Blogging 101: Kindness is Magic Movie Serum, Transformations, Transformers and Transformees

Blogging 101: Assignment 1, Stream of consciousness writing about anything for 20 minutes.

I did mine yesterday during a long car ride and timed it; it turned out I was writing for 51 minutes in my journal, so now I’m transcribing it to post it. Warning! It will be over twice as long… Some frustrations: not remembering character’s full names, so I will look them up before posting, and not being able to discuss a bunch of the movies I mentioned, especially: Tootsie, St. Vincent, Birdman, Barefoot, Bringing up Baby, Philadelphia Story Being John Malcovich, Stranger Than Fiction (2006), and going into detail about the transformations in them, but it would be a way too long post!

My topic: Kindness is Magic Movie Serum, Transformations, Transformers and Transformees:
Most movies that move people involve transformation of course. Even though that’s obvious, I’m very interested in the mechanics of it, as I’ve been watching a bunch of different kinds of movies, both in theaters and on DVD or Netflix or other at home movie venues.

Here’s a list not in any order of recent ones I’ve seen: Cinderella 2015 made with people not animated, Home 2015 animated 3D in theaters, then movies at home: Groundhog Day (3rd or 4th viewing), The Anderson Tapes (from the 70’s?), Gone Girl 2014, Birdman 2014, Tootsie (1982), St. Vincent 2014, Barefoot (2014).

In most of these movies, which are a mixture of genres: romance, children’s fairy tale romance, children’s adventure movie sci-fi save the world, crime thriller, romantic comedies and for Birdman – independent style not sure the genre- drama? But it’s a “second chance/mid-life rebirth” type movie or falls into the category of movies like one of my fave classics, All About Eve, actually very similar. Bette Davis is the Birdman character; she is not changing genres like he is from blockbuster superhero to serious stage actor as an “old” actor”, but competing with her so-called admirer crafty younger actor who resembles the Edward Norton guy – very similar issues involved actually. Then St. Vincent- not sure the genre, drama with bad to good style plot- the guy Vincent starts out “bad” and is revealed to have always had good qualities, but also transforms in the present into a “gooder” person, a bit like the guy Jay in Barefoot, who has just come out of jail and is viewed as a total mess up failure, especially by his family. In St. Vincent, the boy Oliver is the Transformer, and in Barefoot it’s the girl/woman Daisy whom he finds on the psych ward who is an “idiot savant” type. I love Bill Murray and I’ve seen him in a bunch of movies with this kind of transformation, you have Scrooged, Ground Hog Day and St. Vincent all similar transformations. He’s even in Tootsie but not playing the main person, Dustin Hoffman’s Guy/Woman, Michael/Dorothy Michaels.

So my intense interest in transformation in these movies is the way there is the main character, usually has to be “likeable” despite being self-centered, uncaring, an “asshole” etc. like Vincent, Phil in Groundhog, Michael in Tootsie, and just how the person gets transformed by another key character and/or device that transforms him/her, what I call the “Transformer”. The word “trans” means cross over so the whole word means to cross over from one form to another. Many of these movies play with physical transformation versus spiritual, or outside appearance versus what’s inside/soul. Tootsie and Cinderella are the most obvious ones. In Tootsie, what is so fascinating is that Michael invents Dorothy and then he himself as the better part of him, in the form of the invented woman actor Dorothy Michaels is the Transformer. Unusual where the Transformee is transformed by a Self inside him of his own making; in addition, as Dorothy he transforms many of the characters in the film…

Crossing over involves a kind of metaphorical bridge- the plot device that the character goes through. In many movies the Transformer character is usually “heroic” in some way and can stand for some idea, like Cinderella in this version stands for goodness and courage. She is transformed spiritually or “inside” at the beginning of the movie through loss- a common transforming device –death-, the loss of her mother. Her mother passes the transformation message to Cinderella: “Be kind and have courage.” The girl Ella loses her mom and eventually also her dad and is changed into Cinderella, given a new name by the evil stepsisters and turned into a maid/servant by the evil stepmother.

Whether in tattered clothes or magically fancy princess clothes on the outside which have an expiration time, midnight, – Cinderella remains the same on the inside. Ironically, in this version the fairy godmother turns from homeless old woman to fancy fairy lady and uses her magic to create the changed dress, coach and footmen horses, – lots of dazzling outer transformations which do nothing to the inside sweet courageousness of C. She meets the prince, who is the Tranformee in this film (it’s the opposite of the usual movie focused on the Transformee, here most focus and scenes involve C. the transformer and luckily, hardly any involve the prince.)

The meeting in the forest, their first meeting, is where C’s Transformer power passes the message to the prince, and when he receives it like a truth serum he becomes transformed, not from bad to good but from ordinary and oblivious/unaware, uninteresting to awakened and aware. C’s power on him is to get him to see the world around him completely differently and to become awakened, much the same as what the young woman Daisy in Barefoot does to Jay through the movie device of a mixed up “road trip” (many road trip movies use the idea of going on a long journey in the physical realm crossing into a journey in the metaphorical realm). The rest of the film involves the usual drama with the fairy godmother, The Fancy Big Ball, the glass shoe and magic stuff, but for me the moment of magic –prince out hunting encounters girl on horseback saving the deer and shooting her truth arrow into him such that he spares the deer’s life at her request and calls off the hunt. That was where the movie’s main interest sort of ended for me.

Often Transformer characters are very sensitive and have an awareness or even communion with animals that ordinary people do not. Cinderella reminds me of Derek in Ricky Gervais’ TV show Derek, as both pass the message of “kindness is magic” and both love animals and have a special relationship with them. So I confess I loved the moment C locks eyes with the handsome deer (more majestic and dazzling than the silly looking prince, maybe the big male deer symbolizes whom the prince turns into) as well as her relationship with the mice who are her only friends. While this movie didn’t thrill me, it made me think, and I liked the focus being mainly on C. portrayed as a real person, slightly elevated in kindness, also an outcast/outsider/loner, seen by her step family as stupid, foolish, unworthy and not even a girl, and less focus on the prince. The way C. gets transformed is that her faith in life/hope is challenged when she loses her father and gets kind of abducted controlled by the stepmother and sisters, and she has a moment of not believing and stopping hoping for anything to get better for her, then is restruck with faith- a common transformation of a transformer good person character.

Like in Groundhog Day the character Rita, she doesn’t change much as a person but even she has preconceptions that Phil is shallow, selfish and egocentric. Throughout the movie, she gets thrown from one side to the other, seeing him that way and being surprised by something unknown about him, and in “falling” for him she does transform her view of him, but she is mainly the Inspiration/Muse of his big transformation.

The device that transforms Phil is the Supernatural, the plot of the movie. Every day he wakes up is Feb. 2, Groundhog Day until he is fully transformed by the end of the movie into the man he could be and turns into it through living the same day over, maybe 100 times or more, so that by the end of the movie, his goodness and caring for other people which is caused by his “awakening” actually lead to his focus shifting from getting the muse- Rita, whom he is in love with, to falling for the town he is stuck in and all the people in it. It’s great that he keeps waking up but it takes a lot of literal wakings up to really “wake up”!!!

There is a lot of interesting metaphorical stuff in his repetition of the day, he is literally reborn as he dies many times and wakes up back in the inn at 6am Feb. 2. I’m areal sucker for this film, I rewatched it a few months ago after years, so that time I hardly remembered the details and that viewing of the movie did have a kind of magic transformation on me, the viewer. I really love these types of awakenings movies; even the C movie (I’m super sick of that fairly tale I am so annoyed by it,) but still, it cast a spell on me.

Groundhog Day, like Cinderella, actually gave me a dose of wakening/inspiration serum to become a better person. Yesterday I saw it a third time a few weeks after the other time. Again I had an “aha” moment where I made a conscious decision work on being present and mindful more in my life, to try to be the kind of person Phil has become at the end. After seeing Cinderella I felt the same, so the movie itself can be not so great/mediocre and still shoot the arrow of, wake up in your life, look around you and be aware and wake. Of course it’s better if the movie is really good. So now I’m testing out this recent viewing of Groundhog Day to see how long this “spell” may work on me. It’s on my list of favorite “romantic comedies”; up they’re with Happy Accidents – also involving supernatural, Bringing up Baby, and The Philadelphia story, Being John Malkovich and Stranger Than Fiction. Groundhog Day crosses from romantic comedy to supernatural comedy like Stranger than Fiction. There are more old movies that I love, but that’s what I remember without looking on the Internet while writing this.

Groundhog Day’s spell on me – its’ the next day of my life, but I’m still in a heightened sate of consciousness induced by it. I love the idea that lera to really be present and awake and mindful of the here and now, you really do repeat the same day over and over. The movie is saying that life itself is like that. Ordinary daily life can by transformed by one’s own consciousness. Every day we wake up with a new chance to live in that simple magic of the moment, and when that happens it sometimes does seem like animals can talk…

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Sexual Fantasies and the Theory of the “Sex Script”

Warning: Do not read this if you are uncomfortable with topics about sex, fantasies, sexuality, also sexual assault, sexual abuse, rape, etc.

I want to start a conversation about sexual fantasies and the shame people feel about them. This is a huge topic, like most of the continuing topics I start and sometimes do not finish. (I intend to post more about the stigma of mental illness and the controversy around mental illness and violence, etc. but I’m taking a break from that topic to write about this very different one…)

In this post, which will probably be longer than intended, I would like to introduce the idea of the “sex script” in connection with people’s sexual fantasies. The information I got about this was reading posts on the internet summarizing this book:The Sex Script Hypothesis:
Toward a Comprehensive Theory of Human Sexuality, by James Park 

Here is the link to the website where you can read more about it:

http://www.tc.umn.edu/~parkx032/syn-sex.html

In reading this material, I noticed that I did not agree with some of the conclusions Park makes about people’s sexuality and even about the content of one’s sexual preoccupations. For example, he makes a big blanket statement about men and breasts:

 Female breasts frequently appear in male sex-scripts on all levels: 
Men find women’s breasts of intense sexual interest. 
Some men become sexually aroused when viewing or thinking about breasts. 
And breasts may appear as a strong fantasy object in some men’s orgasms.”

One could read this and get lead on a detour as he is assuming a lot of things that are not for sure true. It is true that for most humans, the breast was the first “preoccupation” we had. It was where we got food and comfort, etc., but women may have just as strong a preoccupation with breasts as men, whatever their sexual orientation, and some men have no interest in breasts or fantasize about other things more often. These blanket statements are annoying, but I still think Park is on to something with his main theory.

The basic idea is that society may create our “sexual scripts” (what is considered stereotypically appropriate for men and women, heterosexual and homosexual, to engage in when they have sex or when they masturbate. The “sexual script” in our society is pretty limited, as you can see by watching sex scenes in most mainstream movies. There is not even a societal “sexual script” (which is a kind of narrative, by the way, and why we can discern society’s limited stories about sex from the mainstream media) for bisexual and transgendered and questioning individuals, as society does not really know what the story might be for such people. 

Anyway his point in talking about “sexual scripts” versus the concept of the “sex script” is to point out the difference. Many people do mostly have fantasies that conform to these limited “sex scenes”, however, I would wager that the majority of individuals who engage in sexual fantasy at any age tend to stray from these limited scripts into their own personal “sex script”. The sex script as I understand it is something that kind of gets “imprinted” into the human brain in the first moments of discovering sexuality and/or engaging in sexual contact with others or with oneself. Basically the majority of people’s sex script is formed during puberty, although some people exposed to sex and sexuality at younger ages, have sex scripts that begin at that time. Thus people who have been molested and abused at very young ages, from infancy up to about age 12, may have very disturbing sex scripts or may have sex scripts that mostly contain the things that they find disturbing and not arousing at all. Thus, some people may eliminate certain sexual activity from their fantasies and sex lives as they find they are repulsed by it. On the other hand, even people who experienced sexual abuse at very early ages may, without their control, notice that they are aroused by all kinds of varieties of disturbing fantasies, some of which involve coercion and/or rape or other events they remember from the abuse.

Basically around childhood all the way to age 20, the human brain is still forming, and there are young ages during which the sex script will get imprinted. So men who identify as heterosexual and report no fantasies about homosexual contact, may still fantasies about looking at other men naked, or masturbating with other men, if they were exposed to this in reality or through pornography that they experienced around the time they were aware of having wet dreams and/or masturbating.

The theory of the sex script is useful in that it explains why some couples are mystified by hearing what the other person gets “turned on” by or fantasizes about. In some cases, a person’s regular sex life, whether with one partner or more, may have nothing to do with their sex script. An obvious and common example involves gender and sexual orientation. Some people notice that they prefer to fantasize about being with the same gender though they have never been attracted to someone of the same gender and only have had sexual experiences with the opposite gender. The same can be true of homosexual men and women who may experience heterosexual sex only in their fantasy life. 

I think the main important take away about this, while I want to post about many sub topics, is that the theory of the sex script is most useful for people who have not been able to talk to their partners about their sexual fantasies due to feelings of shame or fears of disgust and rejection by the partner(s). Realizing that your sex script was formed years before you met this person or persons you may be married to or committed can be liberating for this group of people and form a bridge for how to start talking about their fantasies with their partners and sharing. 

It is well documented that people who share their sexual fantasies with each other and have interest in each other’s fantasies tend to have a freer more open and perhaps satisfying sex life with their partner(s). It is never too late to start sharing these “dark secrets” with the people you are sexually intimate with. It needs to be done in an atmosphere of acceptance. The sex script provides the help for such discussions. Knowing that one’s partner may have had sexual experiences with others before one met the person is very different from accepting that one’s partner’s brain was exposed to certain aspects of sexuality in the actual reality of a “strange” sexual experience or exposed to watching or seeing some kinds of sex that are foreign to the other partner. There is some kind of strange assumption people sometimes have that their fantasies are probably similar to their partner’s, or an assumption by people who don’t really engage in fantasy, that their partner is not that preoccupied with it either. There is a lot of misplaced jealousy going on about sexual fantasy and erotica and pornography. There is a great scene in the movie “The Kids Are alright” where one of the kids finds their mothers’ stash of gay male porn and is shocked and freaked out. It may have been a scene where the kid walked in on their parents watching it; I can’t remember. What was great about it was the explanation one or both of the moms gave which was quite brief but pretty groundbreaking for a lot of people who did not know this. Basically she said “Just because we are lesbians doesn’t mean we only like watching women together in our choice of porn..” Anyway, it introduced the idea that sexual orientation and erotica, pornography, and fantasy and even couple’s engaging in watching something together, may have nothing to do with the sexual orientation or gender of the people having these experiences.

There is documentation that  “rape” fantasies are very common. What is interesting about these studies done on women with such fantasies, is that women who fantasize about being raped are actually quite healthy in their sex lives with others and also, that they tend to have a wide variety of fantasies, of which the rape fantasy is only one. So people’s assumptions that rape fantasies are unhealthy are unfounded. It must be emphasized of course that fantasy and reality are extremely different. When a patient tells me about what they consider a taboo fantasy (incest, for example, or random stuff like rubbing up against people in the subway), these are part of their sex script, not their real life. A person may fantasize about all these taboo topics, as well as violent sex and anything else that comes to mind that one might be uncomfortable with oneself. “Why am I aroused by this stuff that is illegal or bad?” Because it is part of your sex script, which you have little control over. When you can understand that fantasy is really a place where “anything goes”, you can be accepting that your partner likes to think about other people, objects, situations etc. that have absolutely nothing to do wtih you or your sex life with your partner, you really have reached an understanding of the concept of the sex script. Healthy couples not only like to share their fantasies, sometimes act them out, or even masturbate together while sharing them, or watch erotica that their partner likes to watch even if it isn’t their “cup of tea”, but also enjoy that their partner shares their sex script with them. Perhaps this is an even more intimate experience than sex itself. It is common for people to notice that they have to ask their partner to do specific things to turn them on or give them an orgasm; most people are not mind readers or body readers, and some people report the best sex to have been with the same person they had bad or mediocre sex with. The difference was the level of openness and communication about what they liked from their partner but also about showing their partner what they like to imagiine, watch or read when they are alone and aroused. It is true that most of “sex” is in the brain, so it makes sense that talking about or showing one’s partner about one’s “sex script” will be helpful. It may be difficult to hear that your partner imagines having sex with specific other people or strangers or having the kind of sex you do not have together, but this has nothing to do with possibiilites of “affairs”. A person can be extremely faithful to their chosen partner or partner(s) and have fantasies that involve behavior that violates whatever “contract” they have about their sex life. And again, this is because we do not have a lot of control over some things that make us sexually excited, and images that we watch or that just enter our brains in adulthood, but we always have control oer our behaviors in reality.

Perhaps the next post on this topic needs to be about pornography and relationships, as this is a big  deal with a lot of couples, and a lot of hurt and pain could be avoided, if people were more educated about the concept of the “sex script”…

The Altered Book: A Great Project for In Session Art Therapy

When I was in graduate school for art therapy, I had never heard of an altered book or seen one, and certainly it did not come up in my “Materials” class. We did not get assigned any kind of Altered Book in any class, whereas now I am hearing from grad students that in some class or other, one of their assignments involves an altered book, which is usually assigned to do outside of class.

I think my first experience of an altered book may have been at the Outsider Art Fair. I distinctly remember going to this Fair years ago when it was always in the lovely Puck Building, which is still there, located on Lafayette near Houston St. in Soho, downtown NYC. In fact years before that, I had some of my graduate art therapy classes in the Puck Building and we organized the student art show on one of the floors of this building. It is certainly a beautiful building. The last time I was there for an art event was the comic book graphic novel fair a few years ago when I met one of my favorite graphic novel authors/artists, Lynda Barry. It must have been back in 2008 when she had just published this beautiful book about her art making process, called “What It Is”. Anyway I think I saw an altered book years before that encounter in the same building. It was made by a female outsider artist and I remember the book being very thick and beautiful and having a lot of glue on all the pages. It was very inspiring and I wish I could remember the artist and find a photo of it.

I made my first “altered book” years before that without knowing it was an “altered book”. It was not quite what we tend to think of these days when thinking of Altered Books. I took all the pages out of this strange pretty bad dramatic novel I did not read and altered the cover completely to the point where it was not recognizable as having been a book. I put a lot of plaster of paris on it and then mod podged tissue paper collage. Then I somehow found part of a cardboard box and attached the book to it so the top opened up as the cover. I think I used the pages to rip up and glue inside the box. I will take a photo of it. Strangely it was a gift for a close friend, but she was a close enough friend that she told me she found the box to be too disturbing to use or look at, so I took it to my studio, where it has been more appreciated! It inspired one person to make something like it with me, and she ended up taking a dislike to the project and left it with me when she left town after we went through her art that she had done in art therapy with me. I still have that rejeccted box in my studio as well. (It inspires me to write a whole post about “ugly” and “rejected” art work and how it is therapeutic in art therapy!)

More recently, a few years ago I stumbled on an online class about altered books, and in fact I have now taken 3 online classes about it, each class covering different aspects of the art making process involved in altering books. I have been making them with patients for a while now, and by making, I really mean inviting patients to try it out and see if they like it. The first part of the process involves the explanation of what it involves, which is, basically, you choose a book and then you can start anywhere in the book or with the cover or back cover and start picking art materials to use on the book. The first steps also often involve ripping out pages from the book, either to use in the book or to throw out. It is usually good to do this at the beginning as a way to give yourself permission to “alter” the book. We all have pretty fixed notions about the sacredness of books, which I think still exists despite the internet, reading on tablets and other devices, or perhaps, the tablets have made books seem even more precious. Jumping in to starting an altered book project requires a certain amount of adventurousness, ability to tolerate anxiety about the unkonwn and anxiety about trespassing a boundary and destroying something in some way in order to create something completely new. It also involves changing ones mind in framing the idea of that book, from something to be read and kept intact, to an object just like any other “found object” to transform and make your own through your own creative expression.

There are many different aspects to altered books as part of the art therapy session that are quite fascinating, so this post will only touch on the first part, the beginning. Once invited the interested patient will next be introduced to the random assortment of books I have to choose from and pick something that speaks to them to alter. Usually Hardback books are more inviting as it is easier to treat the cover like a canvas, but lately I have seen a few people pick soft cover books, becasue I have a few that are an interesting size, kind of square and with a lot of photos, and a cover that is more sturdy than the usual paperback. So far, nobody has decided to go home and pick out one of their own books. Part of this I think is the therapeutic value of taking a book that’s in my studio already taking up space as a book waiting to be chosen, so the process of accepting this odd art project is made easier as you are not “ruining” one of your own books. And I really have a strange random assortment of everything from dictionaries/thesauruses to cookbooks to spiritual meditation type books. Included is a thick hard back Italian novel and some other random novels as well as several books with pictures about fashion or the styles of certain decades. I have a travel guide. I had a guide for artists about materials and how to use them.

This aspect of rejection of the project that began when I made my own rejected “too intense” book box and then an “ugly” book box with a patient is a part of the altered book project. I have had a few people pick out a book and start altering it and then by the next session ask to shelve the project until “I’m in the mood for it. It’s too daunting right now.” The Altered Book will either be seen as a great container that is continually inviting or sometimes it represents being overwhelmed and unable to make any decisions about what to do, resulting in the project getting “shelved”. One of my patients started a first session very excited about all the varied materials I had, wanting to jump right into art therapy and got going very creatively with some book that she even worked on for the first few sessions. At some point I think she started cutting pieces out of the book to create a kind of box within the book, maybe even using an exacto knife. Then in the next session she declared she no longer wanted to work on it, was not in that “headspace” anymore and went to other forms of art making. She made great use of art therapy but never went back to the book until we were terminating and she fondly remembered it as her introduction to me and our work and I think decided to take it with her. The book project just functioned as a jumping in point.

Why do some people get excited to do an altered book in the first one or two sessions of trying it out and then run away from it, shelve it, reject it? Maybe when this happens it is because I, the art therapist, am actually more excited about it than the patient and have high expectations for it being a great kind of project for long term therapy. Perhaps for some people, there is too much commitment too early and they are not really ready for it.

The other interesting thing about doing Altered Books is when people do get invested in them and go back to them every session. Lately that has been happening, probably because a few people in my supervision group randomly chose to work on altered books without my prompting them. Two people have left the group with unfinished books they have taken with them. One person brought her own book to the group to alter with materials from the studio. So that energy of the altered book I really believe was “percolating” for a while in the studio. I had another rejected altered book started about a year ago in one session and then put aside. For a while I was not really focusing on altered books in the studio, just taking these classes and thinking once in a while about it, and learning more ways to approach the Altered Book.

At this moment, my studio feels filled with Altered Books! Like anything that grows in a garden on its own, it feels like this altered book contagion has just sprung up naturally. Just this week I introduced the altered book as an option to 2 patients who got excited about it, chose their books and jumped right in using different media. Last week I had started my own altered book project in the supervision group I facilitate, thinking that now that I have so many patients working on them, I want to do one at the same time. So I chose a book that is a guide to artist’s materials for artists. It was very exciting to imagine taking this book that divides up all the materials and methods and painstakingly describes how to achieve certain effects, and how to “properly” use the different materials and media and rip up the pages and paint on it and collage ripped pieces on to the pages to start the process of making it into a book I hope will be hard to guess exactly what it was even called or to have a vague sense when looking through my book that there are a lot of pictures of how to make art and art materials terms but nothing much else kept from the original book. Synchronicity abounds in doing altered books. For me it came when I opened the book and realized it had belonged to the friend who rejected my first book box project and returned the gift to me. Of course I ripped her name out of the book first.

Anyway, at this moment there are at least 8 altered book projects that have been just begun or are in the mid stages of alteration. If I actually count how many patients have started altered books recently, excluding the person from last year who has not expressed interest in going back to the project, it would be 7, so my guess was not far from wrong, as I am the 8th and then there are one or two people in supervision doing them.

The next post would raise the question: What helps a person stay with an altered book project and continue working on it regularly? and What is it about Altered Books that some people become “blocked” or lose interest after jumping in excitedly.

The one thing true of everyone is that the beginning, that first session of being invited to make one, choosing the book and jumping into it or onto the cover and starting right away to alter it is universally exciting and stimulating. I have only seen people be intrigued and excited when they begin this process. Some express having a weird feeling about “destroying” a book but when encouraged get past that feeling. The fascinating part of the Altered Book is after the initial excitement and embarking on this without a doubt long-term project, there is a moment of remaining with it and committing to it further through getting inside the book and getting going with paint, collage, mixed media, ripping out pages and getting one’s hands dirty. It seems to require about 3-4 sessions at least to determine if one is going to get “turned off” of the project and too overwhelmed, or further jumping in and committing more and more to it. Those who find it to be a kind of safe container stay with it. Leaving it with me in the studio is a big part of that process. I will hold on to their book until they come back to it, so they don’t have to see it for a week. It is very different to work on a long term art project whether it is because the work is very large and will take a long time to finish no matter what or the project by its very nature requires time invested. It is hard to work on a lot of pages at once, especially if you are using any kind of paint or ink. Anyway, leaving the book with me allows the creator to take a break from it and not have to look at it in between sessions. This seems to help the project to become a safe container and holding environment. Even with my own altered book, I decided to try out at first just working on it during the supervision group and leaving it alone, so I also take a week off from it, in order to further get into the experience of my patients and supervisees doing this kind of project…

To be continued…

Here are some photos from my own altered book which I have worked on in different situations, first started it in the supervision group I facilitate, then worked on it alongside several patients who are doing altered books as well as in my studio the other day when I added a kind if nest into the book…

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Great Website: The Broken Light Collective

I don’t know if I’ve talked about them before on my blog, but I’ve been very excited about the “Broken Light Collective” blog website and what they are doing for people affected by mental illness, and in addition as an added bonus, as a way to educate the public about mental illness. This is a really impressive endeavor as it is much more than a blog. It is very moving and somehow allows people to be vulnerable and feel safe as well as able to express their own unique voice…

This is a WordPress blog started by people who wanted to post daily photos by people with mental illness. I’m not sure what got them focused on photography as the medium of choice, but it works extremely well on the internet, and nowadays with phone cameras etc., non professionals can express themselves skillfully through the art of photography and manipulating photos to create an image. There are so many options: just a snapshot caught at the right moment, a photo reworked in Photoshop to heighten it in some way, even photo collages… The only thing any of the photos all have in common is a search for the Truth about Life, as experienced by the photographer/individual.

Broken LIght Collective is a beautiful name for this simple idea. Follow the blog. and every day you will see a new image, completely unique, made by someone struggling with a mental illness or less often, someone very affected in his/her life by a loved one’s struggles with mental illness, and of course, many people fit both of these descriptions. If you are interested in studying mental illness, this is a great blog to follow to learn from the people who are struggling with it every day of their lives. They have a lot of wisdom and battle scars, not to mention the courage of putting themselves out there and showing a part of themselves through their photography.

This is to me, in a sense, art therapy at its best — a form of community art therapy or photo therapy or whatever you feel like calling it. It is an example of healing through creativity and sharing, which I think is a very important component of this original and thoughtful and sensitive blog/website. I believe strongly that creative acts and sharing of one’s creations coupled together promote the most healing as connecting with others who are sensitive to one’s struggles and/or struggling with similar issues is most healing of all. This is not to elevate or promote the idea of connecting as being social. This website is great for people with “social anxiety” which I am starting to doubt is a real “Disorder”. Anyway it is a great form of therapy through community combined with individuality, something very rare to find in the “physical world out there” in our daily lives, but perfect for the internet. In the case of the “Broken Light Collective”, the therapeutic healing aspect of this endeavor is accomplished through as a supportive community which gets formed through the people’s efforts, much like the AA model, however without any philosophy or approach to recovery. Just an interest in telling people’s stories through words and pictures. Thus the strong community of sensitive people does not require a therapist to be present, although some of the interesting “profiles” are of psychotherapists and healers of one kind or another sharing their own struggles with mental illness.

So please go check out the blog and follow it!

Inspired by the Broken Light Collective, I would like to do something similar with art in all other media excluding photography and post a picture a day of art work with the person’s story. I’m thinking of calling it the Shadow Brush Group and would model it on the philosophy of Broken Light. It would just be a place where people instead of sharing photos, share photos of paintings, drawings, mixed media, sculpture, crafts, fiber arts, environmental art, even short poems.

Note: For the Broken Light Collective people can choose to post on there with their real names and also are able to post with a pseudonym to keep their privacy… There is no judgment either way, just an invitation.

Musing on Relationships, Culled from Marilyn Monroe’s Writings…

I am reading “Fragments” by Marilyn Monroe, which constitutes notes, poems, musings, diary entries, etc. I have long been fascinated by her for many reasons, psychological reasons being the obvious focus for this blog.
In publishing these fragments of writings in 2010, the editors and publishers wanted to show a very different side of this very complicated person, and they succeed. One of the interesting things about the photos in this book is that they show a lot of photos of Marilyn reading all kinds of books, and she was actually a voracious reader who tackled Dostoevsky and James Joyce’s Ulysses. It is even stated in the book that she liked having pictures taken of herself reading. This was no Sarah Palin pretending to read a newspaper. Those who were close to her knew she had a sharp curious mind and loved reading. Seeing these photos did make me reflect on present day actors as well as past ones. I couldn’t think of any who especially liked to be pictured reading. There is something interesting about a photo of a woman reading a book, especially this woman who was so in touch with the camera. In most photos of her she is looking at the camera, but in these she is dressed fashionably but casually and seen sitting or standing in a casual position in a homey looking environment, and her eyes are on the book, so there are two subjects to the picture. There is the mystery also of what page she might be on and what words age might be reading when the photo was taken!

Anyway, it is quite interesting to read her fragments, many of which are poetic and quite beautiful, while others are filled with insecurity, loneliness and the desire to improve herself. Some are even directly related to her being in psychoanalysis. I’ve been looking through the book for something to quote somewhere and finally found something for this blog rated to a recent post I wrote about relationships. It is very thought provoking and both sad, realistic and somehow hopeful, which is a curious combination, but not so strange when touching on the subject of childhood and attachment. So here it is; please react and comment if you are moved to do so…

“(page 131) re relationships

Everyone’s childhood plays itself out
No wonder no one knows the other or can completely understand. By this I don’t know if I’m just giving up with this conclusion or resigning myself-or maybe for the first time connecting with reality-

how do we know the pain of another’s earlier years let alone all that he drags with him since along the way at best a lot of lee-way is needed for the other-yet how much is unhealthy for one to bear.

I think to love bravely is the best and accept-as much as one can bear”
(words underlined in this passage: plays, much, unhealthy)

Quick reactions. I found this to be very truthful and really focused on relationships that are very mature and/or deep, those moments when people become unsure and unsettled by what they observe in themselves and their partner. It raises some interesting questions for couples who are examining their relationship or in couple’s therapy: “what are the parts of your partner that you do not know or want to know better but seem buried under a lot of pain?” ” Do you think you can share your own childhood painful parts with your partner, and if so, can you use this to better understand your child selves within the relationship?” “Do you give “lee way” to each other for all that emotional baggage you still carry?” “How much can you each bear of this part of yourself and of her/him?” “Are you afraid of it and avoiding it, or are you bearing too much of it to the point that either of you can recognize it is unhealthy?” “Or, are you asking too much of your partner and wanting ir demanding him/her to bear an unhealthy amount of this early pain in the relationship as it is right now?” “Do you feel that you love bravely and strive to accept what you can reasonably bear in each other?” “What does it mean for you to love bravely?” “Have you ever done it or do you shy away from it?”

As a side nite the word “lee-way” is quite interesting, with origins in the concrete meaning of a sideways drift if a boat or plane. The best definition I came across that seems to fit her use of the word was “leeway – a permissible difference; allowing some freedom to move within limits.” Just thinking about this word and this definition, well, what a perfect word to encapsulate a bug part if intimate relationships: the balance between acceptance and tolerance of difficult aspects of the other while at the same time having reasonable limits, thus capturing the combination of surrendering as well as separating/having boundaries… Real food for thought in just a few short sentences…

Quick Post: Finding a Good Therapist

As usual, this is not a quick post. All references to therapists i use the she pronoun just to make it simple, so assume “she or he” when you see it.

People get very confused about whether they like their therapist, if they are supposed to talk about things they don’t like, and especially how long to put up with a therapist they don’t like.

Here are a few quick tips:

Scenario 1, the perennially dissatisfied patient: you think you don’t like your new therapist, but you have never liked any of the therapists you’ve tried out. There was something wrong with each one. In this case, just not liking her is not of a sign you need to find a new therapist. Be aware that you probably are looking for some kind of perfect therapist that doesn’t exist, so hang in there with her, and make sure to keep talking in your sessions about what specifically you don’t like about her. Is it her approach, what she says or doesn’t say, something really specific or something vague that probably means you don’t trust her and have to be patient, as you are not used to trusting any therapist. This is one of the few scenarios where the therapist may be right to challenge you to stay with her and tolerate your discomfort.

Scenario 2: the therapist with bad boundaries: believe it or not, I’ve actually heard awful stories about people’s former therapists. If you feel ignored, not listened to and frustrated, trust those reactions and look at the evidence. Here are some things you should never put up with: your therapist always answers her phone during sessions and talks with other people during the time you are paying her for. If you complain and she keeps doing this, leave and get another therapist. Your therapist talks a lot about herself, and it usually has nothing to do with what you’re talking about. Bad boundaries. The only time your therapist should say anything about her own experience is when it relates to your issue and you feel comforted, seen or relieved after she shares with you. Otherwise you do not need to put up with a therapist with such poor boundaries. Or, she talks too much about her other patients for no apparent reason. If it feels like she’s acting like your friend, look into what she’s doing. If she’s just giving you some harmless advice about dating or ways to cope with your anxiety or asks you to call her if you’re about to engage in some kind of destructive behavior, these are actually normal ways to work with someone and do not indicate a boundary problem.

Scenario 3: tricky one. You know you want an active therapist and do not tolerate the anxiety of sitting saying nothing. You explain at the beginnng that you have too much anxiety or trauma and can’t bring things up and need to work on it but you do eant her to ask you questions to help get you talking. Your therapist waits for you to talk, even if you sit quietly for the whole session. Especially if you let her know you need help from her to talk. If she won’t break the ice with some kind of “I’m wondering what’s on your mind?” after a few minutes of silence, her orthodox approach is no good for you. Find someone who can meet your needs.

These are the most common complaints about therapists and the most easy problems to recognize. More complicated problems include, the paradoxical therapist. Complaints sound like, “She asks me how I feel about something and then seems to judge my feeling”, “she asks me something and then interrupts me or disagrees and tells me what I should be thinking.” These are red flags that things aren’t great and you need to speak up quickly and complain, and then see how you feel in the next few sessions. Another one involves “she seemed to be purposely acting like my dad to make me react and told me she was doing that to help me but I didn’t like it.” Sounds crazy but I’ve heard stories like this. Another one is the overly infantalizing and warning therapist. “I told her about my self-destructive behavior, and she made predictions that I’m heading for another suicide attempt” or something like that. It would be better for her to ask you more questions about your current behavior and how you feel about it.

There are definitely other problems that you might encounter, so try to trust your gut feelings. If you don’t feel comfortable enough, you may just have a bad fit and need to try someone else. If she’s a woman, try seeing a man to notice if gender makes a difference. As I said before, in cases where you get very picky and don’t like anyone you try, then you need to look at your trust issues. In most of these other bad scenarios, the patient tends to stay too long because they are afraid to confront the therapist. The best thing to do is be honest. State what behaviors you don’t like, and that you are going to try someone new for those reasons. If you can’t say it to her face then at least email her…

There are also many complaints I hear about psychiatrists, actually more about them than about therapists. Basically you are paying a high fee and the session should last at least 45 minutes long. The psychiatrist should ask you lots of questions at the beginning, and any time you are trying a medication for the first time, she should have you return in one week. She should answer any questions you have clearly. There are no stupid questions about medications, and you have a right to know about them. After you are stabilized on medication, your psychiatrist should see you about once monthly unless you’ve been working with her for years and don’t change medications frequently. She should be asking you about your job or lack of job, your relationships, areas of stress for you, any trauma history, your sleep and eating, how therapy with your therapist is going…Basically, the session should include her checking in and finding out about how you’ve been doing since the prior session. If you feel like she just throws prescriptions at you, that’s not good enough. At the end of each session, you need to make the appointment for the next session. Don’t let her say, “Just call me in a few weeks, and we will set something up.” A lot of medications mess up short term memory, plus most psychiatrists have a very busy schedule, plus many people will put off future appointments for various reasons , so you need to know when you leave the session, when you will see your psychiatrist again. Make sure she tells you about vacations and covering doctors in case you have a crisis or run out of medications. Remember you are paying a lot and deserve to feel like a satisfied customer…

Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety is normal in extremely young children up to around 14 months old. As the child gets older s/he can tolerate periods of separation from caregivers. Obvious signals that your child is too anxious about separation includes crying and inability to be soothed after separation, nightmares about separation, excessive obsessive “checking” that parent is there and clinging, constant temper tantrums at separation and reuniting, even bed wetting.

Often a child will pick up on an adult’s anxiety, and sometimes changes in the caregiver’s behaviors can go a long way towards easing the anxiety of the child.

What happens when these issues don’t get addressed? What behaviors linger on into adulthood?

“I notice that I get very anxious when I know the time I’m spending with a friend or on a date is running out and we are about to say goodbye. I know it’s an overreaction but I still feel this anticipatory anxiety and after we part ways I feel immediately a lot of sadness, loneliness and fears of being alone.” At other times this person is fine with being alone.

Another interesting scenario: “I seem to keep getting into long distance romantic relationships. Reuniting is always so dramatic and intense but then when one of us has to leave, it feels almost as bad as if we’re breaking up, and the depression lingers for a few days. During that time I’m excessively calling, texting, chatting online with him/her. Then for a while I feel fine and then it’s time for another visit and the whole pattern starts all over again”

“I hate the beginning of the therapy session. I always feel really uncomfortable. And at the end of the session it’s hard to leave. The worst is when you announce a vacation…”

Some people express their anxiety through needing to control the session, wanting to be the one who alerts their therapist that the session is over every time.

Of course as therapists we constantly see different styles of attachment. Aloof and avoidant: this may be the patient who can only tolerate bi-weekly sessions and/or “misses” sessions often through forgetfulness. It can be very challenging to work with a patient with this attachment style as they have a hard time staying in therapy. They may need to control things so much that they become the patient who suddenly leaves therapy when the therapist is noticing that s/he is finally starting to open up and trust. Next minute the patient leaves with no warning or notice. S/he may be able to send an abrupt text or email saying s/he needs a break from therapy, but in some cases this is the elusive patient who just stops coming to sessions and avoids any contact with the therapist. In these cases I have found it is still a good idea to contact the patient and leave a message voicing concern about this behavior, demonstrating to your patient that you have noticed their disappearance and are concerned about it. Often the “parentified adult”, used to the role of caretaker of absent, unstable or anxious even alcoholic parent is very accustomed to their role and has a hard time being in therapy and admitting they need care and attention.

The “ambivalent” attachment style can be expressed quite differently. This may be the patient who opens up very quickly in therapy, demonstrates many shifts in and dramatic affect states, even starts a fight with the therapist. This person needs a lot of contact but feels conflicted about needing it and how to express that need. The consistency and firm boundaries of the therapist with this type of person can be very effective.

The very neglected child can be very consistent as a patient and respond well to individual psychotherapy. S/he is often punctual and gets a lot out of the consistency and holding support of the therapeutic relationship. While this person may take a long time to trust the therapist, I have found patients like these to be very self aware even if their awareness includes a lack of connection to their feeling states and a lot of intellectualization. The goals of therapy are as clear as the patient is eager to work on his/her self…

Many people oscillate between different attachment styles and feeling states about separation depending on the stressors in their lives.

Personally I have oscillated a lot in my life between feeling overly needy and clingy to feeling overly detached, uninterested in connection with others and when under too much emotional stress, reacting very differently as a teenager versus young adult versus older adult. Most of us have a variety of experiences with separation.

I also find it interesting that having a pet dog or cat can help a person heal from whatever childhood separation anxiety they may have experienced. The unconditional consistency of a dog cannot be matched by a human. While this leads probably to a big topic for another post, I find it fascinating how our relationships with our pets can help repair early anxiety and trauma. Of course there is the other side to this, when people get overly attached to their pets and it affects their relationships with people…

The Other Face of Facebook: Facebook in the Therapy Session

A day or two ago, I witnessed the miracle of Facebook. One of my college friends, in fact, one of the first people I met in my new dorm my first day at college over 20 years ago, had a baby girl. The announcement of this great birth appeared in her Facebook status within the first day of this baby’s life, with the amount of hours of labor and her name and weight. 115 “Likes” and 110 comments within six hours of this status posting! But for Facebook, I would have no idea where my former classmate lived, much less, have been able to participate in witnessing her marvelous pregnancy and the birth of her first very healthy child. This is the wonderful power of Facebook, and a big reason for why I confess I check in almost daily to see the “News Feed”. Many other wonderful pregnancies and births are going on, not to mention little children growing up before our eyes through Facebook photos…

So, the wonderful world of Facebook is truly a great way for people to see each other’s kids, and for aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents to participate in the lives of these children, no matter where they live.

There is also grade school, high school, college and graduate school classmates to keep in touch with so easily! In fact it turns out the most friends group people have is from high school…

The other great reason I like Facebook is to be able to casually post a photo of my latest art work, whether just a weekly scribble drawing or a more serious work in progress and get instant positive support! For us therapists, once we’ve navigated the issue of making sure we’ve looked carefully at our “privacy settings”, Facebook represents a place we can “let our hair down” and be people, as goofy and weird as we want to be…   Or you can figure out how to live comfortably with a professional and personal presence on Facebook by joining professional groups, starting your own Artist page or Therapist page or starting your own Professional group…

Of course there are many pitfalls and huge complicated issues that arise from Facebook. Sometimes the whole six degrees of separation thing means one has to block a friend’s friend because they are or were a patient. Or my patient comes in and says she saw my happy birthday post to my old supervisee who happened to be her supervisor recently. Not too big a deal, as it was a week where my profile picture was an artwork and not a private photo. The world of art therapy is small…

Far more difficult than privacy issues we therapists face, are the issues our patients are bringing in to therapy that often involve Facebook in some major way. First of all there are parents. Many parents are young enough that they want to be on Facebook for their own social reasons and secondarily to keep an eye out on their young adult children and get to “peek” into their lives. Some parents are on Facebook purely to peek into their young adult or even older adult children’s lives. Sometimes this isn’t too complicated and only requires the child “educating” their parent about Facebook parental etiquette. That means telling your parent, don’t make a comment on every one of my posts. In fact, try not to make your presence known at all on my posts and I won’t “block” you from seeing them. Simple instructions, followed well. Done.

Not so easy if Mom is using Facebook to spy on you. “What were you doing out so late partying when you called me earlier freaking out about your English paper due tomorrow?” and, “I thought you quit smoking (or insert “drinking”, “gambling”, etc? What’s up with that photo of you from last night? Woops. Forgot to set blocking Mom from that particular revealing photo…

“It’s Complicated” is actually a relationship status you can post to your profile and put the name of the complicated person you are in this mess with up next to it. Not a good idea if you’ve met each other’s parents and are on Facebook with all of them. Most difficult scenario with a parent is the following one. The said “child” over age 20 is going through messy breakup or even messy divorce. Suddenly that 2 am drunken weepy phone call to Mom late at night right after she dumped you by email is seeming like a really impulsive move now that it’s 6 weeks later (an eon in modern relationship breakups and makeups) and she has posted pictures of you together after you and your mom agreed she was the scum of the earth and had been mistreating you the whole time you were dating. Oops. So you go into therapy and talk to your therapist about how you decided to block your mom completely and defriend her and then she called you hysterically crying upset that you would treat her that way. Which one is more high maintenance now, the girl who took you for granted and dumped you and then realized she couldn’t live without you, putting you through torture, moodswings, extra therapy sessions and bad phone calls to your parents, or the mother who now is too thorouhly involved in your love life, such that you have to figure out in therapy how to manage her Facebook presence in your life without her knowing you are keeping her out of the loop so she doesnt call you again crying? And in between all that you had to confess in therapy that after your girlfiend dumped you, you checked her Facebook wall about twenty times a day to see if she was hanging out with other guys/girls or what she was doing. (There is a whole different post I need to write about cyber confessions in therapy — “I knew his password, so I broke into his emails and read them for a week to see what the hell was going on in his head after the breakup…”, “After that asshole blocked me from his Facebook and defriended me, I signed in to his page to spy on his Facebook wall and chats…” etc.)

With some patients, we have had to talk about Facebook addiction and treatment which involves “breaks” — take a day off where you aren’t allowed to go on Facebook at all. Take a week off going onto your partner’s or soon to be ex’s or ex’s page. No peeking at all.

Re-set the boundaries with mom and dad. Translates as, keep him or her as your Facebook friend but block him or her from all photos of your wonderful reuniting with the girl or guy that your parents never want you to mention much less see again. Yes you can manage each post and each photo separately, thus blocking mom from only the ones you don’t want her to see. The challenge in therapy now is beyond Facebook pages. How do you “delete” the 5 am crazy phone calls you made to mom or dad when you were ready to jump out the window from finding all the terrible things this “awful” relationship was putting you through while you secretly start over with the same person who has gone from awful to adorable love of your life again within the last month or two, or worse, you moved out and back in all within about 4 months time and can’t bear telling your parents because of their obvious and predictably bad reactions? And now you have to go home for the holidays and pretend to be still sad about it or deal with everyone in your family (yes, I forgot about grandpa and the siblings who know all about it and who have seen those new photos on Facebook of you back together.) Damage control first, arrange with all of them to keep it quiet and do not mention any of it to mom or dad during the holiday visit. Second, what do you do when you are baking with your mom and she starts casually asking if you’re meeting any new people, or if she found out, how do you steer her away from the topic of how you are throwing your life away in this relationship, how disappointed she is in your terrible choices, and worried sick as well. “And how could you even think of defriending me on Facebook!” she will definitely bring up, still hurt about it.

This is not dramatization. It happens all the time. As does the addiction to checking up on your too attractive boyfriend who gets too many likes on all his photos and comments… Jealousy redifined, or jealousy obsessions now have a new Face, and plenty of new places to find fuel for the jealousy.

The other Facebook therapy topic is just plain old addiction. Complaints of spending way too much time playing “Farmville” or some other Facebook game, or even worse, just spending countless hours on Facebook and not too sure what you were even doing. This one goes with other internet addictions, porn being a typical one. Almost worse than porn which at least involves some kind of “goal”, is the hours on the internet people spend and cannot account for and have no idea what they were doing, but one minute the computer was on and suddenly four or five hours of time has gone by and nothing to account for it. This usually happens when someone has a paper or thesis or work related activity due.

Which brings me to Facebook at the workplace. At a party recently, someone told me about a new form of work interview “prejudice”. That some people are complaining that at a job interview they were asked why they do not “do” Facebook, that there must be something wrong with them. I was astonished, but she had actually heard this from several people. This one goes with the big question, do you friend people you work with or your boss? Do you friend the babysitter? Are you Facebooking while at your workplace and do you do this on the sly or in full view of everyone?

Blocking, unfriending and defriending…Do you really want to stay friends with some ex from years ago? What about the friend you have stopped speaking to or the cousin you suddenly regret friending. Turns out according to a recent article in Huffington post,

“Offensive comments” and a lack of knowledge about a person are the top two reasons people unfriend on Facebook, according to NM Incite’s research. People were also more likely to be disturbed by the nature of the content friends shared, rather than the frequency of it: 23 percent said they unfriended people over “depressing comments” and 14 percent unfriended over “political comments,” while just 6 percent unfriended because someone had posted too frequently.

Wow. I was quite surprised, actually shocked. Nobody said they unfriended because they got in a fight with someone or broke up with someone, the two top reasons I would have guessed for unfriending. And what about obvious reason number 3, “Woops, I am so regretful that I friended Mom and Dad…” Why do people have such a low tolerance from a single depressing sentence in a Facebook status, when, last I checked, most close friends include long depressing phone calls, coffee, dinner or drink sessions, as a major part of friendship, that they know this Friend has been there when they were in tears, so of course they will be there for this Friend through countless depressing but worthwhile hours.

Another interesting topic is the content of status posts. Everyone on Facebook has at least one friend who posts just to say what s/he made, had for dinner or even put a photo in of the meal. In one case my gourmet friend posted several photos of the many courses of an elaborate meal and the menu; it went from the mundane to a work of art in progress to see this gourmet meal unfold. But there are those posts that sound like the person needs to let everyone know s/he just sneezed. What is involved in the psychology of the everyday ordinary aspects of life being “glorified” or at least expressed on the “news feed” of Facebook? Just raising the question…

There is also the Facebook “love/hate” relationship. One week you’re on and reading it daily and posting. Then suddenly something happens and you get a bout of  what I like to call “Faceebook overexposure”. “Suddenly I felt really weird and decided I hated Facebook and did not want to be on it, so I am leaving Facebook.” This is often accompanied by a goodbye post, which often sparks a lot of comments from friends suggesting/begging the person not to leave Facebook. Sometimes this is enough to get you hooked again. Or a week later, the soame person reports that s/he returned to Facebook, so easy to get back on with the sames profile and friends all saved and waiting for your re-conversion to Facebook. Some people treat Facebook like a messy on again off again relationship and then finally call it quits with it. There are other people who actually are totally internet savvy and may even have great websites and/or blogs or other internet presences who might even work in publishing or publicity or television other internet related fields who never go near Facebook. What kind of personality is completely immune to the Facebook bug. I have a few friends and relatives whose spouses are on Facebook but who themselves are not going to go near it.  And I cannot figure out any one characteristic that these people who share the Facebook allergy have in common. Someone’s got to do a survey on that topic: what makes a person immune to the magnetic pull of Facebook?

Yes, Facebook has become a therapy “topic” and is here to stay. Now it’s time for me to edit this post and then, of course, post the link to it first to Facebook and only after that, on LinkedIn…

Art Therapy as Food

The holiday season is here and that means trouble for people with any kind of eating or food issues. Holiday dinners and tons of holiday parties which seems so cheerful and fun for some, for others can be big triggers. If you’re in some recovery process of relearning healthy eating and trying to follow a good schedule of meal times and eat nutritionally well, this is a time of many challenges. It’s a good idea to try to be flexible with yourself and allow yourself to eat more and eat things you don’t normally consider healthy rather than fall into the trap of self-punishment or get caught up in obsessing about food and body. It’s also a great time to focus on the non-eating activities of the holidays. Make your own wrapping paper or make your own cards. Make a holiday card to send out to family and friends. Make a fun photo or art calendar for 2012. If you like singing focus on the songs and sing a longs at the parties you go to. Enjoy dressing up if you like doing that…If you go to O.A. meetings talk about this season and your struggles with it tripping you up and any worries you have about getting into old bad habits/and/or destructive behaviors… Just a few suggestions for this time of year that itself is a big trigger for many.

I mentioned some art activities in the above paragraph but this post is meant to try to focus on art therapy and the question, Why is art therapy so effective at helping people with eating disorders as well as body image issues, food and exercise addictions, obsessive thinking about food, weight, body, etc.? Unlike other types of “obsessions” and “addictions”, such as alcoholism and drug addiction, when a person has issues around food and eating, s/he cannot simply avoid food, grocery stores and restaurants for obvious reasons. Triggers are everywhere and food and meal planning are necessities for becoming healthy. One has to change one’s relationship to food altogether and then rigorously watch out for and identify triggers and then have a plan for how to deal with them. For re-learning how to eat, how much to eat, what it feels like to be full, etc., cognitive behavioral therapy techniques can work very effectively to help a person manage their day to day life and find the difficult balance between being observant and watchful of one’s behaviors and familiar feelings or lack of feelings that trigger self-destructive behaviors around food and exercise. Just being able to call your therapist or some other helpful person when you feel challenged and scared you’re going to “relapse” is of course very useful. I have had many patients who reported that calling me when something difficult came up was very helpful or even knowing that s/he could call was also helpful. Speaking up when you’re feeling vulnerable is always helpful and can really get you through some bad moments if you know whom to talk to and can get in touch with him/her.

So where does art therapy fit in? To battle an eating disorder like bulimia or binge eating or anorexia and other related issues, one needs to learn more than ways to avoid unhealthy behavior. Besides becoming armed with ways to identify triggers for unhealthy behaviors and learning to identify one’s feelings rather than using food to literally stuff one’s feelings or cut off from them, you have to learn ways to notice when you feel a self-destructive impulse coming in, what was going on in you and what can you substitute the unhealthy behavior with, ie. learning about self-soothing. Any disorder or issue involving dissociating, getting out of one’s body, etc. can be very much helped by activities that bring you back into your body. A major part of the art therapy process in working with trauma of any kind involves using art making to learn or relearn self soothing.

Art making in the presence of a therapist or in a group with an art therapist can be healing in many different ways. There are many different forms of art making that are soothing to most people. Being given a blank piece of paper or a canvas has been shown to actually increase anxiety and trigger self-criticism in many people. So one must pick particular art making activities that are able to decrease anxiety levels and can even help a person get back in his/her body. Making a mandala with oil pastels or watercolors, which involves tracing a circle or filling in a circle that the therapist has already pre-made for the session is a very popular and tremendously healing activity. Not only are mandalas soothing, as a symbol for the self, the mandala can give one information about one’s feelings about oneself. How you treat the boundary of the circle is of course important. I have found that having people do the mandala with their non-dominant hand can release a lot of worry about how it will look and decrease perfectionistic tendencies. For some, the lack of control of the non-dominant hand becomes too frustrating to be therapeutic, but this seems to be in a minority of cases. Making the mandala on black or colored paper is also a useful way to reduce anxiety and increase excitement about the task, just by being stimulated by the color of the paper or soothed by its darkness. Mandalas are very useful for identifying one’s body energy in the here and now. For example, I have done workshops involving doing a quick mandala at the beginning of the session, followed by some form of meditation exercise, and then a much longer time to make and complete a second mandala. People are always pleasantly surprised to see that their energy at the beginning (often more chaotic or too controlled or else a minimal effort to complete the picture without much satisfaction), has completely changed from the meditation and the art making at the end of the session. The two mandalas can be compared and give a person an actual blueprint or “emotional x ray” of what was going on in their bodies at the beginning of the session, and how changed their energy feels by the end of the session, usually descriptions include “more grounded”, or that the picture feels “more whole”. At some points in treatment or recovery or self-care, it can be useful to do daily or weekly mandalas and then write a few words about one’s feelings and thoughts. put it away and look at your mandalas later as a group to see what changes may have occurred.

Other soothing art making activities involve collage, beading, and decorating boxes as well as making dolls or decorating and covering/painting pre-made dolls. For some people painting is incredibly soothing. The metaphors of art therapy in direct relationship to food are interesting in themselves. The materials and the media are a different form of food which can literally be used for symbolic filling up. If the art therapy session is highly structured with some form of directive and structured around time to make art and time to process, this structure can help a person feel more regulated and grounded. Most impulsive unhealthy behaviors are performed when one is not grounded in one’s body and in some kind of anxious or compulsive state or fughe state. Meals in themselves are what structures the day for many people, and when there is no structure to when one eats, one can get easily caught up in feeling out of control. There are many art directives that are helpful for all sorts of aspects of recovery and regaining a healthy lifestyle as well as a healthy relationship with one’s body. Identifying and making pictures of different forms of hunger: emotional hunger, mental hunger, physical hunger and even spiritual hunger. Just describing and identifying these states is helpful. However as in most cases with art therapy, having an image to play with, observe and help organize oneself is highly useful. It is a great tool for measuring progress in therapy; to have something tangible like a body of work over time — what better way to actually see self transformation/

Of course there are all kinds of directives and activities (the art therapy “menu”) specifically geared around confronting and dealing with eating issues. I have named only a few above. Positive self image collages are another great art activity that is fun, non-threatening and promotes thinking good thoughts about oneself. Making affirmation boxes, a great transitional object for you to bring home and add to on your own. For some people that I have worked with, doing a body tracing by lying on the paper and having the therapist trace around your body and then filling it in in any way with whatever materials there are at hand is very useful in working on these difficult body image issues. Again, this is even better if you are in long term therapy and do one every couple of months or so to be able to compare the different images and notice what has changed for you. This is one of those activities that is best done when you have come to trust your art therapist and are ready to grapple with difficult feelings, even trauma memories, that can surface while filling in the body tracing. This is a prime example of why our training in working with trauma is so important. It is also a great activity to do with pregnant women in a group or individual session.

Besides the structure and the helpfulness of particular directives, non-directive forms of art therapy also work well. I have had patients with eating disorders who enjoyed having choices of what to do and figuring out on their own what they liked, being able to explore my art studio and feed themselves. What can replace walking into a deli or grocery store hell bent on buying certain foods to fill an empty hole inside that one is barely aware of?  Walking into the art studio/office and taking in the visual stimulation. The atmosphere may be overwhelming at first, but the excitement of just picking out a material and playing with it is hard to describe in words and hard to pinpoint in terms of feelings. I get the same feeling in art supply stores, but there is a big difference between an art supply store and an inviting healing creative space. (I knew I was on the right track with my studio when  a father who had no interest in art making suddenly picked up a piece of cardboard and started painting! freely with all sorts of colors; his kids who had been focused on their own projects of course rushed over and asked for cardboard so they could imitate him!) As an art therapist, I can say that there is nothing like the satisfaction of having a patient who has been talking to you for months suddenly out of the blue pick out some art materials with no encouragement, suggestions, or pushing from me. It is delightful to witness!

Certainly the art materials and art making can just function as a good distraction from obsessive thinking about food and body. Havi ng an hour of respite from one’s own intrusive thinking is not only worth while but provides hope that this experience can be repeated, both in the studio and at home. So there is a lot to be said for allowing for discovery and choice of media, especially with people who are very aware of how “in control” they feel from moment to moment. In some cases, consuming the therapist’s materials can replace bingeing. There is a delicate balance between feeding oneself emotionally and spiritually in a session and working on mindfulness, versus mindless consuming and using of art materials that can be perseverative and imitate unhealthy behaviors outside of the studio. I try to stay mindful that any substance or activity has healing properties when used in a mindful prescribed manner versus when the material, activity or person is abused or addictively consumed to fill an empty hole. As therapists, we can sense sometimes during, sometimes after a session, whether the session has been a healing one or a “filler”; it is not so bad to have some sessions be fillers once in a while anyway.

This is only a mere blog post, not meant to be an exhaustive discussion of the merits of art therapy for  people with eating disorders and related challenges. Please feel free to share your experiences as a therapist or patient…

As a side comment, I was thinking tonight about the challenges of being a therapist and eating healthy meals. A lot of us work through the dinner hour and come home exhausted and starved with no energy to cook a proper meal. It can become a major family issue; how to have meals with partner and/or child/children all together and at regular meal times. I try to have extremely moderate goals, such as, let’s try to have a family meal at least once a week, not too great I admit, but I get home late several evenings a week and then there are other schedules besides my own to accommodate. This is going into a new related topic, probably good for next week’s post…