This is the quest explored by The Healing Memory Project, a collaboration between Nancy Gershman and Pittsburgh-based psychotherapist Lauren Lazar Stern, MA, ATR-BC, LPC. Buoyed by success using prescriptive memories to help the bereaved continue bonds with the deceased, Gershman met with Stern’s clients: women all secretly married to “Ed” (their 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 answer is a “preferred story” – visualized – which clients embrace and internalize: a narrative that speaks to the emotional brain in its own language of metaphors, symbols and sensory images.
First, Gershman completes an inventory of belief systems and motivations, aspirational dreams and any clarified memories or new associations from therapy. In the photo review, she catalogs all positive memories. Finally she retreats to the computer, digitally creating their dreamscape by seamlessly weaving repurposed photos into a cohesive whole. Humor, irony, role-playing and truth-telling play big roles in the story.
Shared with family and friends, the dreamscapes launch a second round of healing – and a third when they read back their own words from transcripts made throughout the process. Criteria for success? Their dreamscape must be capable of jogging these individuals back from their black and white thinking if they are ever triggered to restrict, purge or binge.
To date, Gershman has identified five types of Dreamscapes in her work. Sometimes these pieces are bold reminders, warnings and rewards; other times they are formulated to exact a promise, role-play or find sanctuary with a mentor or attachment figure.
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 eater Peg 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 Sally accepts a bite of rich lasagna from her husband Jason while she offers up a healthy piece of sushi. His other arm is engaged in aerobic activity: alluding to a promise he made 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 Cindy 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 Mindy 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 Kit 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 preemptively alarm her about the possibility of eating disorder-related heart trouble.
In “The Brides of Ed” exhibit at the NYU Langone Medical Center, visitors see how prescriptive memories made tangible (as dreamscapes) help women with eating disorders practice being the new people they are. By fully engaging with their Dreamscapes at home or en situ (in wallet form, or simply an image conjured up in their mind’s eye) these individuals can begin to practice the positive behaviors depicted there. The exhibit will also show how the recorded testimony of clients (captured in transcripts throughout the Dreamscaping process, and also months and years after they have been in use) often reads back like literature – surprising them with their own eloquence and spiritual depth.
It is Gershman’s 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 individuals who have been looking for a way to offer support. They wish 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, bingeing, purging and isolation … to find hope and heal.
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.
Nancy Gershman is the New York-based developer of dreamscaping, a playful way of working with people contending with the loss of one’s self, a person, a pet, a place, or a thing they can no longer return to. (www.artforyoursake.com.) Presenting her work internationally to art therapists, social workers, psychologists, pastoral care counselors, bereavement counselors and others interested in innovative approaches for working with people at the end of life and in the aftermath of significant loss, she also works in a supervisory role, training therapists in the use of Dreamscaping for grief and loss. Most recently, she is the co-author of “Prescriptive Memories in Grief and Loss: The Art of Dreamscaping” (Routledge, 2019). She has authored chapters in Robert A. Neimeyer’s Techniques of Grief Therapy (Routledge, 2012, 2016), and the Annals of American Psychotherapy (2010) with Jenna Baddeley, PhD. For her work as a memory artist at Visiting Nurse Service of NY/Haven Hospice, she was featured as NY1’s “New Yorker of the Week” (2016). Dreamscaping with the eating-disordered clients of art psychotherapist Lauren Lazar Stern led to a traveling exhibition (2013-4) at New York University, University of Rochester and the University of Chicago. Since 2013, she hosts Death Café NYC.
“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 from therapy, which ultimately made their therapeutic process stronger and more dynamic.
To each individual nearing the end of therapy, I would explain what Nancy Gershman does and how she might be able to reinforce therapy by creating a Dreamscape which furthers their new found insights. 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 where they refer to them regularly.”