left a message asking for an appointment saying "I don't know if
you work with men-- I know that this is usually a women's issue-- but
I didn't know where else to turn". At our first session he was filled
with shame about being there at all, and with deep embarrassment told
me about his history of
compulsive eating and gradual weight gain, until now at the age of thirty
five, he was forty pounds overweight, and no longer able to function easily
at his job as a construction worker. He had failed at numerous dieting
attempts, and even though his job provided physical exercise, he was unable
to keep his weight down. Recently he had begun to purge after particularly
intense eating binges and was terrified that if he kept this up, he wouldn't
be able to work at all.
Paul was curious about art therapy, but anxious because he had no prior
art experience. To help him ease into the art therapy process, I started
with a three dimensional project that didn't involve drawing. I showed
him how to create a self-box; a box portraying his inner and outer self,
with representative objects attached to each part. He found himself placing
a tiny padlock on the lid and said "I don't like anyone to get inside
of me". It took about two months for him to feel comfortable showing
me the inside of his box, and he was gradually able to relate his compulsive
issues to the curled up plastic babies sucking tiny pacifiers that he
had placed on a bed of cotton balls and covered with a piece of fur, for
a soft blanket. In the course of our therapy, these babies came to represent
the vulnerable parts of himself, that he protected with food binges whenever
they threatened to get too close to the surface.
As the oldest of three children raised by a single mother, he gradually
assumed the role of her protector against the numerous abusive boyfriends
who came in and out of their lives. He recalled the terror he felt seeing
his mother get pummeled, and remembered how despairing he would feel when
she cried. At fourteen he began to physically attack the men who were
hurting her, often getting himself beaten up in the process. He began
to go on eating binges around that time, and over the years food came
to provide a very special form of comfort, especially when he was feeling
frightened, anxious, stressed out, or helpless.
Paul did many art therapy projects using the image of the locked away
curled up babies. He began to get more comfortable getting to know these
hidden aspects of himself, and gradually became less frightened of them.
He discovered that the more he was able to expose the vulnerable parts
of himself to those he trusted, the less he needed to turn to food to
keep those parts of him locked away. He began to discover healthier means
of soothing himself when he was feeling overwhelming emotions, and found
that he had less need to defend against feelings that were difficult.
The art therapy was an important part of his journey, in that it allowed
him to experience what was initially too powerful for words alone.
art experience is not necessary.