‘Should’ we meet in the middle?

As a drama therapist, I always have identified with numerous roles; some frequenting more often than others. However, there is one role that repeatedly rears its ugly head, making me question myself and my abilities – the role of the critic.critic Most often my critic takes the form of a persistent voice inside my head, judging my thoughts and choices, causing me to carefully examine every action and motive. Confronting my inner critic has always been a struggle and at times has acted as a catalyst for me to seek out further guidance.

stock-photo-cartoon-optimist-and-pressimist-talking-to-each-other-with-speech-bubbles-369031010At other times, the critic is met in opposition by the role of the optimist, who spins the dark sided questionings of the critic and allows the perspective to shift. It is in these moments when the two roles exist together, that I feel most authentic, vulnerable, and most importantly in my role as therapist, present.

In my training to be a drama therapist, I learned about the danger of ‘should.’ For example, drama therapy ‘should’ look a certain way, or a client or group ‘should’ be able to do this by now. Despite being told by my professors and supervisors to let go of the ‘shoulds,’ I continue to battle these thoughts.

I realize how affected I am by other people’s ‘shoulds’ and how listening to their ‘shoulds’ fuels my inner critic. Just as I start to find a comfortable balance within myself, I feel other peoples ‘shoulds’ being projected onto the group. In these moments, our ‘shoulds’ collide, and visceral reactions are evoked complicating my ability to navigate the duality of roles and the needs of the group. When I listen to these voices, I feel my presence slipping away, pulling me from the here-and-now. It is in these moments that I attempt to find common ground and look beyond the projections of ‘should.’ I take the time to sit with myself and do my best to separate my own feelings, judgments, and thoughts but the critic is determined, so the fight is real.

At CANY we co-lead trauma informed drama therapy groups in locations across the city with diverse populations. I am currently working in a residential treatment facility with children and adolescents who have experienced a tremendous amount of loss. This is one of the most challenging groups that I have worked with, and the battle between my inner critic and optimist is in full force. My inner critic has been taking center stage while the optimist waits in the wings for its cue. Within the chaos of this particular group my co-leader and I try to provide as much structure and ritual as possible. However, what ‘should’ be a simple task, i.e. staying in the room together, sharing our names, or standing in a circle, proves challenging. A simple check-in seems unobtainable and nearly impossible to get through. My critic’s negative comments about my abilities to contain and hold this group begin to creep in, loudly whispering in my ear, the ‘shoulds’ standing tall in front of me.

“You ‘should’ know what to do!”

“You ‘should’ be able to fix this mess.”

But when I am able to take a breath and step back making space for the optimist to enter in, there is a shift. The optimist reminds me to look deeper and not focus on what the group ‘should’ look like, encouraging me to recognize the small moments of success. I remind myself that checking in with the group takes only 10 minutes now, as opposed to the 20 or 30 minutes it once did. I can celebrate all of the group members sharing their names, in their own way. Though the circle may be more of an amoeba; we have a shape, and the group members are able to tolerate being in the space.

I now recognize the shared space between where the critic and optimist live. In that shared space I am able to be vulnerable and explore what lies beneath the surface for myself and the clients I work with. I can accept the group where it is and that the group is ‘good enough.’ This is the group, and there is no particular way a group ‘should’ look; there are multiples ways to look at the group.

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The Critic, The Optimist, and the joining middle space.

I am reminded of group dynamics and the possibility that what I am feeling  may also be true for other group members, who may be experiencing similar struggles within themselves. It is that reminder that helps me realize I am not alone and I can find a mutual place of being. With this recognition, other roles emerge in this battle space, roles that are both mine and not mine a place for empathy and understanding to grow. Where I once encountered these moments with fear, I now see them as an opportunity for a change, offering me a sense of freedom. In that instance, I am able to break the vicious cycle of negativity and accept that none of these answers are black and white; I look beyond and see the many shades of gray. I am able to accept there are areas where I need to grow and areas in which I have already grown. I am able to trust myself and try again rather than let the critic discourage my persistence, positivity, and my faith in myself.

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LisaGail Schwartz, RDT, LCAT; Programs Assistant at CANY

 

 

 

 

 

My Missing Ingredient

Since beginning my journey as a therapist, there are two words I despised. Self-Care. The phrase made me cringe. It sounded indulgent. It sounded excessive. It sounded uncomfortable.

Self-Care?”

“No, thank you.”

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In graduate school, mentors I admired would espouse the need for ‘self-care.’ At the end of classes, my cohort and I would be asked to identify how we were going to ‘self- care.’

“Umm… I’m taking a bath?”

“Uhhh… I’m making dinner?”

Now as a new therapist at CANY, this same question is asked of me, this time by my supervisor. My responses echo the same feelings I felt as a student.

“Well . . . I’m watching my favorite show tonight.”

To me, self-care always felt a little ‘glued on.’ I would name an activity (typically something I already intended to do) and claim that it would be done in the name of self-care.

As therapists, we are asked to be particularly mindful of taking care of ourselves. We need to be available and open to our clients; acting as containers, ready to be filled with their experiences and helping them navigate and process their emotions.

In recent weeks, I have struggled to find my sense of joy and optimism in this chaotic world. No matter your politics, the divisiveness in this country has been palpable. In recent weeks, I have found myself glued to my phone even more than usual, waiting with baited breath for the next New York Times update to appear on my screen. My podcast feed is full of politically minded discussions and interviews. My social media chock-full of articles and statements posted by my friends and colleagues and my client’s stories suddenly seem to be brimming with political themes and characters.

While I continued operating in my usual manner, going to dinner with friends, discussing the world, hungrily consuming media, trying my best to understand everything that was and is happening in the world,  for the first time, I found myself feeling stuck and longing for something more. Suddenly those two little words came floating into my mind… self-care…..the words seeming to haunt me. But still, I managed to cast that longing for something more aside.

And then one day, it all came to a head. I was running a group composed of adolescent girls, and every story or character we created in the group was steeped in political sentiment. I was drained, desperately trying to reassure my clients and myself that our group was a safe space and encouraging them to keep exploring, while at the same time feeling deeply worried. At CANY the clients we work with are often marginalized and the uncertainty of these times seemed to be adding fuel to the fire.  After the group had ended, I received a New York Times alert, and I realized I could no longer allow myself to operate in my usual manner. I could feel myself crumbling. I canceled dinner with my friends, I paused my podcasts, I turned off my phone, and I unrolled my yoga mat. As I moved through the Asana practice, I began to embrace those two little words I had once despised so much.

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At that moment, I needed self-care in a new way, and I understood the missing ingredient in my self-care recipe, vulnerability. Suddenly I found myself flooded with appreciation for these two little words. I found myself embracing this concept, and with this acceptance, a wave of wisdom seemed to crash upon me.

Self-care means I have to build time into my life to be by myself, to really sit with myself. It involves me processing the feelings that I sometimes do not feel like processing. The stories and feelings that are both mine and my clients. Self-care requires a sense of daring; it requires a willingness to jump into the mess and work through the stuck feelings. Self-care requires me to be a ‘grown up’ and put my care first even at the risk of letting other people down. I need to ‘place the oxygen mask on my mouth first before helping small children or others who need assistance.’

After welcoming vulnerability and acknowledging the bravery and courage required in self-care, I have discovered a new sense of calm amidst the storm. I found a portal into this magical land, and I can’t turn back.

Now when I ask my clients how they are caring for themselves, I feel a new sense of authenticity. I recognized my own personal therapy could no longer be my only self-care; my self-care involves me sitting alone in my own rawness.

-Carrie Watt, MA, LCAT- P

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New Kids on the CANY Block

In this month’s blog,  Heidi Landis CANY’s AED interviews our new full-time drama therapists. CANY community meet Lisa Gail Schwartz and Carrie Watt.

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Heidi: We are so excited to have you both with us this year.What do you want the Synthesis readers to know about you?

Lisa Gail : It is an honor for me to be welcomed with open arms to the CANY team. I am extremely dedicated and committed to providing the highest standard of quality care to individuals, families, and communities. I strive to contribute positive mental health services aimed at improving clients’ quality of life and fostering therapeutic alliances. I am a hard working, flexible individual, with a taste for adventure.

Carrie: My name is Carrie Watt, and I graduated from the NYU drama therapy master’s program in May. Originally hailing from the Chicago land area, I  have been residing in New York for the past six years. I received my BFA in Acting from Rutgers University and had the pleasure of studying abroad at the Globe Theater in London for a year. After working as both an actor and a casting director in New York, I  found myself disenchanted with the industry, stuck in a creativity rut and feeling deeply unfulfilled in my work. Somewhere in the back of my mind,  I remembered a summer acting teacher of mine who received her master’s in drama therapy at NYU, and suddenly, my path became clear. Drama therapy combines all of the things I longed to find a career, the ability to play and be creative, the chance to work closely with a diverse group of people, and the opportunity to share the magical, healing world of theater with others. I feel privileged to get to do the work I do and thrilled to start my career as a drama therapist at CANY.

Heidi: Why did you want to work at CANY?

Lisa Gail: The CANY model is one that has always intrigued me. I took a few workshops at conferences and was consistently blown away by the knowledge and insight the facilitators shared about working with trauma and complex trauma. Each time I left a workshop, I felt motivated to incorporate the new concepts into my practice. In comparison to my earlier experiences as a drama therapist, the idea of co-leadership seemed like a breath of fresh air.

Carrie: I had the pleasure of working with CANY as an intern last fall and from the first group meeting,   it felt like home. There is a real sense of community among the staff at CANY and those relationships provide  a strong backbone in the work we do. As an intern, I grew immensely during my time at CANY, thanks to incredible mentors and clients and  I look forward to continuing to learn and grow throughout my time at CANY. I could not imagine a better way to begin my career as a drama therapist.

 Heidi: What’s one thing that has stood out to you about the CANY model since you started here?

Lisa Gail: The therapists’ ability to work with what is in the room. The experiential nature of CANY’s Trauma-informed drama therapy model provides the co-facilitators the space to work openly while continuing to provide enough containment for the client to explore safely,themes to emerge organically and the CANY model uses strength-based techniques that empower clients and in doing so, evoke change.

Carrie: One thing I find outstanding about the CANY model is the way we honor relationship as the vehicle for healing. We champion the belief that emotional well-being relies on healthy relationships, and we strive to foster connections in our groups and also throughout our organization. Whether it be in working with co-therapists or meeting with site partner before a group, or in our communications with board members, we strive for open, direct communication as a way of strengthening connections. It is wonderful to work with people who are interested in building each other up and supporting one another to be their best.

Heidi: What was the last thing you heard or saw which made you laugh out loud?

 Lisa Gail: The moment when I tried to teach a friend how to kayak. As we attempted to get into the kayak, the crashing waves and rocky water challenged our smooth entry. Suddenly, my friend’s paddle started floating away, and as I yelled for him to “retrieve it,” he let go of the kayak which swung back around and hit me, instantly knocked me over into the water. As I swam ashore, he was totally clueless as to what had happened, and I had to laugh and remind him to “Lesson 1 never let go of the paddle. Lesson 2 never let go of the kayak.” kayak-798009_960_720

Carrie: After recently finishing my thesis (hooray!)  I finally had the chance to catch up on some ‘fun’ reading. I just finished Mindy Kaling’s book, Why Not Me?  and loved it. Kaling is so honest and candid, and I struggled to muffle my full-bellied laughs on the subway.

Heidi: Who would play you in the movie adaptation of your life?

Lisa Gail: If I could resurrect Brittany Murphy, I would choose her. She was quirky and had great comedic timing.  Personally, I believe she had more talent than she is given credit. She was small in stature but made up for it in personality, a trait similar to myself.  She also had a thirst for knowledge and always made those she loved a priority. She loved people and got along with everyone she encountered, all values that are true to my character.

Carrie: Julia Louis- Dreyfus because she is both a brilliant human and actor. She is so specific in her acting choices, and every character she plays is portrayed honestly and expansively.  She is an outrageous, bold comedian and I  think she would enhance the quirkiness and absurdities of my life-as-a-movie. Also, she is fierce and scrappy, two attributes I admire and aspire to hold within my character.

Heidi: What’s your favorite myth, legend or fairy tale?

Lisa Gail: As a child, one of my favorite fairy tales was Peter Pan, and it remains relevant to me today. Peter Pan reminds us of our youth, our innocence, and brings a sense of joy,  free from the burdens of adult responsibilities and regrets. He’s untainted, playful and believes in magic and fairies.  As a child, I loved Tinkerbell and her determination to protect those she loved no matter what danger she put herself in. She is sassy, spunky, playful, and has a diva quality that I tried to emulate as a child. Despite my childhood love for Tinkerbell, as an adult, I find myself more drawn to Peter.  To me Peter Pan is a symbol; one that will not conform to the conventions of society, refusing to grow up and continuing to hold on to the child-like sense of self. Peter is never afraid to play, he is unique and does things at his own pace. His innocence, happiness, and endless adventures remind me never to let go of my own Neverland. peter-886132_960_720

Carrie: This is a tough one as I love all stories, but the one that sticks out in my mind right now is the Scottish/Irish myth of the Selkie. A Selkie is a shapeshifter who lives in the sea as a seal but once on land sheds their skin to become a human. In the different versions of this myth, one consistent happening occurs, the Selkie arrives on the land, and immediately people fall in love with the majestic creature. Even in human form, there is something magical about the creature and the land people try to keep the Selkie and hide their seal skin. Sometimes the person hiding the seal skin is a lover or a child, but regardless, the Selkie is devastated and lost without their shapeshifting abilities. However, in every version of this tale,  the Selkie eventually locates their skin and immediately returns to the sea. The Selkie myth acts as a reminder to me to keep in touch with my seal/soul skin and to keep a balance between my sea and land life. carrie

Heidi: Trauma-Informed work is amazing but can also be draining, what do you do for self-care?

Lisa Gail:  My self-care is kickboxing (when I go), spending time with loved ones, traveling when I can, and trying new adventures (i.e., rock climbing, ropes course and a new love for obstacle courses.) I also do enjoy a nice night home on the couch watching “my shows.”

Carrie: At the moment my self-care consists of bubble baths, walks in Prospect Park, podcasts, cooking, and dinner parties. I have dreams of it also including running, but at the moment running continues to be a bit of a struggle.

Heidi: Thank you both so much. We are privileged to have you with us and we hope our community will have a chance to meet you in person soon!

Meaningful Adjacencies

In just a few days ago our nation will commemorate the anniversary of the events of September 11th, 2001. If you’ve been down to the 9/11 Memorial or even seen pictures on TV, you know that there are two enormous fountains in the footprint of each of the towers, with the names of the 2,982 victims running along the border of each. Aside from the tower in which they worked, it may seem impossible to recognize any kind of planned arrangement for the names of victims. However, one of the most important features of the memorial is the particular placement of the engraved names. After much thought the memorial design team decided to pursue a complicated but significant design principle called “meaningful adjacency”. This meant that each victim was to be honored next to other victims who meant something to them – whether it was a family member, or a longtime colleague, or someone they happened to sit next to. Victims’ families were contacted and asked to name others with whom their loved one shared a relationship.  Miraculously, the planners were able to grant every single one of the more than 1,200 adjacency requests they received.

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I learned about this concept of Meaning Adjacencies from a friend who lost a parent in the 9/11 attacks and it really stuck with me. With what is happening in the world today on global and national fronts and in the day to day trauma work that CANY does, this idea of meaningful adjacencies feels like a powerful one. In arranging the names in such a way, the memorial planners made sure that the victims were remembered not alphabetically, by their rank, or how many sales they made but by whom they affected and whom they were affected by on a personal relational level.

Reading my friends post made me think about the work that we do at CANY. CANY’s work is relational, meaning that when trauma happens in relationship it can only be healed in relationship. It is not lost on me that as we as a nation mourn the victims of 9/11, many of the clients we work with on daily basis often live in fear of the world and their environments.

Perhaps our work is about creating relational adjacencies even if it is just for that one moment in group.  In order for a person to be emotionally healthy, he or she must maintain fulfilling and satisfying relationships with those around them. The stress and turmoil of previous traumatic relationships inhibit the ability to be with or even next to someone in a way that feels safe for most of the clients we work with. Relational work especially in the context of CANY’s model of trauma-informed drama therapy is about sociometry and choice. By facilitating a safe and positive relationship in the security of a CANY group as well as in the fictional stories we create, the client can be provided with a stronger sense of self and confidence.  I wonder as therapists, how often we reflect on our own roles as helpers facilitating meaningful adjacencies through the interventions we make in our groups or sessions? Finding ways to empower our clients with the skills necessary to recognize and create productive and healthy relationships is key in our model. We as drama therapists work to co-create a safe enough environment to work with past relationship traumas and hopefully help create connections or adjacencies in the present.

My friend commented that there was a “sudden quiet clarity” in seeing the names carved in bronze. She said “this tragedy that never made sense, finally, one thing was perfectly clear: how we love, how we choose to treat others is how we are to be truly remembered.”

And so, as we begin a new program year I pose the question to my staff, to you and to myself: How might we all create significant relationships in our work and in our life? What does it take to really be next to someone, to hold space for them and to find a those meaningful adjacencies?

This concept is one I will keep close to me as we head into September and remember those who lost their live on September 11th.  It is also one I will remember as I work with all the loss that our clients have experienced.

 

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Heidi Landis LCAT- RDT-BCT, TEP, CGP

CANY Associate Executive Director

CAN I GET A WITNESS?

In, The Gift of Therapy, Irvin Yalom (2002) writes, “Often the therapist is the only audience viewing great dramas and acts of courage. Such privilege demands a response to the actor.” He continues that while the client might share their life stories outside the therapy room, therapists have privy to the client’s world in a way that others likely do not. Indeed, each week at CANY we sit with clients across various populations and bear witness to their stories. The act of witnessing group sharing in discussions, embodied processes and other creative explorations is rich with information about the lives of our clients and tells a story of what group members do and do not wish to be seen/known. Much like how we – as therapists and humans in and out of the therapy room – also curate how we wish to be seen and known.

Often the conversations and enactments that unfold in groups at once include and exclude the facilitators; these moments appear in some way to ask the therapist to bear witness to the stories of their lives. Their enactments serve as the window for our eyes and ask us the questions: “Can you tolerate the stories I have to tell? Can you see me? Can you hold/tolerate me?”

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Detail of “Witness”, a painting by Benny Andrews – Image credit: Matthew Newton for the Brooklyn Museum, courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, LLC.

In one group that a colleague and I co-facilitated at a school-based program for teenagers, we were many times enrolled as witness. The group had an abundance of energy and would often break out into conversation about music, video games and other themes that were relevant to their lives. They would check in with us to see if we knew what artist they were talking about or video game they were speaking of. These energized discussions contained information about what was important, exciting, frustrating, angering and energizing to them. They at once kept us as a-part of and apart from the group through enrolling us as witness. This group talked about their issues with sobriety, interpersonal conflicts and the struggles they faced in their lives at home and in school. At times they said among themselves that when we, the facilitators, left the group we would likely speak to how “bad” the group was. They even shared fantasies of how my partner and I skipped through the park and baked cupcakes. They were telling us, “We are worlds apart. You do not know our lives.” And there was indeed truth to this sentiment.

This group was highly creative and enjoyed telling and acting out new stories. After several weeks of working together, the students cast my partner and me as drug dealers who were arrested by the police. Group members played the police officers and lawyers who were in charge of our characters’ outcomes. In this story, we were cast in roles counter to their original idea(s) of who we were (the carefree therapists that went skipping through the park) and they took on the roles of the experts, authorities, and leaders in the play. In so doing, they were bearing witness to us stepping into a world they talked about and roles they were often familiar with and allowed us to witness them as the leaders, experts, and authorities in the room. This role reversal gave us the opportunity to be embodied witnesses into the stories of the other.

In the therapeutic encounter, our clients bear witness to us just as we bear witness to them. I am always in awe when a client shows me how they perceive me, or steps in before I can respond to something with what they imagine I will say. In these moments, I am reminded that I too am being witnessed in this process. I too expose things that I want to communicate and also things I am not even aware. This process is a form of stepping, for a moment, into the worlds of the other as if to ask, “Can you see me, and if you do, will you stay?” Our clients are asking us this question just as we too are asking them. Bearing witness to all that our clients bring in the room allows for validation and acceptance of their life stories just as they are and cultivates a space for new stories to be told and new possibilities imagined.

 

 


 

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Britton Williams, RDT, LCAT; Program Manager at CANY

 

 

CLINICIAN HEAL THYSELF! (featuring guest blogger Lucy McLellan)

 As former Program/Training Director/Blog Editor at CANY, I was honored to be invited to contribute this month’s post. Although I live 1,000 miles away from NYC these days, situated in Madison, WI, I continue to follow SYNTHESIS on a monthly basis. It keeps me connected to the ideas and practice swirling around the CANY and wider drama therapy community, something that keeps my clinical heart beating as one of only three Registered Drama Therapists in the state of Wisconsin. What I offer below speaks to this experience directly. It is an invitation to you, reader, to consider the ways in which we remain connected to our knowledge, skills and passion on the job.


 

CLINICIAN, HEAL THYSELF!

I am high energy person. Even in middle age, I barrel through daily life with intensity. It is, to draw from Tich Nach Hahn, a habit energy; not as much an innate state as an energetic drive that I have adopted over the years, pushing me on.

As a drama therapist, however, my high energy serves me well. I enter the therapeutic space comfortable with emotional intensity. I do not fear the stories or the roles conjured up in the playspace of the trauma-affected clients I work with. I am drawn to the vigor of enactment.

All that said, I am as prone to compassion fatigue as the next clinician, arguably more so. My high energetic out-put requires conscious replenishment, a lesson I have learned the hard way. Staying clinically engaged and countering the secondary hurts of posttraumatic stress has become a necessary labor of (self) love for me. Over the last year, I have repeatedly found myself drawing from Mary Jo Barrett’s concept of ethical attunement as a way of managing my energy as a therapist.

Understanding Ethical Attunement

“Ethical Attunement is a non-reactive therapeutic stance in which practitioners are open and responsive to their own internal processes and to those of their clients.” (p.60)

Ethical attunement demands that we as therapists monitor our own energetic resources and as necessary. Compassion fatigue becomes a clinical certainty when we energetically give in the treatment of others and neglect to restock our own energy stores. Mary Jo nails it – “We cannot stay ethically attuned if we are energy-depleted.”(p.59)

In the office space I share at work here in Madison, WI, I have created a large chalk copy of Barrett’s infographic “Manage Your Energy for Optimal Ethical Performance“. For me it provides a simple and applicable blueprint for remaining plugged into my energetic needs so that I can recognize and meet those of my clients.

Of course there’s more than just high energy. One of my favorite aspects of Mary Jo’s energy management action plan is her attention to both low positive (drinking warm tea) and high positive (running, dancing) energy replenishers. A brief survey reveals a broad spectrum of ways in which my current co-workers like to energetically restock, ranging from “yoga” and “solitude” to “smashing playdoh”. Whatever floats your energetic boat!

 

Lucy CANY

As a drama therapist, I wonder also about creative replenishment. Mary Jo identifies five domains of ethical awareness, each a player in overall well-being:

  • Emotional
  • Physical
  • Intellectual
  • Spiritual
  • Sexual

I would argue that there is a sixth; creativity being that missing piece.

In my work with CANY over a ten year period, I experienced both the energetic highs and lows of group leadership. For every exquisite metaphor enacted, there was a drama that spluttered into life, sometimes refusing to spark altogether. Regardless of what happened in the playspace, my role as a drama therapist was (and is) to hold the energy of possibility. It’s the “yes” of improv; creativity at its essence.

Let me give you a concrete example. I used to facilitate a weekly group with Heidi Landis, CANY’s Associate Executive Director. Together, we would drive to Westchester to co-lead a group with teenage girls who shared a history of commercial sexual exploitation, more commonly known as sex trafficking. Before even entering the room, our knowledge of the girls’ traumatic history arguably impacted our energetic potential. A therapist can sometimes feel crushed by psychosocial knowledge of a client in a way that counters the zesty, fierce (albeit traumatized) individual that walks into treatment.

The group experience itself was textbook chaos, characterized by unscheduled interruptions and dysregulated expressions of anger and distrust. Unsurprisingly the clients seemed avoidant and disconnected. Planning sessions that prefaced weekly groups left me feeling clueless. No activity or intervention seemed safe from rejection. Post-group processing was equally gruesome as we dissected the blood and guts of what happened, searching for something that we might call therapeutic progress.

How could Heidi and I remain ethically attuned to the emotional, physical, intellectual, spiritual and sexual experience of our clients in our stuckness? How could we honor their creative potential too when we were felt so artistically deflated?

Simple. We reminded ourselves of our therapeutic potential by returning to our creative roots. We played, we laughed; from the sublime to the ridiculous. We listened to 1980’s rock ballads we drove north on the Henry Hudson Parkway. We bought reviving coffee in Dobbs Ferry. We talked about our lives and about the lives of our clients. We remembered our times as actors, shared comic tales of touring our respective nations. We talked about our values, our beliefs. We tied them into group plans and the hopes we had for these remarkable, though life-battered girls. There was an investment in each domain of ethical awareness, including our creativity. And thus, when we arrived at and left our group each week, we were ready to engage. Our doubts, our stuff on hold so that we could be present and attuned to the stuff of our clients. This was how we managed our energy for optimal ethical performance.

I realize in concluding this blog post that I have written a letter of gratitude to my co-therapist, Heidi. Indeed to all my co-leaders at CANY. The very model that CANY offers its employees essentially allows for the management of energy and thus ethical attunement through relationship, which in my opinion is the very best medicine of all. So, thank you, Heidi (and CANY) for helping me to reconnect with my creative heartbeat before and after each group. We didn’t get to smash playdoh together but we replenished in a whole host of other high and low energy ways.

 

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Lucy McLellan, MA, RDT-BCT, LCAT

 

TO BE OR NOT TO BE: An Invitation to a Process of Becoming

Welcome 2016!

Reflecting on the year gone by, I am filled with gratitude, a burgeoning desire for growth and an array of questions. As is customary at the beginning of the year, there is much talk about being better or healthier people or not being so impatient and so on. However, I am humbled by the complexity of the existential question, “What does it even mean to be?” What does it mean to truly be in this world? The beginning of the year also brings with it much change. In my own life, this new year ushers in a major and unexpected change that requires my relocation to my beautiful home country, Trinidad and Tobago. As I begin my transition, leaving my time at CANY behind, I reflect on the person I have been at this organization and the many beings I encountered along the journey.

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Photograph by Gjon Mili

In the sacred spaces at CANY, I have been therapist, colleague, trainee, friend, exotic person/one, immigrant, black person, invisible one, betrayer, misunderstood one and more. Yet who I am, or who I experience myself to be, was never fully accounted for by these roles. Like the discomfort of mismatched socks to the obsessively compulsive, there was a burdening discrepancy between who I experience myself to be and the personas others choose to see in me. I engaged in this disparity even further as I witnessed its performance in many of my adolescent clients.

Working with adolescents for the past year has immersed me in a reflective parallel process. I viscerally experienced the very mercurial, ever changing, on stage-off stage enactment that is adolescence. “Nina” was one such individual who would repeatedly perform this incongruence with the person she experienced herself to be and that which others saw in her. She would enter the room happily and dramatically and then express how exhausted, pissed off and hungry she was. This way of being pervaded the group process. Fittingly, nearing the end of our time together, this group organically invited each other to share their first impressions of each other versus what they now know to be true through the group process. Nina was initially viewed by her peers as being “stuck up, annoying and judgmental”. Now, they have come to appreciate her as a “loving and cool”. Nina confirmed these observations, having heard them several times before, while highlighting the tendency for others to see her differently from who she really is. Like the connective tissue that is the red thread in their performances of adolescence, each individual acknowledged and gave voice this observed discrepancy; their ways of being.

More literally, I think of the verb ‘to be’. I think of the old man of the sea in Greek mythology, Proteus. Like the sea, he was ever-shifting and able to take different forms of being. He was all-knowing but reluctant to share his knowledge. As such, one would have to grab him quickly and hold on tightly even as he attempts to escape by taking on these different forms: lion, snake, tree etc. He would then eventually share his knowledge and plunge into the sea. The verb ‘to be’ is known as the most protean in the English language: constantly changing, without discernible patterns, most irregular and often used. Similarly, ‘being’ in this world alludes to a continuous process of change, transition and even shape-shifting.

The first noted definition of the verb “to be” is to exist or to be present. I have come to value presence, especially within the framework of CANY’s trauma-informed model, as the grounded manifestation of one’s being in the moment. A client’s presence in the room ought not be limited to or defined by what he or she is actively doing but rather experienced as psychic energy consisting of thoughts, feelings, roles, history, dreams, spirit, passions and the like that are experienced in relationship. Therefore, “to be” in this world conjures an image of an ever-moving sea that carries within its waves the dignity of human realities.

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Photograph by Gjon Mili

Which brings me to other questions: What does it mean to “be” in Western culture, which attributes “doing” to one’s being? What does it mean to be in a community that assigns privilege to categories of actions, potentially negating the essence of one’s presence? Here we encounter an ablest framework of existence which devalues the ever-shifting seas that are not accounted for by socially valued actions that denote being. Through this lens, to be is to do and to not do is to be absent. I think of the number of New Yorkers spending their years chasing the capitalist ideals of self-actualization and productivity, living to work rather than working to live. I think of the physically disabled immediately being perceived as weak-minded or incompetent. I think of the criminalizing and decimating of black and brown bodies walking with hoodies gathered on the street corners. I think of students that learn differently than the valued norm being lost in our education system.

Imprinted by a very different cultural and socio-economic reality in New York, I take with me a host of new roles to the shores of my island. As my role system continues to shift and be shaped by the people, places, ideas and systems around me, I relinquish the idea of being anything. Instead, I posit a process of becoming that aims to capture the inevitable process of change that pervades human existence. A process of ‘becoming’ seems to liberate one from the value systems and expectations of the powerful and privileged. Herein, one possesses inherent potential for growth, movement and error. As such the roles we play are not the end-all. Rather, they are in service of the process that is life.

To be or to become? That is my question.


 

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Karline Brathwaite, MA, RDT, LCAT-Permit; CANY Staff Member