Lauren Lazar Stern, MA ATR-BC, LPC and The Healing Memory Project
This is the quest explored by The Healing Memory Project, a collaboration between myself and EMDR-trained therapist and art psychotherapist Lauren Lazar Stern, MA, ATR-BC, LPC. Buoyed by success using dreamscaping to help the bereaved continue bonds with the deceased, I met with Stern’s recovering eating disorder patients: females all secretly married to “Ed” (eating disorder) with a long history of psychic injury and self-deception.
After Stern addresses their underlying issues with art therapy and journaling, often desensitizing and reprocessing their distressing memories, triggers and anxieties with information processing therapy (e.g. EMDR), her concern is relapse. “What will they dream about now to take the place of all those possessive thoughts? The solution is co-creating a “preferred story” (i.e. a positive self-belief story in image form) which clients can embrace and internalize because its narrative speaks to the emotional brain in its own language of metaphors, symbols and sensory images. The final piece is in the form of a fine art photomontage or “Healing Dreamscape” crafted from the recovering patient’s personal photos, memories and therapeutic epiphanies.
Beginning with an extended conversation with each patient, I do an inventory of only their most positive belief systems and motivations, aspirational dreams, and any clarified memories or new associations from therapy. In the photo review, I catalog all positive memories. Finally I retreat to my computer, digitally creating their Healing Dreamscape by seamlessly weaving repurposed photos and recalled memories into a cohesive whole. Humor, irony, role-playing and truth-telling play a major role in the storytelling.
Shared with family and friends, Dreamscapes can launch a second round of healing – and a third when the recovering eating disorder patient reads back their own words from transcripts made throughout the process. Criteria for success? It must be self-soothing and capable of jogging them back from their black and white thinking.
Sometimes prescriptive photomontages are bold reminders, warnings and rewards; other times they are formulated to exact a promise, role-play or help the individual find sanctuary with a mentor or attachment figure. The five (5) types of Healing Dreamscapes are:
The Aspirational Dreamscape is an idealized event conceived down to the finest detail to jumpstart the patient’s imagination and change their world view and the world view of those around them.
Example: The binge eating Pam S is regaining control over her life and her low grade depression after gastric bypass surgery. In this visualization, she walks her three high-strung Cairn terriers like a chariot racer instead of the dogs “walking” Pam.
The Promissory Dreamscape depicts a healing activity that spells out the unspoken promise made between the subject and someone heavily invested in their recovery – even if the activities are not entirely symmetrical, or even realistic. Each party to the contract should, nevertheless, be able to make an identical interpretation of its goal.
Example: The anorexic Samantha G accepts a bite of rich lasagna from her husband while she offers up a healthy piece of sushi. His other arms are engaged in aerobic activity: it’s a promise to exercise in exchange for a promise to eat.
The Guardian Dreamscape is an idealized scene that provides the companionship of someone normally unattainable (a close family member, perhaps deceased) whose qualities provide the greatest comfort in their time of need. Meaningful props meant to encourage one or two-way communication with the Guardian appear throughout the Dreamscape.
Example: The bulimic Chimene B is beset with worries about her autistic daughter and strained marital relations. She wants to visit her good-humored “Pap” anytime, enjoying him without the competing presence of her sibs (then) or present day family (now).
The Suggestive Dreamscape illustrates the recommended baby steps to take in the subject’s self-care – so that the subject can see the positive domino effect leading from, say a good night’s rest, to eating nutritiously, to remaining balanced overall. Example: The anorexic Madeleine B studies her body double in order to prevent backsliding from stress. Her Rx is to eat a peanut butter sandwich before bed, check in with good friends, put in her earphones, and adopt her favorite sleeping position.
The Disenchantment Dreamscape derives its power from a disincentive: a highly embarrassing memory related to the subject’s deceptive ED activities. Incorporated into the visual narrative, it acts as a sort of self-directed blackmail to deter the patient from continuing their negative behavior. In the same piece there is also a visualized incentive – to counter balance and give the subject a goal to work towards.
Example: The bulimic Kathy C is pregnant and dreams of running the marathon. Confronted with hiding the contents of her purging in a blue plastic shopping bag, Kathy now races in a blue rain slicker. Vomit glistens on her chest to warn her against ED-related heart trouble.
At “The Brides of Ed” exhibition at The NYU Langone Medical Center, visitors see how the medium of prescriptive photomontage helped women with eating disorders practice being the new people they are. By fully engaging with their Dreamscapes at home or en situ (in a wallet as a credit-card sized piece, or as an image conjured up only in their mind’s eye), recovering eating disorder patients can begin to mimic the positive behaviors depicted there. The exhibit also demonstrates how the recorded testimony of clients (captured in transcripts throughout the Dreamscape process, and also months and years after they have been in use) often reads back like literature – surprising Stern’s patients with their own eloquence and spiritual depth.
It is my wish – and Lauren’s – that this exhibit not only catch the attention of the general public, but also the concerned friends and family members of eating disordered women and young girls who have been looking for a way to offer support. We want to show the sufferer, their inner circle, and their extended families that true help and real treatment exists today. Through this multi-dimensional and dynamic approach – utilizing the expressive arts, adaptive processing with EMDR and the prescriptive arts – we want to demonstrate that a dozen women effectively got past their starving, binging, purging and isolation … to find hope.
Lauren Lazar Stern is a Pittsburgh-based, master’s level board certified art therapist, licensed professional counselor and a certified EMDR therapist specializing in working with girls and women who are suffering from eating disorders and body image disturbance.
“I decided to enlist Nancy Gershman to work with 10 of my eating-disordered patients because I felt that she would be able to reinforce and take the work that I was doing with them a step further, and actually this is exactly what happened. It became known as “The Healing Memory Project.” Each individual who created a Healing Dreamscape with Nancy found it to be an exciting experience of reinforcement of all the positive work we did in therapy. Meeting with Nancy gave them a second chance to review all of their insights into their downfalls and achievements which ultimately made their therapeutic process stronger and more dynamic.
To each individual nearing the end of their therapy, I would explain what Nancy Gershman does and how she might be able to help therapy so far and create a Dreamscape which would reinforce and further their insight into their new found knowledge. Every participant in The Healing Memory Project reported that their experience was invaluable and most have their Healing Dreamscapes up on the wall or somewhere that they refer to them regularly.”