21st November, 2022. Monday. Cool winter morning in Hanoi. I was awake at 6am and decided to paint something big and bold. I have painted on huge canvas before but my subjects are often detailed paintings of buildings and structures. I wanted to paint something close up but on a big canvas so I can use broader strokes and not be so focused on the details. I wanted to use broad strokes because it helps me breath and destress. Detailed work is stressful. I wanted to explore a style where I let my instinct do the painting.
Yes, broad strokes and closed up on a big canvas. I have lots of red acrylic paints that I hardly used. Roses, I thought. Very quickly, with broad strokes, I stretch out the positions of the roses and the vase. Before long, it was time to tidy up the room and transform it to receive a new counselling case that morning. Frantically, I packed up the bottles of acrylic paints on the floor and cleaned up the little bit of splatters on the floor because of the quick broad strokes I was using.
“Ding Dong”, the doorbell rang. My new counselee has arrived.
“Hello. You must be Heidi. Come on in.”
Jacqueline, my wife, had the kettle and a box with an assortment of tea ready to be served. “What would you like for tea?” Jacqueline asked. Heidi was happy to see Jacqueline. “Earl Grey please.” I made this part up as I don’t remember what tea Heidi got that day.
Everything else is true.
I ushered Heidi to the counselling room. Seated on the blue chair and with a cup of warm tea in her hand, looking at the draft painting of the red roses, Heidi commented, “That’s a very nice painting!”
“It’s not done yet. I just started painting it this morning’, I replied.
“But it looks done!” Heidi exclaimed. We exchanged smiles and I asked what I often asked my client during the first session. “What brought you here today?” No, I don’t mean the mode of transportation. Haha. I meant, what issues she is dealing with that made her decide to make an appointment to see me.
A week later, Heidi came for the 2nd session and saw that the painting of the roses looked different. It has more depth now as she commented on the various tones of red that give it its depth.
5 sessions later, Heidi saw the transformation of the painting. What looks done in the 1st session looks very different every subsequent week. Heidi saw the transformation of the painting. I saw the transformation of Heidi's demeanour.
Heidi was overshadowed with memories of her childhood. In one of the sessions, she commented, ”Thanks for validating my feelings.” She shed tears for herself and also for her 8 years old self. Heidi has been carrying this burden for nearly 4 decades. With gentleness and compassion, I constantly reflected her thoughts and feelings. Giving her the time and space to explore and describe those longings and desires.
Heidi reflected, “It was these light touches that lifted her from the dark clouds that had followed her all these years”.
Light touches. The observation of where the light source is and where the shadows should fall makes a painting pop. The different places where the light touches give a painting its depth. That is also true about life, isn’t it?
Light touches. The gentleness and empathic responses a counselor is sufficient to transform one’s life. In counseling jargon, it is called “establishing a therapeutic relationship”.
Light touches. Yes, I too am transformed by the light. “This little Light of mine and I'm gonna let it shine”, the lyrics of a song I used to sing as a little boy in Sunday school, echoes in the recesses of my heart. When this transformational Light shines, there is no shadow at all.
John 8:12. When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
Indeed, lives are all transformed when Light Touches.
Now, let me invite you to read a note Heidi wrote me. Permission has been granted to publish it here in this blog entry.
I am so very sorry for it took me so long to write this. I think I owe you a real thank you note, but it was totally my bad for avoiding it. I was not ready about revisiting what I went through and reliving the dark moments. Every now and then though I still got carried back to the past, they come and go in a short time, I just wanted to let them go, enjoy the present moment and heal. But today, it hit me tremendously as I was reading what you wrote about me from your perspective. As you mentioned about the “light touches”, it reminded me of how you have found that hidden wound in me and have given it the touch that has led to my magical healing. You may consider this a reference or choose to share/quote/copy/rephrase/edit it however you like; it works for me either way. Bottom line is I just really want to share from the heart how I felt and how grateful I am to you! You are right, it was one light touch that can make the difference. It brought me back to one of the most highlighted sessions for me; the one that changed my false belief completely. I still remember very clearly, that day I was asked to read to you one piece of my journal in which I wrote about myself at 8 years old crying in vain longing for just a hug from my distant father and how I was always torn between the my parents for decades after the divorce. It was about 2 months in since I had been on anti-depression and I wrongly assume that I was mostly healed. As I read my journal, I felt so calm and normal. It was just like reading some random thing. That I had no feeling while talking about my past (which never had happened before). It kind of make me so proud of myself thinking; “Wow, I finally got so strong that even talking about my shameful weakness doesn’t make me cry. The darkness of the past is probably behind me already. It’s wonderful! Maybe I’m transformed!”. To my surprise, opposite to what I thought, you commented: "It was very a sad and unfortunate journey you’ve been through, yet it is surprising to me how you didn’t shed a tear talking about it”. I was proud just a second ago and your question shook me. My entire life, I grew up learning that crying was inappropriate because whenever I cried people avoided me, ignored me and abandoned me. I had been hating myself for being a crier and had learned a long the way to suppress the tears until it burst into an enormous outbreak. The more I hid my tears, the bigger the outburst. I got stuck. You are the first person that told me that I should cry and it was totally right to cry. I did not know AT ALL! From that moment on, you kept reminding me about the importance of having compassion with myself in sessions that follows. You even went further by vulnerably shared with me times when you also need to cry to calm down, which contributed greatly in releasing me from the shame I had carried. In that same session, you recommended that I try talking to my 8-year-old self (pretending the throw pillow was her). I did it reluctantly although it felt very much awkward. At that moment I believed that girl didn’t deserve to be there, talking to her, comforting her were the least I wanted to do. I realized soon after that I had loathed this 8 year old self. I hated her so much for being a loser that I had shut her in a dark prison and pretended we were not at all related. My denial of her existence probably had manifested in my anger, insecurities, self-doubt, shame, distrust, defensiveness and so on as I grew older and that was how I got to where I was. My relationships failed and I fell into severe depression. I did not even think about that till the moment you brought her out and reintroduce her to me. You taught me that both she and I were hurt and only empathy for each other could heal. The next day, as I closed my eyes, I saw me holding my 8-year-old self’s hand walking through a beautiful forest and I felt we were peacefully fine. You have created a safe place for me by showing compassion and assurance I needed to guide me out of the darkness. These are for me the humanity you have offered making all the difference; more specifically the human touch that I couldn’t find from any other therapists I met. Thank you for being a sincere therapist and friend! I am here today ALIVE and truly LIVING. I can feel the nice cool breeze of California summer blowing through my hair. I let my tears running down, I no longer hate myself but empathize with all the versions of me. I appreciate this peaceful moment, knowing that love is all around. Sincerely, Heidi.