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.


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.



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


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.


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.


CANY Program Director

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.”


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.


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 Williams, CANY Program Manager



INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY: a drama therapy celebration!

March marks the month of International Women’s Day celebrations. Each year on March 8, events take place worldwide to celebrate the rights, power and potential of women. As a proud advocate of and collaborator with many remarkable women and girls, CANY marks this year’s celebrations by sharing stories of courage, transformation and connection created in just two of the programs that we offer in the community.

Fighting for Suffrage
Each week, CANY facilitates drama therapy with a group of co-ed teens at an alternative high school in Manhattan. Over the course of several weeks this winter, the group created a drama about Sara, a young woman who was involved in the fight for women’s suffrage in the early 20th century.

Love That Overcometh

In the drama created, the group decided that Sara’s mother would not share her daughter’s politics, believing instead that a woman’s role was in the home, as wife and mother. Sara challenged her mother, arguing that the time had come for women to be active players in the country’s future and that she would feel devalued as a person if her life was confined to domesticity. As teenagers all too familiar with family conflict, the group members agreed that Sara’s passionate outburst would raise the ire of her mother. As the scene concluded, Sara was told to leave the family home.

Closely aligned with Sara as a symbol of potential and hope, the group made sure that her banishment represented a mere blip on her heroic trajectory. They decided that a helper was needed, creating the role of a wealthy friend who championed Sara’s ambitions by paying for her education as a lawyer. On graduation, Sara used her knowledge and passion to help secure the vote for women. Representing a victory for women historically, suffrage, in this drama, symbolized a sense of possibility, self-agency and strength, allowing group members, both male and female, to experience victory over oppression, something that is typically elusive to disaffected, traumatized teens.


At the end of the drama, the group chose to reunite Sara and her mother. Sitting together in a tea shop, Sara’s mother apologized to her daughter for attempting to hold her back and shared that she had feared change. In this moment of reunification, the group created an opportunity for themselves to experience a caregiver who could undergo transformation as well as communicate her growing insight and respect to her child. The drama closed with Sara feeling celebrated by her mother as she continued to fight for the rights of women everywhere.

Sara’s story was a celebration of women’s potential but also an opportunity for group members to explore their own beliefs and passions around social justice and the obstacles and opportunities that greet them on the road to realization.

An End to Violence

Toward the end of winter, a group that CANY facilities at a domestic violence shelter in the city explored new ways of being in the aftermath of violence.


“I have a story to tell” was how the group began as one of the women expressed a desire to share a story and have others act it out. While CANY groups typically give rise to fictional dramas, much of the time real experiences shape the story, begging exploration by group members. In this case, the story shared was only too familiar with the other participants, that of a woman struggling to leave a partner who was controlling and abusive. The narrator shared that while the woman wanted to leave, she also felt stuck and helpless. Challenged by the group leaders to identify an agent of change or help, the group member shook her head, saying, “This is how it ends, with no one knowing what to do”. This was the story as she knew it, one in which freedom and transformation remain elusive.

The women in the group, once cast in role, loyally played out the drama created, reflecting at times on how familiar the protagonist’s sense of hopelessness and victim status felt to those in role. And yet these women were also survivors, women who had chosen to leave violent relationships to create new possibilities for themselves and their children. One of the group members wondered aloud if the protagonist might have other options, creating a burst of energy in the group. Picking up on this seed of possibility, the CANY group leaders invited each woman to devise her own ending to the story ultimately giving rise to six different endings. Together the women began to envision and experience through drama the possibility of support from family and friends, empowerment and self-respect and ultimately a loving relationship with a significant other in which safety and respect were key.

The theme for International Women’s Day in 2015 is “Make It Happen“, encouraging effective action for advancing and recognizing women. In both dramas created, CANY group members did just that, using the action inherent in drama to honor the needs and experiences of women in the community.

We celebrate you all!

Rosie the Riveter - J. Howard Miller, Public Domain

Lucy McLellan, RDT-BCT, LCAT

All images used are in the public domain.

Stupid, Boring Drama Therapy: a guide to working with teens

Of the nine CANY groups I facilitate each week, eight of them are with children and adolescents. Trust me, I hear versions of “I’m bored” and “This is stupid” on a regular basis. While the groups I’m most often drawn to talking and writing about are those full of dynamic dramas, lively client interactions and richly drawn metaphors, this month I’m choosing to write about these “boring” groups.

As a young therapist, I took comments like those above to mean I was failing somehow at my job. While nowhere in my training as a drama therapist was I told that I had to be an entertainer, magician or superhero, I nonetheless pushed forward to transform statements of mundane discontent as quickly as possible. But in doing so, I missed moments ripe with potential when working with teens.

What might lie beneath declarations of boredom, discomfort or stupidity? In my experience, such complaints often reveal a sense of social unease, a face-saving strategy, the fear of being seen by others at a time when the opinion of peers is all.  “I’m bored,” when investigated, often translates as a desire, mixed with struggle, to connect with others. Easier to say, “This sucks” or better yet, “You suck” than to be left flailing in a moment of awkward social exchange. For a teenager, at least.


Excitement? Yes, please! What therapist doesn’t want to hear such an exclamation of joy and anticipation? But when we jump in to alleviate moments of boredom, mostly to resolve our own narcissistic injury, we can rob our clients of moments where they can take agency over their own participation, a necessary step toward taking responsibility over aspects of their lives inside and outside of the group. When we jump in too fast and work too hard to fix or change quieter moments, we shortchange our clients by usurping agency over their own process. We might also negate the potential of tedium. The good news is that recent research indicates that there may be real cognitive benefits to boredom. “It’s those times when there appears to be ‘nothing to do’ that ‘spur us unto thinking in ways we might not otherwise think'” (Belton, as quoted in Linden, 2015). In other words, boredom can activate the imagination, the cornerstone of our work as drama therapists.

While it can feel uncomfortable or “awkward,” as a teenage client said in a recent group I was facilitating, these moments truly are ripe for creativity. Like artists, we therapists know that oftentimes the best way out of an impasse is through. If we can tolerate slowing down and staring “I’m bored,” in the face, something transformative may appear. Our work at CANY focuses on that “something” being born from our clients. And as Moreno (n.d.) suggested long ago, there is no such thing as resistance, only a lack of warm-up. Therefore, we structure the warm-up stage of our groups to glean common themes (and boredom is a theme, by the way!) directly from our clients so that their ideas are guiding the focus of the group, not a pre-determined curriculum. “There’s enormous confusion in our culture about what ‘enrichment’ looks like…One of the most important things children need is to explore their imaginations in unstructured time” (Markham, as quoted in Linden, 2015). So while teenagers crave excitement they need boredom, too.


For teenagers used to living in the fast-paced world of social media, the invitation to slow down and allow boredom to take a metaphorical seat in the group circle can feel both foreign and frightening. “Today’s culture, which often rushes kids and teens from one adult-led activity to another, has resulted in a generation with higher anxiety.” (Markham, as quoted in Linden, 2015). And from a trauma perspective, slowing down can actually result in a speeding up for our clients. Traumatic memories flood into the quiet place left open, the heart begins to race and blood pressure spikes and the impulse to fight, freeze or flee is triggered.

Cue “I’m bored,” “This is stupid” and “You suck!”

I’ve had plenty of moments where my clients’ anxiety becomes my own. Historically, that has become my cue to dive in to “fix” a situation that actually calls for something else. In my experience, that something else is as unique to each group as a fingerprint. At CANY, we often use such statements of resistance to make space for interpersonal connection, insight and meaning-making.  We might ask, “Who else here is bored?” Or perhaps we play with being bored, fully embracing the feeling in the room. Sundry lists have made over the years at CANY including: The Most Boring Things About This Group and What We Would Rather Be Doing Right Now. A co-leader and I once had the honor of winning the Worst Group In This School Award. After accepting our trophy and making our speeches, we asked members what they might win an award for, giving life to a rich and joyful series of client-led scenes. Stupid, boring drama therapy at its best.

Meredith Dean, CANY Program Director


Reading: Lindley, J. (2015, February). Never a dull moment. Real Simple, 102-105.

Photo credits:

HAPPY HOLIDAYS?!: drama therapy through the festive season

Despite the festive cheer portrayed in the constant stream of holiday commercials, the “most wonderful time of the year” is for many a month-long sturm und drang of long-distance travel, in-affordable spending and testy family dynamics.

For individuals and communities with a history of traumatic stress, the holidays bring a unique set of challenges (“Hard holidays with your child of trauma“, 2012). Bruce Perry (2000) notes the extreme stress that the holidays can place upon children with a history of maltreatment, kids who function optimally in consistent and predictable environments. The hectic shifts in routine and increased social encounters that characterize the end of each calendar year can overwhelm and dysregulate such individuals, in childhood and adulthood too. Add in factors of loss or the anniversary of an adverse event (“Holiday Stress“, 2013) and the holidays quickly transform into a trauma trigger with bells on!

So how do CANY group leaders enter into the spirit of the season, honoring the trials as well as the celebrations? I invited CANY drama therapists, Heidi Landis and Meredith Dean to reflect on their experience of facilitating groups during the holidays.

Tell us about some of the typical themes that arise in CANY programs when the festive season rolls around each year.


Meredith Dean, CANY Program Director

Meredith: The holidays evoke a full spectrum of themes, in my experience. The intensity of the season in our culture at large is also reflected in groups. I run CANY programs at a number of city schools and while there is often a sense of excitement at this time of year, kids also talk about the loneliness they feel when parents are working over the holidays or perhaps are absent for the long-term. Other kids avoid their homes, reporting that the holidays are marked with family conflict. As group leaders, we work with what’s in the room. We might hone in on the theme of family, facilitating an exploration of feelings that surround these interactions, with the goal of fostering affect management in our clients.


Heidi Landis, CANY Associate Executive Director

Heidi: That feeling of loneliness is expressed in the refugee groups I run as well. This population, by its very nature, lives far away from family and friends and the holidays only underscore that sense of separation, a time so focused on togetherness. A theme that seems to connect group members throughout the year is their experience of cultural difference. Over the holidays, we use this theme to explore what it’s like for clients to experience holidays that might not exist in their cultures of origin or perhaps give voice to feelings around the extreme commercialization of a holiday that group members typically celebrate. In either case, group members are given a platform on which to embody their experience of feeling overwhelmed and on the outside culturally.

Meredith: The kids in the school-based mental health program that I work with also report feeling an intensified sense of “otherness” over the holidays but for different reasons. Unlike kids in mainstream schooling, these students are required to come in for therapy even though classes are on hiatus. As a group leader, I’m drawn to exploring this theme of difference with clients. Otherness is by no means a pathology and I’m interested in countering trauma roles and relationship patterns that can arise when we feel pushed to the margins of mainstream experience.

What are some of the ways that you employ drama therapy techniques to anticipate and respond to additional stressors that group members may face during this time?

Heidi:  Let me return to the example of working with refugees. With the goal of honoring the diverse cultural experience of group members, we might ask clients to share a holiday which feels special to them and then explore, in verbal and embodied form, the unique rituals that characterize this celebration. From here, we have often created a new holiday, unique to the group, inviting participants to identify what should be celebrated as a community and the traditions that will make our celebration special.


The creation of that kind of community celebration sounds meaningful for individuals who have been separated or estranged from their culture and communities of origin.

Heidi: There is also a sense of safety created, because this is what the fictional container of drama provides, around what is known (familiar rituals) and the unknown (an unfamiliar culture). In this moment, clients are able to experience a sense of control in what often feels like an uncontrollable situation, that is the refugee experience. by utilizing the agency of the group, clients find that they are not alone in their varied experience of the holidays.

Meredith: Our goal is to investigate and foster the resilience of clients too, mining collective areas of strength, power and hope. There’s an ongoing sense of never having enough among our trauma-affected clientele and this theme of scarcity is particularly strong over the holidays. In one high school group of co-ed teens, a conversation around separation from loved ones during the holidays led to the creation of a drama about a family of Christmas trees who feared being chopped down and separated, only to be propped up in a stranger’s home to die. As group leaders, we asked the kids in role as the trees, to share a message with their future owners, allowing for an expression of their real life sadness, fears and frustration about their sense of isolation over the holiday period. The containment that role provides as well as the ways in which the fictional drama allows us as leaders to titrate exposure to difficult feelings and experience, moving clients toward an increased capacity for reflection, insight, and self-regulation.

And what do you two take away from your work as you end the year?

Meredith: Simple. I have the gift of a job that I love. Each day I get to work with people I admire, meet new challenges regularly and be inspired by the stories that I hear.

Heidi: I feel grateful that I get to engage in a creative process daily and work for an organization that deeply believes in the work that we do.

Heidi, Meredith, thank you! Here’s to a rich and meaningful festive season of groups.

Lucy McLellan, CANY Training Consultant




Hard holidays with your child of trauma. (2012). Retrieved from

Perry, B.  (2012). Maltreated Children: Experience, Brain Development and the Next Generation. New York: W.W. Norton & Company

Holiday Stress. (2013). Retrieved from

GOODBYE TO ALL THAT: termination in the drama therapy process

“I don’t want to talk about goodbyes,” a CANY group member recently said to me, “Can’t we talk about something fun instead?” The client’s words sum up what many group members express during termination, regardless of their age or population, the sentiment of “It’s not really goodbye, it’s see you later. ‘Cause I’ll see you later, right?” While others, knowing that a final session is approaching, won’t show up for the group at all.

As many of our groups terminate with the end of the academic year, CANY finds itself in the midst of our annual goodbye season. This year, the season feels especially significant, as we prepare to say goodbye next month to our Executive Director of 10 years, Jonathan Hilton. This period of transition and leadership change marks an opportunity for a deeper parallel process with our clients. CANY’s group leaders as well as clinicians who engage in training with us often share their clients sentiments; we don’t necessarily enjoy the business of saying goodbye either.

During a CANY training session, staff at Community Mental Health Affiliates (CMHA), CT explore the theme of goodbye

The opportunity to create a process around termination can be both unfamiliar and uncomfortable for all involved. For those for whom goodbyes have been abrupt, non-reciprocal, unpredictable or unacknowledged, there is a drive not to dwell in the domain of termination and the unsavory feelings that arise around it. Alternatively, there are those for whom termination has become a frequent occurrence and in this case, goodbye isn’t a special event, but as commonplace as the sunrise. “Goodbye is no big deal,” said one CANY client last week. “Happens all the time. You just move on.”

And yet, in CANY’s trauma-informed model, the process of marking a goodbye is crucial. A mentor of mine and professor of Drama Therapy at NYU, Maria Hodermarska, tells her students, “You prepare for goodbye at hello.” When it comes to ethical practice, goodbye is not a singular event or one stand-alone session. Instead, it is the mindful process of moving toward closure, marking the end of the therapeutic relationship. In group practice, goodbye means the end of the cohort’s collective relationship and the unique bonds that have formed between members. At CANY, our clients have traumatic histories around goodbyes that include sudden ruptures in the family system, imprisonment, fleeing one’s homeland, war/military service, foster home/residential placement (and displacement) and we hold these experiences in mind as we carefully prepare for and explore termination with our groups.

Refugee clients embody their experience of goodbye during a CANY group *

So how do we incorporate goodbyes into our groups? Often, we ask our clients about the meaning that goodbyes hold for them, inviting reflection on the sundry emotional experiences that accompany termination. Feelings of sadness, anger, excitement, pride, anxiety, fear, joy and ambivalence are frequently named. We may ask for occasions when people say goodbye: moving home, graduation, death, break-ups, and deployment were included in a recent list compiled in an adolescent group, a session that marked the CANY intern’s final day. Participants were then invited to choose one of the goodbyes listed to create a drama, thereby allowing the clients to consciously or unconsciously titrate the amount of distance they needed to explore saying goodbye. Sometimes, members require considerable emotional distance to explore the turmoil and loss invoked by termination. Sometimes this is manifest in the use of humor, exemplified below.  

The drama the teens created told the story of a Person saying goodbye to her Mop. The Mop, feeling taken advantage of and filthy, was enraged to find that her owner was discarding her for a fancy new Swiffer. Feeling betrayed, Mop plotted revenge with her friend Bucket, aiming to make Person feel as hurt and heartbroken as Mop herself had felt. In this way, our group was able to express anger at being cast aside by the intern’s departure and imminent end of program, and enact revenge fantasies against the therapists, one of whom was enrolled as Person. 

A teen client puts passion into the act of goodbye during a CANY group

Swiffer, Bucket and Mop collaborated to teach Person a lesson and ultimately ran off together to the Bahamas. This fantasy of escape bears significance for a group whose members had historically presented as dissociated and fractured. By enacting this story, the teen clients were able to transform their dissociative tendencies into collaborative action, taking leave of Person who had initiated the goodbye. Concurrently, they had fun doing it. “This is hilarious,” said one group member. It was only after the drama’s conclusion that participants were able to say goodbye to our intern, in the process acknowledging and validating their own contributions to the group and impact on each other.

Some goodbyes may be fun to play out; others may be painful. The good news for the client who asked to do something “fun” instead of saying goodbye, is that drama therapy allows us to do both. Being trauma-informed means that CANY therapists create a playspace that is safe enough to tolerate a goodbye that we might rather not say (or one we may be ready to be over and done with) recognizing that many, if not all of our clients have had traumatic experiences rooted in the rupture of goodbye. CANY’s model of drama therapy provides not only a chance to share in a reparative termination experience, based on the creativity, imagination and needs of each unique group, but also the invitation to play with goodbye, perhaps even creating a good enough one in the process.

Meredith Dean, RDT, LCAT, CSAC, 

CANY Program Director



*MANY THANKS to Cathryn Lynne Photography for her images of CANY groups.

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