Clinical Impact Statement: In this performative and autobiographical piece, the author discusses his experience as a clinical psychologist and spoken word artist, in order to address the challenges of balancing one’s professional vocation with more personal artistic pursuits. The narrative will illustrate how these different domains can be kept separate, while at the same time mutually enriching one another. The piece will also discuss mental health needs among artistic communities of color, and the role of the psychologist as an advocate in the community.
Listen to Dr. Gaztambide narrate the Prologue of this piece:
"When are you going to stop splitting like this?"
I almost spilled my coffee. I often wondered why shrinks talk like this-using words like "splitting" and "distortion" and "automatic thoughts" as if they were a part of everyday language. They're not. But we do it anyway, I always figured, because deep down we're all a bunch of nerds.
What's that you say? That's just me? I'm projecting? Overgeneralizing? You prove my point.
I pivot in my stool to face my friend Kira, "What do you mean?"
"When are you going to stop living two lives?" she asked, pointedly.
"When I don't feel like it'll put my career in jeopardy?" I responded coyly. It still might, I think to myself as I'm writing this essay. Then again, I'm probably catastrophizing.
Point taken, reader. I prove my own point.
"You need to start integrating these parts of yourself," Kira insisted, "Isn't that what we try to nurture in our work? For people to be true to themselves, and not hide who they are?"
"Wearing a mask is pretty cool though." I retorted. Brilliantly, I might add (my friend disagrees).
"But do you always have to wear a mask when you perform?" she pressed further.
I used to think I did. In the beginning, at least. You see, my friend Kira, or more formally, Dr. Chakira Haddock-Lazala, is not only a clinical psychologist, but an artist and poet in New York City-much like me. It is a very generative combination of hobby and profession, one which mutually enriches both sides. The difference between Kira and I is that I took things a little… too far.
I am a clinical psychologist, professor, supervisor, and scholar.
I am also a superhero.
Listen to Dr. Gaztambide narrate Part 2: The Flashback:The Lie:
Flashback: The Lie
I'm fond of saying that,
Poets are like superheroes,
They have an origin story,
A long, long time ago,
At a Cuban restaurant far, far away...
(Well not that far away, more like,
116th and Broadway, New York City)
A woman I'd been dating for about a month,
You're Puerto Rican, right?"
I wondered, quizzically,
Was she not sure?
Did I not look,
I thought the simplest answer,
was the best,
"Yes, yes I am,"
she paused for a moment,
"Do you do slam poetry?",
"Yes, yes I do,"
"I'm a regular at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe,
I spit rhymes from Boogie Down to Bushwick,
From Brooklyn to Shaolin,
I've been here and there,
And then she said,
"Oh, that's pretty cool,"
And then I said,
"Yeah, I'm pretty cool,"
To this day I still wonder if this partner somehow read my being Puerto Rican as short-hand for "being urban," "street wise," associations which were then followed by the curious question-Do I engage in slam poetry, an art form born from the intersection of Beats and Negritude, working class jazz and multicultural blues? In New York City, at least, a practice of expression among inner city African-American and Latino communities. Was this a microaggression? A stereotype? Or, to give a different perspective, did her attunement help her perceive some other traits and predilections that led her to intuit that I had artistic leanings? Perhaps neither. Possibly both. I don't really know.
As to her question of whether I did slam poetry, my answer was yes. But this, my dear reader,
was a lie.
A simple, and very problematic lie.
It was the first
I would wear as a poet. Ironically, the mask
of a poet.
I had never written a poem,
I had never performed behind a mic,
I was new to New York,
And was geographically illiterate,
I thought Boogie Down was,
A bar in Bushwick,
Not the birth place of hip hop,
In the Bronx,
I thought Staten Island,
Was as close to Manhattan,
As it is depicted in the MTA Subway Map,
(I thought what's the problem,
That's right around the corner!)
I just wanted her
to like me,
And I thought,
What's the big deal?
It's just a teeny wheenie,
Big humongous lie,
What's the worst that could happen?
Little did I know that a week later she would invite me to an open mic-a gathering where artists and performers were expected to showcase their craft. And I thought,
I better come up with something quick
So I put pen to paper,
And pulled a poem right,
Out of nothing,
You may be curious as to what the topic of that initial poem was, or the theme-But I don't really remember. I just remember sitting in the audience the night of the open mic. Anxious, afraid, unsure of just
what the hell was I doing.
And when my name was called,
I made my way toward that mic,
holding my poem thinking,
I can't keep standing,
I need to sit down,
Cause if they see me standing,
With my piece of paper,
They gonna see me shaking and sweating,
And see that I'm nervous,
And when I get nervous,
I start to freak out,
They'll see me for the a freak and fraud
Now the next three minutes are kind of a blur,
I just kind of tuned out,
And read my poem,
Not really paying attention,
To the audience,
Not really making eye contact,
I looked just above people's heads,
So other people would think I'm making eye contact with people,
But I'm not,
I finished my poem,
And I braced for what,
tomatoes, oranges, drinks,
Anything, really anything coming my way,
And for a hot second,
there was silence,
And then the crowd explodes in laughter, and joy, and love,
And I'm thinking
Who just walked into the building?
Realizing they were applauding for me,
I walked away from that mic,
I can write.
Listen to Dr. Gaztambide narrate Part 3: Flashfoward: The Mask:
Flashforward: The Mask
This lie had transformed something in me-for good and for ill. For a couple of years, I wrote poetry and performed throughout New York City. And although the relationship that served as a catalyst for this change ended, it clearly left an imprint on my own development. All of this went on hold, however, when I moved to New Jersey to begin my doctoral studies in Clinical Psychology. Poetry, art, and performance took a backseat to clinical work, research, and academics. For a time, I put down that mask and forgot about these experiences. Until three years later.
Being "all but dissertation," I had the freedom to live wherever I wanted in completing my program, and so decided to move back to New York City (I later matched with a New York City-based internship). In returning to the Big Apple, I found myself drawn once again to the world of art, poetry, and the spoken word. As I considered performing again, new issues arose. When I performed in the past, was I not just performing for the sake of another, in order to garner their love? Did this not mean I was basically a fraud? Could I do this with any integrity? Furthermore, I was completing my training as a clinical psychologist. What would my colleagues and supervisors think? At times I also felt that being a clinical psychologist and psychotherapist also meant being part of a contemporary form of clergy-to be "neutral," chaste, and professional in all aspects of life. And then came the "big one," the fear of many a neophyte clinician-What if I bump into my patients? What if they were to see me performing in the community? What would this introduce into the therapeutic relationship? Would it disrupt my treatments?
One could say I had
a bit of
How did I resolve this tension for myself? What creative compromise formations did I come up with? Naturally, I wore a mask. A literal one.
I figured the best way to re-enter the world of poetry, and maintain a sense of anonymity and boundaries, was to produce some attire that would sufficiently hide my identity. It was the Winter season at the time, so I donned a scarf which I wrapped around my face, a hat that would peel just over my eyes, and a heavy coat. I thought it wouldn't be noticeable in any particular way, given the weather. However, I also needed a stage name. Something engaging and recognizable, yet also enigmatic and nondescript. Once I decided on it, the stage name itself became part of my performance.
Jose G. Nuñez Arrillaga Acosta Suarez Ceija…
But you can call me…
I decided on this nom-de-guerre as an amalgamation of my first name, the various last names that made up my family history, traditionally as well as not often recognized Latino and Spanish (Basque, Galician) names, as well as the odd duck of the bunch-Bird. This last name in particular I'm told is derived from a British, possibly Irish, extraction from our predominantly Caribbean and Iberian family. This play of names, heritage, and culture tied into the themes that textured much of my artistic writing and performance. Race, belonging, identity, heritage, and the masks we wear in our search for love and acceptance became central to my artistic work, one which resonated with the predominantly Latino and African-American audiences I performed for.
However, something happened which I did not quite expect. People resonated to my performances, but also to my attire and demeanor.
"Who is that mysterious poet?"
"He suddenly arrives on the scene,
performs, and seemingly
disappears into the night."
"Who is that
Audiences were responding not just to a message, but an optics-the image of a masked superhero of color brandishing the Puerto Rican flag on his chest, swooping in and delivering laughs, entertainment, and food for thought. Even more striking were the reactions of young people, especially children, adolescents, and their parents. I wasn't sure what to make of this, but decided to lean into it. My art style shifted into a new mode-one in which I used the language of comic books and superheroes to talk about race, identity, and politics. It was fun. A more fundamental shift took place, however, in the act of just listening to my fellow poets and their work, a series of truths that built up to a crescendo.
Truths that dash lies
To be transparent about my clinical work and scholarship, I write a lot about cultural competency, race, psychotherapy, and the therapeutic alliance. In my clinical work, I focus on treating people from vulnerable communities with complex trauma histories and comorbid personality disorders, substance misuse, and self-harm, drawing on Exposure Therapy, Transference-Focused Psychotherapy, and Dialectical Behavior Therapy, depending on the needs of the case. These perspectives hovered in the back of my head, as I heard poem after poem exploring histories of child sexual abuse and neglect, drugs, sexual assault, invalidation, love, loss, and communal trauma. At times, especially when I participated in workshops and heard my peers' work out loud, it was overwhelming. Initially, I was taken off guard in the way so many themes and stories that regularly came up in my work, were also finding a home in the art scene. As a trauma therapist navigating his own self-care and burnout, it felt like drowning.
I learned to see art and poetry as windows looking into the wounds of my community. Something about it moved me, and pushed me further and further into letting go of some of my fears. I let myself get closer, and make new friendships and relationships in the community. Through these friendships I let myself be more comfortable, and over time talked openly about my profession as a clinical psychologist. This opened up new opportunities for advocacy and consciousness raising, as I began performing with friends who disclosed their own struggles with mental health, and wrote pieces and skits exploring psychotherapy, therapeutic relationships, and what it is like for people of color to seek mental health treatment. Sometimes I performed as a "persona" of different kinds of therapists-the abstinent Freudian, the empathic Rogerian, the dialectical Behaviorist (I've channeled my inner Kernberg and Linehan at times). Other times I wore the mask, and performed as D.Bird fighting against the forces of stigma and social injustice.
Mind you, I am still a clinician with firm boundaries, and a clear understanding of the role of "the frame" in developing an effective treatment. Nevertheless, the neatly divided lines between personal and professional-lies I had spent so much energy setting up-were beginning to cross.
Listen to Dr. Gaztambide narrate Part 4: The Truth:
"Would you be comfortable performing for the big meeting?"
I looked around the table at my expectant colleagues.
"No pressure if you're not comfortable. But it would add a different dimension to the meeting."
This was essentially my nightmare scenario-performing poetry in front of other psychologists, leaders, and members of APA governance at a professional meeting. I think I had an anxiety dream related to this at some point. Except this was real, and mere minutes away. A couple of years of self-initiated exposure therapy had brought me to this point.
"Sure," I swallowed my anxiety, "I'd love to."
I performed a poetry piece in front of my colleagues, to make sure they could vet it and give feedback on anything I should adjust for the larger meeting. And afterward it was fine. No cataclysmic catastrophe fell upon me. No one lashed out in a rebuke. All I could hear was just the sound of two worlds colliding.
I continue to be a clinical psychologist, professor, supervisor, and scholar.
I also just happen to be a superhero.
Not quite integrated, but always in some state of tension, always informing and enriching one another. I continue to write and perform poetry, raise awareness, and when needed, help connect people in the community to services.
But is the hero
the one that
The one that
Whether it is through our
clinical work and research, our
advocacy and activism,
We psychologists and psychotherapists,
Are heroes of the heart.
Cite This Article
Gaztambide, D. J. (2017). Heroes of the heart: A reflection on professional and personal identities. Psychotherapy Bulletin, 52(4).