An example of a longer piece of work

In this final vignette I give a more detailed example of how the range of therapeutic functions can operate together across the stages of therapeutic work with the plant form image. The following illustration, titled The Rose with No Thorns, shows how the plant image can both encapsulate an ongoing psychological difficulty and reflect developmental progress over time.

Sam was a sensitive and introverted man in his late thirties who had a long-standing alcohol problem. He was artistically gifted but he had not been able to complete his art school training due to his alcoholism. When I met him in the rehabilitation centre, he was suffering from chronic depression and anxiety. He was interested in experimenting with therapeutic imagery as he already had a well-developed visual imagination.

During the first couple of sessions, Sam sketched out his background for me and it became apparent that he had not really separated from his parents, having continued to live in their home all of his adult life. His mother suffered from a similar disabling chronic anxiety state as himself. I wondered at this point whether it might be useful for him to get a picture of his inner psychological state in the form of a plant. He described this as a single rose growing in the middle of a lawn. On closer inspection, it became clear to him that it was the lawn in his parents’ garden. He said he understood that this environment was not right for the rose and that it was time for it to be moved. However, he also admitted that he had known for years that he needed to move away from his parents but he had never been able to accomplish it: something held him back. I mooted with him the possibility of transplanting the rose in stages by, first of all, gently uprooting it and planting it in a pot. The idea of a stage-by-stage move was clearly interesting to Sam but he wanted to leave it where it was for a while so he could mull this over.

A couple of weeks later, we returned to the rose image and Sam made a curious discovery - the rose had no thorns. He could imagine where the thorns had been on the stem but each one had been removed. This discovery was a breakthrough for Sam as he made clear links between the lack of thorns and his inability to stand up for himself. He had found it very difficult to establish himself outside his family environment because he had always been unassertive. It seemed to him that his family conditioning had created this behavioural trait and he came to the conclusion that, in order to move on, he would need to learn the skills to protect himself. At that point I suggested a reparative intervention: he could try regrowing the thorns on his rose plant. He responded enthusiastically and creatively to this by imagining a thorn-regeneration liquid that he painted onto the stem where the thorns had once been. He had a sense that the thorns would take about a week to regrow and we left the session at that point.

When Sam came back a fortnight later, I was naturally curious to hear what had transpired for him after his insight. He reported that, much to his surprise, he had been more assertive in the community the previous week. This behavioural change had given him a bit of confidence although he felt it would take more time for him to fully trust that he could defend himself. I agreed with him that it was early days and that we should leave the rose plant for a month or so. When he checked the image he said that the plant was looking stronger with small but clearly defined thorns. In addition, he could see another group of roses some way in the distance where he felt his rose should go. He made the connection between this picture and making plans to move on to second-stage supported housing. A short while later, Sam decided that it was time to begin the transplantation of his rose and he imagined very gently digging it up and putting it into a terracotta pot. He left the pot standing on the lawn; he realised it would stay there until the time came for him to actually move into his room in the second stage supported house. We ended our work there, with Sam feeling more confident about moving out into the world.

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