Because SoulCollage® has been such a profound tool for healing for me, I want to take a little of your time to tell you about how and why I came to incorporate SoulCollage® into my regular self-care.
I’ve always leaned towards the artsy side of expression, but have been far more skilled with using word arts than with any visual arts. I was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive cancer (inflammatory breast cancer) as a young woman, and it came natural to me to begin writing my way through it. Struggling to feel my way through the very difficult terrain of such sudden and profound loss of health, and coming to terms with the likelihood of death, I was excited when the cancer center I was being treated at offered a six session art therapy course. That was in 2004.
While I have a yearning to express myself artistically, I lack the skill and confidence. Most artists start with vision and spend years honing their skills to bring their visions to life. So I guess you could say I have spent most of my life being a frustrated artist. Let’s face it, very few people can make a living at being artists, and my career path took me into social work, which not only provided a steady paycheck, it consumed too much of my time and energy to be able to pursue art.
So when I walked into that first art therapy group I was intimidated. I knew I would be required to use my hands, which were swollen from lymphedema and numb from the nerve damage caused by the chemotherapy. But I also knew, since this was sponsored by the cancer center, I would at least be in familiar territory- surrounded by other cancer patients. And, if I failed miserably in my attempts at visual creative expression, at least I would shine bright in the session on writing poetry. (Which I did, and you can read the poem I wrote here).
But what I found was that the facilitators were encouraging and supportive- this was about process, not production. It was truly art for therapy’s sake, and not for anything else. Desperate for healing of the emotional kind, I threw all self-consciousness to the wind and learned to just sit in the moment while I created. The Zen-like focus required of me was a relief from the constant thoughts about dying. I fell in love with art therapy, and I knew it would be something I would practice for the rest of my life, however long that would be.
But the art therapy program at the cancer center flopped. I turned out to be the only patient who consistently attended all six sessions. I don’t know why attendance was so low, but I suspect it might have been because people feel the way I feel- they are intimidated by art and don’t have confidence in themselves to create anything aesthetically appealing. The decision to not sponsor any additional art therapy sessions left me feeling lost again, and searching for a community where I could just be myself- someone not seeking to be a professional artist, with very little money to pay for art therapy or access to art studios, but who desperately needed a supportive environment to just sit and create.
I explored various community resources, none of which offered me what I was seeking. So I continued struggling along, growing increasingly frustrated, and feeling more and more emotionally stuck as I was trying to figure out how to keep living while dying at the same time. In late 2006 my cancer progressed from stage IIIc to stage IV (metastatic), which left me with no option but to quit my full-time social work career to focus on cancer treatment.
Sometimes what we think is a negative turn of events proves to offer gifts we can’t anticipate in the midst of our fear or grief. One of many positive things that came out of me being forced to quit working was it freed up some time for me. (Although battling metastatic cancer is a full-time job). I spent some of this time aggressively pursuing ways to get myself unstuck from my emotional muck. It is a journey, isn’t it? And there aren’t many young survivors who have faced metastatic cancer and have lived to tell about it, lighting the way for the rest of us. So we are pioneers of sorts, forging our own way ahead.
But hope came! In 2010 my local Catholic healthcare system of hospitals converted it’s chapel into the Art for Healing Center. I kept hearing about this place through the grapevine, and once I got hold of a phone number, I called Sister Sherry to connect. I was so excited to find a place that not only promoted art as a way to heal, but was a FREE community resource!
I went to my first open studio there in the chapel (which is an amazingly beautiful space). I used the time to quiet my mind, focusing on painting, crafting, collaging. It became my sanctuary, a place I found relief. And I started to grow again, watered by the support and encouragement of a group of individuals offering their own talents and skills in helping us all to heal from whatever it was we needed healing from. It was not long after that (in early 2012) an introductory SoulCollage® class was offered, facilitated by Claudette Hunter. I signed up not entirely committed to a scheduled and formal group. I had grown rather fond of the drop-in style of the open studio- less pressure and commitment so I could not show up on days I wasn’t feeling well, and I wasn’t disappointing anyone. It turned out I was profoundly affected by the SoulCollage® process: the facilitation, the held space, the non-judgement, the group dynamics, and of course, by the card creation, and reading. I had found something that fit everything I was looking for, and I knew that SoulCollage® would become a regular part of my life.
Unlike my attempts at working with clay, paints, and other mediums, I found SoulCollage® to be something I could do without spending years developing skill. Still facing physical challenges with using my hands, I found I was able to make accommodations that made the collaging process easier and didn’t diminish my experience. The facilitated aspects of SoulCollage® also helped me to be more intentional and focused with my expression, which seemed to naturally invite me to go deeper into myself, into those areas I needed to heal. Every SoulCollage® session I could attend, I did.
We left California to move to Texas in June 2013. Leaving behind the Art for Healing Center and the community I was growing into there was one of the hardest aspects of relocating. (Well, and leaving behind my cancer center family after ten years of treatment there). I searched, unsuccessfully at first, for a new SoulCollage® community. I spent the emotionally difficult months after our relocation SoulCollaging® by myself in the little space I had dedicated for that purpose. I made several cards, and while I appreciated having the framework SoulCollage® provided to continue working with the process, I found I was missing the community and facilitation offered in a group.
The cards want to, they need to be seen. They need to be shared, and honored. This gives them purpose, and the healing comes not just from self expression, but from being witnessed by others.
So I rolled up my shirt sleeves and was finally able to find a local SoulCollage® group. I continue to participate in this group and am so grateful for the space, the support, and the facilitation. SoulCollage® has been such an instrumental aspect of healing from cancer. But it has taken me deeper, inviting me to dive into areas of my psyche that were begging for healing long before I was given the cancer diagnosis. I have spent years in psychotherapy, and while it has been beneficial and had it’s place in my evolution, SoulCollage® has been a powerful tool in working through layers that I was never able to work through in psychotherapy. In fact, I sometimes take select SoulCollage® cards I have made into my therapy sessions and use them as a springboard.
But SoulCollage® has offered me more than just psychological exploration and expression. It has helped me to connect to deeper aspects of my spirituality, aspects that are so entwined with who I am, who I have been uniquely created to be, that they don’t fit into any designated religion or doctrine. In this sense, SoulCollage® is a deeply spiritual practice for me and has served as an internal unifying force.
Because of the profound tool that SoulCollage® has been in my journey it just seemed a natural progression for me to become a SoulCollage® facilitator. My financial situation has remained precarious since my cancer recurrence forced me to quit working, and I remain unable to maintain full-time employment. So paying for the facilitator training (and the traveling expenses) was a challenge I could not have met had I not been prompted to consider crowd funding. I am very grateful for the people who financially contributed. They helped me get to Arizona for facilitator training, which I successfully completed in October 2014.
In facilitator training we were reminded by Kat Kirby, our wonderful trainer, as we were each invited to glue a bead on the growing web, that Indra’s Net models the inter-connectedness of all. Indeed, what all of you do in supporting me allows me to in turn support others, and so on. This is one of the amazing things about the SoulCollage® community: it takes the best parts of all spiritual beliefs and traditions and honors them, allowing room at the table for everyone, as an expression of unity and love. I am so excited to be allowed to facilitate this process!