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

 

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

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.)