One of my earliest clients was 9-year-old Beth. Her mother was killed in a hit-and-run accident while returning from work one night. Beth’s father brought her to therapy because she was having recurring nightmares of the car crash and she often woke up screaming. Though the accident had happened 5 years earlier, the horror of her mother’s death was as real for Beth in her dreams as the day it happened. She became anxious at bedtime, and none of the calming rituals that she and her father had created were working.
In our first (and only) session I asked Beth if she would draw her dream. She picked up the colored pencils and drew it easily— the highway, the smashed car, blood. Though it seemed counterintuitive, I sensed Beth felt a certain relief in putting her nightmare on paper. Perhaps this small act of giving concrete form to the terrifying images in her head gave her some needed distance. She told me that her mother died instantly as far as anyone knew, and all she remembered was hearing her father’s cries and that the house was a blur of tearful people for a long time.
I asked Beth if she would be willing to draw another picture. Sure, she said. If the dream didn’t end there, I said, what would the next scene be? After a few minutes, Beth drew an angel taking her mother up to heaven on a rainbow. Tell me about your picture, I said. My mother is safe now, and she’s happy. The angel put her back together. She asked if she could take her picture home. Of course, I said. What about the first one? What should we do with that one? You keep it, she said.
Beth did not come back to therapy. Her father told me they framed the picture and put it by her bed, and the nightmares stopped. Beth had found a way to make her mother whole and safe and apparently, that was what she needed to find rest herself.
Here’s the curious thing— I didn’t ask Beth to draw a picture of what would make the nightmares go away or even what might help her feel better. I just asked her to draw the next scene and she created the perfect healing image for herself. I think we all have that next scene inside us, just waiting to be revealed. Underneath the fear, the anger, the losses, and the nightmares, I believe we all long for the opportunity to create that next scene. If free and cared for, if held in a safe container, like Beth, I believe we would see past the devastation, picture rescue by a loving force, and feel a return to wholeness.
Beth could have drawn the other driver jailed or hit by a car as revenge, but she didn’t. And, no pun intended, I don’t think that was accidental. When we are free and cared for, held in a safe container, and encouraged to express ourselves, we look for healing. We do everything possible to put ourselves back together. Our psyches are no different from our bodies; they move instinctively toward recovery.
This is what the best therapy provides— the safe space to unburden ourselves of our pain and then imagine our wholeness. This is why I wrote America in Therapy, because I want to offer the best therapy to our country. Like Beth’s two pictures, I drew in words my version of the scene of destruction that keeps so many of us awake at night, and then I imagined what could come next for America, which is not revenge but a return to one another, to wholeness and renewal.
What if we made it safe for all of us to look beyond the threats and the violence and create a next scene for the Family of America?
What would you create?