“Go ahead, feel it,” she urged. “If you want, just play with it for a while. This is not a session, I’m not going to analyze you. Just play with it.”
I pushed the sand around the tray, gradually packing it into the shape of a giant peanut set lengthwise. It was a sturdy mound, and the more solid it became, the more I enjoyed the sensation of patting it.
Brushing residual dust from my hands, I turned toward the bookcase and scanned the miniature trees, animals, and human figures. “How did you amass all this?” I asked.
“Many of these were in a collection I purchased,” McCarthy said. The sand tray, including the sand, had also come from the woman who sold her collection to McCarthy. Some pieces McCarthy had accumulated on her own. “You can go to garage sales. McDonald’s toys are cool, because you’ve got lots of different girls you can use. In the original collection, it was hard to get ethnic dolls. I had to color a few in, but you can see they’re just white features, colored in dark.”
Now that I’d been introduced to the components of sandplay therapy, I wanted to see them in action. Regardless of what people told me, or what I’d read, I had yet to see how this stuff worked. It was easy to imagine the method being utilized to coax abused children to communicate the wordless atrocities they’d suffered. But that was literal, akin to holding up a doll and asking a child to point to where it hurts, not the fathomless allegory that had snuck up from the sand and slapped my friends John and Sara in the face.
A Facebook friend (the only contact I could find who’d heard of sandplay) referred me to Leslie Fadem, a marriage and family therapist based in La Mesa. “Born and hatched” in New York City, Fadem began adulthood as an elementary school teacher. She moved to Michigan for graduate work in psychology, eventually obtaining Pupil Personnel Services (PPS) credentials and returning to the school system as a counselor. For the past 20 years or so, she’s been in San Diego, working with schools, community organizations, and running her own private practice.
Fadem’s extensive experience with children is evident in her voice. She enunciates carefully, presenting each word as a gift wrapped in a smile. Her petite frame and close-cropped pixie hair give her an elfin appearance.
Whereas McCarthy has a bookcase against one wall, Fadem has dedicated an entire room to sandplay, with countless items that she began collecting in 1991. She has not one, but two trays, one for wet sand, one for dry. Bookshelves line the walls, upon which figurines are organized according to their classifications: animals, religious symbols, baskets of assorted monsters, reptiles, insects; one shelf is populated solely by buildings — ceramic, wooden, and plastic homes, lighthouses, even a log cabin.
It looks like a children’s playroom, but Fadem says it’s anything but. Though she does plenty of work with children, she also uses the room with adolescents and adults.
“Let’s say a couple has boundary issues, or lots of conflict,” she says. “The sand becomes a vehicle, a way to acknowledge that, to express needs that aren’t initially apparent, or not within the individual’s awareness or vocabulary, to say to a partner, ‘I need more this or that.’ The use of symbols in the sand allows that process to take place and become visible.” This made me think of my friend, who’d smoothed the sand as if to make order out of her partner’s chaos.
Fadem also conducts group-therapy sessions. One Monday evening, with the permission of each participant — a doctor, a “retired mom,” and a marketing manager — she invited me to sit in on her Women’s Self-Esteem group.
Fadem set out coffee and tea in her main office, which contains a sofa, chairs, her desk, and a bookshelf. After ten minutes of allowing everyone to get acquainted (this was for my benefit; the others were obviously long-time friends), Fadem invited us into the next room in a very therapist way, pointedly adding, “Only if you feel comfortable and ready.”
I was invited to take part. The five of us milled about the room, searching the shelves and considering the items. The retired mom asked Fadem for direction, a specific theme, some way to narrow the focus. I found myself wanting this as well. Where to begin? What to choose? Something that represents what I want to share with these people? If I chose something happy, would I be bragging? Or would that mean I’m overcompensating? My head began to hurt.
Fadem declined to manage the process, then politely hushed the other two women, who had been chatting as they perused the shelves. Apparently, silent contemplation is part of the selection process. Regarding our request for direction, Fadem said, in a pleasant, quiet tone through her perpetual smile, “I hear the possibility of some performance anxiety. That speaks to control issues.”
She had me there.
I brought my handful of trinkets to the sand, and, seeing that Fadem had set hers up in one corner, and another woman had begun organizing her things in another corner, I did the math — five women, four corners — and placed the items I’d selected in the center of the tray. Regarding the group, Fadem later told me, “I have gotten to know these women over time. There is already an established sense of safety and trust.” She insists it is only because of that unique situation that she takes part in the session. “Certainly, when I’m working with couples in the sand, I wouldn’t [involve myself].”
I arranged my four items: a red-and-black lacquered Japanese girl, a squirrel, a wedding cake, and an elephant adorned with blue thread and gold sequins. All the creatures faced each other, forming a circle.
“Now look,” Fadem said, her voice barely above a whisper. “Notice what you placed in the sand, what other people placed in the sand — there’s no right, there’s no wrong. This is what we call a safe, protected space. We use this as a repository for whatever is inside of us.”