23 December 2016

Comments following Christmas Verse

When one reader of this asked "who is the tyrant king?", I replied:

As Bob Dylan sang once:

"They say that patriotism is the last refuge
To which a scoundrel clings
Steal a little and they throw you in jail.
Steal a lot and they make you king."

I am drawing a parallel, as did Ariel Dorfman in his New York Times Op Ed last week, between Chile in the early 1970s and the U.S. today. I am stating an opinion, also an historical observation, that civil disobedience will be required to protect us from the policies and appointees of our president-elect.

When that reader rejoined, "do you see the irony between calling for civil disobedience and wishing for peace on earth?", I replied with perhaps more length than was called for:

I'm glad you asked me that question, and hope you were not anticipating
a brief response. Irony? Yes. Also contradiction. My poem does not call for a coup, but rather pays tribute to poets and singers who stood up against powerful forces. While I specifically refer to the coup of 9/11/1973 when General Pinochet overthrew the elected Allende government in Chile (with backing from the U.S.), I could just as well be appreciating all who have risked standing up to oppressive systems in any time or place.

Whether it be family systems or the system of the human family, dysfunction cannot be addressed until it is stood up to. Civil rights were not legislated top-down but, as with any systemic change, bottom-up. Before last semester, I thought about my privilege maybe 10-20% of the time. Now I think about it 80-90%. As a white, middle-class, U.S.-born, Christian male, I didn't have to notice what my sibling humans, targeted in those areas, were experiencing. But I can no longer know peace within myself without standing with them. The society tells me that I, as Agent, can be assured of having my needs met, my pain minimized, if I will simply agree to numb myself to injustice done to others. Speaking for myself, the deal's off. Some might have called it a pact with the devil. If enough of us refuse to continue in our role in perpetuating the system—which for most of us means remaining silent—will it not, just as in the family, be compelled to change?

Paul's epistle advises us to pray without ceasing. Where does one see that? The Abbey, perhaps? The closest I have come to seeing a community praying with minimal interruption was Thanksgiving week when my wife, step-son, and I drove to Standing Rock Reservation to support the Native Water Protectors. If you would like to read my account, visit http://jeffrysteele.blogspot.com. I don't have to tell you about the crimes committed against Native peoples to pave the way for our unearned privilege. I do know I wasn't taught about it in school.

From here on, I will be seeking more effective means to leverage my privilege for the betterment of targeted people and the planet. It has been 30 years since I was last arrested for civil disobedience. I cannot predict whether returning to that will make sense for me, but I am preparing myself to step out of my Agent comfort zone in more than a few ways. For one, I expect to have more conversations with those I share Agent rank about how they feel about the price for their privilege.

As we approach the celebration of Jesus' birth, He enters my heart as a child with uncompromisable expectations for love between living creatures. His unwillingness to compromise got Him killed much as it did Martin Luther King, Archbishop Romero, and countless others. The tyrant king is not one man. It is the complicity with tyranny that dwells within each of us. The president-elect is an archetype, from my perspective, of the abusive parent. I believe that how we respond to him varies depending on how fully we have faced, felt, and resolved abuse experiences in our lives.

I will not live to see the peace I want for this earth. But I can die peacefully in knowing that I stood with others to contribute a modicum to it.

Christmas Verse - click to see images

27 November 2016


photo by Monica Steele
It was a long, though scenic, drive home to Tacoma. Two thoughts come to mind this morning following up my posts on each of our four days there. The first is that anything I reported that was heard rather than seen should be considered unverified and quite possibly incorrect. What someone told me may have felt authentic at the time, but when I get some distance I can imagine other scenarios; I may not have remembered what they said accurately, and they themselves may have likewise gotten something crossed. I can only accurately report and reflect on what it felt like to be there. That said, when I read the article in the NYT stating that federal officials plan on closing the camps on 12/5, it appears likely that they underestimate the strength, resourcefulness and organization of the Protectors dwelling there. When I was working in the carpentry shed, for example, a new arrival introduced himself saying, "I just drove in from MT with a truck full of tools and a compressor. What can I do?" I just hope that a majority of the great influx Thanksgiving week did not have to return to work on Monday like me.

The second thought regards my own sense of the White allies at Standing Rock. Those that I met all appeared to have had access to higher education, which is one way of defining Middle Class. As has been seen, when bad things happen to this demographic we are more likely to hear about it in the media—which makes their direct participation a good leveraging of their privilege. But as we drove through hundreds of square miles of open spaces used in production of livestock, corn, crude oil, I tried also to imagine the families who make their living, perhaps going back through generations, in these and related enterprises. I wonder if one of the essential components of the "cultural divide" is between those who can imagine options for themselves and those who cannot. If I am in survival mode, I cannot envision beyond my immediate needs. It isn't that I am short-sighted or don't care about future generations. It is just that I have to have my needs met on a physical, emotional and, likely, spiritual level before I can take on any issues past caring for family or my immediate community. It takes a certain level of privilege, therefore, to assume responsibility for any of the many issues at stake at Standing Rock—unless, of course, you were already residing on the reservation. We know that significant change can only be implemented at a grassroots level. The barrier is the manipulated divisions that keep many of us from recognizing our common adversary. It is up to those of us who have had the kind of privilege enabling us to begin taking responsibility for all humanity to make human connection with those who have been left behind. If we do not, we have only ourselves to blame for the results. A good starting point is today's op-ed by Derek Black. . . http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/26/opinion/sunday/why-i-left-white-nationalism.html?emc=edit_th_20161127&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=41616302&_r=0

24 November 2016


Fourth and Last Day at Standing Rock: Having heard there was a sunrise prayer ritual each morning we arrived at the main camp in the dark and were directed to the south exit gate. There were many gathering, but what unfolded instead was an Action involving a caravan of vehicles to an undisclosed location [with participants being encouraged to sign legal waivers]. We figured we could go along while avoiding arrest and advertised for one seat in our Prius, which was promptly taken by a well-spoken senior attending UC Santa Cruz. He explained that the Action this past Sunday, which resulted in the serious injury of Protectors, had not been sanctioned by the Elders. It had begun with a group of 30 attempting to clear the police blockade of route 1806, but then expanded when many others spontaneously rushed over to support them, prompting the police to escalate. My impression is that it was this very police blockade that required the woman who lost (or nearly lost, we don’t know the latest prognosis) her arm to be airlifted, rather than driven, to the hospital. The word here is that if the police should be arresting anyone it is the pipeline drillers, who are operating without a permit—their only consequence being levied a fine. Instead, it is those blocking corporate interests that are singled out for felonies. In this we find the patent disregard for Native treaties now manifest in corporate cronyism, with all its attendant entitlement, supremacy and eerie backing by a police who appear to have strayed far from their mandate to protect citizens and remain non-partisan. Oh that’s right, I forgot: a corporation is a citizen! We followed the line in front—and were duly followed by a line behind—of cars through snow flurries ending up in the town of Mandan, just west of Bismarck. From a Burger King parking lot, a Native woman on a bullhorn directed us to drop off passengers and seek legal parking. Our guest thanked us and set out with his 35mm telephoto camera. We assembled in the center of the main intersection, some 200 of us, blocking I-94, chanting slogans associated with this struggle and attending to the singing/drumming Natives among us. The high point was a large circle of us holding hands stepping in time to dried seed-pods [cabasa?] shook by a sole chanting Native man in the center. In the center of our circle a series of folding tables displayed squashes and beets—a Thanksgiving centerpiece to the uninitiated. Many police and state troopers materialized, re-routing traffic around the intersection. [An Amber Alert was sounded on Monica’s phone regarding the obstruction]. A few locals counter-protested. We retrieved our car and left before, as we later heard, police began having legally-parked cars towed; they were apparently waiting for enough of us to leave before moving in to break up the remaining demonstrators. We had driven more than halfway back when we panicked about running out of gas before reaching our evening accommodations [where we had spent Sunday night as well], not being able to recall seeing gas stations along the route. So we returned to Mandan. How mistaken we were to add that extra 50 miles did not become apparent till we drove back past the casino we had stayed the past three nights, where there was a prominent gas station that none of us had registered seeing. We acknowledged having grown far too dependent on having a cell-phone signal—the exception rather than the rule in ND— while traveling. The technological lifestyle had decreased our observation powers and gotten us out of the habit of acquired the pertinent maps. We arrived early enough to Standing Rock Community High School for the Water Protectors Appreciation Dinner (Thanksgiving not being spoken here) to join dozens of volunteers putting on this feast. Some 100 turkeys were being cooked on an outdoor rotisserie powered by bicycle pedals. These specialty caterers had journeyed all the way from Great Barrington, MA. The volunteers were assembled and addressed by the school administrators, Native women who had long opposed the pipeline. Jane Fonda spoke briefly and was thanked for having purchased much of the food. I got to have a brief exchange with her as I served her table, expressing thanks for her decades of activism. She pointed out that the Native nation associated with my T-shirt [purchased near Sedona] were facing issues similar to this pipeline. There were rumors at the meal that the police may raid the camps shortly, that only a holiday respite might be anticipated. And so we three left behind our courageous, spirited, and imperiled community to begin the return drive West.

23 November 2016


We attended the Orientation that takes place in the Oceti-Sakowan camp at 9 each morning. Let me advise those of you who come that this is a essential starting point. It began in the White Dome tent, where a striking slender Native elder (probably my age) marveled at the endless stream of people attempting to fit themselves inside. He reminded us we were all visitors, including himself as he came from S Dakota. He asked who was here for their first day and more than half the hands went up. He then asked that the newcomers relocate to another tent. Though it was not our first day, we wanted to benefit from the Orientation. It took some time for us all to cram into a smaller and darker army surplus tent. The meeting was led by non-Native allies, though they began each portion with a request for input from any Natives present. A moving opening prayer was delivered extemporaneously by a young Native woman. A Native elder spoke of how she and others stood up at Wounded Knee, and how inspired she felt at all the young people who had come forward to do the same here. We were offered specific guidelines for respectful engagement in what should at all times be understood as a sacred and prayerful gathering. If you were not a leader when you entered this space, you were likely one by the time you left. I next offered myself at the construction site. There we assembled framework from 2x4s for up to 15 projects around the camp for that day. In the morning, I was the newbie. I took directions from a home-schooled teenage young man who had driven from NJ with his mother. We worked with a minimum of discussion, observing who had a more efficient technique and adopting it without deliberation. When I returned after getting some lunch, none of those I had worked with in the morning were present, and the foreman for all the projects anticipated that I would orient the new recruits. One was a retired high school teacher from Los Angeles. I could sense within the microcosm of this woodshop the strength of an undefeatable movement—not the least of which is the effortless manner in which I was quickly drawn into leadership in an area of minimal experience. One could observe this taking place all over the burgeoning encampment. The energy is magnetic. No wonder that people who said they only planned to be here a few days are time and again phoning home [wherever they can get phone service] to restructure their lives to stay longer. Physical discomfort is overtaken by a sense of being fully alive. We are admonished repeatedly not to appropriate Native culture, not to sap Native energy with middle-class curiosity ["You are not at a music festival!"]. Increasingly, therefore, I am seeing the gains to be made from caucusing among the privileged. I was telling the high school teacher that I am here in part to make amends for all the heinous acts that engendered me with privilege. At first he could not go along with the term "amends," as he was scanning his known ancestry for evidence of oppression towards others. But it's not about us as good-or-bad individuals; it's about systemic oppression that we were kept from fully comprehending or being affected by. It is up to us White allies to be teaching one another such lessons—bearing in mind that what wisdom I may have accrued as "an elder" is subject to improvement by the youngest among us.

22 November 2016


Monica and I passed out flyers and organized donated groceries. No need to send any more canned beans for a while! A friend of one of the women we worked with had to have her arm amputated due to the "concussion grenade" used on her by police Sunday. How do they rationalize using that on someone who poses no physical threat? The sun came out for a few hours. More vehicles appear to be arriving than leaving, raising sand to be carried by the sometimes high winds. I met a man coming out of an old brightly-painted Pastors for Peace bus brings supporters here from NYC for a week at a time. Whether or not one makes close interpersonal connections, there is a palpable excitement that comes in knowing that everyone you pass, in this dusty and frigid utopia, is aware and willing to act against the complacence shared by the majority of our citizenry. There is a loudspeaker by one of the Sacred Fire circles where one may here updates. An elder chanted and spoke in his mellifluous Native tongue, extolling the power of prayer over the stock market. We returned to the hotel for a hot bath, clothing smoked by the fires, thinking of those at the camps tonight.

21 November 2016


We made Standing Rock camp mid-day yesterday. It felt awkward for me at first because no one was directing us. A couple of Native men screened us driving in, but after that there was no concierge to register with, get signed in, receive a name badge and conference packet—as might satisfy my middle-class expectations! We had a bunch of old coats to donate, passed on to us by our friend from the La Connor reservation, and so first found ourselves moving all the clothing stored in one tent to another. Someone will have heard from someone that such-and-such would be useful. For example, due to the police having used fire-hoses to douse those on the front-line the day before, it was suggested that blankets and sleeping bags be separated out from the other donated clothing to be accessed quickly when protectors are facing hypothermia. Nat involved himself in setting up a large tent and Monica and I ended up assisting in food prep in the make-shift [a superfluous term here] kitchen. My observation of the camp demographic at this point was half white and half native. At one point a jeep snaked between the tents and teepees with a Native man on the bullhorn announcing "an action" beginning at 4 PM for those willing to risk arrest. We have not seen the front-line as of yet. We had a reservation to stay at the casino, 10 miles down the road, and headed down there to check in. It is indeed strange to be in these relatively luxurious accommodations given conditions from those camped. Temperatures range from the upper 20s to the lower 40s.

17 September 2016

For my sister on her birthday

I sense that for some time now you’ve been trying to change it up
With birthdays not requiring we contribute to buildup
Of objects that may soon become more clutter in our homes
Which already are sinking under weight of dated tomes.
Yet somehow your endeavoring has yet to bring results,
As the rest of us have clung to childhood habits as adults.
Convince ourselves we try that we could stop at any time;
We reason our addiction does not constitute a crime.
So just to prove I can eschew consumerism’s curse
I send you nothing more than this self-penned obnoxious verse,
That varies not a tittle in its rhythm or its meter,
And runs the risk of becoming a sanity depleter.
Long have you posed the question of what constitutes a gift,
Opting for the homemade sort that gives the heart a lift,
Those many times your handiwork replaced monetarism
Seeking to revive our lost ancestral altruism.
Perhaps it was this set of values which rose up and drove
You to take on the family nest way up in Folly Cove,
To line it with fresh feathers, seaweed, willow twigs, and grasses,
To ensure the family line shall hear Atlantic splashes
Through at least one generation, maybe two or three.
Thank all who came before you and in turn they will thank thee.

24 August 2016

The Wrath of Privilege

It has been 30 years since a computer first came into my home. The following year I purchased a dot-matrix printer—which is likely when I started generating personal/professional newsletters—and my once-loyal manual typewriter disappeared without leaving so much as a note. I wrote at least two each year, stuffing them into stamped envelopes until the late 90s when it became possible to reach most people through email. Now I mostly upload newsletters to my Changing Winds blog and offer a link at Facebook, which means less effort for me but also that a lower percentage of you—as opposed to back in the postal days—will see or read it.

The more convenient communication becomes, the less memorable it is. Last month going through belongings at my mother’s home in Gloucester, I came across the shoebox of letters that perhaps you also have somewhere. The earliest postmark was 1968. As happens so often, when I set out to divest the family home of the superfluous, I lose myself in the past. I determined the least I could do, short of discarding them all, was pare the letters down to highlights—those with drawings, recounting of significant experiences, adolescent ponderings, angst, revelations. One letter in particular I sought was from Maria, an African-American (the only one in our class that year I can recall) I befriended in ninth grade, who grew disenchanted with the ivory tower of the prep school we attended, moving out of the dorm and back to Detroit. I wanted that same determination about where I belonged and where I didn’t, and the ability to act on it, even when it meant giving up privilege. Reading the blue fountain pen on onion skin, I recalled the encouragement I once felt in her words—her confidence that I, too, would one day resolve the schism within, the clash of values, and align with my true self.

This aligning has proved to be a life-long process that remains uncompleted. Only in hindsight can I see it played out. In adolescence I connected with a passion for music, and assumed that it would become my life’s work. Yet, however much I dedicated myself to the study of music, or my instrument, I could not prioritize perfection. My ambition was distracted by a restless gravitation toward social justice, spiritual growth, and emotional healing. One kept mucking up the other. Perhaps it was this inner tussle that kept me from adapting to the priorities of school administrators I worked under, or to lay the groundwork for a career composer or performer. It is not that I was not disciplined, but that my disciplines were at odds with one another.

It is just three years that I have worked as a drug and alcohol counselor (known in these parts as a CDP). There is a recording of a speaker we heard at the 2013 Freedom in Sobriety conference (annual Tacoma AA event) that I play regularly to my groups. The speaker describes how he came to kill a young woman and her two daughters while driving in an alcohol blackout, and how that event has played out in his life in the ensuing decades. Particularly challenging for him was reconciling his survival with their deaths. The only alternative to despair and internal damnation was to view his victims as having given their lives to save his, and to dedicate that life to honoring their memory. He still cannot remember anything about the incident between shooting pool in the bar and waking up in the hospital.

Most of those listening to the recording remark something like, “I can’t imagine what it’s like to wake up every day knowing that you did such a thing.” The fact of the matter is that, in one sense, I have. I am descended from a line of white Christians who committed grievous crimes to protect their own privilege and that of succeeding generations. I may not have seen the acts committed, but my ancestors did, either as participants or silent bystanders. Even if there were times certain ancestors risked their lives to stand up against persecution, the net result remains an unfair distribution of resources with preference given to my demographic—particularly the male half. Most of my ancestors were Irish—arguably an oppressed people at various points in history—but the Dupuytren’s Contracture in my right palm evidences that I am also descended from the ninth century Vikings who pillaged the Emerald Isle. As if there were not already enough oppressor material in my line, I had a German grandmother.

Where did we learn of the Doctrine of Discovery that, since the 15th century, justified the appropriation of all lands not already occupied by Christians and abduction/enslavement to maximize profit? Not in my school. Dare I make the analogy between this inter-generational silence and committing manslaughter in an alcohol blackout? I should add that I have heard some Christian missionaries were well-intentioned and provided needed services. The heirs of the Doctrine would be corporations, whose culture of profit—stripped of humanitarian concerns—encourages war, illness, recidivism, and tolerates any human sacrifice that increases the bottom line and CEO pay.

I continue to recall the scene in Life is Beautiful (La vita è bella, 1997) where the German professor that Guido waited on in Italy, while posing complex riddles, he encounters again in the concentration camp. The professor now being a Nazi officer, Guido hopes to take advantage of their pre-war relationship to enable the survival of his captive family. Instead, the German has become obsessed with an unsolved riddle, his preoccupation having increased to the point of blanking out present reality. Presumably, this was the man’s natural defense against the horrors in which he had become complicit, surviving through dissociation—as do many trauma survivors.

Then I turn to look at the things I do, as a participating member of the consumer culture, to escape confronting the reality of world-wide suffering, environmental destruction, or my own complicity in generational fratricide. We may each reason that there is nothing we can imagine doing to effect change so we might as well live it up—die with the most toys. But when prioritizing my own comfort I have come to feel a visceral disconnect at the soul level, a severing between my morals and my behaviors. My own life itinerary can be interpreted through this dilemma. I wouldn’t even call it altruism. I did not end up working with addicts—victims of the prison-industrial complex, upward redistribution of income, and “the war on drugs”—so much to champion their survival; rather, it is my own survival, spiritually anyway, that is at stake. Being able to live with myself requires stepping further outside the protective bubble created by my privilege. Given what it pays, it is a sign of privilege that I can even afford to work with the disenfranchised. But considering my unwarranted entitlement, it is the least I can do to hold their pain. As I compare their stories to my own, I weep inside for all they were denied, that should have been any child’s birthright. The playing field was never level.

And so I endeavor to share with them those gifts that I took for granted but they could not. These include: education and intellectual curiosity (had they received more brain stimulation they would not struggle so often with boredom); the ability to regulate myself emotionally (and thereby avoid DV charges); and the foundation of security and trust that resulted from getting my childhood needs met. In my masters’ program we learned about “mirror neurons”—where a client’s inflexible thinking can be freed up simply through regular exposure to the (hopefully) more rational thinking of the therapist.
The price for my advantaged starting point was more likely borne by the labor and sacrifice of their ancestors than it was by mine. And just as many of them must pay restitution for crimes committed, so must I for generational crimes that never resulted in an arrest. The AA program—as descended from the Oxford Group—teaches us that in order to maintain sobriety we must make amends, wherever possible, to those we have harmed. My life-long restlessness would therefore appear to be a subconscious longing to make such amends. I need to work this ninth step even though I did not end up addicted to a substance. Had I fewer options, I could have. Generational amends-making might well be considered a form of past-life therapy.

One of my clients announced in a fury last week he would likely be put in jail for 90 days because he could not afford to pay for the electronic ankle bracelet for home monitoring. (I wouldn’t be surprised if the private contractor who profits from home monitoring has lobbyists on the payroll). Of course, it would be an ethics violation to offer him a check, him being my client. (What would I do if he were instead my neighbor, I wonder to myself). What I could give him, though, is a place to process feelings about yet one more victimization by a justice system where his outcomes are negatively affected by his defendant case history and skin color. Over the course of 2-3 group meetings I encouraged peer support and validation of his feelings. The day before he had to report to court he reflected that “whatever happens tomorrow I am content. I’m through stressing about it. No matter the outcome, I will accept it peacefully.” Were I back teaching school music, it would have been like seeing a student everyone thought of as shy sing her first solo in concert. I am also reminded of the bumper sticker about teaching a man to fish rather than simply give him a fish. As it turned out, he was not put in custody, but offered more reasonable terms to begin the home monitoring. Though he continues to wage the external battle, the internal battle, for this month at least, has been won. Speaking of fishing, he later came to group beaming about fishing with his six-year-old daughter.

I will not be the one to break the back of of our oppressive system. Rather it will be a diversity of non-reactive, clear-headed, impassioned targets of that oppression who overcome the divide-and-confuse tactics used so effectively by that system. I stand in the wings to support them. Spending the work-week with these clients has brought me a new kind of peace. I have encouraged them to detach from the material—such as blaming others for their pain—and engage the spiritual—particularly as experienced in collective group consciousness. Yet I still ache like the wealthy man who said to Jesus:
“Teacher, I’ve obeyed all these commandments since I was young.”
Looking at the man, Jesus felt genuine love for him. “There is still one thing you haven’t done,” he told him. “Go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
At this the man’s face fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions.
When considered in the context I have been describing, our possessions can indeed make us sad. Can we have possessions without the soul-death of attachment? Maybe some of us.
Soy felíz, soy un hombre felíz
Y quiero que me perdonen
Por este día los muertos de mi felicidad
—Silvio Rodriguez

I take this Spanish to translate as: “I am a happy man, and wish that you will this day pardon me, those who died for my happiness.” While he was singing about the Cuban revolution, the song speaks to a universal survivors’ guilt. Those who died for our happiness most likely wanted us to be happy. But I, much like the homicidal alcoholic, can only begin to approach that happiness through honoring their memory and lending a hand to their children.

P.S. My newsletters have always contained some music news, so I will tuck a little here at the end. With being in school and working full-time, I have had to push musical projects to the back burner. Simmering there, however, is a rich concoction of pieces at various stages of completion for guitar with digital effects. A exciting addition of late has been the midiguitar software that allows me to trigger synthesizers polyphonically from my classical guitar without any special hardware, just the saddle pickup used for live sound. Once converted to midi, notes can be isolated for unique treatment, allowing me to play synthesized sounds only within a specified range or at certain dynamic levels. The footstool has been replaced by an expression pedal; the other foot accesses three toggle switches—all programable as needed, of course. There is still only one of these pieces at my youtube channel, but I have a backlog of others to video when time permits.

Where I’ll work when I finally get my mental health license remains to be seen. We are purchasing a house on Orcas Island, so I may be seeking to work in behavioral health there and on neighboring islands. Monica has interviewed for a job there already. In the meantime we will rent the house out. Peace to all.

06 August 2016

Mom's birthday verse

Twenty-nine years, twenty days between
The dates on which we came
Into this life, onto this earth,
And each received our name.
From that name we did our best
To go against oppression
That our privilege both brought about
And left us space to question.
We helped ourselves to music,
Fine art and seaside dwelling,
Accumulating memories
For later storytelling.
Which deeds will be remembered
By who it matters not;
So long as it is known within
We gave it our best shot.

05 July 2016

Resource Review: Roles for Music-Receiving in Addiction Treatment

“Music, like speech, is a product of both our biologies (e.g. gene polymorphic expressions) and our social interaction (e.g. environment). It has been correctly suggested that music is a necessary and integral dimension of human development; and that music may have played a central role in the evolution of the modern human mind” (Blum, et al, 2010).

As a musician relatively new to the counseling field, I am drawn to apply my old skills and passions to what feels like the “brave new world” of the caring professional. Each of my musical selves—performer, educator, composer, and attentive listener—has a stake in this quest for new territory. When we talk about “music,” we refer to vast, never fully-charted, waters comprising both participatory and non-participatory. But even these two sub-categories overlap, as we often find ourselves—physiologically, neurologically, psychologically—participants in the music made by others. Neither can we distinguish between music having therapeutic intention or some other intention. My strategy for whittling the topic down to a manageable size is to focus on the research that speaks to my composer-self, and attempt to filter out elements vying for the attention of my educator-self. I therefore seek the implications of research and contemporary practices for those who would create music.
Mindfully Musical

My topic, then, centers on the effects music listening or receiving—as opposed to music making—can have on those in addiction treatment. I will further limit my scope to enhancement of mindfulness through music, which overlaps enough with so-called “sound healing” approaches that I will discuss as well. Mindfulness has its place in addiction treatment as a tool to identify feelings and triggers that precede relapse. Alcoholics who were determined to have developed a certain degree of trait mindfulness—as determined through a questionnaire—were found to be less prone to relapse “cue reactivity” than their more high-strung peers (Garland, 2011). Given their history of seeking problem resolution through substance use, addicts will be vulnerable to relapse until they can address these problems through sober means—problems which include insomnia, physical pain, stress, somatic memories, loneliness, boredom, low self-esteem, post acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS), emotional dysregulation, and mental disorders. A music intervention that improves functioning in any of these areas should therefore be considered for addiction treatment. Music-making activities will address some areas—certain social, cognitive, and emotional ones—while music-receiving will address others.
Privileged Treatment

Music and sound healing appears to be offered primarily at luxury addiction treatment centers such as Passages Malibu, where “sound therapy uses vibrations to affect cellular resonance in the body to help heal the cellular impact of depression, anxiety, and trauma” working with an in-house practitioner who utilizes “quartz crystal singing bowls, didgeridoos, Native American flutes, buffalo drums, and his own voice” (passagesmalibu.com). Behavioral Health of the Palm Beaches offers “healing sound therapy” in which:
patients are exposed to a variety of sounds at varying frequencies and intervals while they lie down with their eyes closed. During the session, they are encouraged to focus only on the different sounds in an effort to experience their potential healing properties. Differing sounds can include low-frequency pulses and high-pitch pings from various instruments. A human voice is also commonly used. Each part of the body has a resonant frequency and will respond to different pitches and sound-types (bhpalmbeach.com).
Although this last website distinguishes this intervention from music therapy, it in fact is music therapy—as we shall see below.

What is Music Therapy?

Many research studies seek to document the effects of Music Therapy on a variety of populations. What is meant by “Music Therapy” varies enough that it can be difficult to distinguish causal from correlational in research studies. Some interventions comprise a combination of active and passive music-related activities. To peruse job listings for music therapists one might picture the role as primarily one of bedside instrumentalist/vocalist. But the music therapists treating addicts described in Baker, et al (2007) and Lesiuk (2010) are leading discussion of song lyrics, song writing (or song parody, that is, substituting new words for an existing song), and relaxation training. Another intervention (Punkanen, 2005) involved clients choosing their own recordings of “anchor” music—associated with positive emotions, memories, or images—to bring them to homeostasis from an aroused state. None of these involve live music performed by the practitioner; though they do fit the general definition given at the AMTA website:
Music Therapy is the clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship by a credentialed professional who has completed an approved music therapy program. . . The goals, objectives, and potential strategies of the music therapy services are appropriate for the client and setting. The music therapy interventions may include music improvisation, receptive music listening, song writing, lyric discussion, music and imagery, singing, music performance, learning through music, music combined with other arts, music-assisted relaxation, music-based patient education, electronic music technology, adapted music intervention, and movement to music (musictherapy.org).
Music’s Effect on the Brain

The effect in hearing a given music on the human brain varies significantly with the type of music and the context in which it is used. Daniel Levitin, a pioneer in quantifying the music listening experience, summarizes his findings in This is Your Brain on Music:
The story of your brain on music is the story of an exquisite orchestration of brain regions, involving the oldest and newest parts of the human brain, and regions as far apart as the cerebellum in the back of the heard and the frontal lobes just behind your eyes. It involves a precision choreography of neurochemical release and uptake between logical prediction systems and emotional reward systems. We love a piece of music, it reminds us of other music we have heard, and it activates memory traces of emotional times in our lives (Levitin, 2006).
He cites research attributing the “thrills and chills” resulting from music listening to the Reward Reinforcement Pathway—including a study showing that “the pleasure of music listening could be blocked by administering the drug naloxone, believed to interfere with dopamine in the nucleus accumbens” (Levitin, 2006). Of his own quantitative study—using Functional and Effective Connectivity Analysis—he says:
We found exactly what we had hoped. Listening to music caused a cascade of brain regions to become activated in a particular order: first, auditory cortex for initial processing of the components of the sound. Then the frontal regions . . . that we had previously identified as being involved in processing musical structure and expectations. Finally, a network of regions—the mesolimbic system—involved in arousal, pleasure, and the transmission of opioids and the production of dopamine, culminating in activation in the nucleus accumbens. And the cerebellum and basal ganglia were active throughout, presumably supporting the procession of rhythm and meter. The rewarding and reinforcing aspects of listening to music seem, then, to be mediated by increasing dopamine levels in the nucleus accumbens, and by the cerebellum's contribution to regulating emotion through its connections to the frontal lobe and the limbic system (Levitin, 2006).
This would appear to apply to active music listening, as opposed to subliminal—another pair of overlapping categories.

Subliminal Sonics

The music we intend to listen to, that holds our interest, will engage all the brain regions described above. What I will call subliminal music holds no particular interest and does not seek to engage our frontal cortex with its variety. Rather, it is designed to have a direct physiological outcome. When it is “music” and when it is simply a specifically-tailored noise is a philosophical matter. We may specify our musical taste by saying, at the conscious level, “I know what I like.” We may not know what our brain likes, however, at the subconscious level. It can be challenging to sort out all of the sound healing modalities that can be located on the internet.
Beginning with the least expensive, sleepgenius.com offers a $5 (smartphone) app to remedy insomnia. In a “white paper,” neuroscientist Seth S. Horowitz writes on the three methodologies the app is designed to evoke through earphones.
1]Complex, broadband sounds, particularly those with harmonic structure, are capable of synchronizing large populations of neurons in the brain from the brainstem through the cortex.
2] Binaural beating — structured stereo sounds that synchronize large regions of the cortex—can be used so that the beating frequency oscillates at the rates observed in different stages of sleep, simulating normal neural processes for maintaining sleep and driving the sleeper from one stage to another.
3] auditory-facilitated relaxation. This involves the use of calming sounds, such as low amplitude pink noise, convolved with cardiac and respiratory sound envelopes which decrease in repetition rate across a physiologically appropriate range, to lower the listener’s heart and breathing rates (Horowitz, 2013).
With an overall rating of 3 out of 5 stars, there does not appear to be a significant percentage of users who find the app successful in achieving the above. Perhaps some of these users would fare better with the separately sold SleepPhones (only available with a pre-loaded iPod for a total of $275), but it is still possible any one of us could have a 5-star experience.

Physioacoustics & Binaural Brain Beats

Binaural beats result from two sine waves, just a few Hz (cycles per second) apart, being each sounded through left and right headphone drivers. The difference between the two frequencies is said to create for the ear an “auditory illusion” of a third frequency equal to that difference. This third frequency is generally below the normal range of human pitch perception; what one hears is the rhythmic throb generated by interaction of the two pitches. Experiments related to this phenomena go back as far as the late 18th century. These low frequencies are said to affect brain waves through the process known as “entrainment”—in which two independently tuned oscillators seek to get in tune with each other. The term also applies to when we tap our foot in time to music without making the conscious choice to do so (as seen in the hilarious film The Full Monty when the clandestine dance company is standing on line to collect their “dole”). Whether entrainment, between external sound and brain waves, can actually occur at frequencies that the human ear is not capable of registering remains a point of controversy. Delta waves, for example—which are associated with deep sleep and whose activity has been shown to become severely limited through alcoholism—are lower than 4 Hz. The lowest a good ear can perceive is 20 Hz, which is, not coincidentally, the lowest frequency a pair of studio headphones reproduces.

Marko Punkanen describes his music therapy practice with addicts as comprising three components: the “anchor” music, described above, along with “the physioacoustic method,” and the sharing of these experiences with the therapist. His objective is the resolution of somatic memories—what Montgomery described as transforming “emotional memories into memories of emotions”—with the physioacoustic treatment having the goal of attaining an altered state. This involves utilization of a reclining chair or bed embedded with speakers. One such manufacturer is Next Wave in Finland; their
Physioacoustic Sound Wave Therapy System is a unique method of using low frequencies within the range of 27-113 Hz for therapeutic purposes. A group of Finnish experts spent 20 years developing a compact device that would precisely replicate and control low frequency sound vibrations. The result was a reclining chair housing a computer and six audio speakers. The computer creates and controls low frequency sinusoidal sound waves, which are broadcast through the speakers.
The chair seems to have primarily been designed for muscle relaxation, though lists among its applications “rehabilitation of drug and alcohol abuse” (nextwave.fi).

Another product targeting addiction treatment, The Biosound™ Therapy System is a vibrational platform constructed with memory foam and integrated with an audio/visual delivery system. The Biosound™ Therapy System utilizes precisely choreographed music that is synchronized with low frequency sine tones and binaural beats (biosoundhealing.com).

While “choreographed” would imply dance, this treatment takes place on a mattress where the patient wears a “meditation headband” (offered as a more comfortable alternative to earphones) and faces a computer screen providing biofeedback. In addition to binaural beats, the audio track provides spoken affirmations that reinforce addiction recovery. The biosoundhealing site appears to sell their system a la carte. There being no mattress listed among their products, one is led to assume that it is obtained through another company. The software alone goes for $3000. Addiction treatments centers offering this apparatus are shown on a U.S. map, with the highest concentrations being in Florida and greater Los Angeles.

Also rooted in binaural beats is the Neuro Programmer 3 offered by transparentcorp.com, a Windows software application that also offers “monaural beats” (two pitches beating against one another but mixed not in stereo) and “isochronic" tones (evenly spaced tone pulses) along with biofeedback. “Widely regarded as the most effective tone-based method, isochronic tones produce very strong cortical responses in the brain. Many people who do not respond well to binaural beats often respond very well to isochronic tones” (transparentcorp.com). An employee of Transparent Corporation authored “A Comprehensive Review of the Psychological Effects of Brainwave Entrainment” (Huang, Charyton, 2008) that compares 20 studies. The authors are able to verify from the research that brainwave entrainment can significantly affect cognitive functioning deficits, stress, pain, headache/migraines, PMS, and behavioral problems. An alternative to audio entrainment of low frequencies is visual, through the use of pulsating light. While the NP3 offers pulsating light from the computer screen, the manufacturer recommends getting “AudioStrobe glasses,” from an outside source, for the full effect. There is a large set of related features offered in this software package that is sold in $60 and $90 versions.

How can one recommend a computer-centered intervention when many experts advise against use of screen-technologies for the last two hours before bedtime due to their effect on the nervous system? (Goudreau, 2010). This would be a topic for further research. Singing bowls or Chinese gongs can be used as a more natural medium than synthesized sound waves with a similar, if less precise, intention of brainwave entrainment. It is important to remind ourselves, as well, that the therapeutic relationship trumps any particular technique.

This term was coined by Alfred Tomatis, who developed music-listening interventions based on equalization, or filtering, of the frequency spectrum—which he labels “electronic gating” or, humbly, “the Tomatis effect.”

Designed to establish a unique sound perception contrast, this effect causes the contraction and relaxation of the inner ear muscles. This to-and-fro movement is made possible by the sudden transition from lower, bass frequencies, which do not require any particular effort on the part of the ear, to higher, acute frequencies, which require the ear to make a special effort to accommodate. This activity is much like a gymnastic exercise for the ear, which, thanks to repeated activity and to the progressive mobilization of the ear, optimizes the transmission of the sensory sound message to the brain (tomatis.com).

CDs from the early 1990s based on this principal can still be found in my wife’s collection, dating from when she hoped to affect her sons’ brain disorders. The research offered at the Tomatis Method website claims to positively affect adult anxiety, childhood learning disorders and behavior problems, and auditory processing disorders. What may be heard on the CDs are chamber-music works, either in their original form or in transcription from orchestral works, from the classical and, sometimes, romantic periods. First one hears the piece presented much as on a standard professional recording (with most pieces newly recorded by session musicians) followed by a portion of the same piece with all but the highest frequencies filtered out—how it might sound over a tiny, tinny loudspeaker. Patients are prescribed (headphone) listening plans, such as three times per day, 15 minutes each. The theory goes that your brain will “work” to fill in the missing sonic information. There are enough facets to this method to justify four levels of professional training, offered internationally, of 3-4 days each. If the claims prove true, these sonic “calisthenics” could help an addict through PAWS at the very least. I would describe the musical selections offered in the CDs as ranging from the superficial to somewhat deep—depending on the composer. Another way to put it: some are fine viewing Watteau, while others may require Rembrandt to feel they got their money’s worth at the art museum.

Music-enhanced Interventions

Healing practices appropriate to addiction treatment that can benefit from the addition of music include meditation, massage, exercise, dance, yoga, and Tension & Trauma Releasing Exercises (TRE). Regarding meditation, results from a study of incarcerated individuals with substance use disorders indicate that after release from jail, participants in the VM (Vapassana Meditation) course, as compared with those in a treatment-as-usual control condition, showed significant reductions in alcohol, marijuana, and crack cocaine use. VM participants showed decreases in alcohol-related problems and psychiatric symptoms as well as increases in positive psychosocial outcomes (Bowen, Witkiewitz, Dillworth, Blume, Chawla, Simpson, Ostafin, 2006).

Young, DeLorenzi, and Cunningham (2011) describe five “curative factors in meditation” beneficial to the addict that can reduce symptoms related to relapse:
exposure—facing thoughts and feelings without judging them
cognitive change—realizing that labels given to thoughts and feelings may not be accurate
self-management—choosing the present over depressing or anxious thoughts
relaxation—an aid to stress-related disorders
acceptance—accepting, rather than fighting, urges to use (Young, et al, 2011)
The authors do not advise introduction of meditation until the middle or late stages of recovery as the mind remains too agitated in the early stage. Witkiewitz, et al (2012) suggested that “Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention (MBRP) may affect numerous brain systems and may reverse, repair, or compensate for the neuroadaptive changes associated with addiction and addictive-behavior relapse.”

While traditional forms of meditation do not typically involve music, there are newer forms that fully integrate music and meditation such as The Bonny Method of Guided Imagery and Music (GIM).
The selected music contains the great masterpieces of composers such as Beethoven, Brahms, Debussy, Mozart, Rachmaninov, and Vivaldi. The uniqueness of this method lies in the synchronicity of music and imaginative experiences. In this process, music plays the role of a strong co-therapist and active partner. It acts as a mirror and reflects ambivalences and both light and shadow. GIM encourages unresolved issues to surface and helps the traveler to find new levels of problem solving (gim-trainings.com). In a literature review, Corboy (1999) finds GIM to be “an effective addiction recovery modality.”

Music for its Own Sake

A research article (Blum, et al, 2009)—dedicated to saxophonist and addict Stan Getz—seeks to determine whether the “reward gene” (dopamine D2 receptor, or DRD2), associated with severe alcoholism, plays a role in the mesolimbic response to music, as described by Levitin on pages 3-4.
It is reasonable to assume that music is a strong indirect D2 agonist (by virtue of DA neuronal release in the NAc) and may have important therapeutic applicability in Reward Deficiency Syndrome (RDS) related behaviors including Substance Use Disorder (SUD). . . music therapy appears to be a novel motivational tool in a severely impaired inpatient sample of patients with co-occurring mental illness and addiction (Blum, et al, 2009).

The authors call for further research as to whether the same gene that predisposes great artists to be addicts also predisposes them to be great artists. Here, I believe, we are back to talking about being attentive to music that interests us, which may have some of the physiological-affecting qualities described above in addition to the aesthetic enjoyment it offers us. Seen from this perspective, we are in relation to the creator of the music. It could be postulated that we are mirroring his/her neurons, resonating with her/his ideas, entering the state out of which the music was composed. What distinguishes a “great” composer/improviser/performer is the integrity intrinsic to what has been created, how well it bears the passing of time and repeated listenings. Whether it be the soothing imitation of Renaissance polyphony, the graceful shaping in a Mozart melody, a terrifying Mahler crescendo, or an ecstatic Ella Fitzgerald scat, our neurons are being set off like fireworks. If a search for meaning drives addiction then that drive has the potential to be harnessed for healing, a healing enhanced by the neural integration possible through music-receiving.


Baker, Felicity A., Gleadhill, Libby M., Dingle, Genevieve A. (2007). Music therapy and emotional exploration: Exposing substance abuse clients to the experiences of non-drug-induced emotions. The Arts in Psychotherapy 34 (2007) 321–330.

Blum, K., Chen, T., Chen, A., Madigan, M., Downs, B.W., Waite, R., Braverman, E., Kerner, M., Bowirrat, A., Giordano, J., Henshaw, H., Gold, M. (2010). Do dopaminergic gene polymorphisms affect mesolimbic reward activation of music listening response? Therapeutic impact on Reward Deficiency Syndrome (RDS). Medical Hypotheses 74 (2010) 513–520.

Bowen, S., Witkiewitz, K., Dillworth, T.M., Blume, A., Chawla, N., Simpson, T.L., Ostafin, B.D. (2006). Mindfulness Meditation and Substance Use in an Incarcerated Population. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors 2006, Vol. 20, No. 3, 343–347.

Corboy, Patricia (1999). The transpersonal aspect of guided imagery and music and addiction recovery.  Dissertation retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/194083072/
Garland, Eric L. Trait Mindfulness Predicts Attentional and Autonomic Regulation of Alcohol Cue-Reactivity. Journal of Psychophysiology 2011; Vol. 25(4):180–189

Goudreau, Jenna (2010). Do Computers Really Fry Your Brain? retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/2010/06/29/technology-computers-health-stress-forbes-woman-well-being-screen-time.html


Lesiuk, Teresa L (2010). A Rationale for Music-Based Cognitive Rehabilitation Toward Prevention of Relapse in Drug Addiction. Music Therapy Perspectives; 2010; 28, 2.

Levitin, D. (2006). This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession. New York: Dutton (Penguin Group).

Punkanen, Marko (2005). On a Journey to Somatic Memory: Theoretical and Clinical Approaches for the Treatment of Traumatic Memories in Music Therapy-Based Drug Rehabilitation; in Aldridge, David (Ed). Music and Altered States: Consciousness, Transcendence, Therapy and Addictions. Jessica Kingsley Publishers, Chapter 11.

Siverman, M. (2011). Effects of Music Therapy on Change Readiness and Craving in Patients on a Detoxification Unit. Journal of Music Therapy, 48, 4; 509-531.

Witkiewitz, K., Lustyk, M.K.B., Bowen, S. (2012). Retraining the Addicted Brain: A Review of Hypothesized Neurobiological Mechanisms of Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors 2012, Vol. 26, No. 3.

Young, M.E., DeLorenzi, L.A., Cunningham, Laura (2011). Using Meditation in Addiction Counseling. Journal of Addictions & Offender Counseling, October 2011, Volume 32.

28 June 2016

Healing Practice Exploration: Y12SR

Yoga of 12-Step Recovery meets weekly in the Old Town neighborhood of Tacoma at SourceYoga studio. Having been involved in yoga and the 12-step program, I chose this out of curiosity for how the two might be combined. I also wanted another resource to draw upon for my clients. First hearing about it from a co-worker and then searching online for more information, I arrive to my first session knowing that the format is a 12-step meeting the first half and yoga the second. I am greeted by Rachelle, who introduces herself as “the Space Holder.” She struck me as being a bit more than a Space Holder, when I saw that she was clearly leading the event, but this is apparently the Y12SR nomenclature.

For the first half her role would be considered that of a chairperson at a 12-step meeting. She passes out the preambles—which have been adapted for this program from those familiar to most meeting goers—for participants to read aloud. These include the 12-steps, as read in Narcotics Anonymous (“we are powerless over our addiction”), grouped into three categories.

Steps 1-3: Foundation: Turning the vessel right side up
Steps 4-9: Core: Preparing the vessel for sail
Steps 10-12: Expression: Set sail on the spiritual voyage

Next, the meeting “ground rules” cover confidentiality, cross-talk, and limiting sharing time. There follows a reading from a 12-step daily reader and another reading chosen—perhaps by the Space Holder—for how it relates to the daily reading. Open sharing follows. I certainly prefer being seated on a yoga mat—and the studio is also well-stocked with cushions, blankets and blocks to arrange on the mat as needed—to the metal folding chair typical of AA or Al-Anon meetings. Each share concludes with a directive, given by whoever volunteers at the beginning of the meeting, to take a long, cleansing breathe—which I heard worded with slight differences each time I attended. Participants are invited to speak to the theme, or not, as desired. The Space Holder announces when forty-five minutes have elapsed since the meeting began and invites any final pressing concerns.

From this point on, the Space Holder becomes becomes the yoga teacher. The only distinguishing feature from a typical yoga class is how she makes reference to recovery and the readings through the asanas (postures) themselves. Rachelle does this with authority of a yogic master and the authenticity of an addict, as she described her own recovery as intertwined with her yoga practice.

Y12SR was begun in 2003 by Nikki Myers. At y12sr.com she explains on video how the “integration” of oneself in yoga works against the “separation” within oneself in addiction. Rather than be an alternate 12-step program, she sees it as providing “adjunct tools to address the physical, mental and spiritual disease of addiction.” She offers teacher-training workshops around the country. I located an 80-slide powerpoint for one of those workshops at the Omega Institute site where she describes in greater detail her “somatic” approach to addiction—making connections between 12-step, neurobiology, Eastern traditions (Upanishads, Samskara) and trauma. This was a great find, as it lays out the elements of Rachelle’s training for this particular work—on top of the yoga training she must previously had undergone. One slide correlates some asanas with 12-step slogans:

“Keep coming back”        Mountain pose
Pause button            Child’s pose
“Life on life’s terms”        Pigeon

Included are specific interventions for reducing craving, changing an agitated state of mind, and overcoming anxiety. One slide of “embodiment concepts” states “meet the student/client where they are” (I don’t think I’ll ever get used to mixing singular and plural for the sake of gender equanimity) and “meet the energy where it’s at.” My wife attended two of the classes with me and commented later that she saw Rachelle modifying poses the moment she saw that my wife was struggling with them. The training slides describe Pranayama techniques: specifics controls for breathing—such as inhaling through one nostril and out through the other—intended for outcomes such as “cooling” or “energizing.” There is a slide on an intricate genogram for Nikki herself, detailing all the abuse and addiction in her African-American family line.

The third class was the best attended, with nine of us in addition to Rachelle. There were four others I knew from Al-Anon meetings and I appreciated being able to share this new practice with them. Indeed, hearing them speak during the first half brought an added energy to the yoga portion derived from a power in the collective overcoming of struggle.

I began my daily yoga at-home practice to maintain freedom as I deal with a stiffening that results from degenerative disc in my sacrum. As I continue, I am more likely to seek whatever emotional/spiritual issue I may be working through in these asanas, rather than simply going for a good stretch. Beyond that, I can say that the experience was one of many through the MAC coursework that has widened my scope—encouraging me to cast a larger net for the sources of malady plaguing us, or our clients. I downloaded a video of Nikki Myers—essentially an infomercial for Y12SR—to play for my clients on my iPad. I hope to pique their (and my) interest for at least trying some yoga in our outpatient group, even if they cannot be persuaded to attend an actual Y12SR session. (Though if they did it might not be appropriate for me to be there). Some of them should relate to Nikki Myers saying that she could not interrupt the cycle of relapse until she developed this mind/body connection, and may also be desperate for that missing piece. I am reminded for myself that all the rituals I maintain—be it my yoga, my swimming, my music-making/listening, my family time, my studies, and even my job—play a role in maintaining my own emotional regulation and cognitive functioning. To let any of them go could likely manifest in further issues within my tissues.

17 February 2016

Film Review: Short Term 12

Essential Prerequisites(written for Treatment of Trauma and Abuse course)
Short Term 12 is a 2013 film written and directed by Destin Daniel Cretton based on his experience working at an inpatient facility for teenagers. The film turned out to be a near-perfect match with our course readings in its demonstration of diverse abuse symptoms and healing strategies.

Short Term 12 depicts no perpetrator actions, only the symptoms left by them. This avoids the far-too-commonplace sensationalism, and limits the triggering of traumatic memories among viewers. The principal characters are working through their individual abuse in parallel—symbiotically, off of each other’s backs. “Short Term 12” is the name of the facility, which, as is explained near the beginning, is designed to take young people for stays of no more than a year, but has in fact been hosting some for three years. In this institutional society there are three tiers: the patients, the residential staff, and a top one consisting of therapists, case workers, and supervision. Featured in the film are the residential staff—being in their early 20s and only a few years older than the residents—headed by Grace. The residential staff, we hear mentioned more than once, are there “to keep kids safe, not to be their therapists.” We come to learn, as events unfold, that Grace was abused by her father—who is serving a 10-year prison sentence, incurred, it is implied, due to heinous acts toward his daughter.

More than one event has conspired to bring Grace’s untreated abuse to a head: she learns she is pregnant, her boyfriend has just proposed marriage to her, she is seeking to save a new resident whose story is unsettlingly close to her own, and her father is about to be released to society. Grace is overwhelmed by the feeling she is incapable of handling any of these rites of passage. We see her scheduling an abortion impulsively upon receiving her pregnancy test results, interrupting the clinician who seeks to present all available options. Her ambivalence about this decision is made apparent when she withholds telling her partner at first, yet later—when she does choose to inform him—announces “We’re going to have a baby.” Yet she has still not canceled the abortion appointment, which comes out when she comes unraveled a few days later and affronts her bewildered partner declaring, “I can’t marry you or have a baby.” The unpredictable periodicity of her flashbacks is demonstrated in a scene where she invites her partner into love-making but suddenly punches him in the nose as he nears her genital area. From the trepidation with which he approached this moment (“Are you sure you want to do this?) we gather this is not the first injury he has sustained at her hand. Clearly there have been occasions she did not get similarly triggered, or she would not have became pregnant.

Nearing her fifteenth birthday, Jayden arrives at the facility, stating that—because she will only be there a short time before going live with her father—she has no intention of getting close to anyone. But Grace comes to suspect that Jayden is keeping secret abuse at the hands of that same father—and adopts the younger girl devotedly. Grace cuts through Jayden’s defenses by sitting and drawing with her, accompanying Jayden when the latter goes AWOL, and by building closeness through self-disclosure. Grace’s abuse involved beatings and sexual abuse (“He forced me into the shower with him”), but we are led to believe it went further than is spoken in the dialogue. Jayden is visibly affected at seeing that her history of cutting is shared by Grace.

One night as Grace is bidding Jayden goodnight—the former frustrated by the latter’s continued withholding—Jayden calls her back: “Do you want to hear a children’s story I wrote?” Her we are offered an abstraction of abuse perhaps more powerful than any live witnessing of it. Jayden has drawn a lonely octopus excited to have a new friend in a shark. The shark says he is hungry and asks if the octopus would agree for him to eat one of her legs. As she has never had a friend before, she assumes this is the sort of sacrifice one must make to have a friend. She allows this, and they return to playing and swimming together. Before long, the shark makes the same request. The octopus continues to acquiesce in this pattern until all her legs are eaten; and the shark, lamenting that she can no longer play and swim with him, leaves in search of a new friend. Here we see the therapeutic power in drawing and story-telling in this innocent, yet disturbing, illustration.

Grace is stirred. But when she returns to see Jayden the next day, she is informed that the latter was taken for a visit by her father. Grace storms to her boss, insisting that Jayden is not safe and must be rescued. The boss maintains that until a certifiable allegation is made, it is not the agency’s business what goes on between Jayden and her father. “She was telling us in the only way she knew how!” Grace howls, growing distraught enough to destroy her boss’ favorite lamp and bicycle to Jayden’s father’s home. Although Jayden has just been beaten by her father and the father lies sleeping in front of the TV, she dissuades Grace from bashing in his head with a baseball bat—a crime of passion for which Grace has worked herself up. Jayden improvises a cathartic exercise for both traumatized women, inviting Grace to use the bat with her on the windows of the father’s sports car. As they ride back together on the bicycle, Jayden’s arms wrapped around Grace’s waist as the latter pedals, viewers get the sense that they both are now on the road to recovery. Jayden’s pronouncement to Grace, “You would make a great mother,” carries more authenticity to the latter than a similar statement would coming from anyone else. Viewers understand in that moment that the decision has been made to keep the baby—ecstatically accentuated in the subsequent ultra-sound scene.

Grace also shares with Jayden an unwillingness to discuss her own abuse. They end this pact of silence simultaneously. We get to see Jayden telling her story directly to Grace’s boss. And for the first time, we see Grace with her therapist, who poses the question that we sense has been proffered to no avail in previous sessions, “Your father is getting out soon. Would you like to look at your feelings about that?” We, the viewers, do not need to see her discuss those feelings because we have been seeing them acted on throughout the drama. This is why the scene can end satisfactorily with her merely responding, “yes.”

The healing of other patients takes place through sub-plots in Short Term 12. Marcus is about to turn 18 and be transitioned to the world outside, bringing up his fears and anxieties. He asks Grace to “shave my head.” (As she does this with an electric hair-clipper, it does not turn out “shaved” precisely). He then examines his head for scars or indentations he expected to find, which he had obscured with longer hair. We are not offered the back story, but are nonetheless moved by the tears that come when he can find no physical traces of past abuse. He is saying goodbye not only to his home of three years, but to his self-concept of brokenness. In spite of being rescued by Grace a short time later in a suicide attempt, we hear in the final scene that Marcus has started college and hooked up with a former Short Term 12 patient he had been fantasizing about since her departure years before. Marcus’ conflicting death-wish and passion for life evidence a young black male wrestling with the demons of abuse. He also offers raps at various points. The actor playing Marcus, Keith Stanfield, is credited with the professionally-produced rap song that accompanies the credits.
The youngest resident, Sammy, who has periodically attempted to flee screaming, appears to be doing so again in the final scene. Only this time, rather than make for the gate, he leads his pursuers in circles around the lawn—his playful way of signaling a developing awareness of being loved. We are led to presume that Mason, Grace’s partner in love and work, is no stranger to abuse by the scene in which he toasts his foster parents, at their thirtieth wedding anniversary, for their redemptive role in his life.

Short Term 12 is a rather nondescript title for a beautifully crafted drama which picks up where abuse leaves off, postulating strategies for becoming free from its debilitating effects. On the the continuum of healing, the film places talk therapy on the far side of non-verbal interventions—which prove to be its essential prerequisites.