by Bill Batson
A mother and daughter, both therapists, practice from this home in Nyack. Susan Travis has been seeing patients for 36 years in the wood-paneled front parlor. Her daughter Justine Girard, demonstrating just how close to the tree the fruit of her mother’s labor has fallen, operates from a studio behind the house.
I spoke to both practitioners recently, encouraged to see how the thread of creativity and community, so emblematic of our village, is stitched together in both of their work. People interested in aging, the process of grieving, the arts, care-giving, burnout, and honing the tools we need to build and repair our own lives will find their journeys edifying.
I understand that you are active in something called Creative Aging in Nyack?
Susan Travis: Six years ago, I joined a group called Rockland County Village Community. A friend of mine, Sally Borgman, has been asking me to join things for the last 35 years and I’ve always said no. She said that this group meets at a diner, Estrella’s, they say what they are grateful for, they have breakfast, and that’s it. I said, “I’m in.” The mission was to help each other age from a place of choice. You might not be able to stay in your home, but we wanted to help people go to where they want to go.
Your Own Worst Enemy…No More
by Susan Travis, LMHC, N.C.C.When did you write your book, Your Own Worst Enemy… NO MORE? I started in 2012, but my partner, Joseph, got very ill so I stopped writing for three years. I finally self published in 2016. It took three years. In my introduction, I wrote, “This book is from and nursed by three sources: my twenty-eight years as a psychotherapist in private practice; thirty years as a career counselor at the Rockland County Guidance Center; and my sixty-eight years as a person who is still a work in progress…” How does a person use the book? It’s easy to read and use. It describes four roles that people play, three unconscious, one conscious. The first role is how people make themselves a prisoner, the second part is about the prisons that people build to keep themselves as prisoners. The next section is about being our own jailers, and these are all unconscious roles that they play. The fourth role and my favorite part of the book is about the keys that you already have to free yourself from the prisons that others make or we make for ourselves. If they read nothing else, I hope they read the fourth section. There are sixteen keys (names), Master keys, the mind shift keys, the potential expansion keys, and the spirit keys. People are amazed to see the prisons they have built. For more information you can reach Susan Travis at firstname.lastname@example.org or (845) 358-5560 or you can find her book on Amazon.
We were invited to give a talk at the Nyack Library in 2017. I was one of the four people who spoke. Ann Morgan was in that group, as well as Ken Balban and Jim Evers.
When we spoke, there was a man named Don Monaco who came to hear the talk, and he said he wanted to start a group in Nyack. And he got in touch with Ann Morgan. She left RCVC to work with Don to start Creative Aging in Nyack (CAN). Because I was part of the other group and I knew her, she asked if I would be part of it. She contacted people that came to the original workshop, and it started. We began getting out information to tell people we were only going to work with the 10960 zip code. There is a limit to the number of members we take and we are full at the moment. For more information, you can visit creativeaginginnyack.org or you can send inquiries to CreativeAgingNyack@gmail.com to join the waiting list.
We formed groups to see what was needed. We looked into and joined Village to Village, which is the big movement that meets across the country. They help each other age in place. A big thing that we did was a survey: what do people need to be able to age in place? We then did a request to the group to see who was able to volunteer to help with all of these needs that people have. One of the interests was to go to the city and see something together and have a cup of tea. People wanted to connect to others. Some needed help with gardening; or to help organize their house and get rid of things; or help with technology or local errands.
One member had broken her leg and needed someone to shop for her, and take her to doctor appointments. It was amazing.
Tell me about your Ask workshop?
We are finding from other groups that volunteers are coming forward, but people are reluctant to ask for help. So I did a workshop on asking. We need to reframe how people think of asking. They look at it as if they are a burden, or less than; that they should be independent. I reframed it. Maybe by asking you are giving someone the gift of being kind, that they have the pleasure of helping, of using a skill they have, acknowledging that everyone needs help.
I made a mnemonic device for ask. I made buttons. My ASK stands for: Allow Someone’s Kindness. If you think of it that way, it’s not as hard. It takes away some of the burden. It begins an honest relationship. If we trust each other, I can ask and you can say no, and that’s okay. When I ask and you’re able and willing, you’ll say yes, and we are having an honest relationship.
As a therapist, how does your work engage the question of aging?
As a therapist, I don’t think it always directly does engage aging, but it engages change. Seeing yourself in a new place and discovering who you are there. Handling grief.
I do a lot of grief work. There are a lot of losses as you age–as well as a lot of gains. But there are a lot of losses that you have to adjust to. One is a challenge to your fierce independence, another is seeing yourself as the person who had the job you had, and you no longer have that title or self-definition. There is a loneliness when people don’t connect. I deal with that in my practice.
I’m going to do a workshop called Crossroads. We are at crossroads at different times in our lives. In aging, we come to a lot of crossroads. We have to grieve losses, recognize a need for change, and start to create this time of your life the way you want to live it!
My daughter Justine has a plaque that says “You don’t find yourself, you create yourself.” In my work, I help people create themselves from where they now are, and also ask questions to explore the purpose of their lives. People need meaning. Viktor Frankl said he survived the camps because he searched for meaning. I help people look at the meaning of their life, and how they want it to be.
How did this become the meaning of your life?
I was guided to do it. This is my life work. I know it and I feel blessed that I know it. I’m here on earth to help people. The man whose car won’t start, the woman who needs the door held open, the people in my practice. That’s what I’m here for.
How did you become a therapist?
Years ago, I was a Classics major at Brooklyn College. In Classics, you have to wait for Venus to die to have a job, so I got married, and moved to Texas and I looked for a job. The state gives a Merit System test. If you took the test and passed it, you were a social worker. So I became a social worker for the Department of Social Services in San Antonio Texas, and the only thing I liked was talking to the people and listening with them and trying to help them figure out how to solve their problems. I had to make budgets. I had to take kids out of homes, I had to look for shoes. Then we moved to New Hampshire. Merit System test again. I became a social worker there. Same story, the only thing I liked was talking to the people and helping them with their problems.
Fast forward, I came here, my husband was the director the YMCA. The marriage didn’t last. I knew the marriage was fading. I had to support children, so I took another test, The Miller Analogy test. I did well, got into Columbia for counseling, a 60 credit program. I left after 34. I couldn’t afford it and I had to work. But I had a Masters in counseling. I got a job at the Rockland County Guidance Center on Main Street, a career counseling center where I worked for 30 years. I did workshops on how to interview, how to feel good about yourself , empowerment workshops/human potential seminar, an eight week seminar. I wrote about 30 workshops while I was there. The center started over at Presidential Life, then at two locations on Main Street, the one near the drum store for many years. The final location in Nyack was in the present Key Bank building. While I was doing it, I started a private practice that I have had for the last 34 years.
How has COVID impacted your practices?
My practice has increased. I see some clients in person that I know have limited contact with others. I have several clients on the phone and yet others on Zoom. When in person we wear masks and sit 6 feet apart with an air filter going and a fan to blow air between us. They wash their hands before the session in the bathroom. We all make do. I just got my first vaccine of two Pfizer doses at Nyack Hospital.
Justine has many Zoom clients, but also has some face-to-face with the same precautions. Her practice has also increased.
Justine Girard, when did you know you wanted to be a therapist?
Justine Girard: In 1999, I joined an expressive arts therapy group in the city and it changed my life. I just felt like, one, I could do this; and two, I realized that it just wasn’t accessible to people.
What was that first group like?
I did it for four months and it helped move things that were stuck, that I could never really work through. The use of movement and sound and visual art bypassed my defenses and allowed for a healing process that I wasn’t able to access in verbal therapy.
And you’re a dancer?
Yes, I danced with the Debra Weiss Dance Company for ten years, but dance therapy did not resonate with me.
Art making really shifted things for me as I worked through my own trauma. It’s expansive. Trauma happens to your whole body. Using the arts brings your body in. It can hold the vast range of emotions and experiences to match the trauma. Instead of getting stuck in the narrative.
When did you start your studio?
August, 2017. It took a year. It was a dream. I offer a space that is warm and holding, but you can also get chalk pastel and paint on the floor.
How did you start specializing with care-givers?
It’s evolved because I’ve done tons of internships. I had 1,500 supervised hours. Through that experience, I realized that many care-givers were burnt out and lacked the time for self-care. There is no time to process or to decompress.
What do you do with all of those emotions and the loneliness that you are exposed to working in these settings. Even though there are family visits, the people you are caring for are very lonely; there is not much you can do for that because you have to function as a professional.
You still have to write your notes, you still have to go home and live your life. So, I was seeing this and thinking, what are these people doing with all of these feelings? Witnessing the burnout and the compassion fatigue, I realized that this was the direction I wanted to move towards in my practice, by developing an expressive arts therapy group for them.
What is your work with groups like?
Groups are three months long. They ebb and flow between a group process and art making that allows for insights, doing and undoing, reflecting upon where there is vulnerability and strength.
For more information you can reach Justine @ email@example.com or at (845) 353-1230.
Bill Batson is an activist, artist and writer who lives and sketch logs in Nyack, NY. Nyack Sketch Log: ” A Mother and Daughter Practice Therapy at One Address” © 2021 Bill Batson. To see more, visit billbatsonarts.com