Monday, March 2, 2015

Ai-Jen Poo's View of Aging in America

A coworker of mine, the venerable Dr. Barry Grosskpf, is an amazing man and an expert on trauma. A survivor of the Holocaust, he and his wife Wendy Lustbader spend a great deal of time when not at work writing books and giving talks about trauma, ptsd and interesting brainiac stuffs while generally being all around champions for change.

I was forwarded this amazing article written by the aforementioned Lustbader that I wanted to share with all of you. It was inspired by her reading of the book The Age of Dignity, by Ai-Jen Poo.

Our elders are our most precious resource for history. Social Justice work has taught us, if anything, that what is espoused in the lines of textbooks is more often than not a pale, shriveled reflection of truth. It aims to be truth, when in fact is often merely an agenda. Our elders are often left out of the modern Social Justice debate. They are living history. And it is shameful that they are sometimes forgotten.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Submissions Wanted!

As the next AATA conference approaches, I am inspired by the work I'm seeing from professionals as well as clients. Calling all art therapists--please contact me with submissions to be published in a future blog post regarding...drum roll justice!

Submit your poetry, visual arts, links to videos, etc., of your work that speaks to social justice issues globally, locally or even from a practitioner point of view.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Accessibility to Services and the Great Disservice

As I near the (temporary) end of my American Art Therapy Association membership due to financial hardship, I wanted to talk a little about access to services and social justice.

With Healthcare reform in flux, I was eager to see more people gain access to medical care, including mental wellness services. If you fall in the right income bracket, you're good to go. If you are blessed with a job that covers you, you're good to go (though in my case my premium doubled). many things in this world...if you do not belong to the right "group," in this case financial "group," you lose that access almost entirely. I know many people who make a few hundred dollars a month over the limit for medicaid or medicare, and after they spent time on the insurance hub, find that the $300-$600 per month range is about where they are going to land. And for coverage that is a limiting HMO, with high deductibles and co-pays. Who can afford that if they are really in the low-income range or barely above?

Despite the recent increase in my insurance rates, I'm sitting pretty good and I feel blessed. At nearly 40, for the first time in my life, I have good coverage, though at 40, it might be a little too late for preventative care. A lot of people are seeing increases in payments, or decreases in hours. And my own personal finances need to be restructured in the next couple of months for sure, thus my temporary membership lapse (I will be back).

We've talked about white privilege recently, and access to services from a counselor perspective; i.e. who is willing to give a little more in gratis sessions? And we've talked about stigmas. But I'd like to say something about the sense of being a socioeconomic "other."
Sign Outside the Greenbelt4; a wealthy shopping and living community in metro Manila, Philippines

This is not a new thing, wealth status. It's something those of us who are more socially minded would love to see disappear. But there's also something to be said for earning what you have. When I first took over the blog I "labeled" myself according to my otherness. I feel like the "other" all the time. Otherworldly. Otherwise. Otherguess. Recently, while conducting some business for the Social Justice Caucus, I received words that were non-maliced in their intention, but left me feeling as "other" as I've ever felt. In short, I was asked to disassociate from the caucus based on the lapse of my membership. By mere virtue of not "belonging" to the organization any more, I was marked as no longer necessary. And frankly, at the time, that hurt. So I voiced this hurt, rather publicly via a "reply-all" e-mail and as diplomatically as possible expressed how I felt.

My current socioeconomic hardships were keeping me from engaging in important work that played to this very problem. It seemed like the ultimate dichotomy. I remember, as a student, how lucky it felt to have a discounted rate to AATA. And yet I couldn't afford that half the time either. Suddenly, I was fantasizing about standing in front of a country club in baggy jeans with my mohawk, being told I didn't belong, even if I had an Al Geiberger golf game of 59. (If you don't get that reference, don't worry. It was a clever stretch.) But I betcha they'd let me cut the grass!

At the end of the day, my tantrum was heard in a very gracious way by a couple of very important people, which included a personal phone call from someone in the most unlikeliest of positions, and a donation offer from a colleague, who I respectfully declined in service of motivating myself back into financial health over the next couple of months.

I envision a world without memberships, and cliques and clubs. A place where we all have something to gain by experiencing things with one another on all fronts. I understand that organizations need to be funded, I really do. And I understand membership fees. But I'm wondering if there isn't room to create some hardship funds for memberships, or in these economic times drop the rates just a little so that the membership can grow. Above all else, be careful how you wield your words. As therapists, we are reminded of this over and over and over again.

Do no harm. When you wake up every morning, believe these words and live them.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

A Dose of Inspiration from Artists Addressing Social Concerns in their Work

Submitted by Sally Giles, MAAT, ATR-BC, LPC, Sally attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and is an art therapist in Portland Oregon. She practices with older adults in a long-term care setting as well as with children and families experiencing grief and loss. 

I recently came across these artists who are using their work to call attention to culturally significant issues. I find it inspiring to see their work and remember that even small acts can have a wide reach. 

Way to go Sally! Beautiful articles. Thank you for bringing inspiration into our lives and keeping a keen eye open to issues important to us.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Just a Little Bit More

I have been hearing about float tank deprivation therapy for a little while now. The Seattle area has opened 3 independently owned float and massage clinics and I have heard good things. My birthday was the 21st, and the agency I work for is gracious enough to provide paid birthdays. With all the powerful experiences I've had this year, losses for both myself and a serious onslaught in the community I work for, not to mention that between 2 hours of commuting every day and having zero time to myself, I really wanted to try this form of self-care.

I researched it and was curious and excited. But it's very expensive (though there is some movement to have it become insurance billable under alternative medicine). Each clinic had a "first time float" special, which gave a discounted rate of approximately 50%. To give you an idea, my float would have been $45. I tried to imagine liking this and being able to afford it often enough to be beneficial over time. It reminded me a lot of seeing a counselor.
But it was my birthday, and I needed it, so off I went to experience something quite spectacular.

The clinic was beautiful. There was a relaxation room encompassed in plush couches with a tea bar and snacks to purchase. I was given an iPad to watch a cute instructional video of the dos and do nots of floating. Then I was led to my room, which was gorgeous, dark and tiled in earthy rock. There was a shower, which I was to use before and after my float, with special cleansing products for hair and body, including after care for my ears because of the Epsom salt.

A float tank contains 10 inches of water saturated with 1100 lbs of Epsom. You become completely buoyant in the dark (or not if you choose) with earplugs to simulate a weightless, womb-like experience. Some research shows it's like flipping a switch in your neurology. There's evidence that supports healing from chronic pain and injury as well as mental wellness and trauma. Here is an interesting video and article:

The unfortunate part about my experience was that the building was under construction in the basement. While the construction ended by request of the owner at the time of my appointment, the men working on the building continued with a conversation....right below me...for 45 of the 60 minutes of my float. The wood and rock floors carried their deep throats into my pod. My earplugs, which would not stay in for the life of me, kept getting slick with Epsom and would spontaneously jettison out of my ears rousing me from my experience. The pod carried the men's voices deep inside of me, as it became a giant speaker.

My float sucked.

Despite all this, I felt as though I had experienced a wellness massage. I had that stoned feeling and could only imagine what I would have felt like had I been able to get a true experience. The owner of the business was eager to hear how it was for me. Calmly....supremely calmly (which is not my typical MO)...I expressed my disappointment and stated that I was still excited to try again. Then something magical happened.

HE COMPED MY FLOAT. Then something even MORE magical happened:

HE GAVE ME A GIFT CARD FOR ANOTHER ONE FREE! He believed so strongly is his therapy, and had such kindness of heart, to do these things for me.

And this is where YOU come in, dear service providers.

The kindness of heart to provide healing is why a lot of us do what we do. We believe in art therapy. We believe, often, in alternative forms of healing. But by golly, it's not cheap. I remember just a couple of years ago trying to find an art therapist in Seattle that I could afford, or who took my insurance. There aren't many of us around, which is the first challenge. I felt defeated while for months I called and visited several therapists. None of them accepted my insurance, so that was the first challenge. (I do understand the insurance issue is bigger than this. Having to report diagnoses that follow you forever is something not many of us really like doing. But that's another issue for another time.) And the going hourly rate here ranged from $90-$120 for an individual session.

I work for an agency, and of course one day aspire to private practice of my own. But being from a low socioeconomic status historically, and quite frankly supporting 3 people on less than $25 an hour putting me in that category now, makes it difficult to be able to afford counseling out of pocket.

Now, I believe our time is valuable. But this brings me to the ethical issue of sliding scale and set gratis appointments. There's an expectation that those of us in private practice provide a certain amount of these appointments. Of the 12 therapists I called, all but one, the one I currently have--who is great by the way--said that they did not have room for sliding scale or gratis. I was in some dark places when I was looking for a counselor. I had little to no access to services because of the thinness of my pockets, and I was left feeling unimportant. Part of that is on me; my own internalized oppression.

Today's news is filled with images of unwell people behaving in extraordinarily violent ways. The world is a terrifying place to be in and this global PTSD we are in, with a severe deficit in supportive systems for all, is creating armies of unwell people who really need our help.

We believe strongly in what we do and its capacity for healing. I know it may not be so simple, but I ask you to think about this the next time someone calls you, is hurting and you seem to be out of their reach.

Can you not give just a little bit more? What can you do?

You may just be saving lives.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

A Quick Note

Greetings; we hope this note finds you well!

We reach out to AATA members today wanting to find out who is interested in submitting a proposal for next year's conference or future conferences. After the success of a plenary approval, we wanted to reach out to everyone to provide support as a group in helping folks get their proposals polished. But we need to get the dialogue going, as the 2014 submission deadline is close!

Additionally, we are encouraging everyone to drop by and submit blog submissions to us any time. Short, long, topics limitless.

Please get in touch at

Love and Light

Coastal Salish Tribal Mandala Design

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Social Justice is a Mosaic Where Each Tile Has a Place

I just got back from a week-long vacation to Yellowstone National Park, courtesy of my best friend's family who had an untimely "spot" for one more. My stepfather/father of 30 years passed this March, and one of my fondest childhood memories is of visiting the park with him. This was an opportunity for me personally to work on some grieving issues by revisiting this sacred place.

Female Elk relaxing on the limestone hot spring terraces of Mammoth

We stayed in the town of West Yellowstone; one of the gateways to the park on the East-most boundary of Montana/Wyoming. One might not guess that the population of this town is a mere six-hundred, what with the masses of people who flock here, particularly in July during the peak season of tourism, and pack the restaurants and shops. With every room in 22 hotels, and every slot in multiple RV parks full, this place was decidedly non-diverse, visually speaking. People came from all over the country and world. In the parking lot of one of two grocery stores we counted 12 different state license plates. But it was still a very "white" place to be. Maybe that's something not everyone would notice. It certainly depends on your point of reference. And for all intents and purposes, I'm pretty darn white. But, you see, I am a non-gender conforming (genderqueer) lesbian-identified, body art covered person often seen sporting a mohawk, and in rural towns filled with gun racks in pickup trucks and faces that are very similar, I simply don't feel safe. I cannot imagine what life can be like for people who don't have the white privilege that I have, and yet being a minority in so many other ways (religiously, gender, sexuality, disability, socioeconomic status) I am constantly living on alert that I must be keenly aware of my personal safety and my family's personal safety.

This brings me to what has been mulling around in my head the past week and a half. The experiences that I had in this small town really reminded me that no matter how much we espouse our own contributions to social justice issues, we must always be mindful of our own experiences and that even the most well-intentioned of us have biases. There is a tremendous amount of power to be had in owning up to our biases and turning them into weapons of social alertness that govern our personal conduction. This is how we change the world, or at the very least our home environments to start. This, of course, directly translates into our work with our clients.

So, a magical thing seems to happen wherever I may be. Now, I know I'm an odd looking bird, and I'm terribly okay with that. But while I certainly get a lot of negative looks and comments from some (not to mention aforementioned safety issues) I am more often than not gifted with the interactions of complete strangers who seem to intuit that I have a gentle and loving soul. This may not always be comfortable when, say, I'm using a public restroom, but it sure does open up a myriad of amazing human connections and thus anecdotes! Back to my own preconceived notions. I'm wandering around the streets of West Yellowstone, entering each store I encounter, generally keeping to myself save an occasional smile, as I feel I am being watched. Every store is packed with tourists. No less than 3 people during this walkabout ask me, quite out of the blue, "Where are you from, and what is it you do?" Several extremely interesting conversation ensue, each of which challenge my preconceived notions of the people living and working in this town, some of whom are actually from out of town on summer jobs as it turns out. One includes a self-proclaimed "gypsy wanderer" who is certain my presence is calling her back to Seattle where she once visited and longed to move to but wasn't sure the spirit had called her yet, while two other people begged for information on how to order the "Chick-Fil-A-Holes" t-shirt I had on. (For those who don't know, the fast food chain Chick-Fil-A was under fire for donating money to anti-gay organizations.)
My shirt (not my pecks)

Near the end of my walk through town, and the end of my stay at the park, I finally made it into a precarious looking wood shack nestled between a taco bus and a cafe. It had furs, pelts and skins hanging from the outside. I am not a terribly big fan of the fur industry, I will say. As an issue of social justice, and as a general rule, I dislike the fashion industry use of furs and what has happened to various animals because of that industry. But I admit to using and wearing leather. I was achingly curious to know what was inside this literal shack beyond the mounds of pelts and skins outside its door. Inside it was small and dark and smelled of new leather. Furs of elk, bison, bear, weasel, rabbit (a very specific kind that I cannot now recall) and some more obscure animals were stacked on shelves. Gorgeous gloves, mittens, boots, pillows and hats had been very skillfully crafted and for sale. There behind the pine counter nailed together in simple carpentry was a white male in his fifties with the eyes of a child. A strange mix of sadness and beauty filled me as I ran my fingers through all the furs. I might have been angered by this but I wanted to know more.

I told the man, who had been silent the entire time, that I found these pieces to be quite beautiful and unique. He stood beside a pile of obsidian stones he had clearly found himself. With a light stutter, he asked if there was anything I was looking for. I found myself asking for a pair of the gloves in adult sizes, to my surprise. They reminded me of Isotoners, but with wrist cuffs made of the softest, whitest tufts of rabbit. He disappointingly stated he had to make more.
"You made all this?"
"Wow. They're gorgeous."
And again, the question: "Where are you from? What do you do?"
I told him I was from Seattle, and that I was a mental health counselor for a Northwest tribal community. I often omit the Art Therapist part at first, because it always begs the "what is that?" question, and I wasn't sure I was in the mood to try and explain that. He then asked me the strangest thing. It was the strangest thing for someone to ask at the beginning of a conversation, but made entirely too much sense by the end of it.
"Do Native Americans have the same problems as every one else? The same psychological stuff?"
I admit to being take aback, to being confused and curious. And I was very careful, I thought, with how I answered it. "I think that all human beings experience unique psychological stressors that create very similar human responses. I think the people I serve experience the same types of mental wellness issues anyone else does, but because of very different reasons." He asked me what I meant, and I spoke a little about historical trauma and why some of the social issues that are prevalent in ANY community with historical trauma are pervasive. Naturally, I moved toward post traumatic stress disorder, sensing something in his eyes, and that's when he hit me with it.

He is a Vietnam veteran with a PTSD diagnosis. He began to barrage me with questions about why, how, when; "How come I feel this way? I've been in therapy for years."

"I am a therapist" must be tattooed on my forehead. And you know what? That's okay. The Universe put me in this man's path for a reason this day, so let me tell you why and how this relates to our topics of Social Justice.

I didn't want to "play therapist" to a stranger, but then all of our clients are strangers at first. I didn't want to wear that clinical hat, but I didn't want to discount him either. We were two people, just him and me, in a shack, surrounded by animal furs, and my friend idly running her hand through them as we talked. This man with the boy eyes then told me that he was mad at his therapist. He was mad because he was told that "Vietnam is in the past. You can't change it. You can only move forward." Sounded like something someone might say in a well-intentioned way, but it wounded him deeply, for Vietnam still lived in his head, in the present, and was absolutely not in the past. He continued through the end of the conversation with fat tears dancing on his eyelids.
"I disagree," I told him.
"How so?"
"Well," I thought a moment, "I think we can change the past. Maybe not the events, but our relationship to them. I'm an art therapist and I try and find ways to build new associations."
"Art therapist? Tell me more?" He's now looking around at his skins and I think I'm understanding this better now.
"Well, the short answer is that sometimes I help people work through their trauma with art. Sometimes you don't have the words. Well, the art can give us the words. And if we can retell the stories through pictures, sometimes we can change the ending. Sometimes we can take our power back." The tears were bigger now, almost falling, just not quite.
"People come in here and they judge me. They judge me for what I do. Me and my dog, we hunt these animals and I make all these things myself. And if I didn't have this, I'd be in big trouble. I wouldn't be here any more."
The man was aching to be validated. He had found his art therapy through sewing these skins and furs. And he was often placed in the face of rejection for doing so. The same rejection he likely felt by his home country when he came back from Vietnam. Any difficulty that still lingered in me from being in the room with the skins melted away.
I addressed him by his name and shook his hand. "I think what you do here is beautiful. Don't stop. If it helps you, don't stop." Again, he reiterated, "If I didn't have this, I'd be in trouble. Thank you so much for coming in here and talking to me." And then I left.

Everything we do is tied into the greater interconnectivity of things. You never know when you're going to be called to do good, even when you're in the process of doing it. I walked into that shack with a preconceived curiosity and slight disgust and left with an entirely different perspective. I don't know exactly what affect our encounter had for him. I know it certainly taught me something.

It brings me back to the biases we have and the judgement we make before gathering all the facts. This is why stereotypes, discrimination, bigotry, all those yucky things, are so insidious. The truth is usually something we cannot even begin to fathom. I'd like to ask you to think about a time when you allowed your isms and biases get in the way of learning something that could have rather contributed to the greater good, or to your own personal growth.

I'm not asking that you wear fur. Maybe, just once in a while, check the label to see who made it.