A new perspective on milkweed

“It looks like a vagina.”

One of the patients snickered, staring down at the open seed pod of a milkweed plant. It was late fall, and my co-leader and I were running an art therapy group on an inpatient psychiatric unit. What had once been my greatest nightmare—staring into the incomprehensible depths of psychosis—was now one of my greatest pleasures, and my job.

Although insurance companies like to deny it, art therapy can be an incredibly effective tool for accessing feelings that cannot, for a myriad of reasons, be verbalized. Many assume, understandably, that art therapy involves drawing pictures and analyzing them to understand our deepest, darkest selves. But that’s not typically the goal. Rather, we use the process of art making to share experiences and support strengths. Creativity reaches into the depths of the psyche like Charon, ferrying across the river Styx. Then it returns with an image, a clearer picture of the whole person.

I’ve come to think about psychological functioning as a merry-go-round on a see-saw: it spins slowly, rocking back and forth a bit with life’s daily ups and downs. When one situation or symptom becomes too heavy, it spins askew, out of balance. Sometimes it stops altogether—brought to a halt by symptoms of depression, anxiety, or paranoia. Art making subverts the rigidity that comes from this blockage, restoring balance and movement. The incorporation of natural materials into the art making further stabilizes this balancing act.

The seedpods I’d brought for this workshop were still full, but brown and dry. My co-leader and I guided the participants as they opened them carefully, to removing the downy fluff. Upon first open, the pods appear almost carp-like, seed-scales perfectly aligned around a bulbous center, silky white strands slick. But the pods dry out quickly in the regulated hospital climate, opening up, a few seeds floating between us on the currents of central air.

“It looks like a vagina.”

I was not prepared for this statement, although I should have been, as the woman who made the astute observation lived on a merry-go-see-saw weighted heavily toward hypersexuality. Luckily, my partner was much more mature than I. While I sat red-faced, he moved the discussion toward the similar purposes served by human and plant reproductive systems. The statement became natural, not pathologized or demeaned.

Next, we directed the participants to write or draw, on a slip of paper, a hope. They then tucked the slip of paper inside the empty husk and sewed up the pod. Through this process, the pods transformed to carry seeds of a different kind—for people who are rarely allowed to aspire, who are repeatedly told they “can not.” Some shared their dreams before weaving their crackly parachutes closed, but some remained silent, too frightened to speak these thoughts aloud for the first time.

Opening, emptying, transforming, refilling, containing—if this is what’s happening in therapy, you’re having a good session. Art making allows the patients to be in control of this process. The idea of control is central within the therapy room, and certainly in inpatient care, where most clients’ locus of control is shifted to hospital staff. Who controls the keys, the menu, the conversation, the symptoms? During art therapy, the client controls the paintbrush, the clay, the glitter—to the extent that one can control glitter. Self-efficacy is crucially important to mental and social health, and is terribly difficult to obtain for a minimally verbal client given only words for tools.