The Origins Of The Awareness Center

Vicki Polin emails:

Believe it or not this was the cover story of the UIC Alumni News (University of Illinois – Chicago).  Several months after this article was written my private practice outgrew the time and space available at The Awakening Center.  I struck out on my own and created a holistic counseling center/cooperative that focused on trauma called "The Awareness Center."   A few years later the direction of The Awareness Center changed and turned into the first international Jewish Coaliltion Against Sexual Abuse/Assault.

Comfort zone
Three alumni put mind, body and spirit in harmony at The Awakening Center

by: Carla Beecher-Moehn
UIC Alumni Magazine
January/February 1997 
(Volume 1, Issue 2)

 Making people feel comfortable is the goal of therapists Amy Grabowski (left), Victoria Polin and Kate Fiello.

“More than anything, we want people to feel comfortable and safe here," said Amy Grabowski, M.A. ’86, the director and founder of the Awakening Center on North Lincoln Avenue just south of Belmont. So it’s no coincidence that visitors are greeted in the center’s small waiting room by classical music playing quietly, herbal teas sitting in a box waiting to be steeped and literature offering information on such topics as sexual abuse, eating disorders and surviving trauma.

As the literature suggests, the Awakening Center’s therapists counsel people for depression and anxiety and specialize in eating disorders and physical, mental and sexual abuse.

Of the four therapists who staff the center, three are UIC alumni. Grabowski earned a master’s in art therapy. Victoria Polin, M.A. ’91 received a master’s in art therapy, and Kate Fiello, M.S.W. ’89, a movement therapist, received a master’s in social work. The fourth associate, Marianne Evans-Ramsay, is a licensed and registered dietitian/nutritionist who specializes in disordered eating.

The four women not only share a home-like office space, complete with comfy couches and pictures on the walls, but also a similar philosophy about the need for the mind, body and spirit to work in harmony.

"Whether it’s with individuals or groups, each of us works toward helping clients establish a balance and harmony within themselves," said Grabowski. "We help them achieve a sense of calmness, compassion and inner strength within their core self."

"The result," she continued, "is a feeling of balance and the ability to love the person that they were meant to be."

Grabowski started the center two years ago after running a private practice for seven years. She wanted a place that would offer counseling, treatment and solace for those suffering from depression, anxiety and low self-esteem. She also wanted to help couples and parents who needed help with communication and parenting skills. As a result, the center’s staff provides clients with a safe haven from their fears. Some clients also need to work out such traumatic experiences as incest, rape, physical and/or mental abuse, and even the anguish of political terrorism.

As a creative therapist and a licensed clinical professional counselor, Grabowski specializes in women’s issues, especially eating disorders, body image problems and anxiety. She uses art therapy and phototherapy to help her clients work through their problems.

"I focus on emotional attunement," she said, "and use a theory called Internal Family Systems Therapy whose goal is to create an inner peace and cooperation among the personality’s different parts."

The theory’s premise is that people have many facets of themselves — some are in harmony and some are polarized. The therapy tries to create a balance between them.

A basket on the coffee table in Grabowski’s office holds figures that clients use to help them understand themselves better: there are Barbie dolls, gargoyles, a potato person, an Oreo cookie figure, a witch, an angel and mythical figures.

"These figures represent different aspects of ourselves," she said while setting up several of the dolls. "We use them to symbolize the relationship between the parts. There are pairs of parts that are polarized in extreme roles — which is often where problems arise.

"As we try to get the two parts to become less extreme and more in balance, clients begin to see how one part of them may be very critical of the part of them that is fearful or playful.

"They set up a sort of diorama with these figures that helps them talk with each part of themselves individually, as opposed to having their many parts arguing in their head all the time."
Clients pick one figure to represent their core self. "I like to call that figure the conductor — it’s conducting the orchestra of our different selves. Many people don’t have a good feeling about who that part is. While we’re uncovering who that person is, the figure is always on the table so they can see what they’re working toward becoming."

When Grabowski uses phototherapy, clients bring in several photos of themselves at various young ages. If they were traumatized, a part of them is typically stuck at that age and may keep reliving the experience. Grabowski makes a photo copy of the picture which the client uses to draw on or cut out for use in a collage.

"People have strong feelings toward themselves at a certain age," she continued. "With the photos, they can see themselves and it often softens their feelings about who they were then. They become more compassionate toward that part of themselves. They think, ‘I was so young.’ There are many aspects of therapy that tap into those parts, unburdening them or letting go of something from the past."

Kate Fiello uses movement to help clients get back in touch with their bodies. Many of her clients have eating disorders like anorexia nervosa or may be overweight.

"Many of my clients are disconnected from their bodies — they may view them as a bad object and have difficulty relating to it," said Fiello from the large office that serves as a studio for the movement and art therapy sessions. The space is comfortable and warm.

Fiello’s clients have undergone some type of abuse or trauma that has caused them to separate their minds from their bodies. Fiello’s goal is to get them back in touch with their bodies through movement in hopes that the reconnection will free them from the fear of feeling their bodies.
"I start slowly, because at some level, my clients realize they need to be in their bodies to heal, but they’re terrified of their bodies because that’s where they were traumatized."

Fiello, who is a licensed clinical social worker, begins with breathing awareness — clients begin to notice the rhythm of their breath. What does it feel like? Where is it moving? Does their chest move, their stomach? Is there a part of the body that’s not letting the breath in? What might that tell them about how they’re feeling?

"For instance, when you’re scared, your breath shortens and your chest tightens up," Fiello said. "When you’re relaxed, the breath is more fluid. I want my clients to gently listen to their breath and then scan their body from head to toe to see how it’s feeling. Is their head light or heavy? It’s basic kinesthetic sensing and gets them to start being comfortable with their bodies."

Most of her clients are women who are stuck. They intellectually understand their eating disorders — they know all the dynamics of the disorder in their head, but they haven’t integrated it with their bodies. They’re emotionally repressed. The sensing exercise brings them closer to those feelings.

According to Fiello, many of these women fear that if they get in touch with their feelings, they’ll explode. They don’t have a sense of where their bodies begin and end.

"They think, ‘If my body feels numb now, how will I deal with all the emotions once I start feeling again.’ So I help them with their body boundaries and we try to modulate the degree of the feelings."

One woman in a session with Fiello got angry and had the urge to kick her feet, but was afraid that if she really let her feet feel her anger, she might kick apart the room. So Fiello regulated her kicking from one to 10. Once the woman reached the highest level and kicked the hardest at 10, Fiello helped her control it and bring it back down to one.

"It doesn’t have to be overwhelming," Fiello said. "They can learn to feel a little bit at a time."
A highly distorted body image is a hallmark of anorexia. It is hard to fathom how anorexics think they are fat when they are literally wasting away. To gauge how far off their image is of themselves, Fiello asks new patients to close their eyes and measure with their extended hands how wide they think their hips are. They then lower their arms and open their eyes to see how much wider they imagine themselves to be than they really are.

It’s also common for overeaters to imagine they are smaller than they truly are, added Fiello.
"Culturally, we are just not taught to be in tune with our bodies. We’re taught to intellectualize."
One reason trauma victims become anorexic, according to Fiello, is on an unconscious level, the smaller they become, the less they’ll be seen, and, therefore, won’t get hurt.

"Many times my clients don’t know how to say no or how to stand up for themselves," Fiello said. "To protect themselves, trauma survivors dissociated from their bodies when they were being abused — they just left their bodies and went away in their minds. So over time, when things get stressful, they have the same reaction, which leaves them powerless. I try to teach them to be present in their bodies and become aware of that pattern of dissociation. Then they can start taking care of themselves.

"By thinking of their body as a container, they can feel their boundaries and take control of their lives.

"I love seeing people come alive again, when they begin to embody themselves again. I get to witness the fullness of them. Their personalities become richer as they grow and evolve. It’s wonderful to help them find that."

Vicki Polin also loves seeing her clients grow and change.
"I like watching people fulfill their dreams and wishes and do the things I know they can do," she said.

Polin, who works with victims as young as age 4, directs the Trauma, Recovery and Empowerment Services at the center. Also a licensed clinical professional counselor and a registered art therapist, Polin uses an eclectic approach of both verbal and creative therapies.

"Because many of us get stuck in self-defeating and unfulfilling life patterns in an attempt to re-create our own personal universe, psychotherapy offers a way to rediscover our own potential and bring a balance of mind, body and spirit," Polin said.

Previously, Polin coordinated an international organization for adult survivors of child sexual abuse and has volunteered as a rape crisis advocate in hospitals.

"That job inspired me to get a master’s in art therapy from UIC in work that I thought was important," she said.

Last January, Polin started a free group for adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse at the Awakening Center. The group meets Saturday mornings at the center and represents people from all racial and economic backgrounds. When Polin found that men weren’t attending because of the stigma attached to being sexually abused as children, she changed the name of the program from survivors of sexual abuse to survivors of childhood trauma.

"All of the sudden, I started getting Holocaust survivors and victims of political terrorism. It was very interesting how things opened up."

But no matter what the abuse, the ramifications were the same: having low self-esteem, being unable to do things they wanted to do, and having flashbacks and nightmares — the same symptoms as post traumatic stress disorder.

Polin has noticed a new trend in clients: children of Flower Children.

"Lately I’ve seen several clients who grew up traveling across the country in a van with their parents where there was free sex, and drugs and alcohol abuse," noted Polin. "It’s a whole different kind of abuse that we haven’t paid attention to. These young adults, who are now in their 20s, had very little structure. Some of these people try to be free and wild, but they’ll have flashbacks of their parents having sex, which can be traumatizing to a 3- or 4-year-old child. These clients are trying to figure out if they were sexually abused or just very sexualized as children."

Polin has found art therapy especially useful when patients are trying to understand a trauma that happened when they were very young — before their language skills were fully developed.

"Non-verbal therapy, like art work, seems to help. They draw a picture of the feeling, whether it’s realistic or abstract, or they may do a collage. The pictures may seem cryptic at first, but over time, the pictures come together and clients seem to find some resolution."

Polin recalls Harriet Wadeson, UIC associate professor of art and design, saying, "Memorize every theory we give you while you’re in school and the day you graduate, forget it all and you’ll learn it all over again when you get out in the field."

"It’s true," Polin said. "Unless you’re out there working with people, you’re clueless. It was two years of hell, that program. But if you can make it through, you can make it through anything. It was really helpful."

UIC’s art therapy program teaches its students ways to recognize when a patient is on the mend. Polin knows when clients are getting ready to leave therapy when their lives start to change for the better.

"If they go back to school, or divorce an abusive husband, or maybe go after a new job they’ve been talking about — I know that something is happening there. If I think they’re ready, I’ll try to nudge them out. Sometimes it’s scary for them to leave because this is a safe place."

As clients work through their problems, they begin to realize they’re not to blame for what happened to them, and they learn to deal with their anger and rage. They begin to see they can live life on their own terms.

"I try to follow their lead, because most have let choice be taken away from them," she said. "I know many times clients want to think I will tell them what to do to make their lives better, but the answers are really within them."

In summing up the philosophy of the center, Grabowski added, "Our name, the Awakening Center, means that we hope to awaken the balanced self inside us that is there, but dormant. As we become enlightened, we awaken ourselves to the core person

Victoria Polin recently compiled the "1997 Chicagoland Area Sexual Abuse Resource Guide for Care Providers and Consumers".

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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