Friday, January 30, 2009

A journey of learning and time-shifting too

I did not plan to be a healer. Yet more than 20 years ago, while working as a daily newspaper journalist, I learned about a five-day residential program that treated adults reared in chaotic homes with an unusual interactive style of psychotherapy. Since I was researching an in-depth series of articles on the adult children of alcoholics movement -- just beginning to gain public attention at that time -- I wanted to learn more.

That residential treatment program, now known as Breakthrough, is part of Caron Treatment Centers, a sprawling campus in south-central Pennsylvania devoted to recovery from the ravages of drug and alcohol addiction. I signed up for the program to experience its philosophy firsthand, and I was startled to observe a method of psychotherapy that was very different from the usual sedentary talk therapy that I had known. The psychotherapists, wearing jeans and casual clothes, were approachable and relaxed. They encouraged members of the group to play roles for each other, creating dramatic vignettes that revealed the landscape of their inner lives, struggles and dreams. The premise was that drama, other creative arts, and play could repair the early wounds of our families.

By mid-week, I was asked by a group member -- let's call him Jerry -- to play the role of his mother.

Since he recalled his mother as the hard-working wife of a hard-drinking man, we decided that I would pose in the way that he most clearly remembered her: on her hands and knees, vigorously scrubbing the kitchen floor when he returned home from school. I took the pose, using an imaginary "scrub brush" as I "washed" the dusty "floor. "

Then something very powerful happened, a kind of time shifting. I was no longer the journalist, pretending to be a middle-aged mother in a therapy group in a treatment center somewhere in rural south-central Pennsylvania. I BECAME Jerry's mother, and he seemed to know it. With tears streaming on his reddened face, he talked and sobbed for at least 30 minutes, untangling the thick knot of memories and pain that he had held so closely for so many years.

"I needed you when I was a child and you weren't there," Jerry said, between the floods of tears.

As his "mother," I listened as he told "me" how the combination of alcohol, neglect, fear and abandonment had wounded him as a child. How it had contributed to decades of bad decisions, destructive relationships and feelings of low self worth. How he had continued to carry the pain inside him, without relief, to this very day.

I was aware of an equally complex experience in the moment within me. As the mother, my heart felt a hint of the tiredness and hopelessness of that difficult life. As myself, it was easy to identify with the pain of an adult who looked back to a childhood of loneliness. And there was yet another part of me -- the observer -- who was completely fascinated with this time-shifting and shape-shifting process.

"Wow," I remember thinking, "This stuff is powerful! Where did it come from, and why haven't I known about it before?"

When the drama concluded, it was clear that Jerry had changed in a deep way. His face seemed to be calmer and more open. He seemed to hold his body more loosely, and he was able to joke and talk more comfortably in our group.

My encounter with Jerry -- as well as my exposure to these different style of therapy -- led me on a journey that I am still traveling today. I began group therapy that employed these experiential methods and found profound personal change. Later I would return to school to study substance abuse, addiction and family systems; I learned that this interactive style of therapy came from the long-standing theory and practice of psychodrama and sociometry, a larger method developed by the European-born physician, Dr. J.L. Moreno. I found teachers, pioneers in this unique field, who demonstrated the subtle nuances of the use of the action methods, taking me beyond that single week in September.

Jerry and I would see each other periodically at group reunions at Caron and share a hug. He shared the victories and changes in his life and generously celebrated my own growth, both personal and professional. It has been a good journey, and I know the good will continue.