My life story, with a focus on the parts in which I overcame adversities and phases that seem interesting otherwise:
I was born in Germany in 1954 to two dentist parents as a first child of three. The traumatic events of World War II weigh heavily on our family during the first years of my life. Seventeen years old, my father had been a soldier in Stalingrad. My mother was a refuge from the East. She had escaped from the Russians. My grandfather had died on the last day of the war because he couldn’t get proper medical care.
During my teenage years I developed a deep desire to understand myself and others psychologically. I studied Carl G. Jung and was fascinated by the idea of becoming a psychotherapist. The German university system was set up in a way that I would have had to wait for training in this field for several years. My desire for financial independence from my parents in combination with my disappointment with the psychology programs at German universities led me to choose an academic career in economics in which I felt very unfulfilled after a few years.
After I earned my Ph.D. from the Freie Universitaet Berlin in this field, I became painfully aware of my unhappiness with my work as an economist. Although I had become one of only very few respected experts in the field of the economic effects of subsidies that had been given to corporations in Berlin, I experienced a painful split between my profession and my true passion: psychology, consciousness, and spirituality. Finally, in my mid-thirties, the most amazing synchronicities guided me to training opportunities in the field of Transpersonal Psychology in California. After a long internal struggle with my needs for financial security and my desire to stay close to my friends, I finally decided to take my savings, risk changing my career and move to the US in order to integrate my real interests into my work.
In February 1988, I arrived bright-eyed in San Francisco and in July I was accepted into a Ph.D. program in Transpersonal Counseling Psychology at CIIS (California Institute for Integral Studies) in San Francisco. The plan was to start in the fall. In spite of some reoccurring fear about my financial future and about my immigration status in the US, I felt on top of the world. I was in love with everything around me, especially California and Frank, a new man in my life. I was full of excitement about the new direction that my life seemed to take with the realization of a longtime career goal and happiness in my personal life.
But the fulfillment of this dream was disrupted when I visited Berlin, Germany, to finish some business. I had two accidents in a row, which led to a whiplash, a broken foot, and a thrombosis from the tight cast. Possibly as a result of one of these accidents, on October 16, 1988 I had a life-threatening stroke that left me paralyzed on my left side. For one week it was not clear whether I would live. At the peak of this crisis, as I was struggling with death, I had an inner vision. I received the “message” that the stroke happened for a reason and what I learn from it will be an important element of my future work. Very surprisingly, I was able to deeply surrender to whatever was supposed to happen with me. Friends loved to visit me in the hospital because of the spiritual presence they sensed in and around me. Frank had come to Germany and was on my side for the following nine months. Unexpectedly fast I relearned to speak, eat, and walk again. I left the hospital after five weeks, not without a fight, against the wishes of my neurologist (this is unthinkable in the American medical system). Frank and I got married during this time in Germany.
When, in spite of all my efforts with physical therapy and other healing modalities, the recovery of my left arm and hand reached a plateau and my energy kept being very low (I felt like an 90 year old woman), I fell into a deep depression. I was not sure whether I wanted to live any more. All possibility of reaching the goals, which I had aspired to, seemed to evaporate. Everything I had finally set up for myself in the US, seemed in question again. My future suddenly appeared a complete blank. It presented a frightening picture. My dependency of other people’s help, especially Frank, contrasted with my previous life tremendously. I had no internal resources left to give to my husband or my friends. My heart was closed; I felt worthless. As a result of my depression all my relationships changed dramatically. The traumatic nature of my stroke made it hard to use the spiritual practices that previously had helped me find inner peace. I felt cut off from everyone around me as well as from my true self. Eventually, after three months in a German rehabilitation clinic without my husband, where I learned some independent living skills, and watched inspiring movies, I gained confidence and hope again. After that, in September1989, I returned to the San Francisco Bay Area, where, in the meantime, Frank had found us a place to live. I started my graduate program at CIIS.
Surprisingly, I noticed that I had gone through a transformational shift after the stroke that had changed my priorities. Academic striving for a second Ph.D. seemed too demanding now, not in line with my deeper need for healing of the traumatic effects of my stroke, and my desire for personal and spiritual growth. Acknowledging this paradigm shift on a conscious level was a gut-wrenching process, in which I had to let go of my high standards and ambitions as well as the expectation of social and financial rewards for a “top level” education. I changed to a master’s program in Transpersonal Counseling Psychology at John F. Kennedy University. Even though I struggled with fear around my limitations in the English language, the fact that academic learning and personal process were equally asked for in classes, helped me succeed as a student. I experienced gratitude and peacefulness again and never regretted my decision later.
Since I had become much more independent from Frank, I was surprised about increasing tension between us, until I learned that he had secretly restarted a relationship with a former girlfriend during my stay in the clinic. Our separation threw me into the deepest depression ever. He left me, convinced that I am unattractive with my physical disability and my “changed personality”. I felt very lonely and missed my supportive friends in Berlin.
My perspective of the previously hated, restrictive German home country and my love affair with the US shifted. With my weakened, very vulnerable sense of myself I appreciated the caring, protective German medical and social system and started to fear the American “fight for your own” mentality.
Besides, my permanent “green card” seemed in jeopardy because Frank and I weren’t married for two years yet, and I was afraid that he would be unwilling to help me demonstrate the necessary continuation of our marriage for the INS. Again, I saw the “rug being pulled away from underneath me”. I also was worried that I would run out of money. Given the emotional state I was in, it was hard for me to foresee working as a psychotherapist. How would I support myself in this country with my special skills that were not even useful in Germany any more, after the Berlin Wall had fallen? Without the use of my left hand and arm, even physical labor and most desk jobs were out of the question. But grief and trauma therapy, inspiring movies, school community and education, as well as the fact that I lived together with two loving friends, helped me to gain trust in the future again, whenever fear threatened to take over.
It also helped that my parents started to support me financially. I was able to buy a car. I learned driving with one hand, and noticed that, in this country, the handicap of not being motorized seemed almost more disabling than my paralyzed left arm and hand. I regained the necessary inner strength to keep functioning again. Graduate school felt increasingly like an island for my inner healing, wisdom, and expansion of consciousness. Frank and I worked through anger and guilt about our separation in therapy, and he supported me in my naturalization process before we got divorced.
After we went separate ways, my disability created confusion, doubts, and insecurities around my attractiveness as a woman. I saw my self as “damaged goods”, wondering whether I would ever be in a relationship again. But when a loving new partner came into my life I started to gain confidence in this area too. In1995 I met Steve. We got married by an Inca priest on Machu Picchu in 2000. We share interests in both personal and spiritual development and in movies. The latter we share not only with each other but also with his parents and his 24-year-old daughter who has Downs’ syndrome. Our movie theater visits lead to family bonding.
Back to my work: After I graduated with an MA in Counseling Psychology in 1992 I began to build my practice as a psychotherapist. Working through my grief had gotten me in touch with different spiritual traditions, including Buddhism. It seemed natural to specialize in grief and trauma work. I also started developing “Grief, Loss, and Spirituality Groups” and facilitated bereavement support groups.
Off and on, doubts and fears arose: would I be able to make it financially as a therapist in the Bay Area, and would I be able to pass the torturous licensing exam in a second language? After I mastered the exam and developed more experience, my practice and confidence in my work grew. I felt a deep sense of fulfillment in my new profession. The only other kind of work that I could imagine as being equally fascinating was that of a movie critic.
About three years ago I took a workshop called “Movies and Mythic Imagination – Using Films in Depth Psychology”. I became fascinated with the idea of using metaphors from movies with my clients to support their process. I had worked with my clients’ responses to movies as far as I can remember. Now I discovered a more informed way of working with the material that arose from the film experience in sessions. I use movies to understand emotional issues, explore new options and evoke personal qualities that my clients desired, especially during life transitions. I began to include cinema therapy in my work with individual clients first. A little later I started a weekly cinema therapy group and eventually facilitated workshops in which I use films as a catalyst for the therapeutic process. Now I also conduct training seminars for therapists too.
Two years ago several reporters asked me for interviews when they saw my advertisements for cinema therapy groups. It became necessary to structure my thoughts and I started writing them down. Consequently I thought of writing a book. I had many exciting ideas about how to combine therapeutic methods with the powerful effects of movies to support personal and spiritual development.
Knowing that I wasn’t able to express myself in perfect English, I e-mailed my ex-husband, who had changed his name to Franklin and lived in Utah for many years. I knew he was an excellent writer, had studied theater, and worked in the film industry. To my surprise he was available as a very engaged editor for my book and numerous articles, including therapeutic movie reviews. Franklin also designed and maintains my Web sites, which are crucial to spread the word about cinema therapy. The wonders of the Internet allowed us to cooperate as a great team in these endeavors.
Therapists are starting to use popular movies to help clients achieve breakthroughs. The self-help book E-Motion Picture Magic (Glenbridge Publishing Ltd.) teaches the reader to heal and grow while being entertained by a movie. Can this innovative method be for “reel”?
Movies can be very powerful because the multiple impacts of music, dialogue, lighting, camera angles, and sound effects enables a film to bypass ordinary defensive censors in the viewer. These film “effects” affect our hidden or unconscious thought processes by way of evoked emotions. The movie draws the viewer into the experience, but at the same time—often more easily than in real life—affords a unique opportunity to retain a perspective outside the experience, the observer’s view. This offers a person the opportunity, with the help of therapeutic exercises, to heal and grow in ways never experienced before.
Terry had problems with rage. When she got angry, she tended to go way too far. It had cost her several long-standing friendships and had alienated co-workers. Now her marriage teetered on the brink of divorce.
Regular therapy sessions had helped, but they weren’t enough. The fights with her husband Greg were getting worse. Then I suggested cinema therapy—using a popular movie as an adjunct therapeutic tool.
After I coached her on using a special conscious awareness approach to movie-viewing, Terry sat down one evening with Greg to watch Changing Lanes, a film about two revenge-obsessed men that deftly illustrated the damage that occurs when anger gets out of hand. During one of the first big scenes, at the climax of a nasty argument between the two protagonists, she and Greg started to get into a nasty fight themselves, each taking sides with one of the two main characters.
The situation could have ended badly, but before things got out of hand, Terry remembered my tips on using the movie to gain distance and perspective on her own behavior. She had just witnessed on screen the very behavior pattern she was now experiencing. That helped her take a step back. Instead of continuing their fight, Terry turned off the DVD, and they talked about the process of their fight instead of its content, with the movie providing common reference points, a common language.
Terry told Greg that she saw how she was always making the same mistake the movie characters were making. Suddenly, she saw her building rage as something absurd. For Greg, hearing Terry talk about her struggle with her anger was a revelation; it gave him hope that their marriage might be salvageable. The evening turned into a minor breakthrough, and with continued therapy, Terry gradually learned to control her rage.
Many cinema therapy scenarios have such happy endings. An increasing number of therapists are receiving cinema therapy training and using it in their practices. Increasingly more readers are using self- help books to learn to use movies as a catalyst for their personal healing and transformation. There is a growing number of cinema therapy groups, workshops, web sites, online discussion groups, and at least one trade journal.
The basic idea behind cinema therapy is simple: characters in stories struggle with the same issues as a client does; by watching their failures and successes, clients can learn new approaches to solving their problems. Therapists have been prescribing books for healing purposes since the 1930s.
Using movies for such healing seems obvious. But where books communicate mainly through one text-based “channel,” movies have the advantage of also using visual and auditory stimulation. This synergistic combination gives cinema a much greater power over a person’s emotions, which makes movies ideal for therapeutic modeling.
Movies can also be used to help people explore their subconscious world, much as dreams have been traditionally used. Sometimes a film will evoke an unbidden reaction. Exploring the underlying reasons behind that reaction can open a window into the deeper layers of one’s psyche.
Films are also naturally cathartic. By provoking tears and laughter, they help cleanse the body of toxic chemicals brought on by stress and pain while giving clients an opportunity to shift their mood. It can provide them with a needed temporary break from undesired emotions. I frequently observed that they feel safer to release deeply blocked emotions while viewing a film than they might in the context of their real life. This unique release can allow clients to start exploring their underlying issues in therapy.
Wolz, Birgit. “E-Motion Picture Magic: A Movie Lover’s Guide to Healing and Transformation. Centennial, Colorado. Glenbridge, 2005.
Birgit Wolz, Ph.D., MFT has a private practice in Oakland. A published author and presenter, she developed a comprehensive body of therapeutic tools that utilize movies for healing and personal growth.
She is the author of the book E-Motion Picture Magic: A Movie Lover’s Guide to Healing and Transformation, Glenbridge Publishing Ltd. Birgit can be reached at (925)376-8359 or E-mail Birgit . You may order Birgit’s book by calling 1/800/986-4135, by e-mail: Contact us, or through Amazon.com.