In the wake of 9/11, New Yorkers were facing a mental health crisis. How could they process the scenes they’d witnessed? Some just blocked them out, of course. Put them in a box and threw away the key, as many of us do with our most painful memories, never to examine them again.
For others, it was the polar opposite. They looked at those memories again and again, peered at the horrific pictures in their minds until … slowly … they started to change.
“It’s called imaginal exposure,” says psychiatrist and artist Steven Rudin. “What we do, basically, is have the patient close their eyes and describe a traumatic memory – deep stuff that they don’t want to look at – over, and over, and over, and over again. The process in and of itself changes the memory.”
Now, as we face another crippling mental health crisis caused by a toxic mix of social isolation, lack of exercise and sunlight, financial uncertainty and unemployment, and fears for the health of ourselves and our loved ones, can we learn from the lessons of 9/11?
Psychologists believe that humans are built to learn from negative events. But what and how is a question many people struggle with. “Memory consolidation and reconsolidation is at the root of this process,” says Steven. “In the end, we need to refine a narrative about what happened over time to figure out where the trauma fits into our life story. Many people will need the help of a professional to achieve this, especially if they experienced extreme levels of stress around the pandemic.
“The idea is that the way we feel affects the way we think,” says Steven. “So if I were to ask you to remember something in a particular ‘feeling’ state, the way you think about that situation and the way you describe it visually will be quite different than if I were to ask you in another state. In other words, if I were to ask you on New Year’s Eve, when you’re around everybody that you love and life is doing really well, and I would say to you, ‘Tell me about school,’ you’d give me a completely different description than, say, when one of your parents was ill. The memories change dramatically based on the way that you feel; they are a constantly changing network.
“And as we go through life’s experience, we’re constantly adding parts and deleting parts, and that’s what should happen. It’s a modeling process because the purpose of memory, at the end of the day, is to help you to navigate the world.
“But in post traumatic stress disorder, the memories stay fixed and don’t change. When you talk to a person, let’s say a veteran from a war or somebody who has had sexual assault, the memory is so rigid that it doesn’t change over time, and becomes as vivid as if it happened five minutes ago.
“By recounting that memory over, and over, and over again, in a specific way in therapy, you facilitate the natural remodeling of the memory so that it becomes incorporated into the collage of your entire life.”
As he examined the process, and its many layers, it became clear that there were dramatic parallels between his work and his art – specifically, the art of collage.
“The collage concept is very powerful with people with trauma,” he says. “Memories are like a collage, in that there is some aspect that is within our control. Just the awareness that the pieces can be arranged in different ways can be helpful. You have a history of trauma, abuse, abandonment, and rejection, but you also have a history of generosity, creativity, perseverance and accomplishment. You have a history of trauma, abuse, abandonment, and rejection, but you also have a history of generosity, creativity, perseverance and accomplishment. How do you put it all together? How do you arrange the pieces?”
The mere fact that his artwork is so detailed that people stop to look closely at it is, he believes, important. “If you actually get somebody to stop in 2020, to stop and pause and look at something for more than just a second, it can make a difference. The conversation that emerges as a result of looking at the art is like a Rorschach inkblot test.”
And, naturally, he has used his art to navigate his own life. “The art I’ve made is clearly therapeutic with what I’ve been going through in the course of my life. You could see that during my parents’ divorce the art had a particular flavor to it. It was the same during my medical internship, which was very, very stressful because people were dying, and I used my art as a way of coping with it at the time.”
However, there is nothing dark about his work; on the contrary, it’s filled with optimism, positive symbolism, and nostalgic energy. And the healing power of art, he says, is not just limited to the visual. “I met a professor in Virginia who started a memoir course for people who were in the prison system. What he did was had them write, and rewrite, and rewrite, and rewrite their memoirs, and what he found out was that their personalities changed.
“In other words, when you tell your story over, and over, and over again, you will rearrange the pieces.”
Steven has worked in psychiatry since 1998, but he’s been an artist all his life. In mid-2017, he stepped away from clinical work and invested fully in his studio. “I’m not sure if it’s serendipitous or if it’s coincidental, but the collage just sort of took over me. When I started showing people the work, they stopped in their tracks. There was something really different about it.”
As a part-time instructor at the Art Students League of New York on W57th St, Steven’s popular workshop, The Psychology of Collage, uses art making as an experiential learning tool. Following a method called ODRA (Observation, Deconstruction, Rehearsal, Assembly), participants explore collage as a metaphor for memory and identity. “For many people, the lesson is very powerful and changes their perspective on important aspects of their lives. Creating personally meaningful collages, they realize that their internal narratives can be told in multiple different ways, depending on how they arrange the parts.”
Along these lines, Steven has been developing a curriculum for a new collage course, which he calls Putting the Pieces Back Together. The goal will be for participants to create art that integrates this difficult time into a larger picture of their life story. “We want to learn from this experience, but timing is very important. We don’t start to rebuild until we have some idea that we are on terra firma, which hopefully will be sooner than later. For now, my best recommendation is self-care, activities that help us to feel connected and grounded.”
Not unlike 911, the pandemic will add a layer to our lives, which will impact our viewpoint in many ways. For some, unfortunately, extreme hardship will continue after the self-isolating orders are lifted. “Stepping back and realizing that we are looking through a filter of fear and sadness can help us to keep our predictions and prophesies in check,” Steven says. “In the meantime, it’s not hard to notice inspirational people all around us, especially at 7pm as we cheer for the heroes.”
A version of this interview previously appeared in the January 2019 issue of W42ST magazine. Stay in touch with W42ST and be first to read stories like this when you subscribe to our daily newsletter at w42st.com