Outside the Lines: Time, Art, Hope

Although I am committed to zero tolerance, no rushing, I am rarely successful. I am always trying to do too much in a day; the time gets away from me. I wind up feeling disappointed about all that I did not get done and wondering, where does the time go? I have no idea where it went, and there is never enough. It is hard to remember the long, lonely years when the time weighed so heavily on my hands as to be unbearable. Getting through the day was like pushing Sisyphus’ leaden boulder, invariably feeling it refuse to move. I thought there was something wrong with the clock. Now I know the amygdala has no time.

Neglect is a bleak, empty cavernous void. I imagine an infant lying alone in a darkened room, helpless, with no way of “knowing” if anyone will ever come, let alone when. I am often visited by that image when sitting with a client who describes their days as interminable, desolate, powerless, and hopeless. I have no doubt that is how it was. What is so insidious about trauma healing is that experience is not remembered but relived. The neglect story being one of absences, holes in time, empty space, and no story to remember, is a reliving of that. Often accompanied by a panoply of somatic mystery symptoms, it is puzzling. People often ask me, “Why do I feel so much worse than ever? When is this going to end?” The very musing of the young child, I imagine, who, of course, does not have the words.

I remember watching out the window, counting cars; I must have been six because that window was at the house in South Bend, and I knew how to count. Counting and waiting for Daddy’s Chevy to pull in and for him to bound in the door, calling out, “Ho ho!” Why did I look forward to that? I don’t know… I know it was invariably a long wait. I remember one time when I fasted for two weeks, with only a bit of water now and then. I called it “the Long March.” I would count the hours as “meal times” would come and pass. There was lunch, check. There was dinner, check. Day one, day two, up to fourteen. How did I do that? I don’t remember. I remember watching the clock not move, waiting to get to the magic hour of 4:45 when I could crack my bottle of Old Crow, $6.95 a quart rotgut bourbon. But it worked. Getting through the day. I remember that old song by John and Yoko, “Whatever gets you through the night, is alright, alright…” 

It is true, the healing years can be slower, longer, and arguably even worse than the original trauma experience, especially because it makes no sense. “I am worse than before! Is this therapy making me worse?” I wondered, and people ask me. It is hard to provide an answer that makes any difference. The best I can do is hold the certainty that I know it will. And I do. That is why I always say everything I have ever been through serves me.

Trauma and neglect are like a childhood of wild scribbles, not the orderly coloring book of a safe childhood.

Art

I have always loved art. I love pretty things, I love looking at art, I love making things, and I love beauty. I can say I love visual beauty more than music, maybe. Like many of my era, I idealized the iconic Frida Kahlo. She had terrible trauma and physical pain, but she managed it most successfully by painting prolifically, mostly graphic and dramatic self-portraits. Bright, primary colors, realism and symbolism, tragedy but also the beauty of nature, flowers, birds, animals, even hope. She found her way, and even with the ongoing trauma of her brilliant and cheating husband, she prevailed. Her life never ceased to be hard, but her powerful work is a legacy and an inspiration to many, especially women.

During the worst of those interminable years, probably after I finally surrendered alcohol to start trudging the rugged road of recovery, I don’t remember how it happened. I started to draw – I used colored pencils, never having the patience for unwieldy media and needing to feel a sense of control. I drew myself, largely rendering from old photos of many ages, but my family members too. I had my own symbology of icons and monsters that recurred. I sat, and I drew and drew and drew, and it gobbled up the time. There was no clock, there were no meals to track. I was in what that famous Hungarian guy with the unpronounceable name called “flow.” And I was amazed. My artistry was very good. It has never been that good since.

So much story was unearthed and even processed in those long hours at the kitchen table. Then I would roll up the large sheets and take them to therapy to review them with the “witness,” my therapist. I wonder how much quicker things would have moved if I had had neurofeedback then. Quite a few years later, when EMDR came on the scene, and I was studying and practicing that, I had an EMDR therapist who was also an art therapist. I can’t remember how she combined them, but it was a good idea. I am sure it was good, at least at the time. I don’t remember much. However, nothing was again like those hours at the kitchen table.

I still have the drawings, sheaves of them in large, now ragged brown cardboard portfolios. They trailed with me through all of my vagabond moves over decades. I don’t look at them often, but they are a record of where I was, that long slog. They certainly keep me grateful. My best friend was in film school at that time, and made a movie with my drawings, about the power of art for healing. She recently had the VHS converted to DVD. Now, if I could just find my DVD attachment, I’d like to have another look!

I agree with John and Yoko, whatever gets you through the night, is alright…. Well, as long as you don’t do any harm to yourself or another. Colored pencils are definitely better than bourbon or starvation. 

Hope

This was actually intended to be a missive of hope. I am not sure if it came across that way! Trauma and neglect are like a childhood of wild scribbles, not the orderly coloring book of a safe childhood. Of course, healing will be largely outside the lines, sometimes wildly so. My artwork was not cheery, but the colors are strong and have stood the test of time, as has the rocky but persistent healing work. Sometimes I feel as if my main task is a hope monger, to keep the faith somehow. I still occasionally have days where I have to be that for myself. That’s OK. Now I know that the clock is not broken; time does not really stand still, or at least not for long. And I agree with John and Yoko, whatever gets you through the night, is alright…. Well, as long as you don’t do any harm to yourself or another. Colored pencils are definitely better than bourbon or starvation. 

Cheese is an excellent teacher. The Monterey Jack I made last week required 70 minutes of stirring. That’s right! I stand on my little stool, stirring my 8-gallon pot for that long. I get to watch a whole lot of great webinars! The aging time is another story. I remember when I first started making cheese, and the idea of waiting four months before it was ready seemed like a cruel joke. Now four is a short time, and a good Parmesan or cheddar will take a year or more. Gardening is the same way. I used to grow roses when I lived in Berkeley. I read that when you grow asparagus, it takes eight years before you get a crop! The waiting is part of the protocol, part of the deal. Hard to metabolize that some of these invaluable processes are simply not to be hurried. Some of those cheeses really stink! But we find them delicious.

Today’s song:

My book “Working with the Developmental Trauma of Childhood Neglect: Using Psychotherapy and Attachment Theory Techniques in Clinical Practice” was published on August 31st. It provides psychotherapists with a multidimensional view of childhood neglect and a practical roadmap for facilitating survivors’ healing.

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