Fixing things. That seems to me to be an interesting pattern some people have when faced with another person’s life circumstances. It makes me wonder if all the fixing work has to do with someone else’s reaction to another person’s pain and discomfort. Ah, this social network we live in — one way or the other.
Fixing things. Giving all sorts of helpful advice, as if I haven’t already ‘thought about that’. It makes me wonder, because I guess I am not naturally a ‘fixer upper person’. I don’t think I naturally give advice. I don’t think I know what another person is feeling. Well, looking at it from my insecure attachment disorder and nearly complete lack of socialization opportunities when I was a child, I guess I would have to pretty much say I only know what another person might be feeling by tuning into my ‘sense’ of feeling what another person feels.
I listen, but not so much with my ears. I watch, but not so much with my eyes. This seems to be leading into a story I haven’t written yet — and I mean — yet, because it is probably one I need to write. So, here goes —–
Once upon a time this really happened. I was finishing my art therapy masters degree program’s requirements for internship at an adult out-patient chemical dependency treatment center that specialized in treating people with extremely severe child abuse histories. I remember this one day clearly that I worked with a wispy woman I’ll call Nora, who seemed more to float across the carpet than walk upon it.
On this day she was silent as she entered the art therapy room for her hour and a half session. I greeted her gently. I had two 8 foot tables arranged end to end with four chairs placed evenly, one at the center of each table’s long side. I could sense her mood when she walked in the door, so after she entered I turned the light dimmer switch down to take the edge off of the room’s brightness. Then I stood quietly near the counter along one wall where the art supplies were laid out and waited for Nora to pick a chair and sit down.
Nora’s quietness led me to select the art medium for her, and I picked up a large glass of water I had ready, a pre-moistened tray of tempera paint cakes, a 2 inch paint brush, and several newsprint sized pieces of paper. I made no sound as I laid the items on the empty table beside Nora. She did not look at me or at the art supplies. I stepped off to the side, slightly behind her back, to watch what Nora chose to do next.
I did not jump in there, noisy or steer her with questions. I made no demands and no other intrusions into her ‘space’ other than to lay those art supplies within her easy reach. I watched to see if it made her uncomfortable that I was behind her. Would she turn in my direction? No. She didn’t show that she recognized I was in the room at all.
Nora picked up the paint brush, moistened it with water, and began moving her arms, free from the shoulder, from paint to paper to water to paint to paper. Her movements were slow but steady, as if her inner rhythms washed across each page without effort. Her work was silent, but she paused when a page was filled and I stepped to the table, took each finished image and quietly laid it on the floor to dry while she started another one.
Nora felt to me to be very young as she painted. Very quiet, very young, so young that I wasn’t sure she could even talk yet. Nora was diagnosed with what was then called Multiple Personality Disorder. It was not my job to do anything other than facilitate her art expression. I did not need to know what was what, which was which, who was who. My job was to let her communicate with something other than words or symptoms. And that’s exactly what I did.
I watched intently as each image was created. I noticed which colors were placed where on the paper in what order. There were absolutely no definable, recognizable pictures taking form. Yet the images that she was creating began to speak to me — not to my eyes, but to my sense of smell. As Nora swished and washed each page I began to smell the unmistakably sweet flowery smell of bath powder. Before long I began to see a lavender colored round powder box with a smokey-clear lid with a yellow soft fluffy fuzzy powder puff inside it.
I had absolutely no idea where that smell and the image of that box of powder came from, but after awhile I could see it so clearly that I could nearly have reached out both of my hands and snatched it right out of the air. I needed to decide whose information this was. Nora’s? Mine? Did it have anything at all to do with what this art therapy session was all about?
I answered my own questions and knew that I next had to find a way to introduce this image to Nora that had come to me so clearly. How could I introduce words and my speaking voice into this well of silence that Nora seemed to be so comfortable in? I didn’t want to surprise her or jar her or disorient her.
I walked out in front of the table where Nora was so intently working and into her range of vision. If I had been a bird I would have flapped my wings a bit to stir up a slight breeze to catch her attention as I settled onto the chair across the table from her.
“Nora,” I began quietly as if that one word was the most important one in the world. “An image has come to me while you’ve been painting. It surprised me and I wonder if it has anything to do with what you are painting. Is it alright if I tell you what it is?”
Nora agreed and as she listened to me she transformed into an entirely different mind-state person. What I sensed in that silent room was important, so important that I will never forget it. Every time I think about this it amazes me even though it happened 20 years ago.
Nora was sexually abused from a very young age by multiple perpetrators. The only safe person in her child life was her grandmother. It would make sense, then, that it would only be at this safe person’s house that Nora could finally act out her pain and her rage — one single time.
When I described the powder box and the powder puff to Nora it was as if I had passed it from my hands to hers. She went instantly to a memory of being five years old when she locked herself in her grandmother’s bathroom and began screaming and shouting and tearing that room apart. Everything thrown out of the medicine cabinet. The shower curtain ripped down, objects smashed on the floor, thrown hard against the walls and the bathroom door. All this time her grandmother was pounding on the outside of the bathroom door, yelling at Nora to open the door, to let her come in.
Other adults joined her grandmother in pounding on the door. Someone found a way to open it. The instant the door banged open and Nora looked up and met her grandmother’s eyes was the instant she was dumping the powder, puff first, into the toilet.
The look of shocked rage and betrayal on her grandmother’s face was enough to let little Nora know that she had just lost the only ally she had in the world, the only person she ever trusted or felt safe with, the person she adored, the one that never hurt her. She was sure her grandmother hated her as much now as the people did who hurt her. Zing! Zap! Crash, bash, bang! Done!
That was the end of the trusting girl Nora. She disappeared to any ongoing Nora at that instant, at that toilet, with that powder box in her hand. She reappeared at that art therapy table, in that dimly lit and peaceful room, brought back to life through an hour’s work with a paintbrush sliding across pieces of paper.
Along with all the other difficulties I might experience about how my brain did not form under ordinary conditions and is not, therefore, an ordinary brain, I can appreciate this gift that I seem to have to pay a particular kind of attention to signals that are being communicated on the subtlest of levels. I was not feeling threatened in that room. It was my job to be the one providing safety, security, and an appropriate art therapy experience.
So I could have my senses open in ways that I rarely can when out in the ordinary world. Most of the time my heightened sensitivities create clash and conflict for me in that ordinary world. But on that particular day, in that particular setting, the gifts could fly — both Nora’s in being able to transmit that image-message and in mine for being able to receive it.
I do believe that as severe child abuse survivors we have some amazing and particular gifts that have come to us through enduring our traumas. Yet in this ordinary world filled with mostly ordinary people, we can feel out of step in time and place, not able to modulate, moderate, or regulate how these gifts affect us — not when, where, or why.
In spite of my best intentions, and lots and lots of work to perfect my skills in my chose profession, I cannot pursue it. Over time more of the reality of what was done to me and how I was affected by that severe and long term trauma, settled into my awareness. It moved from an intellectual level into a very real emotional place connected to my body. During this process of healing, the more I realized what a risk it was for me to be working with troubled people — both for them and for myself.
I would have to be in a more perfect world to do that kind of work as employment, not in an ordinary one. My gifts were honed in trauma and do not translate into the mundane world on a regular basis. This treatment center I served this part of my internship in could not hire me anyway, because I was not a licensed addiction counselor (which required a high school education and special training and could then be billed at $90 per hour) so insurance would not cover my services. But finances, in the end, have nothing to do with the work itself.
This kind of work happens in a sacred space. If we want to talk about this kind of sacred in terms of ‘religion’ it needs to be connected to the root of that word: ‘Religio’ means to tie and bind together. What we can truly hear if we can allow ourselves to listen to one another can amaze us, and it has NOTHING to do with fixing anything or giving advice, no matter how well intentioned it might be.