Comfortable with Chaos

12 Nov

I don’t write much about my work on this blog. For confidentiality purposes, it’s not really appropriate to say, “I was really touched by this moment in a session or when a patient said —–  today.” Instead, the work stays between me and the patient (and maybe a supervisor or colleague). Early in my career I wrote about psychology and drama therapy compulsively, leading to some academic publication, but now my interests are moving in new directions. And yet here I am this morning needing to write about my work before I get on with my work.

Recently I left a permanent clinical position in an eating disorder program. While there, I learned an enormous amount and will continue to fill in there when staff are out sick and/or on vacation. However, this was a highly structured program that only utilized my background as a verbal psychotherapist. I led psycho-education groups, worked within a cognitive behavioral therapy model and facilitated groups, individual and family therapy sessions. I didn’t use any drama therapy, which is my clinical specialty area. Most people haven’t heard of drama therapy so I’ll explain that it uses aspects of theater (improvisation, role play, story telling, poetry, etc) for symptom relief and therapeutic insight, much in the same way art and music are sometimes used for therapy.

Anyway, I am now working per diem – which means I’m employed by the hospital (and others) kind of like a free-lance person. I’ve done this in the past and actually like the freedom and variety it affords me. Clinical work is intense and this provides a little buffer by letting me structure my own schedule according to my rhythms and needs. So here I am back doing drama therapy, the thing one hospital hired me to do a long time ago. And it’s really a trip to once again look at the differences between sitting and talking with people about their problems vs. “playing with them” – the issues and the people themselves. 

A beloved mentor once told my class, “In order to be a drama therapist, you have to be comfortable inviting people into your intra-psychic container, entertain their demons and then send them on their way.” He was right. There is an intimacy and edge that occurs when you start having people move their bodies, free associate and improvise that just doesn’t typically occur with talk therapy. Like in theater, you are working in the moment, live, not knowing what is going to happen. How will the “audience” be that night? Who are the players? And where is the flow? 

So yesterday I ran a group and after operating in a very structured way of practice, it felt messy to be doing experiential work. I had to work with resistance in a playful manner – using humor and making myself the play object. The object of the group’s anger at authority; at the lack of control in their lives. I had to deal with those intellectually guarded and those not so and find common ground between them. I had to plunge into the unknown and invite people in. And ironically, (or not), those sullen who weren’t into being silly, were suddenly engaged, laughing and reflecting. And those who were playful, were suddenly crying – a nerve hit. And the work did what it was designed to do – gave patients an opportunity to “act out” within a safe structure vs. “act out” in life.

I realize to do this work, you have to be comfortable with chaos – something I’ve never been. So how is it then, that this drama therapy stuff keeps being a part of my life? Twelve years of it? Does God keep wanting me to walk into the unknown? To remember that through art, there is possibility? That even in people’s darkest moments of despair, there are pockets of joy and that even when true insanity presents itself, art provides an organizing format, giving structure and meaning to chaos? I don’t know.

I do know that this drama therapy stuff is a theme in my life, even when my soul yearns to be more quiet. To sit behind a computer and write. To work with people in a different manner than this configuration and yet – here I am. Continually in awe and a little frightened by the power of drama therapy. And the edge it stirs in me. After twelve years of doing it.

And maybe it’s also a payment of a debt. For the role drama therapy played in meeting my demons. And to the man that entertained them. For the four years I was his client in his play room during which he took my chaos; taught me how to organize and love my insanity. My story. And bore witness to my life with love, patience and integrity. Thank you, DRJ.

Leave a Reply