Last week, in My Ode to August, I introduced you to Mariah Gladis, the woman behind the type of experiential therapy I once did and will do again, soon. And I promised you a fuller post that I hoped would honor her life and describe her unique style. Let’s begin with Mariah’s own words.
In terms of my work, people often ask me how I do it, listening to people’s problems all day long. I tell them that I don’t hear problems. I hear people wanting to change, wanting to be better human beings, wanting to create happier families.
I have been privileged to work with people from every continent and from all walks of life. Over and over again I hear people wanting to love and be loved more effectively. I hear people wanting to remove the barriers in their life and provide more for their loved ones on every level. I hear people looking for ways to contribute and improve their contact skills in the world.
This is a privileged position that I have, sharing so many heartwarming moments of laughter and tears with people working toward healing.
I’m out on a limb here, and open to criticism from the existential purists. I want to set a course that raises the bar high, modeling and insisting on ways of being with one another that are enriching and safe, while consciously stretching our self-imposed boundaries of restraint.
Mariah Fenton Gladis – Founder and Clinical Director, Pennsylvania Gestalt Center
“What’s important to you,” she’d ask at the start of each piece of work in which I was privileged to participate. And through my three years of training (1996-1999) and nearly twenty years of additional weekend workshops (more pre-Peace Corps than post-Peace Corps) there were many.
That was where she’d begin — what was important, here, now, to you. And off the session would go. Fascinating.
Follow the client, is a classic Gestalt adage. And Mariah modeled it well.
She lived her life facing death squarely, daring it to step closer. And had done so since 1981 when she got her diagnosis: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. There is no known cure, still. Most people with the diagnosis die within two to four years.
I met her in 1996, at the start of my training at the Pennsylvania Gestalt Center, which she ran. By then she’d had her diagnosis for 15 years and I saw how frail she was each time she entered the room, a fragility I soon forgot as I watched her work.
Her will was iron, but it was balanced by her soft heart. (Mariah would have me say, AND it was balanced by her soft heart. Yes; her “language of responsibility” lecture was one of the best I’d ever heard. I must write of that someday.)
From Mariah, I learned the value of compassion, and more importantly, I learned how to be compassionate without losing myself.
Compassion for whomever she was engaged with in the moment, including herself, was a given.
In the dream work she taught us, I remember her telling us of a dream she’d had where she was once again skiing downhill. She described the freedom, the feeling of flying, of racing downhill that she remembered so well. “It’s how I can do it now,” she’d announced with gratitude and delight, “in my dreams.” Yes; gratitude mixed with delight. I knew she’d truly enjoyed that dream and was grateful for it. I never saw a trace of self-pity.
Acceptance of the reality of her condition was a given.
Mariah’s gift was in creating what she called “exact moments of healing.” Here she is speaking to the Lutheran Metropolitan Washington, D.C. Synod in 2015. Her topic was Creating Moments That Matter, “moments that can transform, connect, elevate, and sometimes heal.”
Her husband Ron translates, for those not used to her “ALS accent” (as she called it). At the 20-minute point, Mariah creates just such a moment with her audience. Imagine yourself participating.
I found an excerpt from her 2008 book, Tales of a Wounded Healer (a part memoir and part Gestalt theory and therapy fundamentals paperback, now out as an eBook) on the Pennsylvania Gestalt Center’s website. In it she talks about how her therapy style differs from the traditional Gestalt model. I’ve edited it for length only.
The clinical roots of my style of psychotherapy derive from Gestalt psychology and practice. Gestalt therapy, in its truest form, is a lively and holistic, experiential approach to healing and personal growth. It emphasizes the development of awareness—emotional, physical, intellectual and spiritual—and the capacity to make healthy contact with one’s self, others, and the environment.
Expanding on the traditional experiential and creative approach of Gestalt, I have designed my own unique style of working. It is saturated with my bias that people heal in an environment of love, forgiveness and compassion. In this sense, I have deviated from the more harsh and confrontational, traditional style of Gestalt that was developed by Fritz Perls in the 1960s. Regardless of his personal and stylistic failings, the basic theory of Gestalt remains brilliant and efficacious, especially when it is heart and soul based.
So as they say, in taking the best and leaving the rest, my approach is experiential, and supports my belief that as people are damaged by experience, so are they healed by experience. To this end, all my clients participate physically, emotionally, intellectually and spiritually in their own healing process.
Words are not enough. Imagery is not enough. Human support is not enough. After more than thirty-five years of working with people, I know that when I was offering insight, it was not enough.
The organism of each client holds the secret to what it needs, and what is enough. People have to return to the source of the injuries to discover whatever it is that they needed back then; the missing piece.
If they need the experience of bonding with a loving mother figure, they will need that all the days of their lives until they get it. The quality of their lives and all their relationships will be adversely affected until they do. This work is powerful, dynamic and almost always profound.
Because we are all unique in our life experiences, and therefore our emotional injuries, the response to a client’s need is always specific and individualized. …
To this end, when developing an exact moment of healing, I must be willing and able to risk being creative and innovative. I must listen carefully, and help my client access inner wisdom, so that I may accurately assess the burning need. I may need to supply a person with a loving mother, resurrect a deceased spouse, create a judge and jury or create a live choir. Whatever it takes—whatever is needed—I must design it.
Let’s talk about compassion. When the word compassion is broken down, com-passion, it means to have passion with, or to feel sympathy with another. When you receive compassion, it moves you out of isolation and into a state of interrelatedness, where you are embraced in the arms of understanding and empathy.
Compassion opens you like a love letter; it gives you the safety to risk. Whether with groups or individuals, I work hard to model and establish an environment where people can trust they will be offered support, respect and love, and will be honored in their struggle to heal. Anything less is unacceptable.
One workshop had a number of participants who had been sexually abused, and so it was shocking and jarring to them when one man revealed he had sexually abused his sister. It was also confusing to many who had become close to him. He worked on his deep remorse, actively simulating a dialogue with his sister, in which he apologized with such gut-wrenching sincerity, that the truthfulness of his apology could not be in doubt. This was a sacred moment; unanticipated compassion poured forth from the group.
One man, who had been violently, and sadistically, sexually abused as a child, was so moved that he could barely speak the words, “I didn’t think I could ever sit in the same room with a perpetrator, much less have empathy and forgiveness in my heart. Thank you—I needed to hear those words of apology so much.”
Extraordinary transformational power resides in the heart of forgiveness. Mercy showers over the forgivers and the forgiven. In that moment, we all heal.
This insistence on loving compassion flies in the face of more traditional Gestalt models that leave space for whatever is to emerge, avoiding direct leadership from the therapist. They are more existential, less interactive, and have no expectations of high-level contact functioning. I don’t have the time or tolerance for less.
When people work with me, they know they will be expected to rise to their highest selves and give what they can to others. I’ve been criticized for controlling the group therapy environment by being an active leader, with clear biases. To that I say, yes, that’s exactly what I want.
I do use evocative music to set a tone. I do open every group by forming a circle with everyone holding hands. I do lead group exercises that build in and promote mutual support. I do interrupt and redirect destructive interactions in a group. I do lecture and teach about the power of love, gratitude and forgiveness. And within this structure, I still follow the organic unfolding of each person’s experience.
Her TEDx Talk
In May 2017, Mariah gave a TEDx talk in Asbury Park, New Jersey, entitled “Arrive Already Loved,” the title of one of her many annual weekend retreat workshops.
Once again, her husband Ron translates.
There is one more video I’d like you to watch which, I think, captures the essence of this woman I came to admire, love, and now, honor. Over the past few years, Mariah’s son, Coleman, a filmmaker in California, produced a full-length film on Mariah’s life and work. Called, simply, Mariah, it is now in the post-production phase. I’d like you to watch the trailer for this movie. It’s here at the Mariahmovie.com website.
It’s been a privilege for me to look back over Mariah’s life and write about it for you today. And I’m grateful you have stayed with it to the end. I hope, in some small way, you too have been touched by her life.
How about you? I hope in your life there has been someone as inspiring, challenging, and unconditionally accepting as Mariah was for me.
August 15: Arnold Beisser’s Paradoxical Theory of Change.
August 22: Gestalt’s Cycle of Experience
August 29: Moving Forward, A Look At Seventy