A Chapter from “Deep Play: “Exploring Depth in Psychotherapy with Children”, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London, 2015. NOT RE-PRINTABLE FOR SALE
Victor’s parents had heard me speak at a New York City venue on the topic “Finding the Lost Boys” which focused on the challenge of raising sons in today’s electronically mediated world where children are often influenced more by peer groups then by authority within their own family. As described by his father, the boy had a complex history. First, both Victor and his 19-year-old brother had been adopted at an early age. Little was known of Victor’s birth parents’ background except that he was born in one of the former Eastern bloc countries. Victor’s adoptive father was an adult child of Jewish Holocaust survivors and his adoptive mother’s parents were Catholic. Along with his parents and older brother, Victor had spent the last three years in Europe where his mother had been on assignment. Recently returned to the U.S. he was now struggling to find a peer group in which he could thrive. Blond, blue eyed and tall, his parents spoke to me of their worry and his, as to “where Victor fit” among his multi-cultural classmates at the public middle school he was now attending in New York City. In addition, Victor was also taking medication for Attention Deficit issues, first diagnosed when he was eight, several years after his father had gone through a life-threatening bout with cancer from which he was now in remission.
The boy’s biggest trouble at school and at home when attempting to do his work was the ability to settle himself and resist the temptation of playing video games on his cell phone. He also struggled to distill the thoughts of his highly creative mind into the written word. From early separate sessions with the boy’s father and mother, I was able to gather additional information about the family including intimations of conflict between the parents. Victor had also recently been following the family cat into his parent’s bed at night and sleeping there instead of in his own room, a childhood habit that had re-surfaced when Victor’s older brother with whom he’d been close, had been taken away to a rehabilitation center for alcohol abuse.
At his first session, Victor was already testing the capacity (and porosity) of the shallow sandtray I’d inherited years earlier from a veteran Sandplay therapist, and he was also testing me. Upon first learning he could add water to worlds he was creating in the box, Victor immediately began experimenting with just how much liquid the shallow box would hold, toting plastic container after container and dumping it in, watching the water seep quickly through the sand and eventually through the box seams onto the floor.
With the time near to its end at his first session, he ignored my request for him to wash up, balancing a metal bucket filled with water on two flimsy branches I had brought in from the woods bordering my home in Connecticut. Amazingly, the bucket held, perched precariously in the center of the box above a single golden human figure, flanked by two distinct riverbeds Victor had created with his water play in the sand.
As is my practice when a case calls for it, I reached out for supervision before Victor’s next session. My supervisor, Dennis McCarthy spoke of the “blurred boundaries” in the family, describing the “family bed” that was created by Victor’s nighttime wanderings as “the soup.” I thought then of the suppressed memory and trauma of the father’s cancer, of the pain of familial infertility that often proceeds adoption and the desire, as Dennis put it “to liquefy the multiple layers of flooding that the boy was experiencing” which included his own emotions and reactions to his brother’s alcohol abuse. What of Victor’s single golden figure in his first sand tray? Dennis said this was akin to a creation myth -- “a golden individual creating a mythic environment.” What might Victor’s personal and family “environment” look like if he were to design it? On a practical level, he was about to move into a larger apartment with his parents and had asked me whether I would tell his parents that he wanted to have a “man cave” there – his own special place.
Demonstrating his need for space, Victor began to work in unique ways “above” the shallow box, first using his imagination to “expand the container” in which he was creating. Placing a Buddha-figure in the box, he told me that its powers to stop any possible invading force “went up to the ceiling.” He then manifested this “power” by reflecting light as high as the ceiling through a magnifying glass, through crystals and plastic “diamonds” balanced on the top edges of the shallow box and sticking up from half-buried places in the sand. Victor was creatively reaching beyond the borders of the box I had, calling out for even greater depth in which to construct his worlds. Maybe I could help him by providing more material and depth for his multi-dimensional canvas. Dennis urged me to do just this – to try a deeper sandbox with more sand that would allow this boy to “sink and emerge” through multiple levels of sand and symbol.
It took two months to plan and construct the new, deeper sandbox and in that time much healing and growth had transpired for Victor in his weekly appointments. First, the boy who Dennis and I had taken to calling “the flooder” began adding structure to his creations in the existing box. He entered a “drying out” period where he stopped using water and figures in the box. He would come in and spend a number of minutes just feeling the texture of the sand, running it through his fingers and patting it down, Then working only with sand, he designed a raised amoeba-like creature with a distinct spine that reached to all corners of the creature’s body (Figure 1). Mirroring the structure that Victor was experimenting with, I began to add structure and boundaries within his sessions. Yes, he could bounce on the Exercise ball in the office. No, he could not light the sparkler he found on a shelf. Yes, he could “fight me” with foam-padded “bataka” encounter bats but we would use the soft, red floppy ones and we would take turns suggesting rules as I reserved veto power for everyone’s safety.
Figure 1: Victor’s spinal creature