Learning from Experience

My desire was to practise what I had been trained for: Art Therapy. In a morphing, disintegrating, reforming world with the possibility of transformation through intrinsic hope in humanity … in this birth of a new universe out of the cosmic egg of mediocrity I’d finally got my dream job. Only …

… it had been so long since I’d sat in a room with someone and given them my full attention I wondered if I could do it. I wondered how I had ever managed to do it. I wondered if doing night shifts at work had doped my mind and shut down my therapy radar. If too much admin had turned me into an office drone that couldn’t recognise transference or projective identification or dark circles under a child’s eyes or a month-old rind of grime on school shirt cuff. Or notice how his line drawing of the tangled loops of a theme park roller-coaster gave me a feeling of knotted panic in my guts …

As Hermione said to Harry Potter and Don Juan said to Carlos Castaneda: It’s not about knowing the spell, it’s about having the confidence to use it.

The moon lay on the sky. I stared at it shining there. A lost coin on a doormat, as I tried to recall how it all worked …

I was confounded by theory and realised its myopic scope. Approaching someone’s soul through a theoretical filter seemed somehow disrespectful however much you brought mindfulness and mentalisation into it. Each book I read was an entirely convincing analytical tome written by an expert in their field. The business of therapy all sewn up and respectable. And incredibly intense. I sort of got Melanie Klein. But parts of me (and she would appreciate that phrase) thought she was a mad old bat. Why did I want it lighter but still deep? Was it a defence mechanism? Why did I feel like stories, art and music hit the spot better? Why did Reasons To Stay Alive by Matt Haig have so much more to say to me than a stained library hardback on Dissociative Identity Disorder? Why did Bion have to be so impenetrable that you had to read another book about him to understand what he was saying?

Bowlby made heavy weather of the simple fact that parents should respond to their kids – and as for Mary Ainsworth, she made a ‘Strange Situation’ far worse by sending single working mothers on an unnecessary guilt trip …

Yet the whacky ideas of these whacky psychoanalysts changed the chemical structure of my brain like a drug. Their theories made sense to my unconscious, if not yet my conscious mind. I saw life differently. It vibrated with colour and meaning. I saw how symbolism worked. It gave reason to the unreasonable. An explanation of the long and arduous history of human-ness. From unthinking, tail-flicking reptile to Zen Buddhist – and all the other seekers and shamens along the way. And, like Zen, you had to forget about it in order to do it. Ultimately, these authors who devoted their entire being to their work were writing about love. The Cocaine-toking Freud had more in common with a Yaqui Sorcerer than he realised … Jung, the homespun, vegetable-dyed missing link between religion and science, the observer of the death and rebirth of the personality, master of the existential moment – knew it all along, and as with Millwall, no one liked him … but he didn’t care.

The remnants of my college learning fluttered round my ankles like well worn pyjamas. It was time to get up and out …

So I breathed. I was confident to use the spell. Now I remembered about the Not Knowing. I was steaming ahead. It was OK to not know. They said it at college and they said it on the news. Sit with the Not Knowing. Not knowing about Brexit, Putin or Trump and not knowing if Percy was neglected by his parents. Sit with it. Roll with it.

In a paradigm shift in human thinking, culture, philosophy – wisdom itself, is splitting off in melting chunks and floating out to sea. In this current ‘falling to pieces’, of civilisation, the need for reflection has been forgotten. Yet it reveals the stuff of life.

Esther Bick’s improbable ruminations on the psychic skin of containment droned in my head like a Tibetan monk’s thighbone trumpet, as I listened to Percy’s non-stop monologue. I watched him draw a picture of the interior of his house, realising his lack of internal space. Waiting for meaning to emerge …

Melanie Klein. And Esther the refugee. You brought your strength and curiosity here and made another home.

And ‘Home is where we start from,’ wrote Winnicott.

Under the freezing polythene skins of the Calais Jungle, Art and Psychotherapy bore witness to the remembrance of a lemon tree courtyard in Aleppo …

The smashed gods of Nemrud … the tantrums and the broken toys. The tantrums and the broken totems ….

For a trafficked Nigerian girl and her silent three-year-old, Art was a space to imagine life beyond survival. For a pale kid with bruises it introduced the possibility of kindness. For an ex-serviceman it stilled the nightmare snipers … It changed the mind of the boy on the bridge. For the man who had forgotten, it named for him the nameless dread.

In the therapy room Percy painstakingly drew his home. The rooms, the furniture, the decoration, the detail; talking all the time. He took a crayon, scrubbing roughly over the image until all that was left was a circular patch of waxy blue. He stared at it in silence. Then he turned to look at me …

 

About the author:

Emma MacKinnon – fluid yet pragmatic. A late developer, whose personal evolution has encompassed the meandering interests of art, writing, stories, parenting, anthropology, archaeology, music, museum conservation, and the human condition, to arrive at Art Psychotherapy. She knows it works. For all the disaffected, angry boys of South London …

 

 

 

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