Trinkets, Tokens and Totems: Identity Renewal and the Rainbow Girl By Michael R. Jackson, PhD on 12/18/19 - 12:18 PM

Symbols fascinate me, and working with adolescents has given me plenty of material to think about. Halloween costumes, for example, often feature intensely conflicted themes, like those of a blood-phobic boy I treated who went to a party as Dracula, and a self-demeaning girl whose costume mimicked a toilet. Music, too, provides numerous hints about struggles with identity. One boy I worked with had become obsessed with determining the truth of accusations about past infidelity and neglect that his divorcing parents had hurled at each other. This boy had tattooed himself with the name of a rock star who played with reality by keeping his fans guessing whether his behavior was actually as outrageous as it was rumored to be. Another boy showed up for therapy in a T-shirt picturing a heart and an EKG line under the song title “Heartbeat Like a Drum.” After a number of individual and family sessions, it became clear that he deeply feared that his past rebellious behavior might have contributed to his father’s heart attack.

The symbols I find most fascinating, though, are those that hint not only at sources of pain but also at sources of strength and possible transformation. Such was the case with Marie, a 15-year-old girl who had a great fondness for rainbows. For several years she had been collecting trinkets decorated with rainbows, and in the hospital, she had continued to exhibit this rainbow motif in occupational therapy projects and occasional comments. The rainbow motif was consistent with Marie’s past temperament, which had been described by her parents as happy and “twinkly.” But her parents had become increasingly baffled, and then frightened, as Marie’s behavior gradually became angry, defiant, withdrawn and suicidal. In the hospital, Marie alternated between a cheerful demeanor and expressions of intense hatred for her parents, especially her mother, whom she described as hypocritical, judgmental and verbally abusive. Adopted as an infant, Marie characterized herself as “bought and paid for” but unable to meet her mother’s perfectionistic standards no matter how hard she had tried.

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In therapy, Marie began to reveal a complicated and troubled decline that had preceded her hospitalization. During the past two years, she had escaped into her room at home and what she called her “Little World”—where she ruled a fantasy land, like Oz, full of rainbows that she materialized by rearranging colored objects in her room. The colors had reminded her of happier times, especially family trips to a brightly colored theme park, where Marie and her parents used to go on annual vacations and where they experienced rare periods of untroubled closeness. But in the past year, as the problems at home had grown worse, her Little World had become colorless, and then malignant. She had started hearing voices—that of a little girl who cried while other voices would say “mean things,” swear and argue with each other. These voices had been very frightening to her.

We had glimpsed this darker side early in Marie’s hospitalization when she had been tested psychologically. She had not appeared psychotic, but she had reacted strongly to the Rorschach inkblots, which she had characterized as dark, scary and depressing. Later in the test, she had described a colored inkblot as looking like “a rainbow destroyed.” It seemed significant, however, that her response to the next inkblot, which was also colored, seemed more hopeful: “a rainbow with the colors coming together . . . kind of circular.”

Family sessions with Marie and her parents were tumultuous. Initially, she raged at both parents. She accused her mother of judging and verbally abusing her when she did not live up to her mother’s standards of perfection, and then acting lovingly afterward. Her father, she said, had never stood up for her or shown her the love he did her brother (also adopted). At first, her parents denied her accusations, but as more was said they began to acknowledge that some of them were true. Marie was particularly relieved when they agreed that they had made a mistake by not seeking help for her after a previous overdose, and her father admitted, “We were just hoping the problems would go away.” In subsequent sessions, the family built on this new openness, and near the end of her hospitalization Marie raised, for the first time, questions about her adoptive status and her birth mother—a topic of great difficulty for her adoptive mother.

In individual therapy, I interpreted Marie’s Little World as an attempt not only to escape but also to discover who she really was—to put parts of herself together, as she had tried to harmonize the colors in her room. She acknowledged that some of the perfectionism she had seen in her mother was also coming from within herself, and she recognized that she would have to continue to sort out both her anger and her love for her parents. By the end of her time in the hospital, the voices were gone, and she said “I can still see my Little World. It’s deserted now. I like it that way.” Marie may not have intended it, but she had invoked symbolism with exceptionally broad and deep cultural roots.

All over the world, rainbows have signified a variety of related themes, including transience, hope, renewal and restoration. In some cultures, the rainbow may be a totem, or sacred object, and when coupled with circularity it may also serve as a mandala or symbolic schema for integration and transformation. For Marie, rainbow souvenirs had served as tokens of a happier time when her family had been able to recapture the closeness she had experienced as a young child. And in therapy they had given her a metaphor to encompass some of that history and a way to think about possible change.

Symbols, such as the rainbow for Marie, are not only hints at deeper meaning but richly layered and textured clues for clinicians willing to explore them with their clients. When I have followed these clues with my clients, I have often found that they point the way to important themes I might otherwise have missed. And they have given me a great appreciation for the depth and complexity of human communication.   

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy, Musings and Reflections