Art Therapy for Infertility and Infant Loss
September Burton: Hello and welcome back to the Colorado Fertility Conference Podcast. Welcome. We are so happy to have you here joining us. Today I have with me a very special guest, Susan Jacobson. Susan is an art therapist with more than 28 years of experience working with children, adults, and families. Her master’s is in art therapy from Emporio State University. She is registered and board certified through the art therapy credentials board, and as a licensed mental health professional through the state of Colorado. She founded Henry’s Heart Art Therapy in 2015. Susan’s practice, Henry’s Heart art therapy provides art therapy and support for women and men who have experienced infant loss. Susan also provides art groups for women who are pregnant after a loss. Susan is a mom to her son, Jen’s, born in 2008. She is also the mom to her son, Henry who died in 2003, due to complications of misdiagnosed HELLP syndrome. She is personally and professionally aware of the issues related to pregnancy, miscarriage, loss, and fertility issues. Henry’s Heart Art Therapy was founded to bring support and awareness to those experiencing similar issues. Additionally, Susan is a certified soul collage facilitator and certified level two trauma informed practitioner. She is the clinical director for the Southern Colorado crisis support team that provides group and individual interventions to police officers and first responders. Wow. Susan, that’s quite a bio. Thank you. Welcome to the show and thank you so much for coming on. We really appreciate it.
[00:01:31] Susan Jacobsen: Oh, thank you for having me.
[00:01:33]September Burton: So jumping right in, you put something, everybody that comes on the podcast, is asked to fill out a form and kind of talk about your experience. And you put something, a couple of things in there actually, that really stood out to me. One of the things that you said was prior to my fertility struggles, I did not truly understand how much our mind and body works together. Can you explain what you mean by that and what the level of understanding is now?
[00:01:57]Susan Jacobsen: Sure. well, prior to, having experienced a loss and that kind of thing, I mean, as an art therapist, there’s a lot of mindfulness stuff that, that we do, And, and I was doing some of that stuff, but I don’t think I really truly understood the degree to which all of that is connected because after the traumatic loss that I experienced, there was a lot of, ways in which I reacted that I didn’t really expect and ways that I could tell that that trauma was sitting in my body and trying to find ways to address that. And I really found that some of my training as a therapist didn’t really totally, Get into that connection. And so, as I said, felt my way through that process, I, became aware of it, of, a group called the, the fertile soul. That, the director of The Fertile Soul is Dr. Randine Lewis and she did, she does a lot of retreats and work with women, using acupuncture and herbs and, a variety of things. She’s a Western medicine trained doctor, but she’s also a Chinese Medicine doctor. And so, that retreat changed my life, honestly. I was able to recognize some of the sort of nutritional imbalances in my body and some of the ways in which I was storing emotional stuff in my body and, through herbs and acupuncture and yoga and Nia, and a bunch of different alternative things I went from having a traumatic loss and two subsequent miscarriages. And spending, three or four years in that process to after that retreat, I got pregnant the next month.
[00:03:51] September Burton: Wow.
[00:03:52]Susan Jacobsen: That’s that was my son that was born in 2008. So that was a healthy, normal pregnancy that was carried to term.
[00:04:01] September Burton: Oh, my! That’s incredibly powerful. Thank you for sharing that. That’s inspiring and motivating, I think for a lot of people. so Dr. Randine Lewis, she wrote a book, right? Is it? I read it years ago. Is it The Infertility Cure?
[00:04:13] Susan Jacobsen: Yes, that’s her book.
[00:04:15] September Burton: Okay. so you, you talk about trauma and infertility and infant loss as trauma. Can you expound on that a little bit? And what is, what does the word trauma actually mean from a mental health professional standpoint?
[00:04:30] Susan Jacobsen: Well, I think that trauma tends to mean mental healthwise as something that happens that’s out of the range of normal for your experience and produces lasting impact for people. And for me, I think that I had, a lot of levels of trauma related to our initial loss. because of the undiagnosed HELLP syndrome, I became very sick very quickly and, that was really the thing that led to my son’s death. And then I was hospitalized in an ICU for 17 days following, his death. because part of what happens with HELLP syndrome, I don’t know if you want me to explain what that is? HELLP syndrome is an acronym that stands for hemolysis elevated liver enzymes low platelets. and what happens is for whatever reason, they still don’t really know why, that your body starts to reject the placenta as if it were like a, an organ that an organ transplant or something, it starts to reject the placenta. So your liver starts, essentially gearing up to poison the placenta. which then in turn, is detrimental to the baby. Oftentimes, that kind of thing is, is diagnosed earlier and they’re able to deliver early and, and once you deliver the placenta, your body tends to change course because it’s gotten rid of the thing it’s trying to get rid of. That didn’t happen with me. And so. it was a cascade of, of medical issues for me at the same time as I’m trying to grieve losing my baby unexpectedly. and, I had some additional issues. My dad went into the hospital the very same day to have an emergency quadruple bypass, in another state. And so, down all of these things that were part of my care at the same time, trying to figure out how to navigate this infant loss world that I had been thrown into. So, so that was sort of part of the trauma for me. And I, but I do think that almost every story I’ve heard of people losing babies, there’s a traumatic piece to that. because it’s just not the way it’s supposed to go. We’re not supposed to be grieving our children. And, I think that just that in and of itself is very traumatic for a lot ofpeople.
[00:07:09]September Burton: So another thing that you said in the form that I asked you to fill out was, when I was able to process the ways that grief and trauma from this first pregnancy and loss were stored in my body, it was able to be more receptive to carrying another baby. It sounds to me like, even just the thought of trying to get pregnant again after what you went through with the HELLP syndrome and everything would be incredibly courageous and take a lot of, it would take a lot to, be willing to try to have another child. So can you talk about how you did that emotionally and how you, how you were able to get rid of that trauma so that your body was, open to being receptive to carrying another child?
[00:07:50] Susan Jacobsen: Yeah, I think, some of that was gained in hindsight, looking back going, you know, after I was able to get pregnant so quickly after the retreat that I went to. I think it really hit me that I really think my body was, was so like sending these messages, like, okay, it’s really dangerous for you to have a baby and there was this constant kind of push pull in there, that I don’t know, part of, I don’t know that you ever really get rid of trauma that’s stored in your body. I think what you do is you gain some insight into that and you gain some ways of managing that. And addressing what is kind of like real, not real, but, sort of justified fear and what is just fear. that is doing all the talking for you and I think through a lot of those kind of alternative things, my body was able to kind of let go and, and chemically, I wasn’t making so much cortisol and all those other things that just kept me on edge all the time. I think that when we can calm our nervous system and kind of deal more constructively with what is instead of borrowing worries from the future. I just, I really wanted to be a mom and, and I really was determined to not let the trauma stop me from doing that. but it was scary. I mean, you used the word brave, but it was horribly scary.
[00:09:27] September Burton: I’m sure. So what you’ve done with that is now that you’ve kind of crossed that for yourself and you have your son now, now you’ve turned this into an art healing for other couples. Can you talk a little bit about the benefit of art therapy? What does it actually do for you?
[00:09:43]Susan Jacobsen: Art therapy does a variety of things. there is really, a way in which when we are able to communicate across hemispheres of our brain, that we’re able to integrate trauma in a way that doesn’t become so problematic on a daily basis. We’re able to integrate it into our story instead of fighting against it all the time. And art has a really great way of very naturally doing that because our emotions centers are in different places in our brain than our logical, cognitive stuff. And when you’re doing artwork, you’re using both of those things at the same time. And so it does provide some integration into, just how you experienced a trauma emotionally, and then how you experience it cognitively. And it puts it all on the same piece of paper. And then you can talk about it and you can, create your narrative around that in a way that is healthier and more balanced. I do think that, having a background in working with trauma was helpful to me because I was able to recognize what things triggered my trauma and how to intervene for myself and manage those triggers to trauma. And so I think that piece is, is super important for people to understand how that works and that they’re not going crazy and that there are ways to, to manage all of that. And I think art is a, is a very useful tool to have in your toolbox.
[00:11:14]September Burton: So painting, what types of art do you have and do you do men and women do men and women from it and work with you?
[00:11:23] Susan Jacobsen: Primarily, I have seen mostly women but the more I learn about men and perinatal loss, I am convinced that men really need to be there too. That they do go through They even go through some physical grief. In terms of their hormone levels and all of that kind of stuff, just like women do, but in terms of the specific artwork that I do, I try to do work that provides people with some sense of grounding. And that can be for people who haven’t done a lot of artwork, I like to use a lot of collage because I think it’s, it’s easy, it’s accessible, it’s not expensive. And it doesn’t require that people draw something because, oftentimes people haven’t done any artwork since elementary school and you ask them to draw something and they give you that look like, Oh, please don’t make me do that. And so I do think that collage is helpful in that way. I have used like rocks or even dominoes, that you can cover in, in paper or other kinds of things to create grounding stones for people, that those are pretty accessible things to do. But yeah, I do think the expressive part of doing that art is helpful as well. And so I really try to provide people with something that allows them to express themselves and, allows them to work somewhat within their comfort zone of materials. So if somebody already is a painter, then we work with paint. You know, if somebody already likes to draw, we work with drawing. Exactly.
[00:12:55]September Burton: You’re using the word collage and I don’t know what you mean by that. Can you I’m sure a lot of our listeners would be on the same page with me. Can you explain what that means ?
[00:13:03]Susan Jacobsen: Sure, collage is primarily using images, but can also be words that you cut out of a magazine or, if you want to write your own words out on a piece of paper and cut that out, and then you just combine it all on a piece of paper or canvas, if you want to use canvas, but I think what it does for people is that it provides some order to the chaos, because you take all these kinds of parts of things that are just a piece of your experience and you can put it all together on one piece of paper. And I often require that people give their work a title, because I think that that’s also part of that order to chaos kind of thing is being able to verbalize and conceptualize how are all of these things related and how can I title this to sum up my experience? And I think that can be really clarifying for people sometimes, because the whole notion of grief, loss, trauma, fertility is all, very overwhelming and confusing. And when I can provide people with some of their own clarity I think that could be super helpful.
[00:14:12]September Burton: You just said something that really struck me. You said it provides some order to the chaos. And my understanding of trauma is that it causes one of the effects of trauma is that it causes very, very disordered thinking patterns. And so is that kind of what that helps to clear up and get your mind a little bit more organized and ordered again?
[00:14:33] Susan Jacobsen: Yes, I think that’s, that’s exactly right. In my trauma informed training, we talk a lot about, being regulated versus being dysregulated and people who have experienced trauma, they may be triggered by things they’re not even aware of. And so then their emotions and their thinking gets very disorganized and, they feel very dysregulated and it, it becomes really hard to step out of that and get back to a place where you feel like your emotions are balanced and you’re making good decisions, and you’re thinking clearly. And sometimes, artwork is, is a really great path for that especially collage or that kind of work where you’re kind of putting a lot of stuff in one place and it does help people to ground themselves a little bit and reregulate.
[00:15:18] September Burton: one of the questions that I have, at this point is I’m sure a lot of people are listening to this and very intrigued and very interested in what art therapy might be able to do for them. but this podcast, we have listeners worldwide. So if somebody not in Colorado Springs, do they have options? Is there some way that they can just do artwork on their own to help identify some of this trauma, or should they seek out an art therapist locally, or how should they handle that?
[00:15:44]Susan Jacobsen: I well, especially people with a lot of trauma, I don’t always recommend that they jump into artwork on their own, unless they already do a lot of artwork. And that seems to make sense. But I do think there’s something to be said for processing that work with somebody who is trained to understand how to process images with people. and so I currently, haven’t done a ton of tele-health, but I do have the ability to do that for people. So, that would be an option, to access me in that sense. I can do that either through zoom or through there’s a platform that psychology Today provides as well. So, I would recommend that, especially people with a lot of trauma that they process that with someone. And sometimes that works with a clinician who’s not an art therapist, but oftentimes other clinicians just aren’t trained to know what to do with that. and so they may not totally understand, why that’s helpful or, or how to process that with people. and my, I am going to be offering a pregnancy after loss group.
[00:16:52] September Burton: So you, you were just talking about, processing the art with a trained clinician. What does that processing look like? Do you sit down with the person and look at their art piece and then talk through some of what they drew out or pasted onto their collage?
[00:17:07] Susan Jacobsen: Usually. Yeah. I, I really try to do a lot of open ended conversation around that, because I think art therapy has gotten kind of a bad reputation of being, Oh, you hand me your art and, and I look at it and I interpret it somehow. And that’s not really how it works. I am very much interested in hearing what the person who made the art has to say about the art. I think it’s helpful to be a trained, art therapist, just because you kind of know what questions to ask and how to ask that in a way that allows people to expand on, What their artwork is about. Usually I start out by asking them–what is the title and why did they choose that title? Then, and if there’s something that I see in the art that I’ve seen before, and I’m wondering about, I will wonder out loud with that and say something like, I wonder if, or I wonder about this image that you put there. Can you tell me more about that? Not trying to lead them to tell me something that I think might be true, but just trying to assess that a little bit and see where they’re coming from with that. And then we go from there on it clinically. I think that’s the really useful balance of art therapy is, is that we speak the language of the images, but we also have the clinical background to process what comes up for people. Does that make sense?
[00:18:32] September Burton: It makes a lot of sense. Thank you for that explanation. I’m so fascinated by the art therapy, because I’m somebody who has a lot of childhood trauma. And so I’ve been, I’ve spent my whole life searching for ways to figure out that childhood trauma. And so as you’re talking, my wheels are turning like maybe I should look into this for myself. so, well, thank you. I, everything that you just said is beautiful and it makes so much sense. And so I just want to thank you for putting yourself out there and for coming on the podcast and talking to us about this. You mentioned the pregnancy after loss group. Is that something that you are going definitely going to be putting online?
[00:19:08] Susan Jacobsen: I will likely be putting that online in the next, couple of weeks. The thing about that group is that I want to make it more than just, an open ended conversation for folks. I want to provide some educational stuff. As well as support in, navigating that pregnancy after loss, because I do think it’s something that many people don’t understand. Initially you’re so grateful that you’re pregnant again, and you’re so excited about that and you just want to be in that happy place, but if you’ve experienced a loss already finding balance that anxiety with the joy and holding those two things at the same time, requires some, help and some feedback from other people and some, support from other people who get it. Cause I think it’s also something that a lot of times our family and our friends don’t really understand.
[00:20:02] September Burton: I definitely agree with that. Before we sign off, are there any final thoughts or nuggets of wisdom that you’d like to leave our listeners with?
[00:20:09] Susan Jacobsen: Yeah, I think one of the biggest things I would just want people to know is that if you’ve experienced an infant loss or infertility issues or all the stuff that goes along with that, just know that you’re not all alone in it. I think that it felt very lonely to me at the time. And maybe there weren’t as many resources now, but just know that like, There are lots of people who can relate to what’s happening for you. And, if you don’t choose my group, there are other groups out there and, and don’t feel like you have to just, gut it out and get through it that you can really find people who will hear you.
[00:20:51]September Burton: Thank you. I really appreciate what you just said. It’s very true. You are not alone. And, there are lots of people who’ve experienced it too, who understand firsthand what you’re going through right now. So again, you are based in Colorado Springs, Colorado, but you are, have the ability, to do telehealth. So if anybody wants to reach out to you and seek your support, how do they get in touch with you?
[00:21:13] Susan Jacobsen: They can get in touch with me through my website, which is www.Henrysheartarttherapy.com. There’s a contact form on there. I’m also listed on Psychology Today and, my direct email is susan. Jacobson@yahoo.com.
[00:21:32] September Burton: Thank you so much, Susan. This was a wonderful interview, very eyeopening, I think it’ll help a lot of people to understand the trauma that they’ve gone through and hopefully start to work to process some of that trauma and come out of it the other side. So thank you for sharing your story and for sharing your wisdom and your knowledge. And we really appreciate you coming on today.
[00:21:50]Susan Jacobsen: Thank you for having me