…Everyone is creative. There is an innate calling to respond to the world through some sort of creative medium. Sadly, this creative impulse is often stifled, or worse, actively discouraged in childhood. Creative Arts Therapies is a field that recognizes the inherent value of the arts as necessary for health and wellbeing. As a registered dance and drama therapist, and as an artist working with documentary film, mask making, dance, and music, I have seen the power of the arts to transform individuals and communities. As we go through life, we each have a unique way of experiencing the world. Each one of us is unique with a specific set of patterns, preferences, and innate skills that determine the way we create. Some of us will see the world from a large sweeping view, or the big picture, while others will focus intensely on what is right in front of us very close up and detailed.
As a part of my series about the “5 Things Anyone Can Do To Optimize Their Mental Wellness” I had the pleasure of interviewing Yehudit Silverman.
Yehudit Silverman, M.A. R-DMT, RDT, is a Creative Arts Therapist, and former Chair of the Department of Creative Arts Therapies, Concordia University, Montreal. She is also the author of The Story Within which includes a step–by-step guide through a creative arts therapies approach, with reflections from those who have gone through the process as well as the author’s own personal journey. An award — winning documentary filmmaker, she produced and directed “The Story Within — myth and fairy tale in therapy” video which is a helpful companion for the book. She created The Story Within method out of her clinical practice and has been teaching it to graduate students for over 20 years.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
I grew up hanging upside down from apple trees, sometimes reading a book. The old gnarly apple trees were my refuge, and hanging upside down gave me new perspectives about how the world could look. The street leading to my house was dirt, the houses spread apart, and the yellow school bus that arrived every day was not my happy place. School was a challenge and being one of only a few Jewish students, I learned early about being the “other”. Sometimes alone on the playground, I would wish that I was different, perhaps straight hair with bangs, or that I had magical powers. In my imagination I did, and when I was singings, dancing, writing poetry and stories, I felt alive and free. So, early on I associated my imagination and creativity with healing. Being able to express my feelings onto something outside myself gave me a sense of meaning and hope.
One of my brothers was born with a heart condition and this was before open heart surgery, so we were always looking out to see if his lips were blue, if he was tired, or to make sure we were the ones to run instead of him. I learned early that bad things happen to good people, and that there was nothing I could do to save him. However, I also learned that what matters is how we respond to what we are given, and my brother was the first to learn to dance the twist, to laugh at a joke, or to drive with the top down. He lived fully until he died of a heart attack at age 46.
Myths and fairy tales were also a big part of my childhood. My grandmother read me fairy tales from an old musty book. And as the afternoon light faded, we were lost in a world with witches and magic. Certain stories stayed with me…The Handless Maiden…The Boy and the Three Goats…. and then at night in the darkness I listened as a male voice slowly read aloud the Greek myths from a a vinyl record with a purple center, my dreams filled with gods and goddesses…
In college I studied dance and liberal arts. For the graduation I was asked to choreograph a dance and I created an outdoor piece based on the descent of Persephone into Hades, using movement and music. Once I graduated I became a professional dancer and to support myself I taught dance. One of my students, an energetic woman in her thirties, couldn’t speak above a raw whisper. This happened a few years previously and she was diagnosed as having “selective mutism” which meant there was no physical cause for her condition, but she was still unable to speak. She asked if I could “work” with her. Having no therapeutic training I didn’t know what she meant. But she was insistent so I told her I wouldn’t charge her, but we could explore together. Because of my childhood love of stories and the arts I brought all of this into our sessions and asked her if there was story that she was drawn to. Immediately she said, “Snow White” and she chose the moment when she ingests the poisoned apple and falls into a deep sleep. Allowing herself to be immersed in the character and moment she physically placed herself in a large container that happened to be in the room, to represent the glass casket from the story. Once inside she started banging on the wood then at one point yelled in a perfectly normal voice “let me out!”. I was shocked. She didn’t realize that she had actually used her voice in a normal way until I reordered her in role. After that she gradually regained the normal use of her voice. She felt that somehow I “cured” her, but I knew the truth. It wasn’t me; it was the story and her creativity that led her where she needed to go. After this I decided to study Dance Therapy and later on Drama Therapy, as well as several somatic therapies, this began my career in Creative Arts Therapies. I think my childhood experiences of being the “other”, finding meaning through the arts and stories, and having a brother with physical challenges, were the steppingstones that led me to develop The Story Within- myth and fairy tale in therapy process.
I began developing this approach as a creative arts therapist working in hospital settings and in private practice with children, adolescents, and adults, dealing with diverse psychological and physical issues. For over twenty years as a professor and former Chair of the Creative Arts Therapies Department at Concordia University, in Montreal, I taught The Story Within to graduate students. Most recently I have expanded to working internationally with communities around the issue of suicide, mental illness, interfaith and cross-cultural dialogue, and trauma. Last April my book, The Story Within — myth and fairy tale in therapy, was published and offers readers a step by step approach to working with the arts and a character from a myth or fairy tale to work with personal challenges. I also created a documentary film that works as a companion to the book.
As part of my University research I received provincial and federal grants to work on issues around the shame and stigma that surround suicide. My research culminated with a documentary film The Hidden Face of Suicide that enters the world of survivors, those who lost loved ones to suicide, and tells their remarkable stories. The film has travelled the world, playing in cinemas, and festivals. At one of these screenings after the film finished an elegant woman stepped up to microphone and said very softly “I’m 65 years old. My other took her own life when I was 25. For sixty years I never spoke about it I was too ashamed. Hearing the survivors tell their stories gave me the courage to speak”. Sadly, this proved to be a common response to the film. Many audience members shared their stories of losing a mother, father, sister, brother, best friend, husband, wife, to suicide. And only now after seeing the film, did they feel they could break the silence. This was my motivation for making the film, to help in some small way break the silence and stigma that still surrounds this issue of suicide. If we don’t speak about suicide, if the subject is still cloaked in shame, then those who are suffering will not seek help.
For me, one of the biggest lessons in all my experience is that those who are suffering need a voice, an avenue to express their pain, but also to discover and express their strength and resilience. Right now, because of the Coronavirus many of us are feeling fear and anxiety about our health, our livelihoods, and uncertainty about the future. And perhaps a sense of deep loss in terms of social connections and intimacy. Maybe even anger at all we are missing out on. What do we do with these feelings? When we express these feelings through a creative medium, whether it be an art piece, dramatic role, music, poetry, or dance, they take on a form outside of us and become less overwhelming. Working creatively allows us to have a high degree of safety when working through difficult feelings, and the ability to discover new perspectives about our situation. The power of the arts is that they have the capacity to contain paradox, complexity, and opposing points of view in one form. For example, we could create a collage that expresses both grief and loss as well as hope. Engaging with our own creativity is life giving and active and builds resilience and hope.
The other lesson I learned from my background, is the inherent power of myths, fairy tales, and ancient stories. All of them from around the world speak of a quest: a journey fraught with obstacles, demons, and monsters. From Persephone to the Ugly Duckling, the themes and challenges within these stories still speak to us today. As we go through our lives we face our own profound challenges and obstacles and seek an effective way to work with them. How do we access what remains unconscious and hidden? How can we find a safe way to approach the parts of ourselves that keep us caught in destructive patterns? How do we help those we work with discover their inherent creativity and life force? The power of myth and fairy tales is that they give form to archetypal and personal fears and longings. Often these are too frightening to confront directly but we can identify with the protagonist in the story as they face demons and obstacles on their journey. Right now, with what we are going through we might feel helpless and it is important to find a sense of agency and meaning. I found that combining the power of creativity with the potent and ancient content of myth and fairy tale is an effective way to work with our inner feelings and challenges and also discover our inherent creativity and resilience.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
As a creative arts therapist I worked in several Montreal hospitals and had the privilege of bringing my creative arts therapies approach with stories and the arts to many patients suffering from physical and psychological challenges. This story is from when I just was beginning my career as a therapist. I entered the room and saw a skeletally thin girl sitting up in bed hooked up to a heart monitor. I introduced myself and sat at the edge of her bed. She was admitted to the hospital because she had severe anorexia and her heart was affected. She was 16 but looked around 11. I felt something squishy under the covers and found, to my dismay, old uneaten food hidden there. She started to deny that it was hers, but without saying a word I wrapped the food in Kleenex and threw it out. And then I surprised her by asking if she liked fairy tales. Immediately her face changed into a big smile and she said she loved “The Wizard of Oz.” For several months we worked together with this story. She refused all other forms of therapy and continued to be non-compliant about re-feeding but agreed to see me because I never spoke about eating or her weight. Instead, within the limitations of her hospital bed, she made masks, costumes, artwork, and embodied characters from the Wizard of Oz. She identified as Dorothy and told me that the tornado was “good” because it took her to the sacred place of Oz, where she felt special and in control, whereas Good Witch Glenda was “evil” and tried to get her to betray the tornado and send her back to Kansas. To feel a sense of “order” in her life she had to abstain from eating (the tornado) so she could enter the magical world of Oz where she experienced the euphoria of starvation. In contrast, any attempt by the hospital staff to get her to eat was perceived as a direct threat and pushed her directly into “chaos.” As time went on, she became thinner and thinner and we were all concerned that her heart would give out and she would die. I understood that until she had a direct experience of the danger of her eating disorder she would not respond to treatment. Instead of challenging her perceptions, I worked with them within the story. I had her embody the tornado and speak as the tornado to her character Dorothy. One day, as she was embodying the tornado, she laughed a maniacal laugh and then came out of role, crying and shivering. For the first time, she experienced the tornado (her anorexia) as malicious and chaotic. This was the start of her recovery. It was a difficult journey, but by working with this story she was able to face her eating disorder and leave the hospital and continue in high school. During a six-month follow-up visit she told me, “I felt so magical in Oz, it provided me a rigid sense of order. I didn’t want to return to Kansas and the ‘chaos’ of eating and feeling myself in my body…it was hard to find out who I was without anorexia. I felt like no one, nothing, so boring in flat Kansas. But now I know the truth about Oz and that the tornado/starvation was not my friend but leading me to death.”
This experience taught me to trust the inherent strength and healing potential in everyone. And most importantly, it taught me what my real job was; help the client discover a story and character that resonates in a deep, perhaps even uncomfortable way, and encourage their own inherent creativity. And to trust that the story and the arts themselves will lead the client exactly where they need to go in a safe and gradual way. Everyone has a story. We all live by narratives that define who we are and how we approach the world. Our reactions to what we encounter come out of these narratives. And yet, our emotional reactions often surprise and challenge us because they seem to come out of nowhere. In my work as a therapist I discovered that there are underlying and often hidden stories that remain inaccessible. It is these hidden stories that truly control how we approach and interact with the world. Within these hidden stories are the traumas, emotional wounds, and difficult memories and experiences that we have blocked off from our consciousness. We cannot see or feel them, yet they hold us firmly in their grip, leading us to react as if we are fighting for our very survival. While talk therapy and addressing personal issues in a direct manner may be helpful, working only cognitively can keep us from making a true visceral connection to that which lies buried and out of reach. How do we access what remains unconscious and hidden? How can we find a safe way to approach our deepest fears? For much of our human history our fears have been expressed in our myths, fairy tales, and traditional stories The fairy tales reimagined by Disney left out the most important darker aspects from the original versions, which can allow us to truly explore the chaotic and challenging aspects of our current situation. The darker elements of the stories allow us to explore the darker elements within ourselves. And, most importantly, by externalizing these darker feelings onto a story and character, we find creative ways of discovering our own courage and strengths.
Can you share a story with us about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? What lesson or take-away did you learn from that?
I’ve made many mistakes along the way and will invariably continue to do so. Here is one that happened when I first moved from Boston to Montreal. I was hired to work as a creative arts therapist on a psychiatric unit of a major hospital. During my initial interview I was asked if I spoke French and I said, “No.” However, when I arrived to lead my first group of inpatients diagnosed with schizophrenia, I was shocked to discover that they only spoke French. Desperate, I decided maybe if I spoke English very loudly and slowly, they would understand. Of course, this was not successful, and for the rest of the session I used a lot of mime and hand gestures. Somehow, we managed to communicate based on the kindness and patience of the group. Over the course of the next few sessions I brought my French dictionary with me and tried to string words together to form cohesive sentences. However, I believe I mostly said things like “chair, move, here, now.” The group was very attentive (because they never knew what would come out of my mouth) and really tried to help, offering suggestions. One day when I felt I had mastered enough French to feel more comfortable, I was leading them in a relaxation exercise and I said, “Relaxez les jambons.” They were lying on the floor and several lifted their heads and asked “les jambons?” and I proudly stated, “Oui, les jambons.” Noticing that everyone looked very confused and some were trying hard not to laugh, I looked in my dictionary and realized I had asked them to “relax their hams.” The word for legs in French is “les jambes” and the word for ham is “les jambons.” I started to laugh and then all of us were rolling on the floor laughing and saying “Relaxez les jambons” over and over. The fact that I could laugh at my own ignorance and foolishness allowed all of us to share a precious moment of vulnerability and closeness. For the group, this was a turning point when a real alliance was built. From then on when a patient was stuck, or we reached a tough moment, someone would inevitably say “Relaxes les jambons” and we would laugh and remember that moment and something would ease. For me, this was a huge lesson as to what “healing” and “therapy” means. I realized that the best I could offer was my full presence with all my foolishness and imperfections and that this allowed them to relax and not feel that they had to be perfect. And perhaps most importantly, I realized that therapy is always about learning a new language. We cannot possibly know what specific words or metaphors mean for our clients and we must be open to admitting we do not know and enjoy the process.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My parents sent me to a private high school in the hopes of having better teachers, less prejudice and stimulating classes. Unfortunately, I was a stubborn sullen teen and wanted nothing to do with classes or homework. Until I met Deborah. Her ancestors came over on the Mayflower, and mine were Rabbis in a Polish Shtetl, yet she was the first person I could really talk to. We stayed up for hours, phone cords wrapped around our legs, speaking about the meaning of life. She was a devout Atheist and for me spirituality was as present as breathing. One night when she slept over, we had a huge argument about whether there was a divine presence in the universe. I was so upset I woke my parents up at 2 am. They were not amused and told me to go back to sleep. Even though we disagreed about many things our friendship flourished. She was smart, aced all her tests and taught me how to study. She also introduced me to Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell, and we would spend hours trying to interpret their lyrics. She was the first person who believed in me as an artist. As adults she encouraged my dancing, choreography and writing. Before I became a therapist, I shared with her my ideas of bringing together stories and the arts into some sort of healing practice. She listened and said she had a premonition that I would publish a book someday. I laughed out loud. At that time, I had just started graduate school to become a therapist, was mourning my life as a dancer, and didn’t know where I would end up. We became mothers around the same time and met every summer in Maine, watching our children play in the sand. During her last pregnancy she was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer. She called me up to ask what she should do — abort her baby and receive immediate Chemotherapy or bring the baby to term. I told her whatever she decided I would support 100 percent. She chose to keep the pregnancy. And while her kids were small, for six years she fought a courageous battle with her cancer, suffering through chemotherapy, a bone marrow transplant, until eventually the cancer won. I was with her throughout her illness and in her dying. We had such special moments, both of us in our houses many miles apart on the phone watching Peter Pan on television with our children beside us, or driving through a snow storm to have a delicious candlelight dinner in a fancy restaurant, and near the end a painstakingly slow walk with her limping and leaning on me, along the marginal way in Ogunquit. She died at age 39. She was my best friend. She taught me to believe in my ideas, my visions, and that I could forge my own path. Her illness and dying taught me that life is precious, and that in the end nothing matters but love. Also, I learned that I could be with suffering and not be consumed, that it was a privilege, and even, perhaps, holy to be vulnerable, and that in our woundedness we touch our deepest strength. Without Deborah I would not have dared to be a therapist, create my own creative arts therapies approach, make films, or author a book. I am eternally grateful. And I miss her every day.
What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?
- Be creative
Those of us in the helping professions can become consumed with all the suffering we witness. Often we see clients who are faced with way too many life challenges from poverty, abuse, trauma, physical illness, racism, war, and the list goes on. How can we be present for all this suffering and yet still stay healthy? For me the key is to always have a creative practice, an avenue for expression, whether it be through art, music, dance, writing, drama. It doesn’t matter what medium as long there is some way to process and give form to what we have witnessed and held inside. Once our feelings take on a creative form, they become less overwhelming. It is also a way to work through any counter transference, or difficult feelings we have about clients. And as well our creativity can lead us to examine our blind spots and bias, so we ensure we are not imposing our own limitations on our clients. When I worked in hospitals I would try and leave time between seeing clients so that I could take a moment to draw, write, move, what came up for me in my previous session. This really helped to process my feelings so that they didn’t stay lodged and stuck inside.
- Be silly
Often as therapists, we feel we need to be serious. Of course, we need to take our professional role and clients seriously, but this doesn’t mean we can’t allow ourselves to be downright silly at times. Some of my most precious and therapeutic moments with clients were when we both found something hilariously funny even in midst of great suffering and lost ourselves in uncontrollable laughter. For example, I was sitting in my hospital office with an adolescent whose mom was very ill, and her boyfriend had just left her. She was quite despondent and sat slumped in a chair looking down at her feet. When she looked up she saw that I had 3 pairs of glasses on my head and I was looking around asking where my glasses were. This was not on purpose. As I continued to look for my glasses she started to giggle and pointed to my head and once I felt the three pairs just sitting there (quite happily) I also started laughing and then we couldn’t stop. This proved to be a healing moment for both of us.
- Be out in nature
There is something about being with trees or water or listening to the wind that makes us feel better. It doesn’t have to be fancy, or involve expense or travel, just a simple park where there is some green, perhaps some animal life (ducks are always interesting) and mainly making the time to go there. Find time every day even if just for a moment to slow down. I’ve made the word S.L.O.W. an acronym for myself. S — stop, breathe, L — look, listen, O — open to what is here right now, W- wake up to the beauty before me. This helps me when I get carried away by thoughts and worries. And when I do this in nature it is easier to slow down and pay attention. Right now, with our limited travel capacity you can also watch a nature show, really, it helps to see beautiful vistas of green with unusual creatures making their way through the forest, or colorful fish weaving through coral reefs. We may feel we don’t have the time, but just by entering this world vicariously can slow our breathing and give a larger view on the world and our worries. Hey, at least we don’t have to scale a 100-foot tree to search for the hidden sap… perspective matters…
- Be imperfect
In the Jewish mystical tradition one of the creation stories is about the divine light going into vessels on earth and that the light was too strong for these vessels to hold so they shattered spreading shards of light throughout the universe. And the interpretation is that we are these broken vessels, and as Leonard Cohen says, “there is crack in everything that is how the light gets in”. Can we celebrate our brokenness, our imperfections, and honour them as our greatest teachers? I know first-hand how hard it is to accept imperfections and to embrace discomfort and yet this is the way we grow, when we can laugh with our imperfections (as with my three pairs of glasses on my head) or even at something truly embarrassing such as unconsciously using language that is offensive to someone else. I have been on receiving end of many people inadvertently saying antisemitic quotes or sayings, most of the time with absolutely no idea that they are offensive to me. And conversely, I have been the perpetrator, making assumptions based on race, religion, gender, and when confronted, wanted nothing more than to hide or become defensive. However, after taking a deep breath, and embracing my discomfort as a sign of growth, I asked to learn more. In this challenging time with the health crises, and with increasing awareness of endemic racism, it is important that we allow ourselves to be imperfect, to recognize we are all on a learning curve and to take responsibility for our actions but always with compassion for ourselves and others. Not easy…
- Be nourished
Often when we have very full days of looking after family, seeing clients, doing laundry, dealing with broken pipes and leaking roofs, the last thing on our list (or not even on the list) is taking care of ourselves. When I was working full time in hospitals with young children at home and later during my University days lunch was not at option. I believed that work was important than me taking time to actually eat a meal. Of course, there was a toll, my health suffered, and I became irritable and easily fatigued. It took me a long time to realize that my nourishment was key to be present for both my family and my work. And that nourishment takes many forms; a good meal, a walk in nature, a moment of silence and deep breathing, meeting a friend for coffee… What matters is to take the time to discover what nourishment means for us and to alter our mindset to put this on top of the list instead of at the bottom or not even on it.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
In my three years as Chair of the Department of Creative Arts Therapies at Concordia University, I learned the value of having an open and inclusive culture. Even with a fabulous team of colleagues, inevitably there were tough decisions to make and many passionate and deep-felt discussions on how to move forward. As Chair I wanted us all to agree. However, agreement is not always possible. Based on each of past experiences, training, world view, our solutions to the department issues were different. For me as Chair this proved a challenge, but my approach was to try and listen to all sides, to encourage faculty and staff to come to my office, to try and understand the essence of each faculty’s argument. Also, at times I brought creativity into the meetings whether we sang, made art, or wrote out our hopes and dreams. Yearly retreats were helpful to bring us together and find new avenues for communication. I think the most important advice for all of us who take on the role of leader is to remember we are in service of something larger than ourselves whether it is a department, a business, a hospital unit, a long term care facility, a healing centre, or a prison. This means that when considering a decision, it is not about us as individuals but rather the entity and integrity of the group. If one member of the group feels harassed, unsafe, or excluded, then the group is not healthy, not functioning well. We need to find courage to sometimes go against the prevailing group or larger organisational culture to ensure that all members feel safe. For me safety is always central whether in therapy or in a work culture. What I find helpful is to determine what safety and respectful interaction means for all members, and to have this discussion and create a written or verbal contract. This contract can then be a touchstone for all communication and can be referred to when things get tough. Once of the courses I taught for many years was Group Dynamics and I found that Irving Yalom’s stages of group process and group rules were relevant in the workplace. Every group has its own culture its own communication style and its own challenges. And yet there are some basic tenets of group process that can be helpful to learn about to ensure the best work culture. I suggest reading about Group Dynamics and to hire a group specialist (if financially feasible) to lead a retreat for your group. Interview the person first and make sure it is a good fit. Lastly, I think shared humour goes a long way to bring a group together and having some fun activities away from work can allow the members to share different sides of themselves.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Mental health is often looked at in binary terms; those who are healthy and those who have mental illness. The truth, however, is that mental wellness is a huge spectrum. Even those who are “mentally healthy” can still improve their mental wellness. From your experience or research, what are five steps that each of us can take to improve or optimize our mental wellness. Can you please share a story or example for each.
- Inspiration and Meaning
Without a sense of meaning in our lives we feel lost and without purpose. What gives us meaning changes depending where we are in our lives and what is important. However, what doesn’t change is the need for meaning. An important task for all of us is to constantly re-examine and reassess what inspires us. It could be the feeling of a grandchild’s hand in our own, the beauty of morning dew on the grass, the feeling of clay as we mold it, singing with others, or thinking about a problem. Whatever it is we need to take time to discover the activities that inspire us and help give a sense of meaning to our experiences. My first job as a creative arts therapist was in a long-term care facility. One group I worked with consisted of men and women in the middle stages of Alzheimer’s and Dementia. Before I met them, I was worried about how I could help, how could we establish a sense of meaning when they had little or no short-term memory? What could be inspiring for those who lost their homes and much of their past? I thought memory was necessary for inspiration and meaning. Boy was I wrong! In our first meeting one of the members who had been a professional jazz singer started singing and then we all joined in improvising, some adding their own words or even gibberish. After a few sessions I asked if I could record their music and then before each new session would play the recording. They would recognize their own voice and be thrilled even if they couldn’t remember the previous sessions. When I would see one of them in the hallway, even if they were immobilized in front of the television, they would see me and start humming, and I would respond through song. Somehow this simple interaction through music was inspiring for them and in that moment gave them a sense of meaning and connection. Another resident in same long-term care facility was only in his fifties but suffered from the ravages of MS. He was full of despair and saw no reason to keep on living. When we met, I noticed he was an avid reader and had books piled up beside his bed. Based on this I suggested he might want to write a book about his life and experiences for his grandchildren who came to visit. At first, he was reluctant, feeling as if he had nothing to say. I asked him about a medal he had hanging on the wall and he began telling me the story of his experiences serving in Vietnam, and once he started talking, he didn’t stop. I recorded his voice since his arms were too weak to write and one of his older grandchildren, a girl of 14, offered to transcribe them into text. As the weeks went on, he became inspired and eager to tell a new story and his grandchildren (and wife and children) came more often because he was animated and shared parts of his life they never knew about. Even though his body was growing weaker, he became stronger in terms of gaining a sense of purpose and meaning. The last time I saw him his daughter presented him with a bound book of all his stories which he received with tears in eyes. Meaning and inspiration can come in many forms, and whether we are facing severe life challenges, or just the everyday variety, finding out what truly inspires us and gives meaning can be the very thing that makes us want to go on living.
I’ve already spoken previously about how essential I believe creativity is to our mental health. Everyone is creative. There is an innate calling to respond to the world through some sort of creative medium. Sadly, this creative impulse is often stifled, or worse, actively discouraged in childhood. Creative Arts Therapies is a field that recognizes the inherent value of the arts as necessary for health and wellbeing. As a registered dance and drama therapist, and as an artist working with documentary film, mask making, dance, and music, I have seen the power of the arts to transform individuals and communities. As we go through life, we each have a unique way of experiencing the world. Each one of us is unique with a specific set of patterns, preferences, and innate skills that determine the way we create. Some of us will see the world from a large sweeping view, or the big picture, while others will focus intensely on what is right in front of us very close up and detailed. Some of us are visual and we take in our environment through our eyes, while other listen intently to the surrounding sounds, and someone else may need to touch a fabric or a tree to appreciate it. These preferences are ingrained and most of the time we are unaware of them. However, it can be helpful to learn what our primary preference is so we can learn which perceptions are overused and which perceptions are recuperative. For example, I am very visual and take in the details of my environment, noticing the way the storefront reflects the light, or a person’s expression as they walk by. This is a gift, but also is exhausting so to recuperate I use my auditory skills and close my eyes to listen to music. This can be helpful for mental health to learn which perceptions we use most and which perceptions can give us rest and recuperation. And expressing our feelings creatively, particularly when we feel overwhelmed can give us perspective. For example, I worked with a woman who recently went through a difficult divorce and was now a single mother of a young child with special needs. She felt overwhelmed and helpless to cope with all her responsibilities. In our work together she chose the story of Rumpelstiltskin — which is a about a miller’s daughter who has to spin straw into gold, or she will be put to death by the king. This moment when the girl is faced with the impossible task of spinning straw into gold really spoke to this women’s situation. In the story a little man, Rumpelstiltskin, agrees to help if the miller’s daughter can guess his name. And this character of Rumpelstiltskin intrigued my client, who made drawings and funny little sculptures representing him. And as she did so she became inspired and showed some of her creations to her son and to friends. To her surprise they were delighted. Her creativity helped her remember her playfulness and she discovered a whole side of herself she had lost. When we last met she told me she had started a creative support group for mothers of children with special needs and that they were inspired by her to make their own creative helpers.
Right now, many of us feel more isolated than ever. Therefore, it is essential for our mental health to find new ways of connection. It could be that you plan weekly online meeting with family and loved ones or you could join an online group where there is personal interaction. Many places of worship, community centers, art centres, universities, and online support groups, are offering free online groups and these can offer support and an opportunity for connection. When we are clinically depressed or even just feeling lonely, the hardest step is to reach out to others. And yet this is exactly what is needed. During this time of Covid I have been separated from my family. Sadly, we live in different countries and cannot be together. However, via Zoom we discovered a new intimacy and closeness due to sharing our creativity. My family ranges in age from 18–95 and we were all eager to find a way to stay connected. My brother came up with the idea of having a task for our meetings. For example, all responding to the same piece of art, or responding to a theme such as courage or cowardice. Our responses included poetry, photos, music, artwork, and mixed media. And as well we told stories from our life based on a question such as “what was a transformative travel experience” or answered a question such as if you were on a deserted island what 3 things would you take with you? By sharing our stories, reflective answers, and creative responses we learned more about each other and became closer than ever. And because the meetings were only an hour we knew they were precious, and we were focused and attentive in a way that doesn’t happen when we have more extended time together. For my elderly parents isolated in a big American city, this was a way of feeling connected to loved ones and also something to look forward to every week. I believe that staying connected to family (whether our biological or created), and friends, is an essential aspect of our mental health.
4. Compassion and Getting Messy
“Take chances, make mistakes, get messy” Ms. Frizzle from The Magic School Bus.
Life is messy! Even with our best intentions we find ourselves face down in the mud while wearing our best white clothes and surrounded by those we are trying to impress. For me, literally having had many mud encounters, I’ve learned that this falling and getting dirty is ultimately very healing. If I try to avoid getting messy then I avoid life’s juiciest moments. For example, when I went for my first job interview, I didn’t realize I had leaves hanging form hair and my shirt was on inside out. As I was answering questions, I noticed the interviewers looking at me intently and I wondered if I was being very witty or failing miserably. Then at one point I saw the leaves and the tag on the sleeve of my shirt and realized that I looked foolish. I felt ashamed and wanted to hide under the chair. However, there I was the focus of attention and everyone could see that I now knew what they were all looking at. I had a choice, either try to avoid getting messy and pretend I didn’t have leaves hanging or an inside out shirt, or, let myself take a chance and laugh with my situation. To do this I had to have compassion for myself in that moment and compassion for my interviewers that perhaps they could identify with my situation. I brushed the leaves off and held one up and said “they really are beautiful this Fall time of year, and I guess my curly hair is a good place to hang out” After a beat we all laughed and I spoke about mistakes and being vulnerable and the possibility for repair. I told them about my internal dialogue and my choice to take a chance and get messy. Since this was for a clinical position I also spoke about how inevitably as therapists, parents, friends, we make mistakes but that the opportunity for repair is always there, right in that moment of falling in the mud. I believe that for our mental health we must get messy, take chances, and know that this is the human condition. If we are willing to have compassion for ourselves when we make mistakes, others will forgive us as well. And that if we have compassion for the person in front of us yelling and out of control, we can help them find their way to repair and healing. And this compassion for getting messy may even lead to a sharing of messy stories. This is what happened in my interview. To my surprise after I acknowledged my hanging leaves and inside out shirt the interviewers laughed and told their own stories of saying the wrong word or being on television with shaving cream on their face, and remarkably I got the job!
Much has been written about the importance of gratitude for mental health. While as a concept we all agree, in practice this can be harder especially when we have just lost our job, or received a diagnosis of a serious illness, or feel isolated and alone. I have a practice that I do every day that I find helpful. No matter where I am, I try to find three things of hidden beauty. This can be the colorful fungi that emerge after a rain, the pattern of light on the floor of hospital corridor, the rain drops in the spider web on my back porch. There is something about taking the time to search for and find things of hidden beauty that takes us out of our habitual attitude. The idea of it being hidden is important since it cannot be something too obvious, but rather something we didn’t notice before but now that we are paying attention, we recognize its beauty. For me this practice is central to my mental health and a daily reminder that beauty is always there, and that gratitude is always available if I pay attention. I shared this practice with friend who was suffering from acute anxiety and was having trouble leaving her house. I suggested she could do this in her house even in one room. Once she started this daily practice, she sent me photos of the hidden beauty just from one room and I marvelled at the beauty in dust balls with a halo of sunlight, an orange cat toy against a dark pillow, and an African violet flower against the windowsill. So simple, and yet for her, so transformative.
Much of my expertise focuses on helping people to plan for after retirement. Retirement is a dramatic ‘life course transition’ that can impact one’s health. In addition to the ideas you mentioned earlier, are there things that one should do to optimize mental wellness after retirement? Please share a story or an example for each.
I can speak about this personally since I recently retired from my University position. Right after leaving I felt elated, that now I would have time to do all the things I had always wanted to. However, as the weeks progressed, I felt unsteady, uncertain, as if I no longer knew who I was. Without the structure of classes, meetings, research, and the push to achieve who was I? What was important to me now? Where was I headed and what was the next step? When I met with my University colleagues I was embarrassed to speak about my uncertainty because I felt I was supposed to be happy and loving my freedom. Once I acknowledged to myself that I was in a huge transition and that transitions take time I was able to sort through my feelings. For many of us when we retire, we lose our sense of identity, of purpose, and of self-worth. I found it was essential that I allow myself to mourn the ending of my University life, to feel the sense of loss so that I could move on to something new. Over the first year I allowed myself to try different activities, different projects, to try and discover what was inspirational now. Interestingly, my book, The Story Within- myth and fairy tale in therapy, was published nine months after I retired. It felt like a birth and I went through labour pains and then like any new mother fretted whether my new “baby” would survive, be ok, make it in the world. And finally, I learned to let go, to trust that the book would have its own life and I could focus on my own path. Without the pressure to “prove” myself, or work toward tenure, or succeed within an outside mandate, I was free to chart my own adventure. For me this involves being of service, finding a way to use my skills to be helpful, but also the way of being of service must nourish me as well. How to balance both? I began to offer free online seminars and videos related to my book and organized a conference around the use of stories in healing hosted by Concordia University with a fantastic group of panelists. All of these were demanding but also fun and along the way I was privileged to make connections with some truly wonderful people from many different countries. And yet still every day I am rediscovering who I am and letting go of old identities. It is a process of trial and error, willing to take chances, get messy, laugh, brush myself off, and keep going. A man I worked with who retired from years of construction work told me that the day after he retired, he came down with mysterious physical symptoms, muscle aches, fatigue, brain fog, and vertigo. He spent most of his time lying on the couch watching Netflix and sports. In our work together we explored the idea of loss and mourning, and he came up with the idea of writing a letter to his old self. He wrote a beautiful letter filled with compassion for all the hard-physical work he done for over thirty years. When he read the letter out loud, he realized that his body was tired, and he needed days of rest and was able to allow himself this period of recuperation. Seeing his symptoms as a well-deserved rest changed his attitude and instead of feeling debilitated, he started treat his body with tenderness and slowly over time started to feel better. It’s not that we can cure all illness by changing our attitude, but particularly in retirement we need to take the time to honour the fact that we are going through a huge transition. A group of retired women who are going through The Story Within process together sent me images of their creations. I was struck by how several of them chose characters who were also in transition. For example, two women chose the story of Beauty and the Beast, however one woman chose the moment when the witch cast a spell turning the prince into beast, and the other chose the moment when the beast turns back into a man. Interestingly, both women found the stories helped them with their own transitions into retirement. They both made masks expressing this transition and both masks contained anguish and joy. One of the woman wrote me “Finally I can let my inner beast come through in my art, my tennis, and my wicked sense of humour.” Finding stories that speak to us, expressing ourselves through the arts, can be of immense help during retirement and allow us to uncover and express our feelings and lead us to new adventures.
How about teens and pre teens. Are there any specific new ideas you would suggest for teens and pre teens to optimize their mental wellness?
As we know adolescence can be a really challenging time with so many changes in terms of hormones, social life, body image, and identity. Many of the those I’ve worked with were teens or preteens. Here is one example from my practice that I believe illustrates the power of using story and the arts as a way for adolescents to work through their complex feelings.
She walked into the room like a shadow, completely silent and not taking up any space. Making no eye contact, she quickly sat down slumped in a chair. The medical staff knew her as the beautiful ten-year- old with the long red hair who never spoke; this was clinically referred to as “selectively mute.” She had not spoken a word for six months and no one knew why. Her family was baffled, and according to the medical experts nothing was physically wrong. In our work together she chose the story of “The Little Mermaid” who gives her voice to the witch in exchange for the love of the prince. When she found this story, it was validating to find a character who, like herself, had chosen to give up her voice. She made a mask using a pair of black tights filled with newspaper with glued-on images of female models and superstars. The images were cut up and ripped apart. The mouth was covered with masking tape. When she placed the mask in the room, she put it under a chair with plastic wrap around it so you could see
it, but it was covered and protected. She became very emotional when she stood back and looked at her mask. We communicated through writing and she wrote that the mermaid looked incredibly sad and alone. When she put on the mask and embodied the Little Mermaid she glided through the room and settled in a corner, making herself as small as possible. Then she started crying, making gasping sounds. I picked a few percussion instruments and sat with her in her corner and asked if she could play the mermaid’s sadness with an instrument. She grabbed a small drum and started banging on it, getting louder and louder, until at one point she also began very quietly using her voice to make guttural sounds. Eventually her voice became stronger. Over the next few sessions we worked with percussion and sounds until she gradually started to whisper to me and told me the story of how she was being bullied in school and over the internet. Once she allowed me to disclose this to her parents, they were able to tell the school and decided to move her to a new school. In her new school she started speaking again, at first very softly, but she slowly regained her confidence. In our last session she told me, “Seeing the mask of the Little Mermaid so sad and alone released my own feelings, and then becoming the character myself, I realized how I had given up and basically didn’t want to exist anymore. Even though I chose this character because I identified with her not speaking, she gave me my voice back.”
For teens and preteens, creativity is essential. Finding the words to express what they’re going through can be daunting, yet the arts allow for a more nuanced and complex articulation. Especially if they are given permission to create through whatever medium they choose and without any limitations of what is aesthetically pleasing. And as well identifying with a character from a myth or fairy tale can help teens feel less alone and find a safe way to explore issues of sexuality, bullying, identity, social pressure etc. In the process of creatively and emotionally engaging with their character’s problem and challenges, they see things from the character’s point of view. As their character deals with monsters, obstacles, in the fictional world, the adolescent can begin to gain perspective about their own life’s struggles, and safely uncover and express the suffering, while at the same time discovering their innate strength and resilience.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?
I read the book, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”, by Maya Angelou, as 14-year-old who felt lost, different, and in many ways helpless about my own life. The book is an autobiography describing her early years that illustrates how strength of character and a love of literature can help overcome racism and trauma. While I certainly did not experience the racism or the horrific trauma that she did, I was moved by her courage and transformation from a girl with low self-esteem who felt caged in by society’s racism to a writer, mother, and self-possessed adult. Reading about her transformation and all the obstacles she faced and how she could express all this with poetic words, was inspiring and ultimately uplifting. This was also 1969, during social upheaval and the women’s movement. My mother, a professor, who went back to school when we were young, was an anomaly in her circle of friends. Even her mother thought she shouldn’t pursue her career, that it was unseemly for a woman. This is hard to believe now that women were told not to go to University, not to pursue their dreams, and that getting married was the only destination. For me this reality was the backdrop, but it was being dismantled. Sitting in the vortex of this changing world was unsettling and reading Maya Angelou gave me a role model, someone who could write about what is what like not only to face intense racism but also to be a woman in a male dominated society. In my own life I wanted to find a woman doctor and could not find a referral anywhere. I was told “there are no women doctors in this state” Undaunted, my mother and I searched and finally found a nun who was also a doctor in a practice three hours away. We drove there and it was my first time meeting a nun. She was in full habit and I was intimidated and quite shy. However, she was warm and funny, and I ended up telling her about the book. She laughed and said it was one of her favorite books as well. Immediately we were bonded. Who knew that a book written by an African American women could be the very thing that formed a bond between a Jewish adolescent girl and a nun! Yet I believe Maya Angelou spoke to many of us, and her love of books and literature really spoke to me as I spent my days happily lost in stories. My favorite activity, as mentioned before, was hanging upside down from an apple tree reading a book. Not sure how I managed to do this, but there was something about entering a fictional world from upside down that allowed for all possibilities. And this powerful memoir by Maya Angelou was pivotal in my development.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Right now, there is such a need for healing in terms of political divisions, social unrest, endemic racism, climate crises, the pandemic, poverty, inequality, and the list goes on. The enormity of what is needed can be overwhelming and perhaps even paralyzing. How can our individual actions have any impact? Is it even worth it to try? For me these questions are ongoing and essential and difficult to answer. As a therapist I’ve always been curious about how change occurs. Some clients come in with what appears to be insurmountable challenges and yet they find the will, the impetus to adjust and thrive? And yet others with far fewer outward obstacles remain locked in destructive habitual patterns. Despite all the research of predicting factors, still in practice it remains a mystery. It seems to me that any change must begin with an internal movement, a subtle, yet profound, awakening. This awakening is what allows us to change our belief systems and our behaviour. Sometimes awakenings are immediate. For example, I was invited to present my work in Istanbul during the Muslim holiday of Eid al — Fitr. This meant Muslims from all over had come to Istanbul to celebrate and many were from countries where women wore full body coverings and the Niqab or veil so that only their eyes were showing. Being brought up Jewish, and in the US and living in Canada this manner of dress was foreign to me. One day while I was there, I was trapped in a tunnel with a crowd of people that was so thick we were not moving. It seemed everyone was headed to a nearby Mosque. I’m a bit claustrophobic so this was terrifying, and I panicked. Looking around me I felt so obviously different with my blond curly hair, jeans, and all the other women I saw were completely covered with only their eyes showing. I felt so alone and as the panic rose, I was unable to catch my breath. There was a woman close beside me, wearing a Niqab, who must have sensed my discomfort because she very gently placed her hand on my shoulder and looked at me with the kindest eyes, and audibly breathed slowly. We were stuck in the tunnel for 30 minutes and the whole time she kept her hand on my shoulder and we continued to stare into each other’s and breathe. Without her I don’t know how I could have made it through. When we finally left the tunnel, she gave my shoulder a squeeze and we bowed our heads to each other. That encounter was an awakening. All my preconceptions about devout Muslim women wearing a Niqab dissolved and I realized that it doesn’t matter what we wear but who we are inside. And this women was so kind, so patient, so healing in the very moment I needed her, despite our differences.
If I were to start a movement it would be about this very type of awakening, an internal movement that allows us to change ourselves in a profound way so that we can determine what actions to take. If enough of us awaken, then we can change the planet! My awakening led to my latest film project bringing young adults from Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities together to work through the arts. So far, I have a 10-minute clip called Who is the Other? that shows how the different communities explored their similarities and differences though music, drama, movement and art. It was a profound gathering and most of the participants had never engaged with members of the other faiths. It was my awakening experience in Istanbul that led to this action.
Here is an evolving list of tools that can help us start an Awakening Movement:
The Story Within
The process I describe in my book is meant to be a tool to use myths, fairy tales, and creativity, to uncover and work with hidden and inaccessible aspects of ourselves. It is a practical resource, a step by- step guide to the process that we can follow at our own pace, also presenting a framework to understand the theory and practical application. This arts-based approach– creating masks, artwork, costumes, dramatic scenes, music and movement, can be a helpful way to rediscover our inspiration and sense of meaning and lead to a personal awakening.
S — stop, breathe, L- look, listen, O- open to what is here right now, W- wake up! I think this acronym can be a simple helpful tool that we can use at any moment to make us more aware, more present, and therefore more able to react in a helpful and healing way to what happens.
Arts for Health
Start a creative practice. It doesn’t matter what medium, or if you have any training, this is for you and for your health. Find a way to express your experiences. Explore different mediums, sign up for classes if that feels right. Most important is that creativity becomes as necessary as eating or sleeping. And it can be very simple and spontaneous without the need for expense, extensive materials, or time. It can be a quick free form movement, an exploration of sounds in the shower, a drawing doodle during long meetings, anything that keeps your creative muscles active and alive. Form Arts for Health groups where you share your creations. And these creations can lead to social action — murals dealing with racism, plays giving voice to those have been silenced, songs honouring Ruth Bader Ginsberg, the possibilities are endless.
I know this is not easy and the last thing we want to do. However, to truly awaken we need to embrace our discomfort and learn to see it as a friend. Without discomfort we wouldn’t grow. To begin a new relationship with our discomfort, find one book, one person, one activity, that makes you a bit uncomfortable and stay with it. Notice your discomfort and how you respond to these feelings. Do you run away, avoid, get angry, sad? The more awareness you have about your reactions to discomfort the more you can stay with it and let it lead you to new awakenings.
Curiosity and Joy
What draws so many of us to young babies is their immediate sense of curiosity about everything they encounter and also their pure joy at the simple movement of light or a stranger’s smile. We all have that capacity and the more we foster curiosity and joy the more open we are to change and to awakening.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
“Dance above the surface of the world. Let your thoughts lift you into creativity that is not hampered by opinion.”
Red Haircrow, an award-winning writer, educator, psychologist and filmmaker
I find that I constantly rediscover the meaning of this quote . I love the imagery, the movement, and the sentiment of going beyond our opinions. I think this notion of allowing our creativity to soar above the restraints of our limitations is truly inspiring. For me this idea became central while working on my documentary film about the shame and stigma that still surrounds the issue of suicide. I received two major grants for my research and many in the research community strongly suggested I seek out “experts” to get their opinions on why there was this continued shame and stigma. I was told my film would have more “weight” and influence if the audience could hear their expert opinions. However, the idea in this quote of “…creativity not hampered by opinion.” led me to take a different path. Instead of turning to professors and researchers, I found a self-help support group for suicide survivors. All participants lost family to suicide and used the term “survivors” to describe themselves My own loss of an uncle to suicide allowed me entrance and acceptance into the group. To understand and capture their experience through visual data, I asked if some of them would participate in a documentary film. Responding to their theme of feeling as if they had to wear a mask, mask making, and masks became central to the research. The survivors participated in mask-making workshops, and the masks, once made and put on, became a poignant, extremely emotional metaphor for the trauma of the suicide itself and the need to hide that trauma from the outside world. The film then went on to win some awards and travel the world. And it was the survivor’s courage and stories that gave the film its weight. Using the quote as a guiding light led me to enter this painful subject in a creative and authentic way.
I believe that the quote helped me write and complete my book. In trying to write the book I had extensive moments of writer’s block and a dear friend said to me “You need to go through process as you write”. This meant that I would have go through each step that I outline in the book and share my own personal process. I tried hard to resist this, but it was the only way I could write so… as I outlined the concepts and each step, I would go down into my basement and do the work. This meant, making masks, writing, embodying a character, building an environment and engaging others to work with me. And then going upstairs and writing, sharing some of my personal process. It was totally immersive, the words flowed, and I finished the book. However, when I sent it to the publisher I was hoping they would tell me to leave my own process out. They did not. Here was the quote in action again, I had to “dance above the surface of the world…. Not hampered by opinion…” trust the process.
I think another aspect of how this quote affected me is in the development of the story within approach. The process involves an in-depth relationship with a self-selected myth or fairy tale, that evokes a personal sense of relevance, although not understood. The identification of the story, the character in it, and the dramatic moment that is felt to be the most significant, all involve a personal quest. Without being required to understand or make the character/life connection, we enjoy creating masks, art — work, costumes, dramatic scenes, music, and movement, as we identify with our character. This “not knowing” and trust in the journey itself allows the depth work to be done and allows the internal story, the one that is hidden, buried, and hardest to access, to be gradually revealed, often for the first time. Red Haircrow’s quote gave me courage to persist in my approach to therapy and to life as an inquiry, a journey into the unknown. If creativity is to soar and go beyond our opinions we have to let go of certainty. I believe when we are certain, we don’t feel the need to pay attention. In contrast, when we are uncertain, we become more sensitive to context and engage in the present and can come up with more creative solutions.
I am thankful to this quote for helping me to awaken to my own limitations and opinions, so that I can “…dance above the surface of the world…”. May we all get on our dancing shoes and take that first step….
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Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!