Monday, October 26, 2020

Bearing Witness: Petals Hold Flowers and Me


My counselor, Sharon, has a giant pad of sticky notes on an easel in her office. From time to time she hands me a three-tiered box filled with chalk pastels arranged by shades of color: light blue to medium blue to dark blue to navy blue. Then the greens, pinks and yellows.

Sometimes, when I feel stuck emotionally in a counseling session, all I have to do is grab a piece from the chalk pastel box and swipe it across the page. The use of color and movement help me to find emotional opening I need.

One day, I drew a series of short lines from the top to the bottom of the large sheet of paper. Dust fell from the chalk and landed on the easel. Sharon commented on the colors I chose. Each line had a space between it, creating rows.  Between the rows, I began drawing circles to make flowers. I drew short green dashes on each side for the leaves. When I finished the flowers, I paused and sat back to look at them. Sharon said, “Look how the leaves are holding each flower.”

In sessions up to that point, I would often leave Sharon’s office crying, from revisiting trauma from the past. I was so emotional; I couldn’t even get the receipt from the office receptionist. Sometimes it was hard to walk to my car and often took me the rest of the day or even the next to recover. But as Sharon  interpreted my art that day, I felt held. She gave me something to take out of the office that wasn’t painful.

In Sharon’s witness, I experienced a very holy moment. Not only was Sharon bearing witness to my pain and recovery, God was bearing witness too. God brought what I had said together with what I needed. God helped me weave together thought, word, picture, and emotional need into a visual I could take with me.

Seeing my chalk pastel flowers in this way, helped me feel a sense of comfort and affection, a need I had been deprived of in my childhood. When I went home, I got my watercolors and recreated what I had drawn, simple flowers being held.

In psychology, bearing witness involves sharing our experiences with others. Trauma survivors such as myself receive great value, relief, comfort and affirmation when sharing our pain with a trusted person. As we went through the timeline of my life, Sharon listened compassionately, and intently, bearing witness to my reality.

A witness says, “I believe you.” Those three words are very powerful to someone who has just shared a trauma hidden in a family for decades. A witness gives relief, validation that something happened and companionship to transform the recounting of something very difficult. Bearing witness to my trauma, Sharon’s attention and affirmation were like a healing balm in the raw places where my memories had rested.

With the memories out in the open, I had room for new thoughts and ideas. As those new ideas came out in the form of art, Sharon became a different kind of witness for me. In bearing witness, Sharon saw and reflected not only what I was revealing about my past, but also what I was creating as an artist: leaves holding flowers. My hands were drawing what my soul needed. Like a patron at an art museum who walks by a painting and comments on the light, color or perspective, Sharon drew my attention to what was happening in my art, the very thing my soul needed. 

A witness holds us up while we are growing, giving us a steady place to bloom.

Monday, October 19, 2020

Patterns from the Past: A Time of Deep Cleansing

I came to my counselor, Sharon’s office and shared what was on my mind. Sharon was getting to know me. I was getting to know her and the methods she used to counsel. I’m the type to do a lot of research when I leave an appointment. I look up all kinds of articles about the mental health topics we discussed. No matter how many articles I read, I still had the emotional overlay of memories that never seemed to go away.

Sharon suggested that we try a timeline as a way to chronologically look at my life and the various experiences that were part of it. We began meeting three times a week.  

I sat in front of a giant pad of sticky notes on an easel in her office. I took a black sharpie and drew a horizontal line across the paper. I wrote my birthday on the line, and lead Sharon through my life story in ten-year segments. I hoped previously unknown details might surface. That process took almost three months.

A timeline looks at characteristics of your family, homes, and neighborhoods where you’ve lived, schools you’ve attended, friendships that developed, and things that happened.

I thought I knew everything about myself and my experience, but the timeline showed me I had much more I needed to remember and process.

The timeline brought up chaotic experiences not reflective of a loving home. Remembering took me back to many painful places. Significant events rose to the surface. Many times, I left my appointment crying hysterically over the pain of what had happened to me growing up. Remembering turned me inside out.

Years that should’ve been formative were deformative. Those experiences left an imprint on me causing me to develop a fear of people, making me quiet and shy and hardly able to connect with other children in my classroom at school. With so many unpleasant things piled in my mind, I had no clarity of thought when I sat at my desk. Survival was my only concern from one day to the next.

Even though I was sitting in my counselor’s office, remembering made my body feel as if it were back in time. Once, I recalled a memory so intense I fell off the couch onto the floor.

At the end of my appointment, the act of receiving my receipt from the receptionist and holding it in one hand with my tear-filled Kleenex in the other, became a way for me to feel a temporary sense of closure until the next session. These were my souvenirs from a trip to my past. I needed something tangible to help remind me that whatever disruptive memories were coming up from my earlier years, I was here now. I was safe and loved and cared for.

Reliving these events was difficult and, at times, retraumatizing. However, at the end of the examination of my first forty years, I finally had a feeling of internal cleansing and peace. I had been in counseling for many years and hadn’t made much progress. A combination of timing and the timeline brought me to a place I never believed possible. The timeline was an intense but helpful way to look at my life, name events, and identify patterns.

Your Turn

Get a few pieces of paper, draw a horizontal line and begin recording events in your life in ten-year segments. Consider structuring your timeline in a way that feels most natural to you. You may want to use a road map and describe the places that were important in different parts of your life.

 You may want to draw a tangled tree with branches and twigs twisted and turned in various angles. You may want to make a collage timeline with words and pictures found in magazines to illustrate the events and themes of your life.

Here are a few questions to get started.

-          What people played important roles in your upbringing?

-          What was your family structure?

-          What feelings do you remember from various times in your life?

-          Ask yourself questions using who, what, when, where, and why to get started.

-          Process by naming what happened, but use caution if strong emotions are stirred.

-          Use tangible objects around you to remind yourself that you are here now, that you are safe and loved.

-          Take a break if necessary and return to the timeline when you are ready.

-          Seek the help of a professional counselor for dealing with concerns that may surface.

Monday, October 12, 2020

Outside the Box: How Words, Art, and Psychotherapy Helped Me Find Peace


Sitting in front of the easel that held a large pad of sticky notes, I felt awkward, uncomfortable and anxious.  I hadn’t created any art for 18 months. I was accustomed to having intense energy guiding my art, but now there was none. I was quiet inside. The paper was blank.

Sharon handed me a box of chalk pastels, a medium I had never worked with before. I opened the box and chose a yellow piece, noting its rectangular shape and powdery feel. These sensory cues helped me stay present and try something different.

From 1998 to 2008, I considered myself a mixed-media artist, exhibiting my work in galleries around Indianapolis and Noblesville. I sensed God’s presence when I was working on a piece of art. Art and prayer were synonymous.

I enjoyed art so much that I developed and presented a program to church groups. The workshop, “Praying in Color,” combined my interest in art and my desire to help people grow closer to God. I cherished the companionship art provided during those twenty years while I processed difficult times related to my past.

My present day had its own difficulties. In 2017, I lost 7 friends to cancer in a 6-month time period. Abruptly, in January 2018, all of my creative energy stopped. There were no more art projects coming from my hands. I was lost without the ability to make a visual expression of what I was experiencing emotionally. These losses combined with my own history of significant loss affected me greatly. I was not well.

I decided to see counseling to process my many layers of grief, past and present. A counseling practice not too far from my house seemed a good place to start. My family had a good experience with a counselor there nearly twenty years earlier. I arranged an appointment with a new counselor.  Joan and I worked together until January 2019, when she moved.

Prior to her departure, she arranged a meeting with another counselor in the practice, Sharon, who I met one afternoon. After answering a few of my questions, Sharon asked me, “Have you tried art?” I was intrigued how Sharon might blend art and emotional work.

Now, sitting in her office three times a week, I was learning how art might lead to my wellness. I looked at the paper and made a vertical line, then another line and soon the whole paper was covered with evenly spaced rows of multi-colored vertical lines. When I looked at Sharon, she said, “Name the picture and put the date on the back.” I named this first piece of art, “The Acceptance of Lines,” May 6, 2019. The lines accepted my awkward movements opening a new door to hope and possibility. I was pleased to walk out of Sharon’s office that day, thinking my art may be returning, even in a simple way.

For several sessions afterwards, I continued to sit in front of the easel and only draw rows and rows of lines. I didn’t know what the lines meant at the time, but they brought a sense of calm to my chaos.

Sharon and I talked about the lines. I noted how easy a line is to draw. A line is self-contained, straight, and requires one simple hand movement. A line has a clear beginning and ending, and with a dot drawn above it, a line can become a candle. Four lines joined together in a square or rectangles make a container for an object or emotion.

The easel took on different functions at different times. The large paper held a continuous horizontal line, a timeline of my life, beginning with birth, extending through every year and event through age forty. The horizontal timeline brought disorder, horror, surprise, sadness, and humiliation, while the vertical lines gave me a sense of order.

In our sessions, Sharon and I discussed the chaotic, dysfunctional parts of growing up as a child and adolescent in an unloving home, peppered with fighting between my parents, glaring favoritism toward my younger brother, and cruelty toward me.

Throughout those hard days, I was not doing any art at home or even in Sharon’s office. Going through the timeline was exhausting, draining, and left no energy for art. Regaining my composure to exit Sharon’s office, get my receipt from the receptionist, and make it to my car, were my only objectives.

One day, Sharon surprised me. She reached under her couch and retrieved an 8 x 10 blank canvas and said, “Every week, I will give you a word and an empty canvas. See what you can make. Your first word is “time.”

I took the canvas gingerly. Walking to my car, I wondered what I could make.

Initially, I felt pressure to get something on the canvas quickly. I only had four days before I saw Sharon and I was not in the rhythm of creating.

The next day, I took a few moments to reflect on “time.” I let God enter in with me as I explored the word. I googled a definition. Other words surfaced. The urgency to create left me and I was able to see “time” as an orderly way of moving forward.

I found my small box of fabric tucked inside a bedroom closet and cut thirty-six small squares, enough to arrange my favorite quilt pattern on the canvas.

Sewing the fabric onto canvas was challenging. I wasn’t used to the hard, textured surface, although I was grateful for the wooden frame holding the canvas secure. I recorded my thoughts so I could remember to tell Sharon everything going into my work.

When I returned to see Sharon the next Monday, she was delighted with my artistic interpretation of “time.” She patiently listened while I explained my process, offering occasional comments and asking a few questions.

Although Sharon chose most of the words randomly, when I googled each meaning, I often discovered a psychological component. For example, one week, Sharon’s word was “containment.” Containment refers to the atmosphere the counselor creates in his or her office of welcome and trust.

Containment also had a psychological meaning which deeply spoke to one of my great needs. “Containment is the capacity to stay present and hold our experiences/emotions in such a way that they do not overwhelm or scare us. Without containment, we feel out of control, emotions or thoughts threaten to bring us to our depths. We need containment to stay in relationship to our experience, to ourselves and not get washed away in the suffering.” (Gwen McHale, “The Power of Containment,” August 4, 2016)

Art became a container for an emotion. Art can be a safe way to release memories – they don’t have to stay locked away. A blank canvas is both an open space to receive, but also has boundaries.

Sharon has given me fifty words altogether. Her prompts helped restart my creativity. I have two boxes filled with artwork related to each word. I know now that my art can come from a quiet place, not driven by intense energy. My confidence as an artist has returned. Art can speak when there are not words to say. Through these many months I pictured the inside of my heart as ugly, bruised, and battered. Now I see the beauty of my own heart when I see the art that has come from it.

I still draw lines when I experience an out-of-control emotion or need order. I appreciate how a simple gesture can help me stay present and contained. I am grateful for those first lines and the opening toward wellness and renewed creativity that they forged.

Monday, October 5, 2020

An Unconventional Path to Wellness

Nothing felt right when 2018 ended. The year was busy. I taught many classes at church and led a support group all of which I enjoyed, but I needed a break.  Seven people I knew died of cancer during the year. I felt depleted with grief for their families as well as for friends including myself.

Art and writing, meaningful parts of my life for twenty years, suddenly disappeared as the new year began. Not writing or drawing which I did daily, was a significant loss and brought confusion to my identity and sense of self.

In early January, I sought solace in a plowed cornfield. Going there I needed space and order. I walked across the bumpy rows filled with clumps of dirt, noting remains of a bountiful harvest in the occasional corn stalks left behind.  I saw beauty in the orderly arrangement of plowed rows. The different shades of dirt were like a color wheel of brown.

Although the day was cold enough to see my breath, I walked for over an hour inhaling the stillness of natural rest and stretching my heart into the expanse of open space.

In February, another loss occurred when a friend of my younger daughter died of cancer. She returned home from Oregon for the visitation and funeral.  Putting her on a plane to return a few days later, was difficult. Her grief was palpable and mine was amplified by not being able to go with her for continued comfort and love.

Finally, in April, I decided to seek counseling to help me through this time. When I met with my counselor, Joan, I mentioned the recent deaths of friends as well as losses from my past. I told her Inside I felt like a zombie, striped to my core, unanchored, scared, unsure of who I was, confused about life and people. I felt no direction, no focus, lots of frustration, burdened with a weight for which I had no name. I did not feel depressed, I did not feel well.

Joan tried to help me sort out the complexities of what I was experiencing, hoping to reach a place of grounding and peace.  Together we worked to give form or name what was bothering me. We struggled to find answers to the disappearance of the creative part of my life which I enjoyed so much and kept my life lively, and exciting.

Joan moved after nine months, but she helped me find another counselor, Sharon, in the same practice to take over.

Sharon caught my attention when she talked about her use of art during an interview Joan arranged prior to her relocation. I liked art and remembered how creative projects provided companionship and a means of expression years ago.

I began seeing Sharon once weekly. We became acquainted and I began building trust in someone new. Sharon shared a few ideas to work with me such as starting a timeline of my life, using chalk pastels and giving me a word each week to illustrate. In numerous sessions, Sharon used the phrase “uncharted territory” to describe where I was emotionally. Not to be deterred, she forged ahead weaving together art, words, psychotherapy, compassion, intent listening and caring, finally unlocking all of the secrets of my past. After over a year of intensive therapy, I felt cleansed and well.

For the next four weeks, I will describe portions of my work with Sharon. I pray my experiences will help someone else or offer encouragement to others going through hard times.