Apr 09 2007

Tom dealing with the legacy of domestic violence

Bill’s note: This is a fictionalized case-study. Any similarity to any person or life situation is completely coincidental.

During the staff development process for a psychodrama weekend, Tom, a 47-year-old staff person volunteered to participate in a trust circle activity. He had done this activity before, so he was familiar with the activity. Tom’s father was a chronic alcoholic and his parents were divorced when he was 14 years old. His family experience was characterized by chaos and frequent domestic violence.

When intoxicated, his father became rueful and threatened his mother and younger sister. Tom described a sense of powerlessness during these episodes and expressed guilt and shame that he was not able to do anything to help himself, his mother and sister.

The therapist invited the group to form a circle and Tom moved into the center. The group members were advised to stand in the power stance with one foot in front of the other and the palm of their hands, held forward. Tom was encouraged to stand “rigid as an oak board”, keep his feet “glued” firmly to the floor and cross his arms in front of his chest with his hands placed on opposite shoulders. Having experienced this exercise many times, Tom accomplished this easily. The therapist then invited him to fall into the outstretched hands of the group when he was ready. Tom took a deep breath and began to fall backward into the outstretched hands of the men in the outer circle. He was gently moved in a random motion in the circle. He kept his eyes shut.

When the therapist asked him what he was feeling, Tom replied that he was feeling some anxiety and fear and mostly felt it in his legs. Without prompting, he talked about seeing himself as a little boy in a corner of his living room, behind a chair, terrified by his father’s rage. The group slowed the movement down until Tom was standing in the middle of the circle. The men kept their hands on his shoulders, back and arms. Time began to stand still. The therapist gently encouraged Tom by saying, “if you want, let us know what you are experiencing…” Tom replied that he it was like he was back there experiencing this all over again. He described the fear and powerlessness he felt so long ago.

As Tom continued to verbalize his experience, he talked about beginning to feel sad and tearful. He was able to cry and verbalized that he had a right to be sad and express it. He was able to also say, “I was just a little boy…there was nothing I could do…someone else should have helped us…” Tom began to sob and his shoulders and upper body began to move with the waves of grief that traveled through his body.

The therapist gently said, “Like you are saying, you were just a little boy…there was nothing you could do….you didn’t have a place to express these feelings then, but now you do…” Tom continued to grieve and then talked about beginning to feel anger. He talked about feeling anger swelling up in his chest. The therapist asked, “what do you need right now?” Tom replied that he wanted to lean forward and have the group put pressure with their hands on his back and provide some resistance for him.

He had learned in previous activities that placing his body in a vulnerable, leaning forward position and feeling restrained by the pressure of the men’s hands on his back enabled him to access his own anger and rage. He talked about how feeling the hands of the men on his back and around him created a “sense of being contained”, like he could access the depth of his own anger and rage, express it and not disconnect from those feelings. As he pushed up and met the resistance of the men’s hands, he intensified his pushing, then allowed anguish cries of grief and anger be expressed. After about 3- 5 minutes, Tom began to relax. The men loosened their pressure and Tom stood up.

As Tom stood up, the therapist gently suggested that the group could create a standing cradle for him. He agreed and gently fell back into the arms of the men who formed a cradle behind him. He stood motionless as the men in the outer circle began to support him in a cradle. Tom reported later that the cradle created by the men in the outer circle helped him feel support, safety, and containment. Rather than anger or sadness, Tom reported feeling safe, warm, nurtured and supported.

Within the context of the group, Tom was able to go through a range of intense emotional experiences. It helped that he was familiar with the activities and was not intimidated by the prospect of re-experiencing such powerful emotional memories. However, Tom’s experience was very moving for the other group members and helped them better understand how they could also use this activity.

The therapist and the men were able to offer empathy, support, and witness to these memories. For Tom, he reported feeling stronger, more aware and more compassionate of his life experiences. His work moved him further along the path of self-acceptance. He was successfully integrating what had happened to him in the past, with who he was in the present.

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