she holds classes for women in their 50s through 70s and private lessons for children. She also is chairwoman of the Public Arts Commission in Palos Heights, Ill.
“I have my ladies who are coming out of situations where they’ve lost their husband or somebody has an illness in their family, and I actually feel like my art lessons give them a respite or place to rest their minds and get it off their problems,” said DeCaprio-Sunta.
Healing arts programs began at a handful of hospitals in the 1960s but have skyrocketed in the past decade or so, according to Monica Hork, arts program coordinator at the University of Chicago Medicine.
At the Hyde Park medical center, professional musicians play for patients, relatives and staff, and art exhibits, such as “Dancers Among Us” by Jordan Matter, adorn hallways. That photography exhibit has generated a slew of positive comments from passers-by who find the pictures uplifting, said Hork.
“It’s basically geared to use the power of the arts and transformative abilities to help with healing,” Hork said.
A heart failure patient recently played the piano there for days leading up to his transplant, encouraged by his care team who came to listen to his casual performance an hour before his transplant surgery, noted Hork.
“It grounded him and gave him a place of peace in what could be a terrifying time,” said Hork. “So it connected him with beauty and confidence and hope.”
At Montefiore Medical Center in New York, a healing arts program with therapy and relaxation techniques has helped many patients, anxious relatives and staff members.
A patient with lung cancer and his wife recently created a 20-second abstract drawing during an art therapy session at Montefiore. The drawing was cut in half and the husband and wife each designed a portion, adding words cut out from a magazine. The two pieces were then pasted together.
Lindsay Aaron, the art therapist at Montefiore who worked with the couple, said the wife initially “appeared to be in distress,” but as she drew, she began to relax and chat with her husband.
“Rather than the topic of conversation being on the hospital or illness, she was more animated as she reflected on her life with her husband beyond the hospital walls,” said Aaron, noting the husband’s prognosis was good.
For many patients and family members, using art as a creative outlet can also lead to a new hobby that brings joy and strength.
Today, with her husband healed and stronger, Wadler can’t wait to get back to her writing.
“More than helping me cope with illness, the writing helped me discover more about myself, tap into a creativity I had no idea I possessed and encourage other women to find the warrior inside,” she said.