Steven: Let’s start with how did you get interested in writing poetry?
David: Before I started writing poetry, I started reading and enjoying the poetry of the classic poet Rainer Maria Rilke and his letters that were translated into English by Ulrich Baer. Rilke wrote over 3,000 handwritten letters and each is a masterpiece of wisdom expressed with poetic charm and the most exquisite use of metaphors. I also loved the poetry of Langston Hughes, and more contemporary poets including the late John O’Donohue, David Whyte, and Billy Collins. Poetry speaks to matters dear to the heart of all of us as human beings, like belonging, connection, forgiveness, identity, vulnerability, and finding our way in the world. I still enjoy and contribute to academic writing, but poetry provides a much larger language for me to share my many years of work with children and adults and the way they have deeply touched my heart.
Steven: How does the sensitivity that goes into being a therapist help (or possibly hinder) your work as a poet?
David: Steven, you are most generous to refer to me as a poet. I am inspired to write poetry but I am humbled that each time, I share a poetry piece that I’ve written, I am advised “not to quit my day job.” I, myself, don’t think I qualify as a poet but I am drawn to it and find it even helpful with self-care. When we find ways to express ourselves creatively, I believe it nurtures our soul. I also feel there is a natural affinity of poetry to play therapy. In an article that Sueann Kenney Noziska and I wrote for the Play Therapy Magazine in 2007 titled, “The Poetry of Play” we described that connection as follows: “Children are poets who use play instead of words to create harmony out of the chaos of their inner and outer worlds. Poetry like play condenses in rich metaphor what the poet or child wishes to express.” So children creatively express through play like little poets through symbol and metaphor what is helpful to share, and play therapists read the poetry of their play in order to understand them in greater depth.
Steven: Some of the stories in your book draw from your family life. Specifically, your story entitled Mother’s Day in which you reflect on how your mom nurtured you, and In Search Of My Brother’s Keeper in which you wrote about your brother’s battle with mental illness. Did writing these poignant reflections give you a different perspective about both of them and were these particular stories difficult for you to compose?
David: Steven: I don’t know that losing our loved ones is something we ever get over completely. The best we can do I think is to find a way to go forward without them at the same time representing them in the world in the best way we can. Alice Walker said that writing The Color Purple was the best therapy for her and I do believe that writing about my brother and mother is part of my healing process. I was blessed to have a loving mother who was so kind and generous not just to me but everyone in the small community where she lived most of her life. The feelings about my brother are complicated. His psychiatric illness which made him unable to function in the world caused him great torment and suffering but provided the inspiration for my chosen life work. I was able to offer little to him, but his gift to me was priceless. After years of therapy I still feel that is not okay that he suffered greatly, and I’ve been so privileged. I do feel pleased with that I’ve been able to help others as a way to honor him, although I did not know how to help him.
Steven: In the passage, The Heart of Play Therapy, you refer to the exciting neurobiological research on brain functioning and how this can impact our work as play therapists. You also acknowledge that while data-driven science has yielded much knowledge there are also other, intangible factors that we cannot measure that greatly impact our work as therapists, specifically the degree of heartfelt engagement between therapist and child. What do you think is harder for therapists to grasp and how can both be integrated when treating children?
David: I would not want to privilege one over the other; both are so important. It is an exciting time to be in the field. The findings from neuroscience that 20 years has opened up new ways of thinking and understanding of the work we do and the children we seek to heal. Yet, there is a limitation on what quantifiable science can offer us. One trend that worries me is the tendency toward reductionism that makes us doubt the validity of anything we can’t see in neuroimaging studies. Some aspects of the craft of play therapy are not measurable and quantifiable but important. When the panel of Garry Landreth, Eliana Gil, J. P. Lilly and myself discuss “The Heart of Play Therapy” we often talk about such things, for example, a therapeutic way of being with a child, intense listening—what Rogers called “deep hearing”, and therapeutic presence.
Steven: In the book, you share a Trauma-Informed Index and Healing Steps paradigm based on your extensive experience in treating highly at-risk children. One of the steps in the index is your statement that a major “unrecognized contributor to the healing process is the active declaration of trust when youth courageously take the risk of sharing their trauma story…” What piece of advice can you share that facilitates the development of this state of trust for a child in therapy who has been the victim of unspeakable trauma? How can a therapist communicate to a child that they are indeed safe in a session to help that child to share their story which at the same time leaves them highly vulnerable and exposed?
David: I must give credit to the late Walter Bonime, MD, Senior Training Psychoanalyst, at NY Medical College with whom I was privileged to study with from a period of 1980 – 1995. Dr. Bonime emphasized that while catharsis was often viewed in psychoanalytic literature as the key healing ingredient in disclosures of abuse and trauma, he strongly believed that the active declaration of trust implied when a child (or adult) reveals to an analyst (therapist) an experience not previously disclosed was a major breakthrough in healing interpersonal trauma. Dr. Bonime focused on the harrowing risk and courage required to make such a disclosure especially for a person whose trust had been previously and all too often repeatedly shattered.
What does it take to establish this kind of trust that can be transformative in our work with a child, an adolescent, or an adult? It takes a lot. There are no shortcuts. It takes a lot of time. Children have taught me that there are small things, subtle things that can facilitate this kind of reparative trust. I’ve come to phrase it in the following way, “If children/adolescents can trust us in the little things, they will more like trust us with something big.” Since I work with youth in out-of-home placement, I am fortunate to have opportunities to show them they can trust me with the little things. I should put “little things” in quotes because they are not little things to kids at the time. I will give you an example, one of your youth in our program for Commercially Sexually Exploited Children (CSEC) around Christmas time had bought a sweatshirt for her boyfriend back home. She didn’t have however a box that was suitable to mail it to him. I immediately looked all over campus for the size of box she needed and finally found one in our fiscal office. I brought it over to her and then she realized that she had no way to take it to the post office. I told her after she wrapped it and addressed it, I would take it to the post office on my way home that evening. In the grand scheme of things it was a small matter but it was quite important to her. A few months later, even though I was not seeing her in therapy, she dropped by my office and for an hour and a half confided in me about the worst of her trafficking experiences. Now I had other positive interactions with her before and after the mailing her package, so I can’t say that one experience was the reason she was able to unburden to me in my office that day, but it certainly was a contributing factor.
Therapists can capitalize on the “little things” by remembering what they have told children in prior sessions. If we say to a child, next time we meet you can color a mandala because I know that is one of your favorite things to do and we ran out of time this session. If the therapist makes a point to remember and has the mandala ready for them to color when they come in for the next session that will count in the eyes of the child because like Winnicott explained the “good enough mother” makes space in her mind for the child. The therapist held the thought in their mind and remembered to follow through the next session. Perhaps even more striking to a child is when the therapist remembers something the child in a previous session, even perhaps a long time ago, and connects it to a present event, it often is emotionally quite moving to the child and establishes more strongly that the therapist has made space in their mind/memory for the child. I’ve heard Daniel Siegel talk about how emotional this experience is for even adult patients.