Expanding on Nature as the Third Parent: How the Nonhuman World Supports Early Attachment

As a trauma therapist, I hear a lot of stories about parents.  How they supported us, or didn’t.  How they believed in us, or didn’t.  Modern psychology is rather focused on how our parents made us the way we are, and how their parenting either harmed us or allowed us to succeed.  I’ve heard some pretty horrific stories about how incompetent human beings can be in the ways that we treat each other.  I understand the complexities of trauma and how that is passed through the generations, just as our names and eye colors are. Each of us is a complicated layering of depth, color, and texture.  

When I am sitting with a client, taking her in, exploring her unique ways of seeing the world, I am continually taking note of her strengths and naming the resilience I see in her.  I am asking myself, “What got her through all this?  What about her made her able to survive, move forward, and continue growing as a person in spite of all of these challenges?” Together we unpack what it meant to have that kind of a mother, that kind of a father, and so on.  We nurture and support the adult client’s inner child, and bring a new sense of peace and vibrancy into her current life.

A while back I read an incredibly eye-opening article titled Nature as the Third Parent  and it really blew my mind.  Of course!  Of course nature is the other factor in how we are raised.  And what I have noticed again and again working with clients with trauma is that no matter what their human parents were like, they have this other core relationship with nature.  There’s that one tree they would always climb, there was that one path they would always walk, there was that lake they would look out on.  Everyone has something.  Nature, for many of us, acts as a stable, loving, and relatively predictable presence in our lives- and through our connection with it, we can develop healthy attachment even if the humans in our lives aren’t always supporting us in the ways that we need.  In other words, nature picks up the slack.  

After reading Nature as the Third Parent, I began asking clients about this.  In addition to their parents, who else or what else, particularly in nature, impacted them?  I ask them directly, “What do you think about this idea of nature as your third parent?”  And the feeling in the room immediately shifts- they look off in the distance and start describing in detail the natural places of their childhood, the way they felt surrounded by a loving presence when they were up in a tree, the way they felt free when they were out of the house with bare feet on the hot sidewalk in the summertime.  Everything changes.  The conversation evokes feelings of peace and belonging, of secure attachment.  Simply by talking about nature, they feel more connected to themselves and more whole.

How Sacred Sex Ed Started With a One-Year-Old and a Stick of Mango Chapstick

My daughter was one and a half at the time.  She got a hold of my mango chapstick and really went for it.  Smelling it, tasting it, rubbing it all over her face and into her hair.  Nibbling it.  She was obsessed and there was no getting it back from her.  This went on for a good twenty minutes.  Part of me wanted to say “that’s enough” and “no more” and “you don’t need it all over you.”  But there was something restrictive about that… I really couldn’t think of any good reason why she shouldn’t have as much mango pleasure as she wanted.  

And thus begins sacred sex ed.  Yes, it starts as young as one.  I’m not talking about naming-body-parts-correctly sex ed, I’m not talking about the 5th grade version here.  What I want her to know is that pleasure is good.  That her body is wise.  That it’s okay to want more, to explore, to use her senses to discover.  

Pleasure is so stigmatized in our culture and I hope to teach her from a very young age that there’s nothing wrong with it.  Chapstick is just one example... there’s also clay, there’s paint, there’s mud.  There are millions of ways to welcome children into their sensory world, and through this process we are invited again and again as parents to say yes to what the body wants, to say yes to the longing for what feels good.  

One of my teachers regarding this approach is the Hindu Goddess Lalita Tripura Sundari, who is the Goddess of Erotic Spirituality. She sees bodily pleasure as a doorway to profound spirituality. To find out more about her and other inspiring Goddesses, please join Karina Maria Tibble and me for Myth, Art & Movement: A Deep Winter Goddess Series for Women. This sacred circle of women will be gathering for goddess mythology and storytelling, as well as intentional movement and art practices designed to activate the Goddess wisdom already within you. Five Saturdays from 10 AM until noon starting February 17.  More Info here.  

*We respect that gender is a spectrum and welcome all participants who identify with the pronouns she/her/hers. 

Wing Repair, and the Importance of Trusting Our Children’s Inner Knowing

My three-year-old didn’t want to go to preschool anymore.  The new kid, the kid who is only two and hasn’t yet learned body boundaries, has been damaging her wings and thus she has decided it isn’t safe there anymore.  My heart sank.

I’m not talking about her purple sparkly wings.  I’m not talking about her rainbow feather wings that Santa brought.  Her invisible wings.  Her secret power wings.  Her ever-present wings that she tucks in before getting strapped into her carseat, so as not to squish them.  Those wings.

And I can’t help but wonder if we’re also talking about her highly sensitive energetic body here, her higher self, her winged fairy creature self.  Real or imagined, it’s real to her now and that’s where I’m committed to meeting her.

The therapist in me translates it this way: Mommy, I don’t feel safe.  Help me.

The former teacher in me translates it this way: Mommy, this kid is bullying me and you have to fix it now.

And the artist in me goes here: What kind of damage have the wings experienced, what kind of repair needs to happen, and what imaginal protection can we call on to protect them from further damage?

Bottom line: I trust our imaginations to help us find our way in life. I trust the wisdom of our inner imagery.  There’s a part of me that wants to rush to fix it, to solve it for her, to keep her home from school today.  Yet my own inner knowing chimes in to say slow this down.  Trust her.  Trust her inner knowing. And this leaves room for her to find her own answers.  

Patches.  They need patches, she says. So we patch them. We recruit her teachers to patch them throughout the day.  Holes have been repaired; she’s still afraid of new holes, but at least she knows what to do when they happen.

Day 3: she still doesn’t want to go to school.  It’s going to happen again. It’s too hard. And now we start brainstorming as a family, we sketch out our ideas, we ask daddy for advice.  Meanwhile the teachers are teaching her how to use her big voice, be assertive, and firmly say “I do NOT like that” when he hurts her. And they are physically intervening, keeping her physical body safe.

This is what we’re really working with here: How do we protect ourselves?  When our fragile, feathery parts are out in the world and vulnerable to the inevitable bumps and bruises of life, how do we keep ourselves safe? I’m not offering answers; rather, I am helping her explore the questions for herself, and for her this is all happening through the metaphor of her wings.  We start drawing wings, we start imagining ways to make wings stronger and shielded.  She decides to put swords on one wing in case she needs to fiercely protect herself.  There’s a button she can press to release the swords immediately, as needed. She realizes these sharp swords could really hurt this new kid though, and she actually doesn’t want to hurt him.  So on her other wing she makes swords made of soft fabric. This sends him a message to back off but without harming him.  She’s protected, he’s protected.  Problem solved.  And now she’s back to enjoying school again.

This experience with her touches me deeply on so many levels.  Certainly it wasn’t just an imaginal process here.  It did take me communicating with teachers, advocating for my kid, and it took their skillful and prompt response to it to create such an empowering outcome for my daughter.  But I’m appreciative of how tracking her inner imagery made such an impact here.  Hearing her complaints about not wanting to go to school, and really unpacking that with her, engaging it, getting inside of her inner world through active imagination, drawing wings, drawing wings being protected, this whole process brought us closer together and taught us all a lot about paying attention to our needs, even our subtle ‘invisible’ needs, advocating for ourselves and our sensitivities.  

I’m in awe of the original solutions she came up with. This process has inspired me to connect even more deeply to my inner knowing as a person, as a mom, and as a therapist.  

“I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the heart’s affections, and the truth of the imagination.” - John Keats


Assessment, Sitting Beside Someone, and Altering the DSM into a 3-Dimensional Sculpture

Assess: the literal meaning of Latin assidere, ultimate source of assess was ‘to sit beside someone’

I am thrilled to be starting an ongoing altered book group this January.  This kind of an art process is ideal for someone ready to separate from outdated beliefs and old stories about themselves.  One of the most meaningful art projects I have done was, over the course of a year, altering the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), into a 3-dimensional sculpture.  The DSM is the Bible of the clinical therapy world, and as much as I value the clinical perspective on psychopathology, I find it incredibly lacking...particularly in terms of depth, texture, and its ability to identify strength and beauty within our clients.  Altering this book was a practice in using image, intuition, felt sense, beauty, and a variety of art supplies to “assess” the clients I was working with at the time.  At this time in my career, I was an art therapist working in a retirement home and thus my clinical focus was in grief and loss, major life transitions, and institutional trauma.  Many of the images in the book reflect my own process of sitting with dementia and death and dying.  

When you read an intake form, or a client comes into your office pre-diagnosed, it’s easy to assume what that means.  Dementia: Alzheimer’s Type...part of me goes ‘click, got it.  I know what to do with that.  I know what that means.’  Another part of me, the artist in me, wants more.  I want to lean in.  I want to know what it feels like in the room with you.  What’s the shape of your face?  How do you smell?  Your voice-- is it deep and low, or kind of sing-songy?  And if you were a landscape, what would you be? In working with clients with dementia, sometimes there were few words.  The words that did come sometimes made “sense” in the usual way, and other times did not.  Sometimes one line says it all.  A 90-something-year-old woman living on a locked dementia unit said to me:

    One morning in October I awoke with a black hole, a storm cloud, in one eye.  And now the nurses say I have to sit where they can see me.

So on the left you see the diagnosis: Dementia: Alzheimer’s Type, and on the right you see the correlating image.  For me, her words penetrated, clung to me, needed to be recorded and documented in image form.  Working imaginally in this way with this woman allowed her and her diagnosis to touch me.  And that’s deep assessment.  That’s sitting beside someone, in a sacred way.  Feeling into them.  Letting the image that is them touch you.  

I’ll share several other altered DSM pages with you.  As you can see, I have sewn jingle bells through the mood disorders section.  Anxiety disorders have been completely torn out, torn apart, and rearranged to the point of illegibililty.  I developed another way of experiencing and understanding various diagnoses based on how my creative side worked with them, which continues to inform how I empathize with the people I work with.  Including poetry, prayers,and other visual responses to the clients provided an ongoing way for me to be with them in a deeper way, and also supported me in sublimating some of the vicarious grief and trauma I picked up on while working with this population.  I hope that these images touch you.

Alison's 8-session altered book group starts January 23.  For more information, see http://www.alison-mcqueen.com/art-therapy/

Ethics and MDMA-Assisted Psychotherapy

I was recently interviewed about my experiences working as an MDMA-assisted psychotherapist treating post-traumatic stress disorder in an FDA-approved research study here in Boulder, Colorado.  Among the questions that came up was this:

What ethical issues are you faced with in MDMA-assisted psychotherapy work?  

Although there are many layers to this question, and a novel could be written about ethics and integrity required in this or any body of work, my answer is simple.  The biggest ethical concern I have is that we in the mental health profession, myself included, are not making this treatment more widely available.  This incredibly safe and effective treatment is only available in an extremely limited research context, to a very elite few.  There are hundreds of people on the waiting list to receive this treatment, while the number of veteran suicides increases at alarming rates and the epidemic public health crisis that is post-traumatic stress disorder is preventing individuals in our society, and society as a whole, from moving forward and living healthy and fulfilling lives.  As a therapist fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to treat people through the use of MDMA, I saw the deep and lasting changes that are possible.  When 83% of research participants receiving this treatment recover from their trauma and no longer qualify for the PTSD diagnosis even 3-4 years after treatment (see www.mdmaptsd.org), how can we look away from that data?  Aren't we ethically required to make this treatment available as soon as possible?      

In my private practice (which is separate from the research context I was involved in) I see clients with severe trauma make progress, deep progress, but nothing like what’s possible when MDMA is involved in their treatment.  They come in every week and spend immense amounts of time, energy, and money on their treatment.  They work so hard at getting better, yet still the process is slow and can feel tedious as times.  Meanwhile, I know of something that would help them heal faster and more deeply, enabling them to move on with their lives and discharge the trauma from their nervous systems almost immediately.  I cannot offer it to anyone due to the criminalization of MDMA.  

Now that’s criminal.  Watching people suffer and not offering them the one thing I know with absolute certainty would turn their lives around, is criminal.  Yet I am required by law to withhold appropriate treatment from my clients.  Can you imagine if a team of researchers discovered the cure for cancer, yet withheld the treatment from people and watched them die?  This is what is currently going on with MDMA-assisted psychotherapy, and it breaks my heart.  

On Being with Our Children and their Art

Written by Alison McQueen, MA, LPC- Executive Director of Aspenroots Counseling,  Art Therapist, and Mom

Young children love working with art materials, and there is so much happening as they experiment with creative processes.  As parents we have the honor of supporting and nourishing their imaginations as well as their physical and emotional well-being through engagement with art materials.  Fortunately my mindfulness meditation practices have continually taught me to slow down and let go of any attachment to a particular outcome, and my art therapy training has taught me to really value the process of working with materials (versus the product). As a facilitator of therapeutic art groups for toddlers, I am continually invited to explore mindfulness-based art processes with the children.  They are teaching me a number of valuable lessons related to trust, exploration, letting go, and slowing down.  
Letting go of adult agendas, and letting children lead
When I set out a child's sketchbook and box of markers, I may have the expectation that she will open the box and draw something.  If I let go of this agenda and let her lead, this is what happens.  She keeps the box closed and slides it all over the table, listening to the scraping sounds it makes as it rubs against the surface of the table.  She shakes it like a rattle and says 'Shake!'  She picks it up and drops it, she takes all the markers out and puts them all back in.  She rolls the markers underneath her hands.  She takes the lids off and on, off and on.  And then she draws.  If my primary interest is in what she draws, or is in that she draws at all,  I miss everything else that happens.  I miss out on her and her process.  There is a whole array of physical, cognitive, social and relational skills at play and being developed during art time.  Even in a short art session with children, any and all of the following things are happening-- trying, planning, deciding, experimenting, making "mistakes", experiencing amazement, awe and beauty, seeing, touching, smelling (hopefully not tasting!), getting frustrated and practicing frustration tolerance, mastering skills and gaining confidence, learning to trust ourselves and others, and learning about personal and shared space... and all of these things may happen before the child even makes a mark on the page.  

A very rich experience begins to unfold as she starts to draw, as well.  There are big loose swooping scribbles, there are tight fast scribbles, there's pounding and dot-making, there's musical tapping with the 'wrong' end of the marker onto the paper, and all of this is fun and meaningful play for her.  As parents it's so important that we pay close attention to the particulars of a child's art experience.  This is a vital way of attuning with our children and letting them know that we care about them and their world.  Particularly when children start going to school, their schedules and activities become very regimented and they have little choice over most things about their lives.  In art, though, they can make all of the choices.  They get to experiment with being in charge, being responsible for outcomes, and in that process they can learn to trust their ideas and decisions.  Practices like these lead to increased confidence, better decision making, and a healthier sense of self throughout life.  
Quick tip: Have art materials handy for emotional regulation
I recommend getting kids their own sketchbook to work in, even as young as age one, so that they begin to develop a relationship with their work and with their creative process.  Art-making can become a calming self-regulatory activity for young ones, and kids can guide themselves out of stressed and activated emotional states with simple paper and markers.  It can also be great to offer stickers, glue sticks, and magazine pictures.  Dry materials such as these can all fit into a box that you keep handy and reach for when kids need an energy shift and parents need a break.  Early on, I made materials like these available for my own daughter and by the time she was eighteen months old she was able to ask for art supplies when she got fussy and more often than not the materials, along with my attunement in using them with her, helped her calm down.  Try this out for seven days in a row and let me know what you discover!