by Liberty Wetherill: Art Therapist, Kenya Diaspora of Hope, 2008
As an art therapist I noticed Isaac right away because of his depressed affect. His downcast demeanor reflected the weight of burdens too heavy for a fourteen year old boy to have to carry. He was somewhat socially isolated, he always sat by himself in class and worked fastidiously on his artwork in silence. I also noticed that when he found something funny he would look up from his work and giggle so that for a moment his entire countenance lit up.
One of our art projects called the “life map” involved creating an artistic depiction of each student’s life with flowers for positive life experiences and rocks for negative ones. My co-teacher Joachim, who was incidentally Isaac’s schoolteacher, whispered in my ear that Isaac had many “rocks” on his life map and that perhaps the two of us should meet privately to discuss his hardships.
Isaac agreed to meet individually with me to tell me his life story. I let him lead our time together feeling that it was important for him to be in control of his story. He described each flower and rock in detail including the three successive rocks which signified deaths of important people in his life. Isaac had lost both of his parents and then went to live with his grandmother, who died shortly thereafter. He explained that he now resides with his mother’s friend. I intervened at this point by asking him how he felt about living with his mother’s friend. Tears began to fall which he tried desperately to hold back. He was an only child, he told me, at times burrowing his tear stained face in his hands, so he had no family left and he had to work very hard to earn his keep where he currently lived. Life had been very hard for him he said, and he felt very lonely without any family left.
Isaac needed a safe space or holding environment for him to re-count the trauma he had experienced. He needed a place to tell his story and share his feelings of sadness and tremendous loneliness. In the interest of our brief time together, when I felt that a sufficient catharsis had taken place, I re-directed the focus of the session to his positive character qualities—I pointed out that he was a survivor, an overcomer and that he had shown great strength and bravery in withstanding such adverse circumstances.
Knowing that he was from a Christian background I then asked him if he knew the Hebrew meaning of his name Isaac which is “one who laughs.” He smiled with satisfaction at this new puzzle piece of self-knowledge. I told him that I had seen him laughing many times in class and that I wondered if his ability to laugh, or his sense of humor, was a positive attribute which had helped him through many trials. I told him that I thought this ability to laugh would serve him well in the future and he agreed.
The focus of the rest of the session was on Isaac’s future. I encouraged him to think of things that he hoped for in his future and to draw them on his life map. He marked off a new segment of his life map to indicate his future and labeled one part “family” and another “graduation from law school.” Together we discussed the many hopeful things he had to look forward to in his future including a family of his own one day, which the idea of seemed to give him tremendous satisfaction, and his career aspiration to be a lawyer.
Overall, this brief session seemed to help Isaac in that it provided a safe space for catharsis of overwhelming feelings and for him to tell his story. It also helped him to re-structure how he saw himself as a causal agent with positive attributes who is able to shape the hopes he has for his future.
From then on after our session, Isaac signed his artwork as “One who laughs.”