What We Do
ASHLAR in action: what we do, why we do it and how.
Who we are:
We are poets, writers and artists in the most general sense (we dance, we drum, we sing, we sculpt, we photograph and more) and while some of us are licensed professionals and have ample certifications, these are not necessary ingredients in being a successful narrative arts facilitator and educator about toxic stress.
Over the years when we first started with our writing groups, we became very interested in the Trauma Story as it appeared again and again in the stories of adverse experiences our students related-- these are the stories that often leads to paralyzing and frightening symptoms over which the sufferer has no control. And because we don't like to see people suffer and felt responsible to our students, we began searching (years ago actually) for methods to ease or eliminate suffering that comes with severe traumatic stress. And, at the same time, we remained true to our mission to serve the Story. And we found several methods that really work which we have adapted and share with students. We traveled far -- nationally and internationally -- to learn what others were doing that successfully eliminated suffering.
This search is never over as neuroscience reveals more and more of how the brain works when injured by events that create Toxic Stress and what can be done to remedy the often paralyzing symptoms that result. We have developed our own methods as we have adapted others. We have many people outside our organization that we can and do refer to including our Advisory Board. We take time to demonstrate and explain that though our work is highly therapeutic it is not psychotherapy as we do not: advise, analyze, diagnose or interpret. It is very important for you, our student to know this and that we believe and support you as the ultimate decider.
Welcome to our training: our new student and immediate family members are expected to participate in Orientation. We welcome and recommend attendance to the Orientation by extended family members or close friends who are part of the new student’s team. One of our jobs is to help our students create a team of helpers.
In the first steps of Orientation the neuroscience of trauma is presented (using cartoon images). We are not scientists and don’t expect you to be either so we go for understanding and not impressing you with our grasp of three syllable words. We also find it very important that our students understand what has happened in the brain that leaves them in survival and why telling the personal story in repetitive forms works to make shifts in the brain. Sleep is an important component and we engage our medical nutritionist to help with this. She is expertly trained to work with brain function and suggests supplements (she likes to work with the primary care physician to get bloodwork done that reveals the imbalances -- dopamine or serotonin deficiencies? Each needs to be addressed differently and the shifts that take place need to be followed so adjustments can be made.)
We have found it very important (to our veterans in particular) to look at symptoms in terms of the brain injury that toxic stress causes. Understanding what that injury is and how our work remediates or dramatically diminishes the symptoms of the injury has brought our students a great deal of relief – they are not psychologically damages, they are injured. They are not weak, they are injured. They are not less a human being because they have these symptoms, they are injured. What results from this is the fear network where experience is fragmented. To gather these fragments into a coherent whole is done through telling and retelling the toxic story. We like to use the write up of the Fear/Trauma Network as laid out by the people at the University of Konstanz who have been a great help to us.*
You will learn how telling your story impacts the fear Network created by traumatic experiences (NET process designed by vivo—pretty interesting stuff) and how the brain changes as a result of the integration that telling your story brings.
Personal change is also family change and some of it is scary even when it’s good so we cover: What can happen in the family as good change occurs.
What you need to do: your responsibilities – and ours.
You are in charge and we are the guide and you will not begin until you thoroughly understand the process. If you are in a group you will take turns with your partner and you will each learn the process from both sides: the teller and the listener. Each requires a set of learned skills.
What you, the student can expect:
We will work with you on a life event until you have resolved the deep emotional charge – for most people processing one life event takes between an hour and a half to three hours. We use the numbers 1 to 10 to gage the difficulty of emotions held in the story. 10 is the highest level of discomfort with 0 being the lowest. We really want to work toward that 0. We call this our Freak-out scale.
Some people’s process is shorter and others are longer. The point is, you will finish the life event feeling much better. As the listener you will also finish the life event along with the teller and thus, there is rarely residual compassion fatigue. Generally, people do not burn out doing work the way we do.
The total process takes a few weeks to a month to get through the Life Line – as you work, you can make use of our buddy system which means that someone will be available to you 24/7 for the first few times you process the work.
For those in training the process is the same with more didactic material.
Rules of engagement; no analyzing, interpreting, advising or diagnosing.
You will learn:
- Deep Listening and focused presence.
- The use of Narrative Arts in relation to trauma.
- How to deal with difficult emotions as they arise as you process your own life and then later as you work with clients.
- To create a Life-Line or Native American Life Ball.
- Creating arts objects: sculptural pieces constructed in memorial, redemption, regret for personal and collective use. These are created after the Life Line work. For example, we use the Spirit House, a panel of images you have created, a talking stick (for families )and a pillar. We teach you how to use the objects after the piece is finished. It is the gift that keeps giving.
- To gather arts materials; bought or recycled – anything goes, especially little things and can include literally: nuts and bolts.
- Sand-tray as theater of life.
We give you lots of choices (to find what will work best for you) on how best to tell your story: written, verbal and/or arts -- all of the above. The Life Line or Life Ball (as the Yakima and some African people call it) is the foundation. Additional benefits; when language, age or culture are a problem; using our hands helps embody the amended story and at the same time keeps us in our body during the telling.
The Life Line is exactly what it sounds like – the Line is a leather thong, a piece of rope or anything twine-y that can be laid out straight to represent the life starting with birth. As the story teller of your life, you can tie knots, or find the just right objects like small stones and beads, feathers, miscellaneous small items to string or attach to the thong that represent significant life events – positive and negative. You have probably done something like this in grade school. It is the best way to get a coherent sense of your life from the fragments. Instead of in bits and pieces your life becomes (visibly, tangibly, tactilly) whole. Many non-literate cultures use something like this to keep track of important historical events – personal and collective. In this case, you will give titles to these events and your partner or Narrative Arts facilitator will write them down. Some people just want to make a list of significant events with out the Life Line -- of course, we see great benefits in creating and having the Life Line. The events on the Line are what we work with. If you are feeling particularly bad about something, we will start with the immediate troubling event that has the most charge in current time. (As part of the process, we ask students to keep a dream/nightmare journal. One of our auxiliary classes is on Tracking the Dream).
The Use of Arts:
In our work with arts processes, we have developed a structure – and like the elements in all learning and relearning, the process is about repetition. Think of school with the repetition of the addition and multiplication tables- about studying and testing -- repetition. It’s how we learn new things and how we “unlearn. “Our director’s grandmother used to sing arithmetic with her over and over and when she was hurt (physically or emotionally), her grandmother would sing the story of her injury over and over until it didn't hurt anymore. It’s what we human beings do and have done since we invented ourselves.
Music and lyrics are a great way to learn something or express a difficult emotional event. Sing me the Blues – over and over --the repetitive lines about suffering and loss. When my baby left me. The only thing missing are the specifics of "when my baby left me." Where were you when you first realized your baby left you? What were you doing? What were the sensory details? This is the part we skip often skip over and absolutely need to go into. (Greif work means deconstructing the memory -- each time we recall a memory, it is changes.) Telling our stories is what we human beings do and why should we not continue this ancient human need when something in modern times is shocking and traumatizing? We do. Do you remember when something particularly difficult has happened to a friend (a break-up, a car wreck) how the friend told the story to anyone who would sit still and listen? It’s what human beings do. Bits and pieces of this have become professionalized in psychotherapy – we do not do psychotherapy. We take as long as the story needs. We do not limit ourselves to a fifty minute hour. Our ancestors didn't -- they would spend hours, days and sometimes weeks working through a collectively negative event.
Our director studied with an Inupiaq medicine man/shaman where the drum is used in the repetitions of story whether a teaching story or in the healing of a story. The drum effectively brings up strong unconscious participation. The drum is a common tool cross culturally used in story telling -- as is dancing -- anything that involves the body is essential to best learning practices. (look at the early work of Jerome Bruner or Bob Samples)
We tell stories until they no longer cause suffering that toxic stress brings with it. And our job is to guide you through telling your stories. It’s the people who don’t tell the story who worry us. We want your story. It needs to be told.
Repetition is also an inherent part of ritual both cross culturally and historically. Repetition/ritual contains the story and the healing is in the details and the specifics of the storytelling process. The repetition and/or ritual give us a predictable structure so there are no surprises. We know what is coming. We know what to do. We feel safe within these structures. It’s when we don’t know what to expect when we get very defended and not much gets in or out emotionally. So, safety and trust are really important factors for you our student.
Some people object to doing a life history, feeling it is unnecessary. They want to cut to the chase and forget the Early Days. We find it rare when there is no a significant early event that sets the stage later in life for shifts in the brain that toxic stress causes – though with combat veterans repeated deployments (there’s repetition again – it locks in the wound ) Repetitions of the wounding will often create traumatic responses in the body that are long lasting – especially if the veteran was given some sort of stimulant when he/she goes out into the field (often the case – you didn't know that?) and experiences trauma – the stimulant magnifies the event and leaves an even greater impression on the brain. This is commonplace and uncommonly talked about. Let's talk about it here. Our soldiers are given mood altering drugs by the military -- in the vernacular: uppers and downers. Uppers before an engagement and downers when they return from engagement.
Let’s go back to the early event; the trauma story will remain unfinished for some who do not do the Early Years work with the symptoms remaining even if it is to a lesser degree. Several veterans, ours and others we know of were sexually abused as children. Our vet did not recover from his combat trauma until the story of this childhood event had been integrated into his life story and told repeatedly until the dark negative feelings had dissipated.
Some of our students have had difficulty in letting go of a person or event, perhaps a loved one or an army buddy or someone that a combat veteran, for instance, injured or killed. In this case we use art work like the Spirit House, the Pillar of Wham Bam Pow, or a Panel of Grief or Regret, an altar of forgiveness with the story figures in relief. This is a wonderful way to deal with Guilt, survivor’s guilt and the guilt that comes when a life has been taken or other acts that create recurring memories. Some of the methods we share like EFT seem strange at first but we promise those who do it reap the reward – peace. These arts pieces tell a three dimensional story but they are not finished when they are finished. These pieces continue to function after completion. The creator of one of these pieces, say a Spirit House dedicated to someone who was killed, will use this piece ten to fifteen minutes a day while focusing intently on the event or the person. The Thai people also use Spirit Houses as do Cambodians. They are used in a small town in Alaska as well. One of our Vietnam vet combat vets is making a spirit house for a little girl he saw burning with napalm – she blazed in his mind for forty years. He is giving her life and peace – both for her...and him. When you use your arts piece, you will write down your concerns and leave it with or inside of the piece. You will say everything you have to say about this one thing and then they leave it. Do not allow yourself to think about it anymore during the day. You will return the next day to have the same “conversation.” And you will continue returning every day until the “conversation” no longer causes grief and the nightmares have stopped. This usually takes a couple of weeks and while it will diminish symptoms, it may not resolve them entirely.
We also use Sandtray Theater, a method we devised taken from Kindergarten, beach castle making play. The Sandtray Theater is a great tool for the whole family: show us what it looks like ( you will have a collection of small figures and objects to create as scene with – some people love to collect these). But you don’t stop here either, these objects can be used by others if you feel like sharing your toys – personally, we would love to see a large community structure created that many people can use. In war zones there is a great deal of rubble that can be used as materials to create a sculptural piece. Altars also work well. We see that spontaneous altars spring up at the place where someone died. People bring flowers and pictures and come repeatedly. They also visit cemeteries repeatedly. Again, note the repetitions. The idea of repetition and predictable processes will come up again and again in our work. It takes constant repetition for a short period of time – 15 minutes a day for several weeks before results are felt -- and time so that sleep can consolidate what has been accomplished during the day.
Sleep is an essential component of healing as the brain processes and encodes or decodes the work that has been done in the day time. Sleep consolidates learning. Making the arts piece gets the story going, repetition of the story gets the healing moving and sleep makes this healing part of the new world of the brain. It is said that it takes about six months for the brain to shift as a result of doing the work to heal the toxic stress in the life story. (See the work of the Konstanz University people as explained in their very short textbook, Narrative Exposure Therapy.)
A combination of Russian Orthodox tradition and Native American practices, the graveyard outside of the St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Eklutna, Alaska, is filled with more than 100 colorful burial sites. These fantastic spirit houses, each about the size of a large dollhouse, are considered a part of the Eklutna Historical Park The house the spirit of the dead one before they travel on and are left to rot. A local vet uses spirit houses to memorialize and converse with his dead. He helped a woman choose her house while she was dying.Below are images of the Alaskan Spirit Houses.
And so we invite you into the process with us. Once you learn it and learn it well, you will become a narrative arts facilitator in your community. This is why we do this. So the people in a community like yours and mine, can take care of each other and explain, tell the story of the injured brain and how it can heal through telling the story. It is a marvelous activity that has been lost to human kind and claimed by professionals but it is ours, our human inheritance. So we are reclaiming our ancient heritage. We are the story tellers. It is how we make sense of our lives. How we heal. How we teach and learn. There is nothing better than story. Gregory Bateson said that the story is the basic building block of life because it can convey relationship and great complexity.
We also have extra training where we collaborate with you to adapt Self Care practices to your particular culture. We want you to learn about breath work – to strengthen the parasympathetic nervous system – a long way around of saying that when your brain has been injured with traumatic stress, the part that delivers the calming hormones is weakened. Sod the only way a person locked into a negative story can get the calming hormones is through drugs, alcohol and high risk behavior (and that includes Cutting). Self Care needs to become an essential part of all our lives and brings with it resiliency and the feelings of personal power – you can and must take care of yourself.
We will introduce you to various methods and you take your pick. We even have some little gizmos like a CES and a Respirate that we use. There is yoga, Qi Gong, a stretching program, among the things we will present you with. Bed yoga is great for our people who have a difficult medical story. We teach this because it also keeps us doing it.
The methods we have adapted to use with our own work are: TIR -- Traumatic Incident Reduction; NET – Narrative Exposure Therapy; Expressive Arts – writing and art making; EFT* - just one of the Tapping methods) Story Telling. And... we are always learning more and traveling to faraway places if we hear of a good method we don’t know. We are always up to incorporate another arts process.
Texts we recommend are: Narrative Exposure Therapy and EFT for PTSD by Gary Craig.