MCAD, Thoughts & Exploration

Thoughts on DBT Therapy – Healing Tool & Systemic Tool of Oppression?

Lately I’ve been deep into a reading called The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D. This book so far, among several other factors in recent weeks have both reaffirmed some of the techniques and developing habits from my investment in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), while also re-evaluating this time as I try to funnel my experiences into art and pursue activism.

Passivity
Conditioning
Re-shaping the Brain
Agency / Empowerment
Activism

DBT is a program that was recommended by my therapist to move forward with my life after being sexually assaulted over a decade ago. It is both group therapy and individual therapy, focused on establishing / relying on taught skills to cope with bad circumstances and re-train the brain to be in the present, be aware of the body and its sensations, and work toward an acceptance of your particular reality. To do this, we essentially force ourselves to pay attention to our surroundings, try to listen to our bodies, and practice mindfulness techniques. We keep weekly sheets to track our skill-use, impulses, and harmful behaviors.

Without a doubt, in the four months I have been in DBT, it has made an enormous difference, as is reaffirmed in The Body Keeps the Score.

“…many psychological problems involve difficulties with sleep, appetite, touch, digestion, and arousal. Any effective treatment for trauma has to address these basic housekeeping functions of the body.” (56) + In DBT, these are the PLEASE skills.

“Being able to feel safe with other people is probably the single most important aspect of mental health; safe connections are fundamental to meaningful and satisfying lives. Numerous studies of disaster response around the globe have shown that social support is the most powerful protection against becoming overwhelmed by stress and trauma. Social support is not the same as merely being in the presence of others. The critical issue is reciprocity: being truly heard and seen by the people around us, feeling that we are held in someone else’s mind and heart. For our physiology to calm down, heal, and grow we need a visceral feeling of safety.” (81) + Group setting, Interpersonal Skills, Individual therapy, “safe spaces”

“by helping my patients to first notice and then describe the feelings in their bodies – not emotions such as anger or anxiety or fear but the physical sensations beneath the emotions: pressure, heat, muscular tension, tingling, caving in, feeling hollow, and so on.” (103) + Mindfulness exercises, Observing, Noticing

“Self-regulation depends on having a friendly relationship with your body. Without it you have to rely on external regulation – from medication, drugs like alcohol, constant reassurance, or compulsive compliance with the wishes of others.” (99) + PLEASE skills, tracking impulses, etc.  (I know this one a little too well)

All of these make sense personally, and have helped me really see some of my own habits and behaviors, which is the first step to changing them.

However, creeping at the back of my mind as I continue to do research in graduate school and live in systems of oppression, whereby I have been conditioned as a woman to be quiet, to think always of others before myself, and not to see my own value, therapy mirrors the system in ways that I would like to confront through my art work as a mediator. Especially as I am involved in activist groups with mainly women and women of color trying to change the culture of sexual violence and gender violence, I no longer want to simply follow an “easy” path toward a status quo I simply do not agree with or tolerate.

In order to heal, I’ve put many things aside, including my own self interest and beliefs at times, because I believe that at some point I will be able to function “normally”. While this is no doubt important, that normalcy must not continue to ignore race and sexuality.

I also can’t shake the underlying message of the goal of retraining our brains, that we are broken and wrong, and need to change in order to deal with our circumstances. Normal people cope and move on with their lives after bad events, while we are still trapped in the past.

“We now know that trauma compromises the brain area that communicates the physical, embodied feeling of being alive. …. They also help us understand why traumatized people so often keep repeating the same problems and have such trouble learning from experience. We now know that their behaviors are not the result of moral failings or signs of lack of willpower or bad character -they are caused by actual changes in the brain.” (2-3)

Even in understanding how DBT can be an effective healing tool and with the support of Van Der Kolk’s research and experience in his book, I am still a “subject” that needs to be fixed. For me, this does not help to promote agency or empowerment, help me to speak up for myself, or feel comfortable in daily life.

I’m not suggesting that it is therapy’s job to change the structure of our society, however because it perpetuates the same systems that have in many ways created circumstances of trauma and suggests a mimicking of supposed agency within these limits, how much can this form of therapy truly help me feel empowered? How much will this form of agency perpetuate the same behaviors at the end of the day that contribute to my mental illnesses?

“Sexuality must not be thought of as a kind of natural given which power tries to hold in check, or as an obscure domain which knowledge tries gradually to uncover. It is the name that can be given to a historical construct: not a furtive reality that is difficult to grasp, but a great surface network in which the stimulation of bodies, the intensification of pleasures, the incitement to discourse, the formation of special knowledges, the strengthening of controls and resistances, are linked to one another, in accordance with a few major strategies of knowledge and power.” Foucault, History of Sexuality: Volume I, An Introduction (105-106)

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MCAD, Thoughts & Exploration

MFA Candidacy Evaluations & Reflection

I spent the weekend away in Chicago to kick off “Spring Break” to evaluate how my work is progressing and how it correlates with my research.  In about 5 weeks, my 1st year peers and I will be reviewed for MFA candidacy.  Are we prepared to enter year 2 and prepare for graduation/professional careers?

This mid-term review involves presenting a cohesive body of work, an artist statement, and process book to a committee.  In my mind, it’s an opportunity to hone in on what really matters in my art practice and reevaluate my methodologies, solidify pertinent influences, and place myself in the contemporary art world.  Additionally, we have a major research paper due at the end of the semester that can effectively prepare us for the review.

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Detail, Untitled (Perpetuating the Cycle), 2016

 

As I take this week to reflect, work, and read, here are a few things that have been occupying my thoughts:

+ In an attempt to find an artist working with sexual identity that made sense in the context of my work, I wrote my mid-term essay on the invisible nature of sexual violence and Tracey Emin.  Sitting down to spend some time with Emin lit a fire that was out; I was numb.  The raw nature of her imagery, interviews, and performances made me feel exposed, overwhelmed, and ashamed.

In this same time frame, I also participated in a Break the Silence event, where I volunteered and ran an art table.  In hearing other survivors tell their stories, I built up the confidence to tell my story, and for the first time since I was assaulted, I allowed myself to grieve publicly.  To hear the words, “I believe you”, helped dissolve some of layers of guilt and revealed patterns of self-deprecation.  I was able to face Emin’s drawings.

 

+ Learning more about participatory art and its criticisms made visible the wall I had built between myself and my audience through instruction and interaction in order to protect my own vulnerability.  I felt a disconnect in my visual language that prevented me from reaching my viewer.  So, I had made the decision to focus on painting this semester, specifically to think about abstraction.  The result for my first critique were 8 shaped paintings, yet the disconnect remained.

 

+ Abstraction, primarily through a mixed media approach (oil paint, pencil, chalk, etc), has been the most logical way for me to communicate in the last 5 years.  That nature, however,  was really a disguise for coping and putting pieces back together; it is not yet a language that urges people to act or possibly even react.  I know a lot of people would say that my paintings are not necessarily passive, but the spectrum of emotion in them is subdued, put out, silenced.  This is a reflection of the cultural climate in which I operate as a rape survivor.

 

+ In my first critique of this semester a couple weeks ago, my critique teacher made a point to tell me that other artists use their trauma as a way to avoid criticism of their art work.  Although this was general advice and not a targeted, personal attack, I continue reading more under the surface:

“Your vulnerability and experience makes us uncomfortable, so choose your language carefully as to not seem defensive or overly upset.”

In reality, this is something I am painfully familiar with; continually feeling uncomfortable in order to make others feel comfortable.  I don’t mean this in a conformity aspect of how we should act in a critique or institutional setting, I am referring to masking mental illness, to the discomfort of operating in a skin that feels owned by others, to suppressing a level of anger and sadness that does not go away with time, only through coping mechanisms.

 

+  So, is abstraction an effective way to communicate this discomfort and the full range of my experience?  I am no longer as convinced (at least through painting) in terms of an authentic reflection of myself.  Unfortunately, I see complacency and comfort in painting that is limiting my practice, at least right now.

 

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Detail, Untitled (Perpetuating the Cycle), 2016

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MCAD Life, MFA Semester 1

Semester 1 @ MCAD + MnArtists

Graduate school has been an intense catalyst for realizing and imagining new goals that harness every part of myself.

Rigid connectors and knots that shape my philosophies function equally with the fragile threads of new experiences in Minneapolis.

As I focus on sexual violence and ask many questions about the concept of rape culture in the United States, I’ve challenged my methodologies and my media toward these goals:

Community
Communication
Education

For my final critique of the semester, I presented a soft sculpture on the floor in the corner of our gallery along with a stack of papers for each of my peers that read:

“As a survivor of sexual violence, it has been difficult to rediscover the integral connection between myself and my own sexuality, both physically and mentally.  Over time, I have tried to bridge this disconnect by reflecting on past experiences that shaped my own sex education and bodily associations.

This ongoing project functions as a timeline; a record of experiences that shaped who I was before being assaulted and the cyclical mental and corporeal identifications that have resulted.

I invite you to work together to untangle these experiences in order to arrive at a “truth” or understanding of the complexities of identity shaped through my experience with sex and constructed sexuality.”

For the following five minutes, everyone worked together in silence to unravel the piece below.

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Untitled (Sexuality as Identity)

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I will continue to build onto this piece while thinking of how this and other future pieces can give others the strength to communicate, can fuel face-to-face conversations, and help people understand the complexities and consequences of placing all of the responsibility on the victim.

*As my practice grows and changes, I will be housing graduate projects at MnArtists.org/hrpeebles. Keep an eye on the site as I explore participatory art while challenging the visual vocabulary in my paintings.

Thank you for continued support.

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