A week before she had called to say she could not wait for our first session at the agency where I was working in the 90’s. She was drunk and decided to swallow the fifty or so anti-depressants she had left in her prescription. It was an odd emergency cancellation call.
“Okay. Could you do me a favor before you kill yourself?”
“Would you unlock your front door?”
“Okay. Anything elsssh I can do for you?”
“Nope. Just thanks for calling. That was super nice of you.”
“Oh Ssshertainly. Bye bye.”
I immediately called 911 and canceled the appointment I was in the middle of. Yeah, I had just met a lady with a circus of diagnoses in person and this craziness on the phone had exploded. “I gotta go, ma’am. It’s an emergency. I know we just met, but …”
I met her as the medics carried her to the ambulance. “Who the hell are you?” she slurred as we passed. I happened to look down and see her pathetic, impossibly childish, yellow suicide sticky note on the floor of her apartment building’s lobby. It said, “My parents never loved me.”
Later at the hospital she had her stomach pumped and some crisis counseling. “I’m the guy on the phone. I’d still like to meet with you after your get out of here. Is that okay?”
As I listened during our first scheduled session, I visualized her as a ceramic vessel that had been shattered long ago. I felt like I was figuratively “picking up the pieces”, as if I were a psychological archeologist. I recalled the satisfactions I had derived from rebuilding broken furniture, kids’ toys, my old cars, etc. I also sensed a fertile symbol here and a very powerful emotional image to manipulate. I floated the broken vessel image with “Sherry”. She accepted it as accurate.
Before our next session I located a hammer and several old coffee cups, two plastic grocery bags and a tube of Elmer’s glue. During this session I asked “Sherry” to pick a cup she most identified with. She selected one with a floral pattern and a few minor chips. I asked her to explain how she was like this vessel. She mentioned its usefulness, attractiveness and sturdiness.
As the session progressed, she seemed to hold the cup with unconscious affection.
After a while I asked “Sherry” to recall the major traumas in her life. She did so, noting that most had been abuse suffered at the hands of men in her life. I then asked my client to wrap the cup in the plastic bags to guarantee we could retain all the pieces. Giving her the hammer, I instructed “Sherry” to voice the three biggest hurts she had experienced as she pounded the cup in the bags. As she did so, the force of her blows increased with each hit. I believe she would have turned the cup to powder if I had not set limits.
My client noted an immediate emotional release; however, she appeared overwhelmed at the task ahead of her. I asked her to open the bag and inspect the pieces. “That looks like I feel”, she observed, “ a broken mess”. Then I gave her the glue and asked her to rebuild the cup. “The glue is therapy”, I observed. She quickly gave excuses why she could not comply. I told her she might not ever want to complete the task, and that she could stop at any point in the process.
“I started with the big pieces, then worked from the bottom to the top. I had to wait between gluings to allow the first pieces to solidify. You can’t rush some of the mends.”
“I had to look for patterns to follow; the flower prints helped. So did the border.”
“I had to give up the notion of a perfect rebuild since some of the cup was powder now. I guess the first blow is likely gonna be a powder blast.”
“I was proud of myself. I thought ‘if I can rebuild this shattered cup, I can do this therapy thing too.’”
“Sherry” went on to question some old assumptions and behaviors, and worked on changing her view of herself. Oddly enough, her suicide attempt was triggered by a promotion at work. She assumed that she would make a mess of the increased responsibilities and found out as a fraud. She had been alcoholic and self-destructive, beating life to the punch. Ironically, or so it seems to me, the hammer of destruction had truly been in her hand over the past few years. Visualizing this truth seemed to be the beginning of the healing process.
On other occasions I have used this technique with traumatized clients. As far as I can tell, each application has been very satisfying and growth-enhancing for the client. On one occasion the client chose not to hammer her marriage cup symbol. In another case a child of abuse chose not to fully rebuild the cup she symbolized as her abuser, leaving several pieces unglued that could have easily been reintegrated. There is a certain beauty in repaired brokenness, don’t you think?
Jeremiah 30:17 says, “I will give you back your health and heal your wounds”, says the Lord. “For you are called an outcast, ‘Jerusalem for whom no one cares'”. And so it goes, back to unity and wholeness and harmony.