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October 20, 2017


"People come here to heal", says John M., one of the clinic's clinical and behavioral support staff.  After talking with John for a while, I know healing goes both ways.

The workshop started as usual, and after Frank distributed art supplies and gave direction, I sat in a corner observing, taking in the energy, before I asked John if he had time to talk.  His presence is undeniable, I didn't want to remove it from the room and deprive everyone of his laughter and contagious personality, but I really, really, really wanted to have a moment with him, call me selfish.   

We talked about his role at the clinic, a very busy go-between one with the doctors, where he obviously shines, but I saw something more and started to ask questions.  Born and raised in Denver, he feels the people who come to the clinic are his community, and his need to be of service is so evident that when he told me he would like to pursue social working as a career, I just smiled.  John was the first of his family to go to college, and was lucky enough to have a mentor who helped him navigate through it.  I never thought about it, but it must be absolutely overwhelming to fill out of those forms, financial documents, pick classes, figure out even the smallest things like transportation and schedule as a teenager with nowhere to turn for answers.  And having gone through it, John decided he wanted to pursue a life of service to others.   What makes him the happiest is helping others.  Remarkable.

The direct interaction with patients, not as a counselor but as a tech, has to be limited to direction and finding out answers, as he is very aware that there is a line he can't cross.  John explained that the clients are some of the strongest people he has ever encountered, and have gone through so much that sometimes they simply feel the need to talk to someone.  But releasing all that emotion on a person who is not trauma informed is potentially counterproductive to healing, so it's his job to recognize the need, and redirect the person to a trained counselor who will be able to guide him or her through it.  You simply can't just open up that lid, let everything out and go out and function in your life if you don't have the skills and direction to know what to do with all of it.  This is the hardest journey.  Yet John sees this every day, several times a day, and rather than go home at the end of the day and feel like that mountain is just too big, he comes to work every day with a smile for everyone and knows that the mountain is conquered one step at the time.  He makes a difference in one person's life and that is his reward.  And once he is done with grad school and becomes an addiction counselor, I know he will help so many people come back from adversity.  

So, when I asked him how this art project is impacting his life, he immediately started talking about the clients' involvement in it.  Not surprising.  It wasn't until I asked him again how HIS life is being impacted that he looked at me and tears just started to flow.  In his words, the project "puts what we do in front of our faces, and makes people see the space as we see it, beautiful, full of beautiful energy".  

Dear reader, can you feel it too now?  There is a stigma, a negative association with the clinic that is simply not needed.  

"People come here to heal".  Yes, this is a healing space, whether you are a client, part of the staff, or just come here to document a project.  

We hugged.  We both needed it.  

And John is just one of the people I had the pleasure of sitting down and talk to.  Which brings me to Jaclyn K., "Jaxx", art therapist at the clinic.  "I'm a therapist, not an artist", she says as her first words to me, an artist.  We both laughed.  

Jaxx goes on to explain what art therapy is and what it can do.  "People don't always have the words" to explain what their lives look like, sometimes people are so overwhelmed by being in a survival mode that they don't have the time to catch their breath and examine their thought process.  That's what Jaxx's weekly art therapy class is designed to do, start with a topic, and go into the abstract.  Coloring, learning patience and understanding that art is not right or wrong, it's just an expression of what is sometimes hard to put into words.  

Her classes are intentionally planned to calm anxiety, create a safe space and a sense of community.  And from that peaceful state, people can start to understand that addiction is just a piece of a person, not the whole person, it doesn't define them.  Art becomes an outlet to start feeling emotions, be present in the uncomfortable spaces, share goals and accomplishments, express nature.  

And each class is a different experience, based on the interaction of the people who attend it.  Sometimes it's only a couple, sometimes as many as 10 people attend, so it's always different.  I understand it as an artist, because without photography I wouldn't even know where to begin to bring everything to the surface.  It's like breathing to me, essential, calming, life giving.  

I was reminded of a concept I tried to explain in an interview once, and called relational creation.  I don't know if there is a name for it, but that's what I do when I am photographing musicians in the moment they are creating, and I am as well - that communion caught on a frame in my camera, creating together.  And what transpires is largely based on the relation between energies.  So, when Jaxx explained that no art class is the same because of the people who attend, it made sense to me.  Her gift in creating a space that is safe, soothing and tranquil (she often plays meditation music) makes it possible for people to feel that energy and interact with each other from that part of themselves that addiction often takes over.  A return to self.  

I feel an immense amount of gratitude for this project.  For the people I have met and the understanding I have gained.  I hope you start feeling it too, dear reader, and keep an open mind and heart to these struggles.  

And I hope you are enjoying this journey.  


October 05, 2017

Addiction Is Not A Choice

Addiction Is Not A Choice
“My impact depends on the day”, says Betsy G., Licensed Clinical Social Worker and OMAT Team Lead.     When I started talking to Betsy...
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