Writings and Reflections

The Art Therapist

by Lloyd B. Abrams

Befogged and shaken, Liz woke up with a start to the insistent, incessant chirping of her cell phone. For a moment, she didn't know where she was; her surroundings looked so odd until she realized that she had fallen asleep on the couch in her office-studio. The phone continued to chirp.

She reached into her black leather Coach bag which she had conveniently thrown next to the couch, pulled out the phone which continued to blink red in anger, flipped it open, and drew it to her ear. She cleared her throat and groggily said, "Hello."

"Elizabeth Gorelick?" The man's raspy voice was gruff and impatient.

"Yes," she answered, and realized the hoarse voice belonged to Lieutenant Jack Gordon, head of the sex crimes unit. The poor bastard was a chain smoker who just couldn't quit, she thought. Jack had been promising Liz for years that he'd give up smoking, starting tomorrow. Even the monthly trips to the urologist for bladder cancer treatment couldn't get him to stop.

"Hope I didn't interrupt anything. But we need you here at Mercy. We have a young girl who was found in a dumpster by a couple of teenagers. She won't talk, even to Raphael." He was referring to Dr. Raphael Vasquez, the psychiatrist on call, who was tops in his field. The doctor's gentle, compassionate manner almost always got traumatized victims to open up, which then helped them start on their path to healing and recovery - or as much recovery was possible under some horrid circumstances. Liz wondered how successful she could possibly be if Vasquez had not been able to get through.

Since Liz had been too exhausted to change when she got home, she still remained fully clothed. "I'll be there in twenty minutes. But you'd better have a large cup of coffee waiting when I get there."

"Light, no sugar?" he asked.

"Good. You remembered." She smiled to herself.

* * * * *

Liz entered through the emergency entrance, and showed the security officer her official county ID card, which usually helped to cut through red tape and the ever-present time-wasting bullshit. She proceeded on to the children's wing, a way she knew by heart. Every time she walked into and through a hospital, she could taste the bile rise up in her throat, and this time it was no different. She had spent four agonizing years in and out of hospitals, including this one, and in and out of clinics and doctors' waiting rooms, watching her poor little Daniel deteriorate. She had been powerless to do anything about his paralysis and his suffering, his whining and his crying, and his shrieks of pain. Every time Daniel had started crying she felt her stomach tighten. When he could no longer see nor recognize her, she wanted to stick needles in her own eyes. When Daniel had the strength to cry out, she wanted to scream and yell and curse at a God who would allow such things to happen. His cries of pain made her wince and moan and want to run away forever. Even now, the cries of a child caused her stomach to turn.

As Daniel's condition worsened, she too, felt ever more debilitated and weakened. There was no let up and no relief. Except when, inevitably and inexorably, he took his final breath, and the machines wired to sensors attached to him let out the steady high-pitched hum of the flat line. After only four years, three months and six days of life, there was no longer any need for the on-duty nurses to come rushing into the room pushing a crash cart, nor for doctors to race in after being paged for another code blue in room 328. It was only then that Liz felt air pass through her mouth and down into her lungs, as if for the first time, as if she had been holding her breath, waiting for everything to just stop and go away.

Now, each time she passed through the automatic doors that whooshed open for her - as if by magic - she was visited by the fear that by subjecting herself once again to possibly hopeless cases, she was punishing herself for all that had happened. Though she knew that the psychological connection was only partly rational, she had to wage a constant internal battle to help her focus on what she was there to do. This time, she was there to get a little girl to talk.

But Daniel's illness and death, and her husband's subsequent suicide, were always festering beneath the surface, even after so many years. The dancing duo of death and abandonment was a toxic cocktail, once sipped, that would never, ever, allow her to dry out and become sober. For something like that, there was no twelve step plan. No trite homilies. No ninety meetings in ninety days. No one-year pins. No lifetime achievement awards.

Who in the hell would have ever thought that Kevin, her once-devout Catholic husband, was in reality, like her, of Eastern European Jewish descent? His grandparents had converted to Catholicism shortly after they arrived in America in the late 1920's and never again - their special rallying cry for their own kind of Shoah - was their Jewish background mentioned. The curtain had come down, with finality, on the Jewish part of their lives and the heritage that they had deliberately decided to spurn and thus obliterate when they crossed the Atlantic in the steerage hold of a ship, when they arrived in America so that they could walk on streets paved with gold. His devout parents couldn't change Kevin's mind, so he was discarded and thrown aside. They no longer had a son. Marry a Jew? Never again. So he was disqualified and disowned. Except for one thing - unbeknownst to him he carried the recessive disease gene like a Palestinian suicide bomber waiting on Ha'Melekh George Street for the number 4 bus.

There was anguish within her family as well because she got involved with a shaigetz. Her own maternal grandparents, Moshe and Esther, with whom she had always been so close, no longer wanted anything to do with her. What Hitler couldn't accomplish, they thought, she was allowing to happen. To them, assimilation was no different from genocide. To keep peace - always to keep peace, for that was their over-riding life's endeavor - her parents kept silent when the elders ranted on. They remained silent and refused to confront their only child. They swallowed their pride and their own thwarted expectations, and hesitantly, but only partially, accepted the mild-mannered, scholarly Kevin as their son-in-law - a husband for their only child. He was a certified accountant, made a decent living - though he'd never be rich - but, most importantly, he was good to Liz. It could've been worse. In their way of thinking, it could have always been worse. And it was.

Liz continued to work as an art teacher in her inner city junior high school after they were married, but what she wanted most out of life was to be a mommy, a mother who would not pass on her grandparent's caustic bigotry and small-mindedness. Liz knew that Tay-Sachs Disease ran in her family; one of her Aunt Tessie's sons had succumbed to the disease. The legend of that tragedy had become part of the family's lore. But because of their presumed disparate backgrounds, Kevin and Liz never felt a need to be screened for Tay-Sachs. It was this decision - though at the time it had never really come up for discussion - that eventually caused their child to be ripped from them, and subsequently, tore them apart. The four-to-one odds against two gene-carriers of the recessive trait producing a diseased child caught up with them when the mutated chromosome in her egg and the mutated chromosome in his sperm joined together on chromosome 15 in Daniel's first nucleus. Their hope for a normal nuclear family with two point two children exploded in her arms when Liz held Daniel in her pediatrician's office and the doctor explained what the tell-tale cherry-red spot on his retinas probably meant.

To preserve her own sanity during the ordeal with Daniel, Liz had decided to return from her maternity leave two years after his birth threw her pent-up energy back into teaching. Even her most surly and resistant students got caught up by her infectious enthusiasm. Only a few teachers with whom she was close knew about her ordeal and about Liz's constant self doubts. Luckily, she and Kevin were able to get daily help to care for Daniel as his illness ate away at him, and, later, hospice care, which they terminated shortly before he his last one-way trip to the hospital.

A few weeks after Daniel was buried, long after the votive and yahrzeit candles had been extinguished and discarded, Kevin did not come home from work. Instead, the message he had left on their answering machine apologetically and rationally explained that he just couldn't take it anymore. There was just too much grief and he couldn't get his psyche around all of it. His message ended with, "I'm sorry, Liz. I'm so sorry." That evening, she numbly answered the doorbell and was not at all completely surprised when the highway patrol officer told her that a car containing her husband's mangled body had been found smashed head-on against a bridge abutment on a remote stretch of highway. The officer said that it was apparent that his car had been traveling at a high rate of speed and that there was no sign of braking or swerving. And that her husband, who wasn't wearing his seat belt - something he always insisted they all do - had died, probably instantaneously - hopefully, instantaneously - in the tragic one-car accident.

Despite her fury on so many levels, Liz understood that the over-riding sorrow which grayed over their closeness, her sobbing and weeping, and the ever-present unspoken recriminations could not be entered into the cells of a spreadsheet. The emotional haze would not clear; their sadness and gloom were not numbers and equations that could easily compute. She knew way down deep that once it was over he'd leave her. But she had never expected that he'd choose the exit ramp with no return allowed.

It was natural that his parents blamed her for Kevin's death. "If only you were more understanding" was their snarling accusal. Her grandparents said it had been "God's will," and Liz wondered what kind of wrathful and vindictive God would ever torture and punish her the way she suffered. Even her own parents started to push her away. There was just far too much for any of them to handle. Her parents sat next to her at the funeral, but their closeness was only one of proximity.

* * * * *

Back at school, after their deaths, she immediately withdrew. She started to take days off, and when she used up her sick and personal days, which had been depleted during her periods of mourning, the board of education started to dock her pay. Sometimes she spent all day completely covered by blankets with the drapes drawn, feeling some sense of safety in the artificial cocoon from which she hoped she'd never emerge. Her darkness was further blackened by an utter sadness that enveloped her. On some other days, on her way to work, she felt as though she just couldn't take it. So she called in sick, and then spent the day aimlessly walking the city streets. She learned to avoid the parks and playgrounds where young mothers and nannies took their children, so she wouldn't be stricken by pangs of guilt and yearning and longing. So she wouldn't be plagued by questions that had no answers.

Her school principal saw how Liz was deteriorating - after all, it was hard not to notice - and called her into his office several times on what was referred to as "an informal basis" to discuss how her "students and the school atmosphere were being negatively affected" by her frequent absences, as if she really gave a rat's ass at that point. Eventually, she was asked to come to his office along with her union representative. During this formal meeting, with the principal's secretary sitting on the side taking notes, he strongly urged her to get help. Though he cared for her, his suggestion was presented as an ultimatum, but his resolve had softened when she had started to cry. He gave her the name of a therapist, one whose fee would be partly covered by the ever-stingy municipal insurance plan.

At first, she wanted nothing to do with therapy, but she went anyway. She didn't even have the strength to resist. She could never bring herself to talk about anything that she thought would be of any substance; she felt emptied, depleted, as though she had nothing inside left to say. After all, what could she say? What could she say that really mattered? During the first few sessions, after engaging in small talk about the weather, about the minutiae of her day, about the local news, they stared each other down. How could Liz even begin to open up?

Liz wanted to cancel the next appointment, but because of her own indecision and "fuck it all" attitude, she couldn't even pick up the phone to call. When she got to her therapist's office, an unfashionable fifteen minutes late, the therapist sat Liz down at a drafting table, placed a sheet of paper in front of her, gave her a box of 24 craypas, and then backed away to observe unobtrusively. Liz stared at the blank white sheet for several minutes, turned back to the therapist and said, "I don't know what to draw."

Ideally, the therapist had wanted Liz to start on her own, but she relented and suggested to Liz, "How about drawing a house." She figured that at least she'd be able to have one completed piece of the House-Tree-Person diagnostic test.

Liz robotically picked out a black craypa, rolled it around in her fingers, feeling its oily texture, and then tentatively placed it against the paper. Slowly and mechanically, she drew an extraordinarily detailed two-story house in perfect three-dimensional perspective directly in the center of the sheet of paper. But the house drawn in black was set alone on its white background with no smoke rising from its chimney, with no grass or bushes or trees or flowers surrounding it, with colonial window frames but no window shades. A house lit by no sun and with neither clouds nor stars overhead. A disconnected house floating by itself in the center of the whiteness. A disembodied house, devoid of life. No people would dare to inhabit this house. It was a house dead on the outside, as well as the inside.

When she was finished, she turned to look at the therapist with a blank expression. The therapist rolled her chair closer to the table, carefully looked at the black-on-white drawing, nodded her head, and then gently said, "Can you tell me about what you drew." Several beats - no more than two or three seconds - passed. And then Liz's floodgates opened.

In subsequent visits to her therapist, Liz's detailed drawings became ever more filled with life, with color and movement and animation. This did not, of course, occur overnight, but as a drawn-out process, an unfolding, with high points as well as low, like the ebb and flow of the waves into which Liz often wanted to walk and never turn around. As she could to no one else, she poured out her most intimate thoughts and fears on paper and then through other art media. She opened up to her therapist, confronting and rehashing the horrors until their impact was dulled, and sharing her emotional cravings and her hunger for a new life. And as she underwent her therapy - a cleansing of her mind and soul - she decided to become an art therapist as well.

* * * * *

Her fellow art therapist friends with whom she went to school, with whom she attended conferences and meeting, and with whom she taught as adjunct instructors, remained in close contact during the intervening dozen years. They knew what she had gone through and would occasionally wonder how they would have survived and gone on under similar circumstances. When questioned - it was more like being interrogated, Liz felt - she replied that art therapy gave her a new life, but then refused to go into any detail. Several of her friends feared that she still had not been able to shed the emotional baggage of her ordeal and that it would always affect her work. On an intellectual level, Liz knew and accepted that there was no way to erase the past. On an emotional level, it was entirely different, and the ramifications were more complex.

As he had promised, Lieutenant Gordon was waiting with a large cardboard cup of coffee when she arrived. He even remembered that I hated styrofoam, Liz thought. She smiled as he handed it to her and thanked him.

While she sipped, he opened his notepad and started to fill her in with the details of the case. She knew that he actually remembered all of the specifics by heart, but that he used the pad as a prop to help him focus.

"She's roughly nine or ten years old, judging by her stature and the development of her teeth. But we don't know who she is. She's been here for several days and Mercy needs the bed. She hasn't spoken, and hasn't responded in the least when spoken to. What do you call it? Dis-associate?"

"You mean dissociate?" Liz prompted.

"Yeah," he replied. "The rape kit and DNA samples show that she had been raped repeatedly by multiple individuals, and the tox screen showed that she was probably drugged. She was left in a large black plastic bag in the dumpster behind the phone company building. She was found by several teenagers who were, as they put it, dumpster diving for company printouts. Dumb kids. I bet they never expected to turn up what they did."

Liz nodded.

"Anyway, we took her fingerprints and there have been no hits. No one's called to ask about her. There are no active missing-children cases here in our jurisdiction that even remotely match our victim. And we've even checked with the surrounding counties." Gordon paused to check his pad, but Liz could see that he was starting to choke up. "We've been in contact with the F.B.I. and Interpol. And nothing. Not a goddam thing."

He closed his notepad and stuck it into his inside jacket pocket.

"It's the worst case I've ever seen," he said as he surreptitiously dabbed at his eyes. "By fucking far the worst."

Liz discretely looked away and waited for him to continue.

"Here's the deal, Liz. I know you've helped us with kids before and I hope you can help us with her. Maybe you could get her to open up and tell us what happened to her so we can find the bastards who did this to her. That's as far as the department's concerned. But I really hope that you'll be able to help her. She's lying on her bed staring at the TV but her expression is totally vacant. The little girl's all alone in the world. No one's claimed her yet and I don't know if anyone ever will."

Gordon gently took Liz's arm and they walked into the dimly lit room. Almost lost in the middle of the single bed lay the little girl who was propped up by several pillows. Her face was turned towards the television on which cartoons were playing. There was no change to her expression, no outward acknowledgment that they had even walked into the room. The ever-changing primary colors on the screen eerily lit up her face, but her eyes remained dark and deep and impenetrable. Liz and Jack silently stood there, like ghosts, observing for several minutes.

Though Liz was drawn to this child who had suffered so much, she didn't want to let Gordon see her agitation and inner turmoil. There was something about this child, lying all alone in the big hospital bed, wrapped in a thin blanket to keep her warm but enveloped in her own shroud of silence, that got to her on a deeply visceral level that she didn't know existed. Something about her that was both strangely alluring and horribly threatening. Something intimate and familiar yet ominous and foreboding. Something that made her want to cradle the child in her arms and promise her that everything was going to be all right.

Back out in the hall, Liz's stomach was churning. She was perspiring and felt flush. She turned to Gordon and asked, "Okay. So what's next?"

"She's in surprisingly good shape, physically, that is, considering all she's been through. She's going to be discharged tomorrow and placed with a foster family. The social worker has one picked out, a special family that we hope will take good care of her," he said. "We'll have Dr. Vasquez look in on her every day, but I don't think he'll be able to do her much good."

Then he added, "Liz, that's where you come in."

Everything about boundaries and limits that she had believed and practiced, and everything she had taught her college students about ethics and distancing oneself from patients, angrily shrieked back at her in protest when she heard herself saying, "Jack. I don't know if you can make it happen. But I want to take her home with me."

For a moment, he was taken aback. "I thought that was something that was just not done. You've made that clear to me time and again."

Liz shrugged her shoulders and explained, "I think in this case that it's in her best interest. I think I can reach her." Inwardly, though, she was not so sure.

"I'll see what I can do," Gordon replied.

That night, Liz's nightmares were particularly severe. She woke up several times sweating profusely, panting, and with her head throbbing. She often had dreams which made her feel like a crosstown bus had hit her.

But the next day, Liz found herself reaching for the girl's hand as they started to cross the hospital's parking lot. The girl neither offered it nor pulled it away when Liz took the little hand in hers.

* * * * *

Liz settled the girl into Daniel's old room, which, by default, had become the guest bedroom. However, it had remained empty during the intervening years since his death, a silent rebuke. Liz kept its door closed so she wouldn't be able to glance inside on her trips to the bathroom.

Liz decided to try doing some art with the girl after dinner. The girl had wolfed down two portions of fish sticks doused in ketchup and a large glass of chocolate milk. At least her appetite was good, Liz thought with a smile.

Liz had set up her office-studio in a room attached to the back of the house, a room with windows on all three sides that had been added by the previous owner. The room had a separate rear entry which was ideal for Liz's clients. Before dinner, while the girl sat in Daniel's old room idly watching television, Liz had lowered the work table and the chair so that the girl's feet would touch the floor. It'd be best if she felt grounded, Liz thought. Now, she led the girl into her studio and beckoned her towards the chair.

Liz had placed masking tape on the four corners of a large sheet of white paper to fasten it onto the drawing table and had opened a new box of Crayola crayons. After the girl was seated, Liz said, "Here are some crayons. If you feel like drawing..." and let her voice then tail off. She knew enough not to suggest, "Draw a picture of what happened to you."

Liz hovered nearby while the girl took several crayons out of the box, examined each one and then put them carefully back in the box. It was as if she had never seen a crayon before. The girl then turned to look up at her. There was a questioning look on her face.

Liz decided to give her some more space, so she rolled over her own desk chair - not enough to crowd her, but close enough so she'd be able to observe what the girl was doing.

She sat watching the girl, who continued to play with the crayons, taking them out of the box and then replacing them. Several times, the girl timidly touched the tip of a crayon to the paper, leaving behind an almost indistinct spot of color, only to hurriedly place the crayon back in the box.

After a while, the girl yawned, put her head down on her arm on the table and immediately fell fast asleep. A few minutes later, the girl started twitching and whimpering. Her movements and the mewling sounds she made were like those of the Wheaton terrier that Liz once owned, who seemed to be chasing squirrels in his sleep. Back then, the terrier's nocturnal movements were so cute to watch - tender "aw shucks" moments - but now it was excruciating watching the little girl running in her sleep.

After sitting silently for a while, Liz felt her own eyes becoming heavy, and she could not stop from closing them. She, too, dozed off.

With one hand sliding along a wall covered with chipped plaster, Liz had slowly stepped down rickety, creaking stairs, deep down into the basement of an abandoned building. She then stood alone in the middle of the basement. A lone bulb hanging from an exposed wire in one corner gave off just enough light for her to see that the walls of the basement were covered with undulating brownish moss covered by a thick film of moisture. The wetness had seeped down and had gathered in puddles that let off a fetid, dank odor that was thick enough to taste. Below that one flickering bulb lay an unrecognizable mass. Liz struggled towards the mass but it was as if her feet were stuck in setting concrete. She dropped down onto all fours and slowly crawled over to the mass. Every time she touched the hardening floor, she felt like recoiling, but she had to get over to the mass.

Finally, she fought her way over to the mass. She was breathing hard, almost overcome by the exertion and the foulness and heaviness of the dampness. She found a saturated rolled-up carpet, covered with mold and slime, and she started desperately tearing at it, for she knew that there was something rolled up inside that was alive.

The carpet refused to give up its secret until she found an edge of the carpet. With all of her strength, almost losing her grip on the repulsive ooze covering the fabric, she yanked up on the edge, pulled it far above her head, and the carpet suddenly unfurled. What had been inside dropped to the floor with the sickening thud of flesh and bone against stone. "Oh what did I do?" she heard herself wailing. She felt corrosive tears cascading down her cheeks, and tasted their saltiness as they rolled past her lips.

She tossed the carpet to one side, and she saw that lying on the floor, face up, was a young girl, naked and unmoving. Because the basement was suddenly brighter - the illumination was becoming almost too intense to bear - Liz could plainly see that the girl's black eyes were wide open, like saucers, but were staring up unresponsively at the ceiling. She seemed to be unhurt and unmarked except for several smeared spots of grime and mud.

The girl's chest rose and fell with shallow breaths. Liz placed her hand on the girl's forehead and her head turned towards Liz. "Come with me," Liz said, and reached for the girl's hand to help her up.

The girl shook her head. Her eyes were wild with terror.

"C'mon. Take my hand. It'll be all right," Liz pleaded.

Again, the girl shook her head, and then turned away and rolled into a fetal position. Her eyes were wide open, simultaneously pleading and threatening.

Liz knew she had to get the girl out of the basement. The consequences would otherwise have been dreadful. "I'm here to help you. Please. Get up and come with me." she said. She reached for the girl's hand, but she had pulled her hand away, folding it inside of herself. Liz tried once more to get the girl to stand up. But she was unsuccessful.

It had become a matter of life or death. She had to get the little girl out of there. She bent over to pick up the girl, but the girl was unmoveable, as if her body had turned to stone, anchored to the concrete floor. No matter how hard she tried, Liz could not get the girl to budge. Then she, herself, found that she could no longer move. Liz looked back in dwindling light to where the stairs had been, where the opening was now covered over. The light popped out and there was darkness.

* * * * *

Liz woke up sweating and breathing hard. Her head ached and it took her a few moments to calm herself down sufficiently enough to focus.

The little girl had awakened and was staring at her with accusing eyes. Liz shuddered when she flashed back to the time she had been seeing an over-burdened psychoanalyst-in-training who had fallen asleep while she was talking about the aftermath of her husband's suicide, and how she had been so angry and had felt so trapped and powerless. Liz shrugged at the little girl and said, "I'm so sorry. I just couldn't help it."

"S'okay," whispered the little girl. She then turned back to the table and picked up a red crayon.

Rev 4 / November 6, 2003

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November, 2003…Copyright © 2003, Lloyd B. Abrams
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