Whenever someone asks me about what brought me to art therapy I have a moment of hesitation about what to tell, and usually end up with a part of all that played into it. Here’s the full story:
Shortly after I graduated with a masters degree in clinical psychology, we had a major earthquake in Adapazari, Turkey, a town close enough to my home-city of Istanbul that resulted in a death toll of 35,000, and many more that were wounded and/or traumatized. I was part of a group of private practitioners, and overnight our office space expanded to include hospitals and tent cities. The international community responded not only in aid but also in sending experts to help train us.
The first group from Israel was a comprehensive trauma intervention team that included group debriefers, EMDR specialists, and an art therapist. I was aware of art therapy through books, and a single, albeit powerful, art therapy experiential offered by a visiting gestaltist, so was really curious.
The first thing I noticed about her was that she wore Birkenstock. I’ve always favored comfort in clothing so have never been the suit/high heels therapist, but the unwritten rules of attire forbade this level of comfort. The Birkenstock lady gathered us around for a group clay intervention inviting us to create a symbol that would support us in the fieldwork we were engaged in. Something to prevent burn out and support our psyche in the immense suffering we were about to witness. I wasn’t so surprised that I loved the dolphin I created cause they are lovable in even their most primitive representation, but that I felt caressed when she picked up and praised my creation. It was my first lesson in how our art is connected to our insides, and that you can lift a spirit by the way you approach its creations.
I arrived in the US as a trained, but not qualified, trauma specialist and applied to the doctoral program in town that would have been the logical next step in my career. The rejection I received turned out to be a blessing in disguise as it lead me to the Cleveland Gestalt Institute. I met Jackie Lowe Stevenson there who was to become a mentor, teaching me not only about Gestalt, but presence, working with intuition, and Shamanism.
In the meantime, I would hear about a graduate program in art therapy on the radio, not really considering it as an option because it felt on the fringe, interesting, but not comparable to a classical doctoral degree.
In one of Jackie’s drumming circles, I found myself swimming in the depths of the ocean in my minds eye (Shamanic journey space) in the body of a sea turtle. Flying like an eagle, wrestling with a tiger, or being swallowed by a snake. Otherwise dangerous or impossible experiences are possible in this psychic space that resembles dreamspace with the major difference: you can make decisions about where to go, what to engage with and how.
For the next half hour, I had the experience of swimming as a turtle enveloped by an amazing sense of total and utter freedom. The downside of trying to explain the power of altered states of consciousness experiences is that you lose the numinosity that is a felt experience. It was simple in that I could turn left or right, float to the surface or sink deeper, and yet profound in that I knew what real freedom felt like for the first time. We know we are free theoretically, but experience our freedom in a muted fashion because of the stories the mind creates as to the opposite.
Because this sense of freedom stayed with me, the next time I heard the same commercial on the radio, I reacted very differently. I allowed myself to feel the desire that had been dormant about pursuing art therapy and made the decision to at least go check out the program. I didn’t think much would come of it, but it turned out to be one of those life changing first steps. The head of the program took an immediate liking to me and not only convinced me to apply but made sure comparable college credits from Turkey would be transferred. There were other barriers to cross, but when there is a will...
I was unable to complete this program as we moved to another state a year later due to my husband’s employment and then money was tight so college wasn’t an option.
A year after that we were in Colorado, and I had applied to Naropa University’s art therapy program as well as another doctoral degree, I suppose initially to cover all my bases. Somehow the doctoral acceptance came sooner and I didn’t have a legitimate reason to decline it, so had actually sent in a deposit with the intention of starting. And then the universe intervened a second time.
There was a group art experiential that was part of Naropa’s application process and due to some misunderstanding in my communication with the admissions counselor I arrived an hour late, seeing everyone gathered around the table processing their artwork, which I had missed. Being left on the outside, I was reminded of what my soul craved, which was to engage not in intellectual treatises, but deep explorations of the psyche through creativity. I went home that day and to his dismay told my husband that I wanted to become an art therapist, rather then going for the doctorate.
There are other reasons that drew me to art therapy of course, such as my love for creativity even though I am not a particularly talented artist, and how art therapy creates permission to engage with materials, process and product in a myriad of ways. Also my appreciation of the arts in general, and my awareness of their therapeutic value, having grown up in an environment that cherished them. What was in my conscious awareness would not have been enough to follow through with my deepest desires however, if life hadn’t given me the opportunity to dig deeper.
When did you last listen in to your deepest desires?
What are you doing to let what is dormant in the psyche, come to the light of day?
Sibel Ozer is a licensed professional counselor and board-certified art therapist currently doing private practice in downtown Ann Arbor. She started her career as a clinical psychologist working with earthquake survivors in Turkey. She continued her work in the United States in hospice, hospital, and private practice settings further specializing in grief, loss, and trauma. She is a certified EMDR practitioner and a graduate of the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland. She gives experiential workshops nationally and in her country of origin (Turkey) on different art therapy topics. Visit www.sibelozer.com, call (303) 905-1109, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.