"A maa timi kahaan chhau? Bhauju aaoo na… Bhauju? Bhauju!!” (Where are you, mother? Come to me, o sister-in-law)
These are the words of 76 year-old Mala, who had started to call out to her dead relatives during her final days. I was amazed and all I could do was sit and listen to her delirious mutterings. I understood she was hallucinating. Gradually, I started telling her not to call ‘them’, because they couldn’t hear her, but she would argue that they responded to her in her dreams.
To that my response would be, “In that case, we can try to meet them in your dreams”. I wanted to distract and so, I would tell her to call me as well in her dreams so we could both meet ‘them’. That pacified her for a bit. Eventually, I started making plans to meet her in her dreams. The usual dinner-time activity would be to plan our ‘meetings’ in her dreams and going on a trip to meet all those people whom she remembered during the day. I simply played along with her in her make-belief world. And as ridiculous as it may sound, it did work in making her feel better. Then, I did not realize that I was unconsciously participating in a kind of therapy.
A few months later, I stumbled across the concept of ‘play therapy’. It is then that it struck me I had, in fact, used play therapy with Mala in some form. Play therapy, as defined by experts, is ‘a method of psychotherapy with children in which a therapist uses a child’s fantasies and the symbolic meanings of his or her play as a medium for understanding and to establish communication with them.’ Although play therapy is used to treat problems that interfere with a child’s normal development, it is an equally powerful tool for adults, to help them unlock their deeply rooted and seemingly unspeakable feelings.
Let us face it. We have plenty of complex emotions within us. We are not even aware of the deeply repressed emotions that we hold about our parents, relatives or situations that have angered or hurt us. Here, it is important to note that there are techniques that allow us to act according to our true but possibly repressed feelings without being judged. The same techniques are used to help children and adults get in touch with their emotions and rid themselves of negative energies within. These techniques fall within play therapy.
To elaborate, play therapy is a fun way for adults to identify and tackle feelings that they have chosen to avoid dealing with and that have caused unhappiness, depression and other emotional problems, thus burdening their lives.
Under such circumstances, for adults, play continues to be an important vehicle for solving their problems because it fosters numerous adaptive behaviors including creativity, role rehearsal and mind/ body integration. While talking about creativity, Carl Jung once said, “The small boy (himself) is still around, and possesses a creative life which I lack. But how can I make my way to it?” Eventually, he realized that the key to unlocking his creative potential was to get involved in constructive play that he had enjoyed as a child.
Dr Jane Healy, in her book, Your Child’s Growing Mind, discusses play, humor, dramatizing, moving, imagining, listening, expressing, originating and incubating as techniques for creative people. These qualities are an intrinsic part of growth and are equally applicable for therapy for adults. If we try to remember our children growing up, we might be able to recall various incidents where they bandaged imaginary wounds pretending to be doctors, spent hours pretending to cook, shop, travel and go to school or even wash clothes. In the process, they literally enacted all of life’s milestones by practicing adaptive behaviors and grown-up roles.
When it comes to talking to ourselves, we are no different. Let’s be honest and recall how often we have thought about or even had conversations with ourselves while walking down the road and then looked around to see if anyone noticed, thanking god if nobody did! How often have we spent time in front of the mirror trying out outfits to make sure we look okay? Not that it isn’t normal to do these things, but by doing so, we are gradually moving away from real life to that make-believe world, at least for a fraction of a second. These are little games that we often play with ourselves but fail to realize that play is a holistic experience that involves both hemispheres of our brain.
‘Play therapy’ is a fun way for adults to identify and tackle feelings they have chosen to avoid dealing with but that have caused emotional problems in them.
The left side, the analytical one, decides what to do next, what strategies to use to be a winner and how it can be verbalized. The right side is the artistic one that allows us to enjoy the experience of turning the shapes of the clouds into magical creations. I am sure most of us let our imagination run wild looking at the clouds in the sky during the rainy season. I remember I always had a standing game with my sister while she was growing up, looking up to spot different shapes of clouds in the sky. What we think of as pleasurable games are often therapeutic.
As far as my experience of play therapy with Mala is concerned, I was not able to save her, but I sure was able to provide her with some joy during her final days. We have all interacted with old people at some point and realized that after a certain age, they start behaving like children. So the next time we encounter an elderly person, let’s look through a different lens and we might be surprised at what we see, and what we can do to bring a speck of joy into the person’s fading life.