‘The public and the private worlds are inseparably connected… the tyrannies and the servilities of one are the tyrannies and the servilities of the other’ (Virginia Woolf)
Tonya Alexandri – August, 2013
‘We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time’ T.S. Elliot
Let me be includes drawings that I had made, over a short period of time, as part of processing extremely painful emotions and material. It was a first attempt to find my voice, to break the silence and to create a small crack in the taboo of seriously discussing abuse and human right violations in a country, where silence and secrecy pretty much surround issues like childhood abuse, discrimination based on political beliefs, racism, torture and other violations of rights.
Tonya Alexandri – April, 2015 (Extract from the 17/04/ 2015 post in the NEWS)
In the end, it seems that all my travels and battles are part of a long walk back to my beginnings and origins. To some extent, my journey like Molly’s in the film Rabbit-Proof Fence by Christine Olsen, is nothing more but a long walk home. This film has had an impact on me for several reasons and it also gave me the inspiration for the name I used when I published ‘Let me be’.
Those embarking on the less travelled and yet empowering journey of recovering from trauma and re-examining their lives, as well as neuroscientists and all those working with trauma survivors, know that as new layers or aspects of any particular memory or cluster of memories are processed and as experiences are revisited, one’s life narrative changes dramatically. Deeper understanding brings people to a new place, where everything is the same and yet nothing is the same anymore. Like in the myth of Ariadne and Theseus’ those exploring the paths of the labyrinth or those in quest of the truth and their beginnings, eventually see the secrets and truths that are often protected by lies, traumas, memory distortions, fear and psycho-physiological mechanisms. Professionals in the field, as well as, diverse political and criminal perpetrator groups know that extreme childhood trauma, all forms of abuse, humiliation and torture, accidents and threats, natural disasters, war and conflict, extreme poverty and neglect, surgeries and frequent hospitalisations, bereavement and separation of children from parents can all alter and impact a child’s memory processes, which facilitates later manipulation and victimization. I should note here that the emphasis of the relevant literature on psychological factors and theories alone has overlooked the social contexts of abuse and violence and their significance as social practices. I will also very briefly mention here (there is much more about memory processes and trauma in other areas of this site) that when we are traumatized and overwhelmed our attention is divided. Dan Siegel writes that ‘while an attack is underway on the body, for example, the mind will encode implicit memory but block the encoding of explicit memory for the overall event’. Siegel continues ‘divided attention achieves such an outcome because the hippocampus requires focal or conscious attention to create explicit encoding but implicit memory is encoded even without focal attention’ (Siegel, 2012). Also, excessive levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, impede hippocampal functioning, and when this is combined with the chemical impact of adrenaline that increases the implicit encoding of fear by way of the amygdala, we see that trauma can lead to the profile of blocked explicit processing and enhanced implicit processing (Siegel, 2012). The hippocampus ‘plays a central role in flexible forms of memory, in the recall of facts and autobiographical details. It gives the brain a sense of the self in space and in time, regulates the order of perceptual categorizations, and links mental representations to emotional appraisal centres’ (Siegel, 2012). Additionally, when our amygdala is overloaded it allows implicitly processed, unconscious emotional stimuli to slip into consciousness in overwhelming ways. Flashbacks, which often manifest as intrusive bodily sensations, extreme emotions and images of traumatic events are the result of this blocked explicit and enhanced implicit processing and are often accompanied with terror and experienced as happening in the here and now. Practically, this means that trauma survivors have difficulty in making sense of the layers of extremely painful and bizarre, at times, material that surfaces. The process of working on painful fragmented memories, flashbacks, bodily sensations, emotions and information that floods them makes the whole process of healing and knowing difficult and lengthy. Ιt takes a very long time to gain deeper understanding and to reach the truths one is seeking, especially if harassment and victimization has not stopped. Making sense of the isolated material, aspects of memories and flashbacks requires time, knowledge and effort. Moreover, the past is not static and as we all age and process memories and past experience we view it from different and shifting angles. It is therefore, important for those doing the lengthy work of re-examining the past and dealing with trauma and violations to re-evaluate and re-process material they create – art or any other form and product of expression – so that deeper understanding may take place since meaning making always changes as time goes by and context changes. It is also important to bear in mind that all experience, including our writing, art making and meaning making, is always situated in time and place. From this view point, returning to one’s work is essential if new understanding is to be reached as contexts and levels of knowing constantly change. Finally, it is important to be patient and to ‘trust the process’, to hang on and persevere until eventually truly deeper understanding starts taking place.
Within the framework that all experience is situated, Let me be, a storybook which includes drawings I had made as part of initially processing one layer only of material and extremely painful emotions, must also be viewed within the understanding I had then and that particular phase of my journey. This is also the reason I have used images from that initial level of processing over and over in consequent drawings. Since then I have re-explored and re-examined both the images and the story and have come to fully realize that it can only be viewed as situated in that past context and that it is the result of the place I was at the time and the barriers I was dismantling then. It should also be considered as one inevitable phase in this long process of redefining, understanding and fighting against violations of basic and inherent rights. The artwork I created after 2007 represents multiple attempts at expressing and examining experience and emotions and other aspects and layers of material already tackled – from a new place in life. The series of drawings I made in 2014 depicts yet another aspect and level of the traumatic experiences and essentially all my artwork is part of a bigger whole and an ongoing process towards increased clarity, and it should therefore be viewed as such. My website reflects the same process and is part of the bigger whole. It allows one to take a glimpse of the process as a whole and it is a documentation of my journey. In the end, as I have written elsewhere, all my artwork reflects my experience, my struggle for safety and battles against violation of rights, the knowledge and the insight I reach each time, concerning trauma and healing as contexts change. As a whole, it is in some sense a study of memory processes – of how memory stores trauma, how core traumatic memories and truths can be hidden from conscious awareness and knowing and how, by ‘peeling the onion’, deeper understanding can finally take place and a new life narrative can emerge. In any case, with the aid of neuroscience we now know that memory systems are expressed in art-making, and also, that art therapy practices contribute to growth and brain plasticity, which is ‘the overall process with which brain connections are changed by experience’ (Dan Siegel, 2012).
In any case, art provides everyone a means to explore creativity and internal experience because writing and art making are powerful tools and means to process and document circumstances, material, procedures and processes. More specifically, combining writing and art or creating illustrated storybooks can also be used with traumatized children, with refugees and immigrants, the elderly, people with special needs, etc, etc. Hanney and Kozlowska write that ‘illustrated stories offer a predictable structure to sessions and facilitate engagement and participation of children in therapy. The therapeutic emphasis of storybooks can be adjusted to take into account a child’s life story, verbal capacity, level of anxiety, and traumatic hyperarousal. The creation of storybooks is an active process that embraces important aspects of trauma-specific interventions, including expression of trauma-related feelings; clarification of erroneous beliefs about the self, others, or the traumatic event; and externalization of traumatic stimuli into artwork, allowing for exposure and habituation of the arousal response. A focus on visual images together with narrative takes advantage of children’s developmental capacities and spontaneous pleasure in the creation of art, thus minimizing anxiety and enhancing feelings of mastery, competence, and hope’ (L. Hanney and K. Kozlowska (2002), Family Processes, Spring; 41(1):37-65). To sum up, visual images and symbols are the most accessible and natural form of communication of human experience. Through the process of making art and writing, people discover insights about themselves and their lives because art has the potential to expand our (self) understanding, Art products can be viewed as personal narratives conveyed through images and the stories that are attached to these images. Therefore, since art making has the power to heal and document both our external circumstances and internal experiences, it can become a means or tool that will assist us during our quest for the truth, for healing, restoration and justice. Moreover, a lot of survivors have traumatic experiences concerning their creativity and many speak about how they have been humiliated for their artwork and how their creativity and attempts to express themselves have been stifled in childhood or across time, so also within this context, art making can restore and heal. Combined with other activities, like reading and new learning, art making may assist us in reaching whatever each one of us is in search of.