When I was in the 3rd grade, I was one of the playground ringleaders. We all spoke the language of “pretend,” and I was often the Rosetta Stone, translating between realities for me and my girlfriends:
“Okay, pretend that I’m the mom and you’re the baby. Pretend that she’s your sister and he’s the mean monster.”
Pretend was a verb, and I could conjugate it like a pro.
By the 5th grade, play was falling out of fashion. We still had the playground, but more often than not, girls chose to sit on the benches and gossip instead of turning the jungle gym into a castle or a forest. One girl even got her period, and she became a different kind of playground ringleader—translating between the preteen and adult worlds. Life became less about role play and more about Tiger Beat Magazine…except for me and a few of the other outcasts who refused to grow up.
By middle school, I had firmly taken on misfit status, actively shunning the language of adults by retreating into books during school hours—and secretly, shamefully, playing pretend with my younger sisters on the weekends.
That all changed the summer I developed my eating disorder.
It was my last summer at drama camp. I was cast as Rizzo in our production of Grease (which, if you know me, is pretty much completely opposite type). I was moments away from my first “kiss,” my first period, and my first diet.
The day that I committed myself to my eating disorder—to staying thin and fit and “sexy” at all costs—was the day that I made a conscious decision to eschew play forwever.
In learning the adult language of rules and structure, goals and restrictions, I was simultaneously giving up my native tongue—and, as the years stretched on, I lost my ability to speak the language of play entirely.
Nearly 9 years later, in the deepest throes of ED, I even gave up my desire for a career in theatre, itself a form of structured, scripted “pretend,” although still a poor substitute for the playground improve I so loved as a child. Instead of living in the worlds between imagination and reality in my mind, I chose instead to focus on controlling my anatomy and physiology through fitness and nutrition.
But over the last two years, as I’ve moved into a head space that I can confidently call recovered, I realized that there was something missing. This happened in part when I started to look at play as a fitness modality…and it hit me that if we can play like children to be physically fit, why can we do the same to become mentally and emotionally fit?
What is stopping us from exploring our world again through the lens of pretend? What hidden treasures might we uncover if we give ourselves permission to play? Why are we so afraid of imagination?
It was with these questions in mind that I stumbled upon drama therapy, and Developmental Transformations (DvT) in particular. I spent this past weekend at Antioch University in Seattle, relearning how to play in the context of treating “disorders of embodiment [and] encounter.”*
I approached this weekend’s class with equal parts excitement and trepidation—improvisation has always been a point of great anxiety for me. Years ago, when I was a drama teacher, I did not mind facilitating improv games (imposing rules upon and offering direction for my students), but the uncertainty of play—of going off script and meeting every new situation with a “yes, and” in a stranger’s voice was nothing short of terrifying for a girl who has, for the last 14 years, built her entire concept of self around controlling outcomes and defining/stabilizing her identity.
DvT did more than offer the opportunity to step into the fear—it pushed me, headfirst, over the edge and into a world that offered unstable embodiment, partial transformations, and unexplainable phenomena. Developmental transformations was an opportunity to paradoxically both shed my skin and assume my most truthful aspect. Through play, I rediscovered the ability to sink into instability, to play like a child and rediscover the world through the eyes of inexperience and wonder—while uncovering the wounds hidden by experience and disenchantment.
It is difficult to explain in so many words the experience that is DvT, especially if you have no experience with this modality, but I will preface the following with this: our class began with a warning: If you cannot handle sexual perversion, violence, colorful language, triggers, and other traumatic experiences, leave the room now. The warning was given tongue in cheek, but the message was clear. The playspace of DvT carries with it a bit more danger than our childhood sandbox, because it is colored by the accumulated trauma of experience in the world.
This “danger” is probably one of the most important to face, however, especially for someone like me who comes from a background of disordered eating. My instructor informed me that eating disordered patients are some of his favorite and most challenging: We come to disordered eating in an attempt to completely stabilize and control our world. We create our identity and attempt to control it completely. We refuse to play because it undermines our sense of self, unbuttoning our perfectly buttoned corsets, the metaphorical containers in which we restrict our beings entirely.
I’ll share with you one particularly intense experience that I had while “playing.” In one exercise, we were split into groups of two. My partner played the therapist and I the patient. I was to ask him if we could have a tea party. In this imaginary world, I poured the tea for us both and made sure to give him an extra scoop of honey—when all of a sudden my “therapist” became a bee and started buzzing around the room. I was thrown off balance—were we not in a tea party anymore? A few moments later, he rejoined me at “tea,” and continued on as if nothing had happened.
I asked, “What was that?”
“What was what?”
“You just became a bee.”
“That was weird. It seemed a little out of character.”
“Is that a bad thing?”
I thought for a moment.
“Well, no…but it was just very off-putting.”
“Maybe acting out of character isn’t a bad thing,” he suggested nonchalantly, while taking a sip of “tea.”
“No,” I replied, in an almost knee-jerk reaction. “Acting out of character for me would be a very bad thing.”
There was silence for a moment. Before we could go on, our instructor called our attention back to the front. But inside, I was still musing.
There are pieces of my character that I do not enact, because those—the most truthful pieces—are also my most shameful. Acting “in character” is often a charade for me, playing the un-playful side of myself for the sake of propriety, reputation, and fear.
It was a real learning moment for me—why am I so afraid of being “out of character,” or, rather, in character, embodying a truth that I have worked so hard not to live?
David Johnson calls DvT, a “process through which roles and images arise and then transform in the client,”** and even in that simple little exercise, the images that arose had nothing to do with tea parties or rogue bees; and that is precisely the point. DvT has nothing to do with the mechanism of play, but rather it’s outcome. When I use “pretend” as a verb, when I set the given circumstance of the scene, it is not those circumstances that are inherently interesting. It is what the client notices, feels, animates, and then expresses as a result of those circumstances.
I could have been the bee. We could have left the tea party. I could transform at any moment into a tree, and it would not matter per se. What would matter is the ultimate expression of the play. The safe/unsafe journey into the world of pretend, which burrows so deep underneath the stable world of rules and identity and “in character” as to upset the very land we tried to claim as solid ground.
Moreover, play is not something that we are meant to do alone, just as living is not something we are meant to do alone.*** This is why the idea of drama therapy so excites me: we exist in relation to one another. Our relationships are encounters that reinforce or undermine the stability of our identities in everyday life, and it is that uncertainty that often causes malaise. It is not just our relation to self but our relation to self-and-other in proximity that can cause so much trauma to the human spirit—physical, mental, emotional.
And, in playing, in relearning this language but with the context of the world outside of the playspace, relearning in the presence of and facilitated by others, I discovered/uncovered things that I did not expect to find (ever again).
I know this doesn’t seem to have much to do with fitness or nutrition, eating disorders or body image, but I’d argue that there is nothing more pertinent or overlooked than the effects of giving up play on the state of human wellness. Fitness includes mental fitness, and mental fitness includes a willingness to fall into the darkness of the unstable, and to confront the traumas of living as a conscious, developing human being through the preferred pastime of a child.
I know that we are beings made of science—that disorder and disease is often encoded into our genes, but we are more than our genetics can predict or control. I believe that the human creature is dually consciousness and chemicals, with consciousness building an indelible layer on top of the foundation our chemicals laid. We can fix the chemicals—balance, supplement, replace—but the consciousness must also be addressed—confronted, embodied, owned. And healed.
Consciousness and chemicals can be healed. Perhaps in tandem, perhaps exclusively. I think that there’s an argument for both.
I also think that, as a starting point for health and wellness, body love and habit change, no supplement, no fitness regimen, no diet can fully tackle the malaise of identity the way that play can.
So, “pretend: that you are a whole and happy human being. It’s not hard work. It’s play. Shall we enter the playspace?
** Johnson, 3
*** Unless you are JD Salinger…?