"I really struggle with anxiety. For me, art is calming. It's a way to express my emotions in a positive way."
DANVILLE — It's still early on Wednesday morning when Lisa Basham arrives to a brightly lit studio for her weekly art session. The Danville woman and several other participants help themselves to coffee and bagels, then chat quietly until instructor Ron Johnson arrives.
It's the last session of the 12-week program, and Johnson is eager to get started. He and assistant Rena McMahon walk around the room squirting bright colors of acrylic paint on paper plates for the seven participants who've come.
On this day, Johnson lets them work on whatever they want. Most choose to finish a painting they've been working on or start a new one.
Basham examines her unfinished project — a painting of her 3-year-old daughter, Helena, as a ballerina holding a bouquet of balloons, and a message about racism. Then, with ginger strokes, she begins adding a black and white background.
When the Healing through Art program began in mid-February, Basham didn't want to be there. Three months later, she doesn't want it to end.
"I really struggle with anxiety," said Basham, a recovering drug addict. "For me, art is calming. It's a way to express my emotions in a positive way."
Susan Perkins — Prairie Center's clinical director in Danville and facilitator of the Creative Connections Treatment Group, of which the program is a component — had wanted to offer an art therapy program for a while.
"It's known as an effective tool in the recovery process," she said, pointing out that research shows engaging in the creative process helps people improve their overall well-being, behavior, self-esteem and much more.
Two-and-a-half years ago, Basham's self-esteem was pretty low. The mother of three — who had been addicted to pain medication, heroin and cocaine for eight years — was thrown in jail for shoplifting meat, which she had intended to sell so she could buy drugs.
It's a path the 33-year-old never imagined for herself.
"I was the good kid," said Basham, who as a teen was never tempted to try drugs or alcohol. Growing up in Chicago, she and her brothers saw addicts in their neighborhood. "We'd say, 'Look at those junkies,' then I became one."
Basham lived a clean lifestyle until 2004. She had a good job as a collections agent for a rental company.
Then on Jan. 12, 2004, two children who were playing with matches caught her brother and sister-in-law's house on fire. The couple's 22-month-old daughter, who was like a daughter to Basham, didn't make it out.
Basham, who saw firefighters carry out the little girl's remains, couldn't sleep. She started taking Valium and later Vicodin and got hooked. She was able to quit on her own when she was pregnant with her first child. But the stress of being a single parent and other things caused her to relapse.
Over the years, she also abused phenobarbital, Xanax, heroin and crack. She would quit for stretches of time, only to relapse again.
Basham said she was able to get sober in jail and finally, learn coping skills when she was sent to a 60-day inpatient treatment center in Peoria last year after another relapse. She also learned parenting skills and joined Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous in treatment.
"Before, I was a functioning addict," Basham admitted. "I thought, 'I do drugs, but my kids are fed and bathed.' What I didn't realize is I was emotionally checked out. I really wasn't there for my kids."
As a participant in the Vermilion County Drug Court program, Basham was ordered to undergo drug treatment at Prairie Center. When her counselor recommended the art therapy program, Basham resisted.
She'd never drawn a "real" picture before. And she was afraid of failing.
Johnson saw that hesitation in other participants.
"Mostly, they didn't want to be judged. They've been judged before," Johnson said.
Participants said their teacher's soft-spoken, easy-going demeanor and his use of positive reinforcement encouraged them to step out of their comfort zone and make a self-portrait, paint a landscape, sculpt and glaze ceramics and create an abstract design.
Through those projects and others, the eight participants who stuck with the program learned about composition, perspective, color theory, shading, sculpting and other art techniques. They also learned interpersonal and social skills, became less impulsive, grew more assertive and confident.
Johnson and Perkins noticed that participants no longer walked into class with their heads down or worked on their projects in silence.
"If someone needs help with their project, they'll speak up and suggest something," Perkins said. "And, there's a lot of peer support going on. If someone has a problem, someone will say, 'I went through this. Here's how I handled it.' It just meets all aspects of what a group is supposed to do."
Like Basham, other participants don't want the class to end.
"I'm not very good at art," said Tiffani Landers, of Danville, as she blended yellow, blue and purple paint on her canvas. "But I like painting because it's meditative."
"It's really been a tool for me to use to stay sober," added Basham, who has begun drawing in a sketch pad to relieve stress. Before, she would turn to drugs to escape.
Today, Basham has been sober since January and is set to graduate from drug court in July. She's held her job at the Glo Motel for more than a year. She teaches Sunday school and serves as her church's secretary. She's speaking publicly about her recovery, sometimes before groups of 200 people.
"I feel like I can take a break from my problems. It helps me refocus and go back and be the mom they need me to be," she said. "I didn't have it easy growing up. I want to give them a fair chance."
'Healing through Art'
FOR: Adults who are recovering from chemical dependency and currently attending treatment services.
FUNDING: A collaboration between $3,338 grant from the Jon P. Cadle Foundation and Danville Area Community College (provided an instructor and two teaching assistants).
FUTURE: The 12-week program ends this week. But Susan Perkins, Prairie Center Health Systems's clinical director in Danville, is searching for funding to run a year-long program.