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FAMILY SCULPTURE IN PSYCHODRAMA: A REPORT

This report was written by the protagonist of the psychodrama described below, who preferred to remain anonymous. Edited slightly and posted by Adam Blatner September 4, 2009.

I was 21 when I came to the Menninger Hospital in Houston, Texas around 2003, to be treated for a case of severe anorexia nervosa. I have reconstructed these events from journal notes and a drawing I made on the day they occurred. I have changed all names for confidentiality, including my own name, here calling myself “Ruby.

” I came into the hospital from a court-ordered hold at our county mental hospital, considered a danger to myself from my extreme involvement with anorexia and bulimia. I came with no desire to live and no hope to recover from my fight with eating disorders. I came with little hope of ever having a good relationship with my parents, and I was resigned to a life as the “black sheep” of the family. I left with considerably more understanding of myself, my involvement with eating disorders, and my family—much of this due to ideas that began in The Menninger Clinic’s psychodrama group.

Since it was held on another unit, psychodrama group was a privilege, requiring an attained “level of responsibility.” I began to be allowed to go about a month into my nearly four-month stay, though I was required to be accompanied by staff at all times. Psychodrama group was larger than most groups, and maybe because of this the room had an air of recreation. Almost all the patients were glad to be out of a strictly “talking” group. The group was led by Chris, an intern. We started with a “body posture” that represented how we were feeling that day, and then went around the circle describing what our body postures meant. The carefree room quickly began to fill with wisps of fear, anger, and sadness along with the bits of joy.

Dan’s Family Sculpture
In my first group, we were told that we would do a “sculpture.” I had no idea what that meant, but some of the veteran group-comers obviously did. A man from the unit named Dan volunteered to be “it.” He was told to pick people from the group to represent different parts of his family, and to place them in the room where they fit, using distance to represent emotional closeness or lack thereof, and body postures to represent their role in his life. He began.

He picked Ashley, my roommate on eating disorders unit, and me and put both of us side by side in the center, both of us reaching down to Dan, who was in front of us. Ashley was to be accepting, reaching with open arms; I was to be rejecting, holding my palms out and scowling.

Dan continued to select people to represent different individuals in his life, and when he was finished, he was instructed to give each character a line to say. He made his way around the room doing so. Next, Dan had to place himself in his sculpture, and he placed himself on one knee, pleading, in front of Ashley and me. Now everyone in the sculpture was told to say his or her line. Chris rallied us on louder and louder, a cacophony of feelings building on the emotions of everyone in the room.

After a minute or so, Chris stopped us all and asked Dan to go to each person in the sculpture individually and listen to that person say his or her line to him, at which time he was to respond as he wished he could to the “real person.” The two of them then held short conversations guided by Chris.

The Sharing
After that, we went around the entire room and shared how we viewed the experience and what we learned or got out of it. I felt so much emotion after being an actual part of the sculpture, though I could not immediately say what. I felt the swelling of feelings in my chest that happens when I am in true awe of something greater than myself. For me, I noticed how it felt “good” to be in a position of power and control over a man, and physically seeing his emotional response to my bid for that control. I also realized how being in competition with other girls (in this case Ashley) combined with that sense of wanting control makes the use of my body (i.e., through the use of the eating disorder) a very powerful thing. I was amazed after I left at how one hour and one room could so profoundly affect a man; and me. Weren’t we just playing a little? I mean, sure it was therapeutic, but I didn’t know it was going to really WORK.

Ruby’s (My) Sculpture
Psychodrama group progressed each week through different exercises, some more or less profound. I thought from time to time about Dan and his sculpture. One group after we had expressed our body-posture/feeling for the morning, we were told once again that we were going to do a sculpture. Chris asked for a volunteer. I knew I had wanted to do a sculpture since I got to participate in the last one. My hand was up immediately, even before my mind could calculate the consequences; I was chosen. At that moment, things started to turn and flop inside. I was going to put my life here in this room. The instructions were given. I could pick anyone in the room to be each member of my family, and as I picked them I should give them a body posture and facial expression. Physical distance in the room would represent emotional distance in my family. After each person was in place, I would give him or her one line to say to me that would represent our relationship.

I began. I chose “Mom” first and placed her looking half into and half out of the center of the room. “Dad” came next, Dave, because he looked a bit like my dad and he was always joking and teasing the way my dad would be. He and Mom were looking at each other, but were offset, so they didn’t look at each other directly. Dad was to look at me with his forehead wrinkled, disapproving.

Next, I picked Heather for my Aunt Addie. She stood far from my dad (her brother), and was close to where I would later place myself. My dad’s disapproving eyes were turned on her as well, though she looked away from him. Then I picked my Grandma (Dad and Aunt Addie’s mother)—a cute older woman of the same short stature. She stood between my dad and Aunt Addie with one hand reaching to each of them. Her eyes, though, were on me. I picked my cousin Scott, Aunt Addie’s son, and he stood next to my Aunt Addie, but away from the rest of the family, looking away, feeling rejected.

I picked Darcy to be Aunt Kathy (my mom’s sister-in-law). She is on the outside of the circle, closest to my mom. She looks alternately at my mom and me, but turns to reach out to me.

And I also picked Michelle, even though she is not “true” family. She has been a surrogate mother of sorts for years, and I never imagined leaving her out. She stands next to me, on the opposite side of Aunt Addie, the both of them offering their combined support, arms around me.

Finally it was time to pick someone to be me. I picked Aden, also from the eating disorders unit. Though she probably was the closest in looks to me, I picked her out of a more intuitive response. She hung her head and shoulders, withdrawn and scared in part at my direction and in part at her own timidity.

Adding Voice
After everyone in the sculpture had been chosen, it was time to give everyone his or her “line.”

My dad said, “You’re not running your life right.” I have often felt his disapproval of seemingly anything I do, and this feeling was reflected in the physical distance between us in the sculpture as well as his disapproving facial expression.

Mom said, “I would love you if you were good enough.” My mom is also distant from me in the sculpture, and her body posture (looking half out of the circle) represents an emotional distance. She is interested in knowing me and supporting me but has not often known how to go about making that relationship work. Growing up she was focused some on me, but seemed to be focused more on her non-profit activities.

Aunt Addie said, “I love who you are and the woman you are becoming.” Aunt Addie was standing at a distance from dad, as they almost always see things differently, but stood close to me as a source of support and understanding, representing her ongoing emotional support (especially when I felt extremely misunderstood.) She loves me, cares about me deeply, and understands me probably better than anyone in the family.

Scott said, “I’m not a part of this family.” Scott has felt much of my family’s disapproval and has grown increasingly emotionally and physically distant. He rarely associates with family other than my Aunt Addie and I.

Grandma said, “I LOVE YOU!!” She has one hand reaching to dad and one hand reaching to Aunt Addie, trying to bridge the emotional gap. She tries to make some peace between them but loves them both. Her eyes rest on me, and her love for me is intense.

Aunt Kathy said, “I want to know who you really are.” She stands closest to mom because they are the most closely related, but also on the outside of the circle as if she does not want to interfere. She looks between mom and me, but reaches out to me, trying to make a connection. She tries to understand but is not sure what to do or say. She does not want to get in between my conflicts with my mom, but she wants desperately to be closer to me.

Michelle said, “You are a person in process!” Michelle is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, and this outlook often seeps into our frequent discussions. She is always encouraging me, and her arm around me in the sculpture represents a very deep bond. She is the other person, besides my Aunt Addie, who understands me and holds me up.

And finally, I said, “I want to be myself. I need to know who I am.” “My” facial expression and body posture are withdrawn and scared. I felt like this hospitalization was a time when I must start to forge an identity outside of the eating disorder. I felt a strong need to discover myself outside of (and along side of) my parents’ value systems.

Chris had everyone say his or her “lines” all at the same time when I said “Action.” I stood in the middle of the group of my family, facing “myself.” Chris kept encouraging everyone, “Louder…louder…” I turned to see different parts of the sculpture, but spent most of my time looking at “me,” head hung and arms folded in. I heard “Dad’s” voice the loudest, telling me over and over that I’m not running my life right. Every now and then I heard my Grandma, quieter and sweet, “I Love You!!!.” I heard the chaos of everyone talking at once and trying to get through to me; to be heard. I covered my face and started to cry but couldn’t. After a bit I uncovered my face. Looking at “me” I noticed that even though Aunt Addie and Michelle were both close and hugging me they couldn’t really “hug me” because my arms were wrapped around me and I was so drawn into myself. It looked more like they were talking in each ear, trying to draw out all of the negative things I was hearing with the positive messages I wasn’t able to tell myself.

After what seemed like quite a long while, Chris said, “Stop.” The room fell quickly silent. I looked up.

Chris asked, “What are you feeling right now?”
“Torn……Confused…….”
“I noticed at one point you covered your face. What were you feeling then?”
“Overwhelmed….It all felt so real. The voices I heard loudest were the voices I hear loudest in my life—especially my dad. And I never heard “my” voice.”

Speaking to the Figures
“Okay, now I want you to go around to each person and they will say the line you gave them. Then I want you to respond to that person the way you wish you could, and the two of you may continue to talk. If you are in the sculpture, put yourself in the role of the person you are supposed to represent.”

I was shaking so hard as I began. I went to Grandmother first, because she would be the easiest. She told me how much she had always loved me and always would. I told her how much I loved her and how special she was to me. We talked for a little bit and Chris had us hug. She hugged me just like Grandma would have—so tight, reaching up to say she loved me one more time.

I went to Aunt Addie next, and I talked first—I told her how much I was continually strengthened and encouraged by her and how much I loved her. She repeated her line, “I love who you are and the woman you are becoming,” and added, “I am so glad to be close to you so I get to see who you are becoming. I love you so so much.” We talked and hugged.

I caught myself going to all the most positive or easy to talk with people first, so I stopped for a second to make sure I had time left in the group to really deal with the harder things.

I went to Mom. She repeated, “I love you, but you’re not good enough.”

Chris asked me, “How do you feel when she says that?”
I talked to Mom, pleadingly. “I know that when I hear that, you are saying that you do love me and that you want the best for me. I know you don’t mean those words the way I hear them…”

Chris asked, “How do you feel when you hear that you aren’t good enough?”
“I feel hurt and frustrated…I feel angry.”

Chris said, “Say you’re angry like you mean it.”
“It makes me angry to hear that.”
Chris: “Like you really mean it.”

“It makes me so angry to always hear how I am sick and that I am loved but that I am so sick!”

Chris prompted quietly, “And I wish…”
“And I wish that we could talk to each other without me having to hear all the ways that my mind and my thoughts and the core of who I am is flawed!”

Mom said, “Well, I’m just trying to make sure that things turn out good for you. I just want the best for you.”

I don’t know what shifted or how, but it was just like Mom—except in a second we went from bickering to understanding each other. She said that she knew she didn’t always do things great either and that she would try to work on things too—that we would both work together and we would get better at things. In those words, she took a part of the “sickness” as her own, and because my “real-life” mother has been so adamant that I was the problem, that acceptance made a world of difference. We were suddenly hugging, and in that hug I felt how much my mom really does love me.

I went to dad. He said again, “You’re not running your life right.”
Chris asked me, as he had done with mom, “How do you feel when he says that?”
I was more outgoing with dad. “ I hate to hear that from you! Anything, everything I do is wrong to you!”

Dave used my name to talk to me, “Ruby, I just know I have made so many mistakes and they were hard to learn from. I don’t want you to have to go through all the same things I had to.”

“But Dad, how come nothing is ever okay, nothing I do is right?!?”
“It’s not that it isn’t right, I just see things you could do better sometimes and I want the very best for you.”

“No, nothing is ever right to you!”

“It is, honey, I’m not very good at saying it though. But I am so proud of you. I love you so much. I wish I said things better. I want to protect you and it comes across wrong. I don’t want to control you, I want to protect you.” Tears slid down Dave’s cheeks. We hugged for the longest time and both cried.

Group was almost over, so that was all I had time to do individually. I’m sure Chris went around the room, but I don’t remember it. I stayed to myself while we waited for staff to come take us back to the eating disorders unit. I was still crying, but not hard. I was shocked in a visceral way.

I made my way back to the unit, picked up my journal and went to the gazebo in front of the unit. I cried over Dave, my “sculpture-dad’s,” sheer concern and love, carefully masked in the sculpture as admonishments. I cried for the holes I wanted to see sewn up, and the people emotionally crashing into one another.