Ann Bayly-Bruneel has been working in the areas of mental health, addiction and trauma for more than 20 years. She’s a gifted writer, as well as a registered psychotherapist and art therapist, and I was honored when she agreed to write the foreword for Still, But Not Silent: A Coloring Book Journal for Survivors of Domestic Violence back in 2017. I’ve been wanting to interview Ann for some time now, as I knew she’d have so many valuable insights to share around the topics of intimate partner violence and the therapeutic benefits of creating art. I hope that you find something meaningful to take away from our conversation.
CM: Ann, it’s so nice to be speaking with you again, and it’s my pleasure to share a little bit more about you with my audience. To start, can you please tell us about what you do and what first drew you to the work you are doing?
AB: Thanks for the opportunity to speak with you and share more about the work that I am passionate about. I am a Registered Psychotherapist/Art Therapist that works both in community mental health and private practice. My work encompasses an embodied, expressive and trauma-informed framework that understands how various forms of individual and collective forms of oppression shape and influence the trajectory of our lives. I am passionate about working alongside individuals to help them learn about impacts of trauma and violence in their life, to offer a place of relative safety where they are supported to share their vulnerabilities and strengths and courageously reclaim lost or unrealized aspects of themselves in order to live a life that is fully free and authentically their own.
It is difficult to pinpoint how I became drawn to this work. I was always a child who questioned the way things are—and became aware that what was not said, was just as important as what was spoken. My quest to understand always hinged on my own need to unpack and liberate myself from my own social conditioning that was restrictive. In my own life, I experienced the impact of the male gaze and what it feels like to be objectified, sexualized and harassed simply because of my sex/gender. I recall a turning point in my life when I was in high school and was being sexually harassed by my grade ten math teacher, a man whom I admired, who was in a position of authority and who also happened to be my friend’s father. I recall as I write this how difficult, confusing and emotionally isolating this experience was and how I had very little words to describe what was happening to me. At the time, there was a lack of information, support and resources to turn to. Thus I turned inward towards my own resiliency—and in talking about my experience openly and speaking with my friends and family I realized that my experience was shared amongst many. I was not alone. Others had similar and/or worse experiences of being harassed, abused and or harmed in some way. It was this deep knowing that encouraged me to want to bring the issue of gender-based violence out of the shadows and into the light of our consciousness. It has been my experience that when we come in touch with our own vulnerability and suffering, and see the interconnections between us we can relate and compassionately act to prevent the suffering of others.
I share my story to cultivate an awareness that my understanding of sexual assault and gender-based violence grew out of my lived experience of how insidious, pervasive and silenced this issue is and how it does not discriminate. This knowledge compelled me to formalize my learning and pursue education in women studies, psychology, sociology—thus opening my eyes and ears to deeply understand the intersections of trauma, mental health, poverty, racism, oppression and violence. Inevitably I was moved in the direction of wanting to be a part of the solution to eradicate social injustices for ALL. I began working in a youth residential setting where I learned about the impacts of early child abuse and neglect. Then worked at Women’s College hospital within the Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Care Centre. This amplified my awareness of gender-based violence and how prevalent it is—and how social attitudes, gender ‘norms’ and patriarchy were at the root of the problem. My colleague and I created an on-line gallery “Art Not Violence” to educate about impacts of trauma and violence and how this impacts both mental, physical and spiritual health and well-being. I have had experience working over the years in hospital, community and private practice settings and enjoy having my foot in both private and community work. I believe in social justice issues and see psychotherapy and art-activism as very personal and political work and part of my role as being a change agent.
Our culture tends to separate and disconnect us from our creative instinct reinforcing an untruth that only some are artists. I believe that we are all artists and that being creative and playful is an inherent blueprint in all of us.
CM: I know that you are also an artist. When did you first realize that about yourself and what sorts of things do you like to create? How have your creative interests evolved over time?
AB: It took me a long time to be able to integrate the word artist into my life and being. Our culture tends to separate and disconnect us from our creative instinct reinforcing an untruth that only some are artists. I believe that we are all artists and that being creative and playful is an inherent blueprint in all of us. At a very young age, I realized how much I loved to engage in sensory and tactile experiences that allowed me to make, destroy and re-create things. I loved to make messes, take apart things and see things with new eyes. For me this act of creating and un-doing is who I am as an artist. I love to draw, paint, sculpt and make images from mixed and found objects. I enjoy juxtaposing images together and using materials in different ways. Currently, I love using ink washes, allowing for drips and drops to become a part of the working image. Like me, my art has evolved and will continue to as this is my inner landscape projected outward.
CM: When did you first become interested in the therapeutic qualities and benefits of creating art and what can you tell us about that realization and journey?
AB: Art has always been therapeutic to me. The process of art-making has helped me to navigate issues in my own life with more ferocity, grace and ease. I used art as a child to express my feelings, to give voice to my experiences and to help create and bridge solutions that might not be considered otherwise. Art allows me to lose myself in a process that is essentially a quest for soul—a language that connects mind, body and spirit all at once. Making art became a way for me to connect to my senses and make the intangible, tangible. It became a way to understand my inner world and reclaim the truest essence of myself. Naturally, when you discover such richness in a process that supports growth and transformation—it is only just to share this knowledge. It is interesting, with research on mind-body approaches, neuroscience and mindfulness that art therapy is now seen as a modality and approach to address impacts of trauma. I think there is more understanding that trauma is encoded in the right part of the brain and in implicit memory, thus words and cognitive approaches are limiting.
CM: How has creating art helped you to deal with challenges in your own life? How have you seen it affect the lives of the people you work with on a daily basis?
AB: Art has helped me to not only deal with challenges, but to transform and find creative solutions to them. I have used art to work through communication struggles in my relationships, to understand the impacts of trauma and oppression in my own life and to re-author and re-frame my own story. I used to keep a visual art journal in my adolescence and recall using it a lot to help process the emotional pains of growing up. When I encounter difficulties at home or at work, I turn to art to help me unearth where I may feel stuck and to bring my unconscious forward. Clinically, I use art-making to help deepen my understanding of the individuals that I work with and to notice issues of transference/counter-transference which is the fertile ground of the therapeutic relationship. I also use art-making for play, relaxation, grounding and mindfulness. I encourage my daughter to use her art for self-awareness, play and growth and enjoy seeing her create and let go….
What I love, is how people create symbols, colours, metaphors and expressions that are uniquely them and choose materials that convey their unfolding story.
Many people that I work with who have experienced trauma will say “I am not an artist.” I gently affirm that art therapy is less about the end product. Rather it is an insight-oriented process to help deepen self awareness. People are often surprised by what their first image tells them and how this guides the therapeutic process. What I love, is how people create symbols, colours, metaphors and expressions that are uniquely them and choose materials that convey their unfolding story. Art allows unconscious information to surface. Because of this individuals can disrupt their own patterns. They can move out of places in their life that they feel stuck and move with intention and instinct towards what they truly need and want. The process allows one to be both an active participate and a witness and to stay present to complex experiences and mixed emotions. It is not uncommon through the process of art therapy for individuals to reclaim and rediscover their strengths, their voice, their passions and to live more authentically in their life. I have seen people change relationships, careers and in general transform the paralyzing impacts of trauma in such beautiful and magical ways.
CM: I was honored when you agreed to write the foreword for my coloring book journal Still, But Not Silent, which explores the topic of domestic/intimate partner violence. As you know, October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month (DVAM). What would you say are some common misconceptions that still exist about domestic violence and victims and survivors of this pervasive public health problem?
AB: I too was so honored to be invited to write the foreword for your colouring book, which offers a vehicle for individuals to explore their lived experience of Domestic Violence. For me, I prefer to re-name DV as Woman Abuse/intimate partner violence and will be using the terminology of woman, woman-identified or individual interchangeably to broaden the scope of our discussion. The word domestic is too soft and masks the social issue of gender violence and oppression that is a global social problem with far reaching implications. Also, we need to allow a broader term so that individuals within the LGBTQ2S communities and other diverse communities can come forward and have a safe space to share their experience of violence and trauma. As our understanding of the issue has evolved so have the tools that we use to educate and inform. For example, there are now many versions of the ‘power and control wheel’ to encompass what the abusive cycle may be in same-sex relationships or across different cultures. One of the major misconceptions is that many people still think about the issue as an individual or family problem and make decisions not to get involved because “it is not their business.” When we recognize Woman Abuse/intimate partner violence as a social pervasive public health problem, we take necessary and compassionate action to ensure safety. We change how we talk about the issue and decrease stigma and messages of blame. We address how social and gender-norming contribute and cultivate violence and oppression in our world. We teach sex, health and gender education that speaks out-right about issues of consent and foster health, social and legal policies that protect the human rights of individuals. In this way, we become a part of the solution to end Violence against Women and children.
When we recognize Woman Abuse/intimate partner violence as a social pervasive public health problem, we take necessary and compassionate action to ensure safety. We change how we talk about the issue and decrease stigma and messages of blame. We address how social and gender-norming contribute and cultivate violence and oppression in our world.
CM: What are some of the common challenges that individuals face in leaving a relationship where they are being emotionally, financially, verbally, and/or physically abused? What about the ongoing challenges they face after leaving their relationships?
AB: The challenges are many and are uniquely defined by the woman who is trying to leave. For example it is not fair for a woman to have to decide between a life of poverty or a life of abuse. Yet, many individuals are forced to make this decision. This decision is even more difficult if there are children or other dependents involved. Yesterday, a woman said to me “I either choose to be victimized by my partner who I know or be victimized by a system who does not know or care about me.” This is a poignant statement that illuminates that “choice” is more complicated and the need to understand social determinants of health and the context of individuals’ lives is paramount in being able to offer effective help. Part of the tactics of individuals who abuse is to isolate a woman from her family and friends or alienate them from their connections to supports. Many women who have been abused for much of their lives don’t believe they are deserving of anything different. This adaptive/survival-based thinking is amplified if the woman was also abused as a child and never knew what it was to be loved and cared for. Chronic abuse erodes an individual’s ability to trust in themselves or in others—the unknown is often more terrifying then what is known. Leaving and moving towards change is not easy and any woman who courageously takes this step needs self-directed support to address every area in her life that has been impacted by abuse and trauma. My practice is to start with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, ensuring basic necessities of life are addressed first and then once these needs are stabilized women are freer to decide what area needs to be attended to next. Advocacy is often necessary as there are many social, legal and health systems involved. With this in mind, it is essential to empower and let individuals direct their care as this is the beginning of a different experience of choice, agency and self-determination.
CM: What are some of the mental health issues that domestic violence survivors could face after being abused by an intimate partner? What are some steps people can take to reach out for help and why is it so important to do so?
AB: Survivors can be faced with post-traumatic stress responses that could be compared to how individuals feel returning from war or fleeing war-torn countries. Many experience states of anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation and are flooded with experiences of hyper-vigilance, flashbacks, dissociation and nightmares. It is not uncommon to experience toxic guilt/shame or self-defeating beliefs that were perpetuated by the cycles of abuse and survivors need persistent, compassionate and patient support to help unpack and challenge these beliefs. Cycles of abuse can often lead to individuals having to hold back thoughts and feelings because there is not safety to freely express. Over time, these constrictive nervous-system patterns of holding/bracing can evolve into somatic complaints. Many women speak of having difficulty swallowing/eating as a result of their throat literally narrowing, having digestive issues due to high levels of stress cortisol in their bodies, or have chronic health concerns like fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome etc… We know that stress impacts our immune system and the Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) study points out how much more likely individuals who have experienced and/or witnessed abuse/trauma experience complex mental, physical and social health difficulties throughout the life span.
Early intervention and prevention is needed and thankfully many more systems are recognizing this. Some steps that individuals can take is to access their local women’s centre, call crisis/help lines and/or reach out to your doctor, emergency department, community mental health agency or police services. Know that you are not alone and that any door is the ‘right door’ to get proper help or direct you to where help is. I encourage individuals to reach out to natural supports that they trust who can help to bridge getting professional support.
Early intervention and prevention is needed and thankfully many more systems are recognizing this. Some steps that individuals can take is to access their local women’s centre, call crisis/help lines and/or reach out to your doctor, emergency department, community mental health agency or police services. Know that you are not alone and that any door is the ‘right door’ to get proper help or direct you to where help is. I encourage individuals to reach out to natural supports that they trust who can help to bridge getting professional support. Having an advocate and ally is so important in navigating a system that may or may not be trauma and violence informed. I encourage women to ask for what they need and to notice how you feel when being supported. If you are feeling judged or further victimized by the ‘support’—know that there are other options and that you can find a better fit for you and your needs. Feeling empowered is essential in un-doing and healing the damage of trauma, violence and oppression.
CM: What are your thoughts on the social stigma surrounding victims of domestic/intimate partner violence, as well as the social stigma around mental health?
AB: Stigma is a huge barrier and we must work together as communities to make it easier, safer and accessible/possible for people to speak openly and come forward and reach out for help without judgement or further victimization. There are a lot of myths and stereotypes surrounding the questions of “who is victim and who is perpetrator?” and “who suffers from mental health and addiction and who does not?” We need to examine these issues up close, turn inward, listen and own our own story, pay attention to the stories in our own families, schools, neighbourhoods, places of employment and as I said before, see the interconnections between us and how these issues do not discriminate and can impact any of us at anytime. In my story, the person who harmed me was my teacher, a solid member of my community and my friend’s father, not a stranger unknown to me. We must address and be committed to our own healing process, so that we do not silence or unintentionally impede and/or stigmatize others who are trying to heal from individual, systemic or collective trauma. What I have come to appreciate is that the healing happens in the NOW—how we respond, show up compassionately and fully present makes a difference in how others show up with us and engage in their own healing journey.
We must address and be committed to our own healing process, so that we do not silence or unintentionally impede and/or stigmatize others who are trying to heal from individual, systemic or collective trauma.
CM: In addition to social stigmas, how do self-stigma or anticipated stigma prevent individuals from seeking the help and support they need and deserve?
AB: Internalized stigma is a barrier. It also has likely served a purpose for years. There is a saying—never take down a fence until you know what purpose it serves or have cultivated enough of a connection to help a person build up a new boundary. Stigma does interfere with an individual reaching out for help. At the same time, when an individual courageously takes the step and crosses the threshold to ask for help, it is our collective responsibility and due diligence to help them feel less alone, not judged, and fully supported and empowered to take the next baby step to move in the direction of what they want and need. This process takes time. Rapport, trust and relative safety need to be established for an individual to feel more free to decide what next. As a person moves towards health and wellness, we need to be prepared and prepare them for how in these moments of change survival instincts from the past can be triggered—and that taking one step forward and two steps back is a part of the journey towards healing.
CM: While every situation is different, what do you believe are some ways that family, friends, and other bystanders can safely offer support if someone discloses to them that they are being abused? How can people be helpful?
AB: I say talk less, listen more. Deeply listen and validate what you hear both verbally and that which lies above and below words. Feel with your senses as you hear a person you care about opening up and sharing their vulnerability with you. Pay attention to how courageous and resilient they are and reflect your care back and that you are there to help. Don’t move too quickly towards action: Pause, Breathe and reflect on how what you’re hearing is impacting you. Be cautious about trying to fix, control or remedy the situation as you may unintentionally disempower the person who is opening up to you and offer advice that may or may not be helpful. Ask questions, clarify what you are hearing and invite your loved one to tell you what they may need. Be patient if they do not know yet or, if they change their mind…This is natural and necessary in the unthawing process of trauma. When the individual is ready, connect her to additional natural and professional supports. Be an advocate and reaffirm that you believe your loved one and are there to support as an ally not as a judge. I also encourage loved ones to seek their own support as it is difficult not to be impacted and want to help—Having their own support can provide a necessary container of support for all individuals impacted.
CM: Can you talk about the value of using expressive or free writing, as well as creating different forms of art, as tools for processing and moving beyond challenging and even painful experiences. How can these tools be used to transform?
AB: I am a true believer in journaling of any kind. It has been very helpful for me in my own life. I encourage both written and visual journals, vision boards, scrap-booking, mind, body, spirit collages as vehicles to help focus, bring awareness and creatively imagine solutions. In situations of distress, I encourage scribble drawings, splatter/finger painting to be able to externalize the felt-sense of the experience so that the mind and body is not left holding and later re-enacting the disruption in another situation. Clay is a material that I use for grounding as it connects people to the earth and deepens our connection to our body and our nature as a whole. Individuals often share that the act of creating something and externalizing helps to lessen their fear. It makes it possible to see and talk about distressing things and removes the sense of emotional isolation that can occur when we keep things hidden inside. Often the artwork can be the jump off point to seeing things in different ways and imagining something different. Symbolism deepens and transforms over time.
CM: Can you recommend any daily creative exercises that you love?
AB: I love visual art journalling and use this as a practice in my life. I have several blank pieces of paper in my office called “moodle drawing” so that I can capture my mood or invite others to do the same. I also have a Buddha board and sand tray in my office that I use regularly for connection and release.
CM: What have your patients taught you about resilience?
AB: Such a great question. The individuals that I have had the privilege to journey alongside have been my greatest teachers. They have taught me about the necessity of being trauma and violence informed and what this looks and feels like in moment to moment interactions. I have learned the importance of deep listening and understanding the role that physiology plays in how individuals react and respond to situations and the need to work somatically with individuals who have suffered trauma. I have learned deeply about the role of the unconscious and how trauma is recapitulated and re-created often as a means to gain mastery over our original experiences—often with the hope of having something new happen. I have learned about the prevalence of trauma and violence for women and children—and the snowballing impacts of these experiences over time and across generations and cultures. I have learned about the necessity of being self aware so that I can be fully present and attuned and compassionately act and advocate where it is needed. I have learned to be patient, persistent and never ever give up on someone. I always hold hope and believe fully that with the necessary and right conditions of support we all have the innate capacity to heal—and know deeply that healing happens in relationship. I have learned that we need not be resilient if the conditions of support needed are there in the first place! Resiliency grows from the need to face challenges, conflict and oppression. To fight and flight and freeze when necessary and rebound each time vulnerability is embraced and individual and collective strength is realized. Resiliency grows over-time, space and within relationships. Conflict (not abuse) is an essential part of healthy relationships. The degree of conflict and the process of repair and true resolution is what helps deepen and strengthen relationships.
I have learned to be patient, persistent and never ever give up on someone. I always hold hope and believe fully that with the necessary and right conditions of support we all have the innate capacity to heal—and know deeply that healing happens in relationship.
CM: What has your work taught you about the need for connection and a sense of belonging?
AB: What we all want is to feel connected, heard and feel that we belong. My work has taught me the value of this deeply and I continue to advocate for this understanding within systems and cultures that too quickly underestimate the importance of relationship, connection and safe places that foster growth and security.
CM: What would you like to see change?
AB: I would like to see individuals that receive services have more of an opportunity and voice to shape how services are delivered and be a part of what needs to change. I think this happens more in women-centred organizations that are grass-rooted and operate from feminist values. I would like to see each of us as individuals and as collective communities becoming forces to eradicate violence and oppression in all its forms. I would like to see business models in health care understand the necessity of trauma and violence informed care and for this to become the universal standard of care for all. I would like there to be an understanding of the neurobiology of trauma and how to work and support survival responses that emerge within the healing journey so that individuals are not stigmatized, pathologized or further victimized by services aimed to help. As communities we need to promote and offer integrated and holistic care that recognizes diversity and inclusivity. We need to move towards a lens of understanding that is anti-oppressive and works collectively around issues of social justice. I would like all health care and front-line/first responding professionals to make a commitment to practice their own healing as I see this as essential to the change-process in the mental health, medical and justice systems as a whole. Through my work and Assisting in Somatic Experiencing, I have seen this unfolding and shift happen and believe that we shift systems—one nervous system at a time. The less hijacked we are as professionals by our own triggers and survival responses, the more able we can be mindfully present, aware and maintain empathic and compassionate forms of engagement with those that we serve.
CM: I know that you are currently working on a series of altered books of the Diagnostical Statistical Manual (DSM). What can you tell us about that project?
AB: Yes, I am working with individuals to create altered books of the DSM so that they have the opportunity to visually share and re-author their own story of mental health and trauma. The project I am working on is in its infancy. It grows from my knowledge of how a categorical diagnosis is not the full story or picture of a person’s life. The DSM often leaves out the importance of considering social location, culture, race, privilege, trauma and violence informed perspectives— and yet a diagnosis has the potential to yield such potency and impact the trajectory of someone’s life. I have found that images deepen our understanding and provide a means to connect heart, mind, body and soul so that we can appreciate the interconnections between us!
CM: Is there anything else you’d like to share?
AB: I am very thankful for this opportunity to share about myself and my work and grateful to all my teachers along the way.
I am an unapologetically political person with a passion for activism and restorative social justice. I am so grateful for the upsurge of the “Me Too” and “Times Up” campaigns and the courage of women like Dr. Ford all over the world who are speaking, rising up and dismantling patriarchy brick by brick. Gender-norming is harmful for both women and men and we need to cultivate a culture that allows men to be vulnerable and celebrates women in their strength. I am excited for the revolutionary force of the LGBTQ2S+++ communities who are blowing the lid off of the gender binaries that are restrictive and contribute to further polarization, dichotomy and discrimination. We need to move in a direction where ALL people are celebrated and supported to be their authentic, liberated self FREE from any form of oppression. Equal Rights; Equal LOVE. For me, I have learned to invest in the long game and see that even the tiniest individual micro-movements have ripple effects that impact the whole of our communities and world.
To reach me feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We need to move in a direction where ALL people are celebrated and supported to be their authentic, liberated self FREE from any form of oppression.
You deserve to get help if you need it. If you are in crisis or experiencing emotional distress, call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or SAMHSA’s National Helpline, which offers free information for individuals facing mental health and/or substance abuse issues, at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).
The National Domestic Violence Hotline provides lifesaving tools and immediate support to empower victims and survivors of domestic violence/partner abuse. The Hotline also provides support to friends and family members. Their highly trained expert advocates are available 24/7 at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) in more than 200 languages and all calls are free and confidential.
Ann Bayly-Bruneel is a Registered Psychotherapist and Art Therapist in London, Ontario Canada. She is an artist, feminist and activist working in both private practice and within a community mental health setting. Ann’s own quest to push societal edges and transform barriers lead her on a path towards creative and somatic healing. Recognizing that just as mind and body are not separate neither are we. She believes deeply in the power of the arts to offer new holistic pathways for individual and collective healing and has had the privilege of working alongside many survivors of violence, trauma and systemic oppression. Ann’s understanding of developmental trauma and attachment hones her ability to create deep presence, resonance and attunement with individuals. She believes in creating the right conditions of safety, support and care to allow the natural processes of healing to unfold –making room for the authentic self to emerge and transform. In this way she is co-creator offering new ways of seeing and opening windows to possibilities!
To learn more about “The Art Not Violence Project,” please click here.
To learn more about Still, But Not Silent, my coloring book journal for survivors of domestic violence, please click here.
To learn more about You Look a Lot Like Me, my documentary film about intimate partner violence, please visit www.youlookalotlikeme.com.
DVAM discounts are available on all orders of You Look a Lot Like Me and all bulk orders of Still, But Not Silent now through November 19th. For more information, please contact us.
Has writing or making art helped you to cope with or transform challenging situations in your own life? If so, how? Please share in the comments below.
PLEASE NOTE: The opinions, representations, and statements made in response to questions asked as part of this interview are strictly those of the interviewee and not of Chloé McFeters or Tortoise and Finch Productions, LLC as a whole.