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

 

KEEP THE CHANGE: A Conversation with Film Director Rachel Israel

CANY welcomes guest blogger and film maker Rachel Israel in a conversation about her new film Keep the Change- a love story about people on the autism spectrum.

CANY: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Rachel: My name is Rachel Israel. I am a NYC based filmmaker and adjunct professor of film at Rhode Island School of Design. I received my BFA from RISD in 2007 and my MFA from Columbia University in 2013, where I made a short film from which I developed my feature directing debut, Keep the Change, a love story which we filmed this past summer. The film features leading cast members who are on the autism spectrum.

CANY: What inspired you to create “Keep the Change”?

Rachel: Keep the Change was inspired by the experiences of a dear friend of mine Brandon Polansky, who is on the autism spectrum. Brandon plays the lead in our film, a fictionalized version of himself named “David Cohen”. Brandon and I collaborated to create David, a young man experiencing romantic love for the first time. While the story is fictional, its sentiments are inspired by Brandon’s personal experiences and character growth. When I decided to start this project I was not only inspired by Brandon’s rich emotional life, but also by a desire to help correct the misrepresentation that I saw of people on the autism spectrum. There is a common misconception that people with autism don’t yearn for love, physical affection and companionship. But this is untrue.

Actors Will Deaver - Samantha Elisofon - Nicky Gottlieb and Brandon Polansky discuss a scene on set.jpgActors discussing a scene on set

CANY:  “Keep the Change” began as an award winning short film, what made you want to expand the story into a feature length film?

Rachel: I felt that our characters deserved a feature length film and that the actors would be able to carry it. It’s sadly uncommon to see characters with disabilities given the leads in feature films, and often when they are the leads they are portrayed as strangely passive. I wanted to make a different statement with Keep the Change.I wanted to make a feature in the hopes that, if the film was good, people would see it. There’s more of a market for feature films than there are for short films, so a good feature can have an impact.

CANY: As you mentioned, the cast you worked with on this film are all adults on the autism spectrum. What made you want to work with actors on the spectrum, as opposed to actors who created characters on the spectrum?

Rachel: Working with my cast for over four years, from the development of our script through production, inspired me constantly. I have developed close friendships with cast members Samantha Elisofon, Will Deaver and Nicky Gottlieb and, along with Brandon, we all had a blast working together. Aside from the wealth of energy that our cast brought, they also kept the script in check. I can’t possibly know what it is like to live with autism, but my cast members are experts on their personal experiences and they kept our story honest.

CANY: In the movie some of the scenes were based on the CANY drama therapy groups run at the JCC. Why did you choose to include this perspective in the movie?

Rachel: I wanted our cast to feel at home and able to throw themselves into their fictionalized selves with a sense of empowerment and the creative gusto that many of them already enjoy in CANY. By incorporating CANY, I hoped our film might tap into an existing pool of energy. This not only worked, but I think our cast carried the filmed CANY scenes as a reference to the acting that they did in our film even beyond the CANY scenes. I’m very grateful to CANY, particularly Heidi Landis, for having worked with us. There’s a level of joy, empowerment and openness that we will bring to the screen due to this collaboration.

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CANY: At CANY and in the field of drama therapy, we play with the paradoxical boundaries between everyday life and the life of the imaginary world, the roles which are simultaneously “me” and “not me”. Many of the actors in your film have very similar life experiences to that of their characters. How did you navigate that “in between” space?

Rachel: Navigating the in-between space required that trust be built up over time with my cast. This trust is important between all directors and their actors, but for me the trust I gained with our cast was a particularly humbling gift – because it would be such a tragedy to mistreat that kind of trust. From the actors’ end, I didn’t perceive that they had any special difficulty navigating between their imaginary and real selves. For several members of our cast this ability to create and analyze personas felt as if it were common ground, learned as a means of coping in socially intimidating situations. I am not an expert in this subject, so this is only my speculation. Regardless, the trust our actors gave to me in this personal space was very precious.

CANY: In our work at CANY we plan therapy sessions in advance, but often end up letting go of these plans as we tune in to the clients’ need in the moment.  In rehearsals for your film, you provided your actors with a fully scripted narrative but when it came time to film, you asked the actors to put the story into their own words and improvise. Why did you feel that was important?

Rachel: During rehearsals, we actually did not depend heavily on the script. Rather, we used rehearsals as an exploratory space to find the essence of scenes. Rehearsals were a tool to generate writing. Before filming, all the lead actors read the finished script, which was important for them in order to contextualize scenes since we were not shooting everything linearly. However, it was very important to me that the actors remained free and focused on using improvisation during production because I did not want any aspect of the scenes to be forced. Improvisation empowered them to act honestly in scenes.

CANY: In working with a community of actors on the autism spectrum, did you find yourself considering and seeking guidance from these members in the film? Did the presence of the community on set shift your original concept of the film?

Rachel: Yes, the film was developed in collaboration with our primary cast. Their involvement as actors was not merely on set but also in the creation of fictionalized versions of themselves that were meaningful to them. I would not have wanted to make this film without our cast’s involvement on this foundational level. When we went into production, the creative input of the cast and community did continue to shift the story creatively. But this was also a very good thing. A feature film shoot is a marathon. We shot for 23 days over 5 weeks and it was the surprises and growth on set every day that kept us all energized and happy.

CANY: Therapeutic theater is a form of drama therapy. Would you call what you have done therapeutic movie making? Do you believe films and film making have the potential to heal?

Rachel: While the end product of this film was never designed to be therapy, I believe our creative process ended up being therapeutic for many of the actors involved. The film required our cast to work from an emotionally honest place while empowering them as actors to choose scene and life objectives, and to define who they wanted to be as characters. For people on the autism spectrum who are so often disempowered in their own representation, I think this process was both healing and inspiring. So while therapy was not our original mission, the therapeutic aspect of making this film ended up being powerful and became a fuel for all of us during the long haul of making a feature.

CANY: How does working with people in the very community about which you are creating a film effect the filming and editing process? Do you feel a greater responsibility to tell their story?

Rachel: I feel enormous responsibility toward our cast and their community. I am dear friends with several cast members and admire them greatly. The responsibility I feel to portray their characters with honesty and dignity might be overwhelming and even terrifying were it not balanced by the continual joy I’ve felt in working with them. Making this film has been a great challenge at every stage, but the excitement I’ve continually gained by my collaborators has made this project the greatest privilege of my career.

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Rachel Israel, Film Director for “Keep the Change”

BIGGER BELLY, SMALLER SPACE BETWEEN: Contemplating the Role of the Pregnant Therapist

My belly officially precedes me. Walking into a room, my growing baby enters before the rest of me, taking space both physically and metaphorically in my drama therapy groups. Questions about how I’m feeling and the sex of the baby sprinkle throughout our sessions. Other comments emerge too, making me remember that this baby is in the room with us. My role as mother is here in the space between us. I am endlessly curious about what my protruding belly brings up for clients, and wonder about the stories beneath the questions. What might my clients be saying about themselves when they comment on my growing belly and role as mother?

The concept of therapist as projective is well-known. In traditional analytic therapies, the therapist attempts a blank-slate stance so as to make the space as much about the client’s process as possible. But today, many approaches operate from an evolved understanding that the relationship between therapist and client not only matters but is in fact ripe with healing potential. At CANY, we expand this relational notion beyond that of the therapist and client dyad: for us, the group itself is the therapeutic agent and our role is to guide in the making of connections amongst group members.

In our drama therapy group practice, we are active participants in the process with our clients, embodying and playing with projected roles, engaging in storytelling and participating in a consciously client-centered group process. Yet we mostly keep our private worlds to ourselves, revealing personal details only when in service of the group and usually just briefly. Yet being a pregnant therapist breaks down some of these permeable walls, transforming questions, mysteries, projections, and assumptions into facts. Or at the very least narrowing the space between assumption and fact: I am sexually active. I probably have a partner. I have clearly chosen to stay pregnant. And I am definitely going to leave my clients to have this baby. Indeed, as my body grows, the space between me and my clients is growing smaller, offering up the opportunity for deepening connection but also challenging the ways I am used to navigating the therapeutic encounter.

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Image taken from the Wellcome Collection’s “Art in Global Health Project”

Last month, while playing a warm-up game with a group of students at an alternative high school, I used up my two “lives” and was therefore “out”. As I moved to sit down, one of the students, “Jamie,” pointed to my belly and said, “Nah, miss, you should get three lives.” We were early on in our group process and up until now, this cohort had not commented on my pregnancy. The group, which was in a playful and highly competitive mode, stopped and agreed, inviting me back into the game because, well, I was playing for two. I suggested that we might all get an extra life but the group insisted, “No, miss, just you.” Knowing about Jamie’s trauma narrative, which includes losing a little brother to gun violence and his own participation in gang activity, I wondered what Jamie was saying about his own desire for the right to life. Even when offered, neither he nor his peers could accept the invitation to take the extra life – to stay in the game longer. But they could readily gift me one. Why?

In my experience with clients like Jamie, the notion that death is just around the corner comes up a lot. The young people I work with often envision themselves dying young because that’s what they know. Tragically, most can’t see past 22 or 23 years old. Life for many of our clients is hard, fast and short. What permission might my pregnancy have given this group to explore the concept of life? Perhaps, as projections go, I was playing for more than two. Perhaps I was playing an extra life for all of them, even if they couldn’t directly take it on or feel worthy of it themselves – yet. So I took the life that was offered. And I won the game.

Inspired both by this comment and by a later conversation about an ideal world, we invited this group of teenagers, most of whom carry heartbreaking trauma narratives, to create an imaginary world. In this world, they decided there were no guns, no drugs, no gang activity, no abusive relationships and no crime. There were flying cars, teleportation and unlimited food. And, amongst many other notable tenets, in this world “no one is being killed.” The group also agreed that we could bring people back to life after they died. Unlike many of their real lives, death had no hold in their imagined world. Through metaphor, the students were able to explore their desire to live and to thrive. It takes courage to imagine. Contemplating this encounter and the resulting stories and enactments that have followed, I have begun to embrace Jamie’s comment in the game as an offering to imagine the possibility of a life worth living even in the midst of the real struggles living it.

The space between me and my clients continues to grow smaller. As it does, more and more offer to care-take for me in some way – offering to move a table, reminding me not to stretch “too far” during a warm-up, or simply inquiring as to how I am feeling. I always respond, Thank you for looking out for me. And then I turn our attention toward how we might explore together the ways in which they themselves desire to be looked out for.

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Meredith Dean, LCAT, RDT-BCT, CSAC, ICDAC
CANY Program Director

DECOLONIZING THERAPY: Playing with Traditional Relationships of Power in Therapy

This month, CANY staff heads to the North American Drama Therapy Association’s annual conference. This year’s theme focuses on diversity and social justice. CANY staff member Rachel Lee Soon shares some of her thoughts on colonization in the therapeutic process in CANY’s October blog post.


As a Native Hawaiian, I carry with me a historical narrative of colonization. My Grandma used to tell me stories of her parents and grandparents, who were around during a time when Hawai’i was being annexed to the United States. Their language and cultural practices were pushed out of the mainstream and into the shadows – and in some cases even outlawed – in favor of cultural practices and language of the American settlers.

The term colonization describes a co-created relationship between two cultures or groups of people wherein one exercises power or domination over another, and can lead to social and systemic oppression of the colonized group (Oxford English Dictionary, 2014). As a drama therapist, I often wonder how colonization plays out in the therapeutic relationship. When we bring our rituals, metaphor, and drama-based theories and practices into a group, are we in-effect colonizing our clients by asking them to assimilate to our norms?

The role of the therapist is often endowed with an inherent position of authority or power, much like that of the colonizer, particularly in spaces where most of our clients have experienced trauma in their lives. At CANY, the metaphor of colonization is even more salient. We are nomadic drama therapists, and we take our model of trauma-informed drama therapy into sites that sometimes don’t operate under the same principles that guide our work. In this instance, it is easy for us as therapists to fall into the role of the colonizer, and our clients the colonized. Considering this, how do we dismantle traditional relationships of power, and decolonize the therapeutic encounter? And is this even possible?

In the fall of last year, my co-leader and I began running weekly drama therapy groups within a school, housed inside of an outpatient substance abuse treatment program. Our students were between the ages of 15-18, and many were court-mandated into treatment. For the first two or three weeks of group, we introduced games and getting-to-know-you exercises in order to foster connections between clients and build a safe space. We were excited by the energy and creativity of the group: they took “Zip Zap Zop” and turned it into “Bacon Egg and Cheese”, adding new layers of complexity like “on a roll”, which made everyone in the group change places in the circle, and “with hot sauce”, which meant everyone had to do a dance move in their place.

This creativity and spontaneity evidenced a great deal of inherent strength in the group, as they were able to claim agency in the group process and make these games their own. Trauma-informed theory tells us that if we are damaged in relationship, and we must heal in relationship (Herman, 1992). As we played these games, we began to build connections between group members who otherwise presented as isolated and withdrawn through the group process, we witnessed them delight in each other’s playfulness in these early groups. The clients’ fresh takes on each game we played became the artifacts of our newly co-created group culture.

However, after a few weeks we started having difficulty getting through check-ins, the beginning stage of CANY group work. Group members would sit around the circle precariously tipping their chairs backward to lean against the walls, throw candy across the circle at one another, have side-conversations, take out their phones, and laugh at and make fun of each another. This was a stark departure from the group we met a few weeks ago, in which members played together in a way that built relationships instead of tearing them down. My co-leader, on-site teacher, and I worked week after week to re-introduce structure in the form of group rules and norms: we asked group members to put their phones away, keep their chairs on the floor, and to work on demonstrating respect for one another physically and verbally. Try as we might, this only seemed to turn up the volume on the “resistance”.   There were many weeks were we did not make it through our check-ins at all. It became very difficult to simply share space together.

Each week, as we continued to introduce our group guidelines, games, and interventions, it felt like we were unsuccessfully colonizing a foreign land. The cohort was pushing back against us with everything they had. It became more and more challenging to build relationships with our clients, especially when we were there for only one hour per week. We felt defeated. Surely, this was not what a drama therapy group was “supposed” to look like. We could barely stay in the same room together, much less work together to build a drama or story.

As CANY drama therapists, we are trained to let go of our plans for a group in favor of simply being with our clients in the moment. The ongoing struggles of this group provided an opportunity for my co-leader and I, both beginning therapists, to practice this skill in action. After weeks of struggling against the group, my co-leader and I finally sacrificed our ideas of what our drama therapy group was “supposed” to look like, and just tried to be with them in a way that would most effectively serve their needs.

In one of our earlier sessions, the group connected around building a dance routine to a shared beat, so we opted to introduce the theme of music, which we had hoped would provide scaffolding for rebuilding relationships. We invited them to share their favorite artists and we spent our time developing a playlist and listening to it together. We continued to work simply on being in the room and being in relationship with each another through our shared appreciation of music.

For me, this experience underscored the importance of our model’s tenet to be open to the needs of the group first and foremost, and to building relationships with our clients that are dynamic and grow out of a shared culture. If we had continued to facilitate these groups around our own ideas of what we thought this group “should” look like, we would have run the risk of further colonizing our clients by forcing them into roles like the “unruly adolescent” to our “responsible adult”, or the “patient” to our “clinician”, instead of allowing them to imagine new possibilities and try on new roles in their lives.

If we begin with a goal of simply building relationships instead of implementing interventions that compel our clients meet our expectations, we can build a shared culture that creates a safe space to explore our individual and collective narratives. Whereas colonization in a cultural and historical context happens when one group’s narrative is forcefully imposed upon another, as drama therapists we can work toward decolonizing the therapeutic encounter by giving up our position of power, and truly partnering with our clients to imagine and build a new narrative in their lives.

Rachel Lee Soon - Photo 2015
Rachel Lee Soon, MA, RDT, LCAT-Permit
CANY Program and Training Assistant

References

Herman, J. (1992). Trauma and recovery: The aftermath of violence – from domestic abuse to political terror. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Oppression, n. (n.d.). Oxford English Dictionary. Retrieved October 1, 2015, from http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/132008?redirectedFrom=oppression#eid.

A NEW BOX OF CRAYONS: Beginning Again and the Trauma Cycle

I’m not going to lie. No matter how old I get I still can’t help getting excited as September rolls around. It’s been a long time since I’ve been in school but I still live my life by an academic calendar. I want nothing more than to spend late August strolling through the aisles of an office supply store, finding the new pens and folders that are going to make this year the year where I finally get totally organized, thus making me a “better” person. Sure, it’s a lot to ask from a folder with a sparkly puppy on it, or a new teal colored sharpie marker, but every year I – and my kindred spirits in the crowds at Staples – really believe that it can be achieved.

The concept of beginning again has been has been ingrained in many of us since childhood. My mother was a teacher, so school supply shopping became my pathway for a fresh start. Her teaching credentials gave us access to a special teacher supply store that for me, was akin to a Dylan’s Candy Bar experience. Everything a kid like me could dream of to make school more exciting was there. But no matter how many cool, puffy stickers they had, the truth for me is there was nothing more amazing than a new box of crayons. Opening up the box and inhaling the waxy, fresh scent; eyeing the array of vibrant colors; the uniformity of the rows; and the picture-perfect points represented endless possibilities. To this day, a new year plus a new box of crayons equals a new me.

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As we begin this new academic year at CANY, I think about all the ‘crayons’ laid out before us: new groups, new clients, new site partners and new staff. CANY serves some of the most traumatized and vulnerable in our city. This year, we will work with women and children affected by domestic and intimate partner violence; veterans and active duty service men and women; youth and adults with developmental disabilities; and youth who have experienced chronic abuse, neglect, violence and poverty.

Because we ended many of our programs in June, our staff has had the privilege of looking at September as a new beginning. But our clients did not get to take a break from their situations or stories. For many, beginning again seems like impossibility. Trauma does not grant breaks or vacations. So it is important for those of us who work in a trauma-informed system to remember how difficult beginnings can be for many of our clients. Although we are beginning a “new” program year, we are in fact joining our clients mid-story, on a non-linear journey.

I do remember. I hold the stories of every child and adult I have worked with. I hold them with great care. I understand that the thought of beginning again can be difficult and fraught with memories and potential triggers, but I also understand that opportunities to begin again or to imagine a new possibility are still worth inviting. Drama therapy makes space for clients to make a choices, step into new roles and explore something different.

In our trauma-informed model, we are mindful as to how we enter a new space with new clients. I have heard time again from our clients that they feel they don’t measure up; that they are not good enough; that they have made too many mistakes; that they are too broken. Yet while their feelings are valid, I don’t believe they don’t measure up. Broken crayons still color and sometimes the bits make more interesting art than the unbroken crayons. This year, I look forward to exploring with our clients the masterpieces that come from the broken bits. Robert Fulghum summarizes my dream best:

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At CANY we empower people to envision new possibilities for themselves and “cover the world with imagination”. We strive offer all the colors in the box – and guide our clients to create new colors.; We offer the chance to begin again and embrace the broken pieces. We believe that every one of our clients has a unique color to offer this world and it is a honor to co-create with them each year.

So while I understand that a trip to Staples will not ultimately make me a better person, bearing witness to my client’s bravery and struggles will. The new box of crayons that I get to open this year, will be filled with colors named Hurt, Pain and Anger. But right next to will be Hope, Joy and Creativity so, I join the CANY community in taking a deep breath and beginning again.

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Heidi Landis LCAT, RDT-BCT, TEP, CGP

CANY Associate Executive Director

(All images retrieved from the public domain.)

MINDING MY BIAS: using drama therapy to write new stories for life

In her 2014 TED Talk, diversity advocate, Verna Myers asserts that, “Biases are the stories we make up about people before we actually know who they are.”

We all have biases. We all make up stories about others. While the stories themselves can be problematic, it is the rigid scripts that we cling to, resisting edits or transformation, where the real danger lies.

I believe that therapists, like myself, have an ethical responsibility to identify and challenge our own biases as they surface, remaining present to assumptions that transpire in our interactions with others as well as what unconsciously seeps out from us toward others in the form of microaggressions. Let us also not forget how our clients’ assumptions and biases about us can impact the dramas that unfold in therapy.

Early in my professional career at CANY, I co-facilitated a weekly group at a residential treatment facility. Each week, my co-therapist and I would arrive to a disinterested group of adolescents who made it abundantly clear that they wanted nothing to do with us or our group circle. Far from silent in their resistance, the teens would engage deeply in conversation each week, offering each other advice and comfort about their daily dramas and larger life struggles. If my partner or I attempted to join the conversation in an effort to connect, discussion would quickly shut down. Their verbal and non-verbal communication to us revealed a story of bias, one that said, “You don’t know us. You don’t care about us. You don’t understand our lives.”

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We, meanwhile, had our own biases percolating, slowly brewing a story of therapeutic stuckness and resignation that unfairly placed responsibility on the group, “We’ve tried everything. There’s nothing else we can do. Perhaps these kids just aren’t ready for group.” Our biases about what constituted a “good group” blocked our ability to imagine new ways of intervening that could meet the particular needs of these group members.

As luck would have it, around this time, a fellow drama therapist shared her use of “break-in scenes” with me. Using this technique, the therapist(s) enters the room already engaged in a scene, bringing the drama directly to the client. My co-leader and I decided to try it out, arriving at our next session already in role and deeply embroiled in a fictional argument between friends that we knew would speak to the experience of these teens. Although they remained initially shut off, the group members gradually shifted focus and began watching the conflict unfold. Before long they were giving us directions, “You need to calm down,” and “You have to listen to each other.” As the scene came to an end, the clients succeeded in restoring peace between our characters.

In closing the session, we attempted to engage the clients in a dialogue about the drama itself. Once again, we were attempting to engage the participants in a way that fit into our idea of a successful group (process). Immediately the participants left the circle again.  Clearly my co-leader and I needed to reconfigure how we engaged with these group members and identify some of the cultural biases, perhaps inherent to traditional therapeutic rituals/interventions that wound up alienating these teens.

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Our use of break-in scenes continued for weeks. As we called to group members with an issue, they responded, lending their wisdom and experience to the characters that we brought into the room. The group members now served as helpers and experts as our characters sought their wisdom and guidance, a complete role reversal from how my partner and I had conceptualized the group on commencement.

Over time, the teens challenged our initial perception that we needed to help this chaotic group come together. Our bias told us that as the group facilitators, we were the only ones equipped to create a healing community. In privileging our own knowledge and skills, we implicitly devalued the group wisdom and the ability of group members to be an active part of its cohesion. The clients meanwhile faced their own bias toward us as rigid, out-of-touch therapists, which we challenged when we began to respond in a way that stretched their view of who we were in the room, no longer acting how “therapists” act.

The stories we told ourselves (both clinicians and clients) were skewed, shaped by an unknowing of the other and steeped in strong assumptions. When we as facilitators shifted our idea of what the group should be, it made space for group members to imagine what the group could be.

Maya Angelou once said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then, when you know better, do better”. I recognize that my humanness presupposes bias. And yet, as Verna Myers advises, I hope to continue to walk boldly toward the stories I tell myself about others in the process and allow them to show me who they are. And when I recognize where my bias, assumptions and/or privilege interfere with my view of someone else’s truth, I will do better, making minding my bias a daily practice.

Britton

Britton Williams, CANY Program Manager

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ALL IMAGES IN PUBLIC DOMAIN

SELF-CARE SUCKS!: confessions of a resistant drama therapist

I have a confession. For much of my drama therapy career, I have been an opponent of self-care, albeit covertly.

My first instance of resistance came early in my graduate training at NYU. Sitting dazed in response to an evocative film about domestic violence, my classmates and I were invited by our professor, a seasoned therapist and aware of the potential for vicarious trauma, to consider the question of self-care. “How,” she asked, “will you take care of yourself when you leave on class tonight?”

I’m going to go watch my favorite movie
I’m meeting my roommate at a salsa club
I plan to make out with my husband as soon as I get home

I was surprised by the responses that my classmates readily summoned. I didn’t have much. Perhaps a glass of wine in front of the TV. Not that I felt embarrassed by my paucity of options. Instead I felt outraged by the audacity of my professor’s question. What right did I have to go home and relax in a bubble bath, say, when there were kids out there being brutalized as I had just witnessed on film? In that moment, I created for myself an unfortunate and erroneous equation: if I am going to work with suffering, I better suffer too. I am not, I told myself, entitled to take care of my needs when others have so many still to be met. “Lord, what fools these mortals be!” as Shakespeare once noted.

Far from being a particularly foolish or rare condition, mine is a common complaint among mental health professionals, as Sapienza and Bugental (2000) note. Professional caretakers are typically negligent in taking,  “[…] the time to develop compassion for themselves, and compassion for their wounds” (p.459)

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Fast-forward thirteen years, I now know this: self-care is an ethical responsibility of every therapist, especially those engaged in trauma informed care. It is a deal breaker, a no brainer and here’s why.

Close to 60% of mental health professionals surveyed by Pope, Tabachnick and Keith-Spiegel (1987) acknowledged that they had offered services while feeling too distressed to be effective and yet 85% also recognized that doing so was unethical. Regarding the competence of a drama therapist, the North American Drama Therapy Association’s Code of Ethical Principles requires that:

Drama therapists refrain from initiating any drama therapy activity if there is a substantial likelihood that personal circumstances will prevent them from performing work-related activities in a competent manner.

This includes burnout, compassion fatigue, vicarious traumatization and the glorious smorgasbord of provider responses that go hand-in-hand with trauma work. Simply put, without attending to our own self-care, our ability to care for others will likely be compromised. For Norcross and Barnett, self-care is “[…] a critical prerequisite for competent patient care” (p.3), an ethical imperative.

Monk (2011) breaks the task of self-care into four domains of wellbeing: emotional, psychological, physical and spiritual while Barrett (2013) offers the how-to piece in infographic form, as seen below. Without engaging in the “energy replenishers” that Barrett identifies (deep breathing, hot tea, walks in nature), the more likely the therapist is to become depleted and subsequently struggle to attune to the needs of her client or set appropriate boundaries for them.

 manage energy ethical therapy

So what does CANY do to protect the emotional, psychological, physical or spiritual resources of its group leaders? Heidi Landis, Associate Executive Director, notes the function of weekly group supervision as an energy replenisher, allowing program staff to commune around the challenges and rewards they face as group leaders. I’m in 100% agreement with Heidi. For me, clinical supervision is a lifeboat in the choppy waters of trauma work.

And how about self-care? How do CANY group leaders tend to themselves after tending to others?  For Heidi, its about re-engaging body, mind and spirit. Through spinning. “The intense physical act and spiritual nature of classes that I attend at Soulcycle, paired with the supportive community there is an invaluable place for me to unwind”, she shares.

Heidi celebrating her birthday in spinning style!

Heidi celebrating her birthday in spinning style!

Britton Williams, CANY Program Manager gets lost in music as she commutes to and from work. And she loves watching comedies, believing that “A good laugh goes a long way towards self-care.” Meredith Dean, CANY Program Director considers self-care a daily practice whether its spending time with family, reading gossip magazines, ordering take out when needed and using every single vacation day she’s given. Me? I read, even write poetry, chat with co-workers, check out Pinterest. Let this be an invitation to you to find your own metaphorical deep breath, your cup of (hot) tea.

When I worked as an actor, the term, “Dr Theatre” was used when an actor, sick and suffering before a performance would feel transformed, cured even by the end of it. The very act of being in role, in relationship, in action proved inexplicably medicinal for the performer. I often experience the same high, the same sense of wellbeing on leaving a drama therapy group. Perhaps the great irony of my career-long duel with self-care is that the very doing of drama therapy for me has been self-care all along.

Lucy finding self-care in action!

Lucy with others at a CANY training: self-care in action!

Lucy McLellan, CANY Training Consultant