Entries Tagged as 'beginnings'

Me Too

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Mee Too

Over the past week, I’ve given five guest talks on suicide prevention and intervention to university classes. I start out by saying that every year, approximately 10% of college students will consider suicide as a potential solution to life’s difficulties, and 1.4% will make a suicide attempt. I tell them that learning how to recognize and compassionately connect with someone who is thinking of suicide can save lives, and then I ask if they are surprised that so many college students consider suicide. To this, they shake their heads no.  I ask if they believe that the 10% of college students who consider suicide are necessarily “mentally ill,” and they emphatically shake their heads, “No, no–that’s not it; something else is going on.”

“So what do you think is going on with college students who consider suicide?” I ask. They respond astutely. “Well, it’s hard,” they say. “First there’s the adjustment to life away from family, and all the financial stressors, and the realization that we’re not as special or gifted as we’ve been led to believe. Then there’s the struggle to make friends, and the sense of isolation and failure if our social life doesn’t take off, or if classes are harder than anticipated. Maybe we bring in trauma, too, from the past, or experience trauma in college. Plus, there’s this overwhelming anxiety about the future–will there actually be jobs for us? What if we can’t get jobs, let alone meaningful work? And speaking of work, do we know what we want; are we really pursuing the right things? We can’t be certain of any of it. We’re all competing for seemingly limited resources, we’re still trying to figure out who we are, and on top of it, we’re told by the culture that we have to look and be perfect and have it all together, right now, or else there’s something really wrong with us. Nobody talks about what they’re feeling, either, so we’re alone with this stuff, which only makes it worse.”

As we talk, I tell them about a dear person my family and I lost to suicide. I tell them about people I’ve known who were in crisis, in seemingly inescapable pain, and we talk about the power of human-to-human connection to restore lost hope. As we speak frankly about the taboo topic of suicide, it’s clear that most people present have either known someone who died by suicide or who considered it. It’s a heavy discussion, but also meaningful, and there’s a shared acknowledgement that whether someone considers suicide or not, life is hard, and we need connection, especially around the hard parts.

As I leave these talks, I’m aware that I was once a college student on the same campus at which I now work as a professional. I once felt overwhelmingly lost, in pain, invisible, and at times, hopeless. In fact, I started drawing just after beginning college, because I didn’t know what else to do with my feelings. I carried unspoken, unaddressed traumas inside me, traumas that had created a profound estrangement from myself and a deep longing to return to wholeness. Only I didn’t know the path back to wholeness, and I felt a lot of shame. The unacknowledged traumas had led to a crippling cigarette addiction, which bloomed into a health crisis, which lowered my self-esteem and fed into other risky behaviors. Life wasn’t turning out as I’d planned, and for a semester, I too was among the estimated 10% of college students who may consider suicide.

Making art like the drawing above helped me express my despair. It was the first way I started to return, and the early art that came revealed that I was returning to a person wounded, like a house abandoned under duress and left in disarray.  Then came the loving attention of family, and one good friend, and a caring professor or two who took the time to sit down with me and just connect. Eventually I got up the courage to see a counselor at the college counseling center where I now work; this person, too, cared about me and supported me and encouraged me to keep drawing. That was 15 years ago, and thankfully, I long ago put out my last cigarette, and I’ve never returned to thoughts of suicide. But I will always carry a keen, personal, and often unspoken appreciation for how difficult the college years can be.

You see, when I give these talks, I don’t usually tell college students about my own period of suicidal ideation, even though it was long ago; nor do I tell them how I gradually healed. It’s not that I’m afraid to tell them; more often than not, they get it. In fact, talking about my own experience would probably improve the talks by making me more relatable, more credible, and thus moving the conversation from the abstract—from suicidal ideation as something that happens to other people over there–to something that can touch any of us, even mental health professionals, under overwhelming circumstances, and something that can often, with supportive connection, be overcome.

It is ironic that in a field that believes fiercely in the power of speaking about painful issues, mental health professionals are reluctant to talk about our own lived experiences of emotional and mental health challenges, and we tend to stigmatize one another for speaking up about our stories. Our training teaches us to focus on other people’s pain, and to avoid discussing our challenges, even with our colleagues as we go through school. The reasons for this are complex, but I believe we do this, in part, because somewhere along the line we got worried about revealing our vulnerability. We got scared that our vulnerability might make us appear less qualified, less credible, and we started policing each other. We bought into the myth of professionalism=perfectionism and now are facing an isolation similar to that which burdens so many college students.

I know about this isolation from both study and experience. Before I was a professional counselor, I was in graduate school to become a therapist for nearly a decade, and today, in addition to doing therapy, I teach a course The Counselor as a Person, where graduate counseling students open up and share more of who they are–as real people, with challenges and resiliencies, just like our clients. I will tell you that when they feel safe enough to do so, my students express their confusion; they say that they went into the helping professions because of their own difficulties and ongoing recoveries, and yet they feel discouraged from acknowledging these experiences for fear of being judged. Students who cry in classes or “over-disclose” are often seen as “breaking down” and told that if they can’t keep themselves together, they need to get their own personal counseling to work through their “issues.”

Boundaries are important in therapy work, and I endorse personal counseling for all counselors-in-training, and for licensed professionals as-needed throughout life—in my opinion, it’s just part of a good, long-term self-care regimen. But I believe that mental health professionals and students alike who don’t allow each other the space to be vulnerable and real do ourselves and possibly the field a disservice. When we ourselves struggle, we may not reach out to connect in ways that could be protective, healthy, strengthening. We may also unwittingly make it harder for prospective clients to reach out to us because they think it means something is wrong with them for needing to talk.  We can thus perpetuate the myth that we have it all together and our clients are “ill” because they alone struggle.

As counselors, we intuitively know that our real power is in our ability to connect, person to person, in genuine ways, yet many of us feel blocked and shamed from sharing our stories in productive ways with each other or with the people we serve. We’re taught that to be professional is to somehow be both relationally close and “appropriately distant,” and that we need to transcend basic human struggles but dare not let on what we’ve transcended from or how we managed to do so. Granted, there are ways to show empathy and create connection without over-sharing our personal stories, and one of the gifts of a good therapist is the conveyance of deep knowing without distracting insertions and projections.  But of course therapists have and do struggle with our own stuff. And while we can never know exactly what someone else feels or experiences, in times of great emotional pain, the most encouraging words aren’t necessarily “here, let me help you with that, I’m an expert” but some authentic version of “I connect with your pain because I also know deep pain.” In other words, “Me, too.”

There is a place where my art, my profession, my inner life, all the people who have loved and wounded me, and all the people I’ve loved and wounded, intersect. It is difficult to speak of this place, but it is real, the source of my energy, the seat of my heart. Staying in touch with this place allows me to keep showing up to work, to art-making, to myself, and to relationships. I share about this place with you as I strive to stay connected to it in a mental health culture that, however unintentionally, can shame its professionals for being human.

Personally, I appreciate when my therapist shares about her experiences, hints at her humanity, when she indicates her own personal work is ongoing, because she knows that to be alive is to leave and arrive and get lost and return a thousand times or more. I am glad she is a little wiser than me, for her years and her commitment to her own development. But I am even more encouraged that she and indeed everyone who has played a healing role in my life can look at me with eyes of compassion that say, “Me too, my dear, me too.”

Start Close In

Friday, October 24, 2014

Start Close In

Start close in,
don’t take the second step
or the third,
start with the first
thing
close in,
the step
you don’t want to take.

Start with
the ground
you know,
the pale ground
beneath your feet,
your own
way of starting
the conversation.

Start with your own
question,
give up on other
people’s questions,
don’t let them
smother something
simple.

–excerpted from David Whyte’s poem, Start Close In

Art-making seems to require a paradoxical combination of vulnerability and insularity. Artists need to be open to and touched by life, but also need an intimacy with self, a kind of “close in” listening. This listening allows us to hear whatever it is that sources our creative work, whatever tells us, in a world of so many other people’s questions and creations, to go ahead and make ours, anyway.

Like all transformation, the creative process begins close in, closer than we think, right in front of us, right inside. This responsibility makes it difficult to begin, yet is also what makes beginning–and continuing–possible.

Becoming

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Becoming

“…remember that the light is within
if it is anywhere
and you must paint from the inside.”
Lawrence Ferlinghetti

“Our job in this lifetime is not to shape ourselves into some ideal we imagine we ought to be, but to find out who we already are and become it.”
Steven Pressfield, from The War of Art

I’d been painting less than a year when this woman, who looked a touch like me, showed up on my life-sized canvas with an open window and birds where her heart was. She looked at me unblinkingly, the light inside her almost too much to bear, and I knew with absolute certainty that, in painting, I was becoming who I already was. I also knew that I’d keep painting, that I’d never again let something within my control stop me from making art.

The image reminded me of the Coptic icons in the church of my youth, but instead of a religious painting, I’d created a secular icon.  The woman in the piece seemed okay with the nature of life, with love coming and going like the birds from her open, well-lit window of a soul. She was encased in a soothing blue that faded to black, the shape of a temple door, perhaps, or a coffin, indicating acceptance of impermanence and death. Yet the light was so strong, I sensed it would continue long after the mysterious darkness claimed her. I’d been afraid of death since the cancer scares in my teens and early twenties, and this painting seemed to say, “Don’t be afraid.”

I didn’t have to look for these meanings, they were just there, as clear and simple as her big unwavering eyes.

I hung the piece in my house, but it proved too intense for me. She overpowered any room I put her in. It just didn’t feel…appropriate.

I showed the piece and was relieved to sell it to a young woman in nursing school who said she needed to see the image every day.  A couple of months later, she sent a card with photos of her smiling next to the painting, which she’d hung centrally in her living room in an Atlanta apartment. I marveled that the two women shared a resemblance, and in their smiles had forged a private relationship, one I wouldn’t be privy to–an inspiring one, I hoped.

I was glad the painting had found a new life with someone else. I needed to pull my own gaze back and focus on the next canvas.

The Baby and the Market

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

the baby and the market

Recently, a therapist quoted me a line she attributed to Carl Jung, “Don’t take the baby to the market.” It reminded me of the question of when to share our creative initiatives, and when to protect them from outside influences. When we  first start making art (broadly defined), even if the ultimate goal is to share with others (and there’s nothing wrong with that–connection is why we’re here), there may be rightful time for incubation, a sacred phase in which we need to keep something safe in the womb, just for us, while it’s gathering strength for the outside world.

I wish I’d known this at 21, when I decided to share a series of intimate black and white drawings with a public audience. I was in college studying political science, and I had stumbled upon drawing during my part-time job at a telephone survey center. I had a lot of idle time on my hands waiting for people to answer the phone and reject me, so one day I dusted off an old high school sketchbook and took to doodling to pass the  hours. However, I soon realized that the images were anything but doodles; they arrived whole with their own style and seemed to carry messages about parts of myself that needed healing, parts I didn’t want to acknowledge and didn’t know how to consciously face.

Drawing at work felt way too exposing, so I started coming home from classes and work and drawing every night. I had no idea what would come; I was just so curious, so fascinated. I didn’t ask any questions about what the drawings meant. I worried that doing so would stop the magic portal that had somehow opened to my soul. Probably the more likely truth is that I just didn’t know how to deal–let alone heal–so I was afraid to recognize how hurt and fragmented I was. So I just came home and drew, and the images kept coming, and I suppose they were their own kind of healing, though I didn’t know it at the time.

As the drawings accumulated, I showed them to a few people who suggested I do a little art show. I was excited about this and scheduled an opening at a casual local venue. I invited friends and family; friends and family came. A few people were even kind enough to buy things; that made me feel good.  I drew some more, and did another show, and then another.  But by the third show, something was wrong.  Some people liked the drawings, but others were whispering that they were disturbing. They didn’t connect. They didn’t know what the pictures were about.

Neither, in fact, did I. The problem was that I hadn’t gotten enough distance to see the messages in the work, to know how deeply personal the pictures were. I showed them to an audience before I understood them, which was equivalent to revealing a wound to people before I even knew its dimensions. When people didn’t understand my drawings, I felt like they didn’t understand me. And because I didn’t understand me yet, I couldn’t clarify, couldn’t even find my own ground inside where it was enough that I understood myself.

So I shut down. I packed up all the art supplies and slid them under my bed. I felt what I now know was good old shame. In her book Daring Greatly, researcher Brene Brown describes shame as the warm wash that makes us want to hide away our vulnerable parts, because we’re afraid that we’ll be deemed unworthy of love and belonging if others see us so exposed.  I’d exposed myself; I’d taken my baby to the market before I even knew its name, and my baby had gotten bumped and bruised. At that time in my life, this was too much for me. I wasn’t ready to stand with my art on my own terms, or even with myself for that matter. Sure, I was courageous to share, but in retrospect, I shared too early.

The shame was so great, I didn’t touch art supplies again for several years, until I started painting.

Why I Paint Trees

Monday, July 28, 2014

Why I Paint The Trees

Yesterday, a colleague asked me why I paint trees. It’s a question I’ve rarely answered because it’s a long answer, and I never know how interested someone really is. So here it is, if you’re interested, as I know it to be: Why I paint the trees.

It has, like most true stories do, more than one beginning.

Years before I started painting, I was sitting on a surgeon’s examination table awaiting lab results. He’d operated on me to remove pre-cancer when I was eighteen. There was a chance it would come back. This was my first confrontation with my mortality, and I was terrified.

I scanned the windowless walls for images to comfort me–a forest, perhaps, or a tree losing its leaves–something natural to remind me that all living things are in transition, that I was not alone. But I found nothing of the sort–no paintings, no posters, no plants, no art, no color.  It was the first time I distinctly remember missing trees–the first time I needed them and they weren’t there.

The incident stuck with me as I went to other appointments, routine and non-routine check-ups in the years that followed. Very few medical offices seemed to take an interest in art, and what decorum was there–a dusty fake plant, an amateur sea-side painting rescued from a deceased grandmother’s attic, a Wal-Mart poster in a shiny plastic frame–these struck me as vapid as the elevator music playing in the background. Why was this, I wondered? What other places did people go frightened and alone, facing the great unknown horizons of their lives, without access to natural light, windows, breathing plants, and other helpful reminders of the natural world? What other places were people vulnerable and waiting without anything close by to remind them of the larger whole?

I thought of prisons and hospitals, of windowless offices and apartment buildings and cells where people lived without access to nature or without art in their lives. I thought of the art I’d grown up with–the elaborate icons along the front of the Coptic Orthodox church of my youth–how many hours I’d escaped into them while the service droned on in a foreign tongue and the incense and fasting made me nauseous. I thought of the time my parents bought a painting at an art festival and arranged to send the artist 50 dollars a month until we paid it off. We were poor but to my parents, that painting was survival; they needed it.

All this made me think about art as necessity rather than as luxury.  I thought of the museum exhibits I’d seen where ancient cultures adorned their everyday objects with extraordinary beauty, using whatever was available–shells, stones, feathers, gems, clay. They didn’t have to make these items so ornate–after all, they were “just” utensils, water vessels, clothes, shoes, blankets–but they did. To me, this pointed to a way of living in which the everyday was sacred, was worth noticing and imbuing with intention, craftsmanship, wonder, and love. Perhaps you, too, know the feeling, the way morning coffee or tea tastes better from a handmade mug.

That was the first beginning with the trees.

Then, early in graduate school, I bought my first original painting for 400 dollars. It was an oil painting by a self-taught Gainesville artist, a passionate and informal impression of purple pines in late peach light. I hung the piece over my couch and spent countless hours staring into it, imagining I was walking through the pines towards the sunset behind them. It was an extravagant purchase; I’d used my student loan money to buy it, and it cost me as much as a month’s rent. But I needed the painting, needed the window it opened over my couch, and ultimately needed the new horizon it opened in my life.  That was the second beginning, but I still hadn’t started painting.

The third beginning had to do with a now-defunct place called the Gestalt Center of Gainesville, Inc. I was in training there for five years, in addition to the training I received in my graduate program. We had a joke around the Gestalt Center that school was the place you went to get licensed, but the Gestalt Center was where you learned to do therapy.  For me, that was the truth.

The Gestalt Center was run by my beloved mentor, the late Dr. Pat Korb, who was a contemporary of Fritz Perls. She was old when I met her, and very wise. On the chalk board at the Gestalt Center, the “rules” were written: 1) Show up. 2) Slow down. 3) When you speak, speak your truth. 4) Put your attention in the process, not the outcome.

I did a lot of my own personal work in those gestalt groups, and got to watch a masterful therapist work with many, many group members over the years. The mascot or symbol of the Center was a hand-drawn tree, with each of the roots symbolizing the theories and ways of being that support gestalt therapy, the trunk as the person-in-relation, and the branches as the skills and techniques available to a gestalt-oriented therapist.  The tree also represented a very important concept in gestalt therapy–that of holism, process, and the continual interaction between a living organism and its environment.  This was a different way of looking at myself and the life around me than the perfectionistic lens I’d been using. For me, trees came to represent a sort of vital acceptance–both of myself and of life as a process that could perhaps be trusted.

I started looking at the trees more intently, noticing their similarities and differences, learning their names. I also saw their scars, the places they’d been pruned or dropped branches in a storm. Places where they’d gotten a disease or suffered a bug infestation. Even the same kinds of trees were so different from each other. Their shape expressed something about their innate forms, but also their interactions with the environment.  I found in this metaphor permission to begin to accept myself. I could find no perfect tree, and no perfect me.  But I loved the trees for their differences, for their scars, for their ability to grow anyway, even if they weren’t quite getting the optimal resources. I began to love myself in this way, too.

When I felt the urge to paint, it was during one of these weekend gestalt groups. I actually got up in the middle of the group, left, and went to the art store right then. All these beginnings had gathered inside me enough to know and trust the urge. I’d wanted to paint for a while, and now it was time. I went home from the art store with my supplies and immediately started painting, trying to follow the same “rules” of process I’d learned at the gestalt center.  I wanted to just show up and paint my truth, and focus on the process rather than the result.  I wanted to allow whatever was inside me to emerge.

And then the trees just came.  They came as my first subjects, and though I painted (and still paint) other things, the trees keep coming. And they mean all these things to me, have all these beginnings, these possibilities for growth, for solace, for acceptance, for process.  I make my paintings thinking of those windowless rooms of my past, and those places in all our lives where we feel lost, frightened, and lose sight of how our story connects to a larger whole. I try to make the paintings I would have wanted to see in that surgeon’s room at 18, and the ones I still want to see today, when I’m waiting, when I’m worried, when I’m hurting, when I feel alone.  I want to bring the trees, and all they mean, inside, so I can be reminded, along with anyone else who needs the reminder, to show up, slow down, share our truth, and put our attention on the process of living.

Paying Attention

Friday, July 18, 2014

paying attention

When I started painting, my mundane daily transits transformed into search-and-grab Wonderment Operations. I was no longer just a weary graduate student traipsing to another class or meeting; I was an invited guest of honor in a sacred world.

In awe, I watched the wind slowly whittle a raging plume of leaves into a few dry crisps, the early light turn the edges of pine bark into croissant flesh, the palms become personalities as distinct as the people I loved. The closer I paid attention, the more I got to know the trees, see more than I ever imagined, more than I could ever possibly paint. I drank from these details like fountains and was filled.

Then, painting was instinct.

I’d return from classes or meetings and simply had to paint, or I’d burst.

How I Started

Thursday, July 10, 2014

How I started

I usually say that I started painting in my mid-twenties, but I was pretty excited by my second birthday, apparently.  I got away from it, though, like so many children do as we get older. I returned only when I was floundering during  graduate school, in need of an intuitive form of expression. I was studying Mental Health Counseling, excited about the career but weary of formal education settings that had overly conditioned me to value external approval, measurable outcomes, and competitive achievements.

It turned out that good counseling—the kind that actually seemed to work—involved engaging in process, and process, contrary to my academic training, was messy. Process meant showing up as I was and connecting to my clients as they were. Process meant sitting with a lot of pain and discomfort and not necessarily knowing what to do with it. Process meant trusting my intuition (whatever that was), using the information of my senses (remember those?), and daring to be vulnerable, authentic, and perhaps hardest of all, accepting of life as it was rather than as I wanted it to be. This was a completely different way of being, one that I found both excruciating and profoundly helpful.

It was during this time that I began (again) to paint.

In the beginning, painting was something I did not know how to do, which both appealed to and terrified me. (Almost a decade later, I still reach a point in every painting where I feel the same way.) I had no experience with painting, save for a wonderful high school teacher who encouraged me to do my own thing. Every imaginable doubt and insecurity came to visit as I sat on my bare apartment floor and filled my first canvas with a small, hideous, square-shaped tree.

This was not what I’d had in mind.

 I promptly threw it in the dumpster and returned to my apartment, wondering if I’d wasted 150 bucks on supplies I’d never use. Yet as I saw the materials scattered around, I realized I still wanted to paint. So I put the square tree out of my mind and filled another canvas, this time getting lost in the process and making a silver-lit stand of puffy blue trees. When I emerged from the creative trance with something I loved and had never seen before, I had my first lesson in keeping at it.

Despite this heady first “success,” I soon found that if I didn’t want to paint the same thing again and again, I had to be willing to not know what I was doing each time I painted and show up anyway. I had to take risks, learn on the job, start over, trust what felt right to me and adjust what didn’t. I had to let my intuition tell me to stop when an image suddenly sang with a surprising wholeness, and keep going when it (I) wasn’t quite done. I had to value the process even when I didn’t always love or understand what I was creating. In short, painting meant practicing the same basic process I was learning to trust in counseling.

I completed my master’s degree and then a doctorate in counseling. It was a long road and not easy.

The paintings accumulated; many sold.

I kept on painting.

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