Recently in Art Therapy Category
The hallmark of having a dissociative psyche is that drastic and off-scale changes can, and will, occur in the blink of an eye. It is often called "switching", referring to switches in personality states. I have certainly come a long way towards accepting "parts of me" and know that acceptance has been necessary and helpful in order to live with such titanic changes of state.
However, when push comes to shove, and especially in times of trouble, acceptance is sorely tested. In times of difficulty, there are some subtle differences between an acceptance that works and one that does not.
I will start with the one that does not. When certain aspects of me are massively triggered and there is an increase in symptoms such as intrusive memories or emotional distress, there is a natural tendency to isolate and compartmentalize. I will often say that I still accept these parts of me, that it is not like the past when I would try to erase them—a full scale denial.
I will often normalize how I think about parts or aspects of me. I minimize. This can be a sort of denial and a protective mechanism and leads to an increase in internal conflicts because it does not embrace who I really am. I often believe that my "moderated stance" is perfectly appropriate (and in many ways it is). These are the kinds of statements I make: The parts of my personality are all part of one person. They are "facets" of me. There is a continuum, and since I have healed so much and have more awareness I do not have "parts" in the same way I used to have parts. That then means what I call parts of me are not really important. Switches are not really switches but generic mood swings.
Because I am more functional than ever, I am still able to, for the most part, make appropriate shifts to keep up with my life. I end up walking on a metaphorical tightrope until I realize that what I am doing has become a continuous strain.
This type of tepid acceptance tends to work externally but erodes internal glue and cohesiveness.
Where I often get tripped up is that the "acceptance" that works is not so much different from the one that does not. I can still stick with many of the "moderated" positions about parts of me, but if the intention is there to walk through life more collaboratively with a whole scale acknowledgement and acceptance, that is what really makes the difference. In the past, I have described this kind of internal collaboration using the analogy of water.
The key is intention.
The issue is really not whether the statements I say to myself are true or untrue. It is how I set them up. I can take "true" statements and beliefs, put them through my
To use another analogy from sports, these two forms of acceptance are the difference between a good team and a championship team. They are both teams. What is interesting from sports, is that even if the team is loaded with outstanding talent and highly played players, they are not necessarily champions. To win, talent is generally not enough. The championship team must have that extra something, which is often difficult to quantify, to put them over the top.
This is what makes dissociative identities and childhood trauma recovery so difficult. The difference between what works and what does not is often simple to articulate but can be very hard to put into practice, especially with so many different pieces in play in dissociative systems, just like team members on the sports team.
Another reason why it is difficult is that the the stakes are very different. For many of us, it is not about whether we come in first place or third place. Rather it is whether we stay safe or not. Stay functional or collapse. Have a positive outlook on life or are suicidal.
The reason I share the art work above, is that I did it the same day I made the last post here. I was feeling particularly "open". I felt I was not working hard enough at healing or addressing what was below the surface well enough. And so I shared in art (and during therapy) the feelings associated with the memories which were coming up at the time.
I saw that as a positive step forward.
Yet the very next day I hurt myself.
I have not hurt myself since, mostly because I have understood that the breakdown in safety was about the difference between these two types of acceptance.
I write today because I know I am trending away from the acceptance that leads to safety, and I want to find my way back.
My last post was a system map, a tool I first wrote about last October. The ability to make such maps is something I have worked to achieve over the course of many years, and I find it to be an invaluable tool.
I am finding it difficult to write in the ways I have become used to here. I do not seem to have a sense of confidence in understanding much about how I use dissociation and how that may be related to others' experiences. I also seem to have difficulty sharing much of anything that is even remotely personal. I feel very much alone in my struggles.
So I will write about what is going on for me somewhat abstractly via the most recent system map from this morning with labels of aspects of me removed for safety.
My system maps change regularly, as probably anyone who regularly dissociates. That is not anything new or surprising. In fact, it is one of the more validating tools I have available to me that paints a crystal clear picture of how drastically the elements of my psyche can shift over short (and long) periods of time. It is validating because to make such a map, I need to really be able to check in with all aspects of me, and it is clear that what is happening is not simply a mood shift or a influx of thoughts.
This period has been dominated by the resurgence of a particular part who holds an enormous amount of information as well as power. My psyche is very complex right now, more so than usual which is saying quite a lot. Safety has been compromised, but a good deal of information is being shared and connections are being made that I had not even considered in my now two decade journey of healing.
The timing of these shifts is clearly related to the Easter season. They came to a climax on Ash Wednesday last week, a relative benign day when compared to Good Friday or Easter Sunday, holy days which have been dominated in the past by conflicts within and beyond me; about good versus evil, God versus Satan, and the like. These are some of the core conflicts which have never been resolved in relation to my past experience (or understood or even accepted).
They are now pressing for attention. There is no alternative but to dedicate myself to addressing them. Until last night, I felt like a fish out of water. But I was able to communicate internally and information was shared that helped these conflicts be a little less difficult. This system map, then, is a sort of visual representation of how the information has been shared.
Information sharing, a form of internal communication, is perhaps the single most important tool we can have in healing from the unhealthy aspects of a dissociative existence. That is a statement I would have scoffed at just a few years ago. I would say "What are you crazy? You have no idea what you are saying!" But I have found that it is true.
Several months ago, I wrote about system maps. I am not writing here much lately, mainly because my life has been so busy.
But even being good at having a busy life can be a problem if you do not take care of yourself along the way. So many times I have found myself flying off the track.
So, I thought I would put up a map I did the other day.
I have struggled for a long time to make any sort of system map. Decades really. I have long known that this inability has clearly been all about resistance. And the resistance was mostly that I believed once I made a map, I was locking all of me into a certain way of viewing myself. I thought it meant it would play too much into a "dissociative" way of looking at the world, when what I really want is to move away from that view.
One important lesson I have learned is that to heal and move forward, you have to accept where you are in the present.
Over the past few years, with that acceptance mostly in hand, I have focused on more visual ways of checking in with myself. I started with these maps two months ago. I have now made 15 maps, and my goal is to make them more regularly. Each really only takes a few minutes. I use a simple diagram program called Diagrammix on Mac OS, but there are many out there. To make a new map, I either start with the previous one (if I feel connected to that last state) or I start with a template (if I do not).
I change links and arrows, widths of circles or squares, shapes, colors, size and more. It ends up feeling a lot like a virtual sandbox. I have found that what comes out is usually not at all what I would be able to describe if I had to use words. So, in that sense, they are quite helpful. I do not really have to think all that much and I do not really worry about how "accurate" the map is. The intent is to do as good a check-in as possible. It is sort of akin to taking a temperature reading. It is but one measure, albeit and important one, of where my head is at.
I also save all the images to a folder, and can flip through them as a slideshow. This sequence of images gives me a sense of change over time. Again, quite helpful.
My private system maps do have labels in the circles and squares (I removed them for this post). I have talked before about labels and names, see Naming Parts of Our Dissociated Selves. For me, I have found that the names and labels help me identify and make sense of what is going on. It provides a framework for me to think about myself, and thus, is an important component of healing, changing, or growing. I am, however, careful with names and labels and have established a "safe setting" rule where they are used. That means they remain private.
The maps show me how drastic the changes can be over time. Sometimes I have made a series of maps just over a few hours and even that can show dramatic shifts. The point of seeing that, for me, is mostly about gaining visual markers. What often happens for me is that hours or days run into other hours or days, and I can easily lose track of continuity of experience.
There are many skills one can use to help. I have written about many before, and this is just one more skill to add to the "toolbox."
This month's arts carnival is on "feeling in the moment." I have had trouble for a long while now on doing something like this. I am so held back by that "inner critic."
This is not unlike images I have made before. It incorporates "colors" that identify with different aspects of myself and attempts to blend them. In all honesty, this is not an image about feeling as much as it was an image about just doing some kind of art without much overlay of thinking.
How I did this is fairly simple. You can do it digitally, like I did here on an iPad with the Inspire Pro App, or with real paints or pastels. The first step was to make a boundary. I find I need to have boundaries a lot of times to help me feel contained. Then I laid down the colors in short strokes, ensuring that there was some transparency (equivalent I guess to adding water to real paint). The last step was to increase the brush size, remove the paint from the brush, and work back and forth laterally in the same way I would do it with pastels.
I am still trying to go back to basics, the nuts and bolts that I wrote about 2 weeks ago. It is hard to believe that amount of time has gone by. It has just flown by.
If you have been holding off on submitting to this month's Expressive Arts Carnival, you can submit through Friday and I will publish on Saturday.
How apt that this month's arts carnival is on "coping when you thought you could not." This is precisely where I find myself. Without getting into much detail, I have been much more compartmentalized and not particularly invested in changing the situation.
This is sort of unusual for me. I normally have the fight in me to change things. Not so much these days. The reality is that times like these are to be expected. I do not always have the emotional strength that I need to do the healing work and maintain all the responsibilities of life.
Since my beloved Boston Bruins hockey team is in the conference finals for the first time since 1992, I will use an example from sports. So often you will see a team start a period as if they were shot out of a cannon. They can just take control of the game away from the other team. This happened last Saturday when my team scored three goals in the first period, to the other team's zero. I had the feeling is was going to be a huge blowout. But we ended up losing.
It is so very difficult to maintain intensity in any endeavor. I have clearly lost that intensity. In sports it is often referred to as your "compete level." I have talked before about "taking vacation" (from healing work), but honestly I do not see that as possible for me. The stakes are too high. When I get too out of touch with a healing path for too long, it does not lead to anything good. Safety becomes a serious issue. Fragmentation can get to a place where it is too deep a hole to dig out of.
There is a particular image that I tend to draw or paint that helps me reconnect. They are all variants of showing many colors as a patch quilt of sorts. This is what I did last night. I represent parts of me as colors, and sort of take a "snapshot" of where all of me is. It is sort of like a check-in. I find it helps in the moment. We will see if it does longer term.
If you have been holding off on submitting to this month's Expressive Arts Carnival, there are now a couple days extended to the deadline. I will publish it on Friday.
I was planning on simply including my contribution within this month's Expressive Arts Carnival and I was going to publish it today. But I am going to hold off a couple days on the carnival and instead talk about my "memoir."
Off and on for the past month, I thought about what my six words would be. Then, in one moment of internal understanding, it came to me. This past month or two has been mainly about "living my life," so I was sure that was going to be my main statement.
The questions are, for me: What living my life means? And what is the route to accomplishing it?
Over the past three years that I have been on a new healing trajectory, I have amassed a collection of healing words that have been significant to me. And these number many more than six! These appeared in my Contract of over a year ago and I have used many of them as touchstones to keep me on the path. When I fall off the path, those words (and what they mean to me) are there. And I think this is how I have learned to develop some measure of resilience, strength, hope and achieved a good deal of healing.
Before 2008, my one word touchstone was basically "think." It worked some times, but it had severe limitations. Most everything having to do with feeling was kept separate. It was not a healing configuration.
In 2008, I had one word that was my touchstone: "Breathe." It was a start of a new direction.
In 2009, I had a mantra: "Relax, Breathe, Feel, Accept, Listen, Choose, Allow."
In 2010, I started adding to this mantra such words as: "Love", "Heal", "Safety", "Trust", "Responsibility", "Live." All are important and all have been explored in various ways.
In 2011, I went back to a single theme: "Balance." Balance is hard for anyone to achieve, yet is crucial to those of us who have had chaotic lives and struggle to heal the aftermath of abuse. Dissociation and post-traumatic symptoms are not very compatible with balance. So, for many of us, balance is an extremely uphill climb.
Before I started working on balance so directly, I learned that one cannot have any chance of achieving even some unless there is acceptance. While I have luckily never been an alcoholic, I have admired Alcoholics Anonymous' incorporation of The Serenity Prayer. This quote (from the AA "Big Book" p. 449) is particularly helpful to me:
For so many years, I had tried the solution of willing parts of me away. For so long I had tried the solution of willing my abusive past away. I failed to realize that lack of acceptance was an enormous obstacle to my healing. I failed to realize that acceptance of the past and present can lead to positive change in the future. That was a breakthrough for me.
My sixth word could have been "change," but I decided to make it "evolve." Change can either be positive or negative. Evolving is about growth and I try not to pay attention that evolution is about "survival of the fittest!" Instead, I try to think of evolving as incorporating past knowledge so one can gain wisdom and insight. I fully remember nearly three years ago when "My Healing Guide" said that healing could mean that parts of me could evolve. At the time, I scoffed at her. Oh, how things are different now.
And, so you have it. My six-word memoir:
If you have been holding off on submitting to this month's Expressive Arts Carnival, there are now a couple days extended to the deadline. I will publish it on Sunday late afternoon.
It has been a long two weeks since I last posted, where I wrote about crashing, suicidality, and then rallying (and in the ensuing comments, about crashing again). Since I wrote that post, the cycle continued. I managed to keep going by completely disconnecting inside. I know that is not a good place to be. It is interesting now. In the past, I would not have given this a second thought. You disconnect, so much happens that you have no awareness of, but you accomplish what you are supposed to do in life and people around you are happy. But, boy, I am now aware of what the cost is of doing that. I know I can never stay in that place for too long. Because it really feels awful! So, now, two weeks later, I am working on reconnecting.
I thought one way to reconnect was to do the Expressive Arts Carnival Activity for this month, the self portrait. When I put up the activity, I did it with the knowledge that so much art we survivors make is about how we look at ourselves. So, in a sense, almost all are self portraits. I have done very abstract self portraits, with no recognizable body features, just colors and lines. I have also done more traditional self portraits.
This image is one that I originally made in the hospital a few months ago. I was in a very hard place. I did not see much hope. I knew I wanted that image to be the one I would share here. But I could not find it. I decided to redo the image. The original was done with charcoal sticks. I like using those. But "My Healing Guide" did not have any available in her office. So, we decided to use black chalk pastels. I do not think I have ever used chalk pastels before, but I really liked the way the color went onto the page. This recreated image has more color than the original, and also a black open mouth (whereas the original had a white open mouth).
I did this in stages in a direct attempt to reconnect inside. The first stage was just the circle of my head and a circle for my mouth. We stopped and talked about it a little bit. The second stage added the strong black slanted lines for the closed eyes and "My Healing Guide" said "that changes it quite a bit." I then (quite deliberately) blackened in the mouth. Then I dirtied up the face. Each time she said what I was doing was changing the message of the image a great deal.
This is the result. I should perhaps say that just an hour prior I had finished a huge work deadline that had consumed me for a few days straight. I was able to be successful with that challenge. Yet, instead of coming from work to therapy and celebrating, I felt like I was collapsing. This is how I saw myself. As bad, damaged, unaware. My eyes are closed (or maybe sealed shut). My mouth is screaming (or maybe it is a view into the badness that consumes me).
I am glad I did this piece. I know it is a significant step in trying to find some reconnection inside. Step by step.
To say that I have not been very engaged here in the hospital would be a major understatement. Yes, I did 10 pieces of art over the weekend and had shift in acceptance Monday evening. But that was ephemeral. There has been one distraction after another since coming here, all meant, I think, to deflect against dealing with specific memories.
First, there was the not eating and drinking, which I truly thought was going to take me over, and has not gone away completely by any means. Then there have been troubles with an increasing fever for a week; for me, all physical ailments are a distraction! And yesterday, I deliberately allowed the comments on my last post, a mistake on my part, to distract me for most of the afternoon and evening.
But, in the midst of all of this was the sole group I have been to, I think, since I have been here. Well, it was a combination deal of talk-based self-assessment followed by art therapy self assessment. So, two groups really.
Back in May, I posted Self Assessment, where we used art therapy in group to "represent body sensations, thoughts and emotions contained in a circle." Yesterday we repeated that directive.
I have said before that I believe art therapy is one of the mental health community's greatest inventions for trauma healing. And while I have done many art pieces over the years, I never attempted anything with such vigor as in this piece. I started with the circle, the black circle. Then I put the typical angry colors of red and black to represent surging emotions (a whole host of them) and body sensations (physical pain).
I put gray in there to represent me, the responsible adult (or "coach" if you will) of all of me. I have recently been asked to put myself in artwork. But I did not ever have a color. I chose gray a couple months ago, and it made its way into this image. All the while, I was going back and forth between laying down the interior colors and angrily making the black circle thicker and thicker.
I have heard artists talk about getting into their work and using the medium as a conduit for emotions, and have seen this in movies. That has never really been an experience I have much had, until yesterday. I can certainly say that I have the experience quite often when performing on the piano. I absolutely find it thrilling!
The second part of the assessment was to draw healing colors outside of the circle. The healing colors that are very specific to me are purple, pink and brown. During this whole process, which took only about 15 minutes, I was using the oil pastels so hard that I broke several. Then I immediately grabbed the bits and smashed them into the paper. And, as usual with oil pastels, I used my fingers to blend all the colors. My hands were completely covered in color when I was done.
I think this is the first art piece I have done where I have completely filled the page with color. It was very important for me to do that. I do not know why it was important and do not know what that means.
I rather like the result. And maybe I am more engaged than I think.
This is an art piece I made probably more than a month ago in "My Healing Guide's" office. I have had it sitting in my desk at home and was waiting for the right time to put it up here. I rather like the image, so I am not quite sure why I waited so long.
I have had a mixed relationship with art therapy the past many months. I went into a long drought, slipping back into the "I can't do any art!" self-judgment. For a long time I have known that the golden rule of art therapy is to leave your art critic at the door. Maybe I should have closed the door, because the critic has been walking right in and sitting on my shoulder all the time. There has been huge resistance. I had supplanted that resistance with working doubly hard to solve things intellectually. But I learned a while ago that not all problems can be solved intellectually.
Shortly before I went into the hospital before Halloween for what was an ultra-brief four day stay, I did go back to the skills that had helped me in the past. While my hospital stay was not among the best of experiences, it still did a couple of key things for me. For one, it helped increase my level of internal acceptance; always a good thing. For another, it helped me achieve some internal communication that had alluded me. Not bad for four days!
Since I have been home, there has been some mild internal chaos. I have been determined to stay safe, but this has meant that I have had to breathe through some intense bouts of pain and some uncomfortable changes of state (of the personality kind mostly, but also the emotional kind). As a result, time is a bit choppy for me.
I am here to remind myself how helpful it is to express feelings through art. It is like a common language we all share internally. I learn so much about myself that is vastly different from what I learn if I try to think everything through.
This piece of art came at a time when I was conflicted internally. "My Healing Guide" knew I was not feeling able to do art, so she suggested that I just lay down some colors on a page. I chose very specific colors, colors that represent aspects of me. I cannot remember, but I think I just drew lines of color in a kind of quick and irritable manner, ending with a sort of "There! Are you happy now?"
But, I chose oil pastels and it is very hard to stay irritable when you use oil pastels! She has many types of art media, plus I keep several with me in my backpack. I chose the oil pastels because I find solace in the physical process of blending the colors with my fingers.
That was the case here. What started with the feeling that everyone inside was separate, ended up with the feeling that we were all together and "blended." Our therapy session shifted. I opened up. Art can do that for you.