Morgan Karcher: Mastering the art of emotion

Morgan Karcher

Last week, I smiled with glee as I saw Simone Biles hit the competition circuit and show off her amazing talent. Biles moved the needle on mental health and self care when she bowed out of the last Olympics, but stayed on to cheer her teammates. This week’s portrait is also a champion of mental health. Morgan Karcher is a Philly-based trauma-focused art therapist and counselor who — and I’m taking this right from her bio so that I get it right — “specializes in working with LGBTQIA+ individuals to explore prominent themes of identity while processing experiences with discrimination, gender dysphoria, questioning and interpersonal conflicts.” 

Where did you originally start out on your journey?
I’m from South Jersey, Cherry Hill. So just over the bridge, right?

So pretty close by, are you from a big family, little family?
My immediate family is small. It’s just me and my sister and my parents. But my extended family is like a big Italian family on both sides.

What’s a favorite family memory or tradition?
One of my favorite memories was coming into Philly when I was a child and into my teens. I always really loved going to the Philadelphia Zoo with my mom and my sister. At the time, they had a big air balloon that you could ride up and that was always super fun. Any chance to get over here was really exciting.

Ha! When you were saying,  ‘I remember they used to have…’ I thought you were going to say elephants, or even the monorail, which shows you how old I am! It’s probably been gone longer than you’ve been alive! So what did or do your parents do? 
Well, my dad is an accountant. And my mom works at a school. She’s a teacher’s aide.

Do you get some of that desire to help people from her?
Yeah, definitely.

Were you always interested in the arts? And how did that manifest itself when you were younger?
I was always super creative and kind of curious and a little weird. I really gravitated towards art making. I started taking art classes when I was about 10 years old. It was actually one of my art teachers who introduced me to the idea of art therapy, and what that could be like. I remember thinking about what I wanted to do in the future. Part of me thought, “maybe I’ll be an art teacher,” but that didn’t feel just right. Once I discovered art therapy, it seemed to really align with what I wanted to do and how I liked to connect with people.

What was an art piece from when you were younger that you’re really proud of?
I was really into the “I Spy” series. So when I was younger, I would make my version of the series using a bunch of my little things. Just all sorts of things combined onto one page. I felt really proud of that. And it was something that I would add to change over time.

So was it a hidden picture type of thing? “Where’s Waldo” expanded? 
Yes, exactly. 

And what’s the worst argument or the stupidest fight you ever had with your sister? I had two brothers and we used to torture each other all the time.
I feel like I was definitely the instigator of a lot of fights between me and my sister. I’m older, and though we’re only two years apart, I always felt much older than her for some reason. Any fights probably had to do with the things that I would make her do or some silly argument. For instance, every year, she would somehow break her candy cane during Christmas. And I’m not sure if she just would get too excited or what but she’d always manage to break it. And it always turned into this BIG scene. We would argue and it ended up becoming a tradition of me giving her my candy cane at the end of the day.

What made you want to help other people through therapy?
I think, like many people, I had family members and friends who — myself included — struggled with their own mental health. I had a friend Matt, who is gay, and was a really big part of my coming out. He always struggled with mental health and died when he was 19. I think losing him and watching someone grapple so intimately with their mental health at such a young age, I really grew an appreciation for therapy and what it can offer to people, especially someone who’s struggling to come out. And just really looking at the people in my life and seeing the impact that therapy could have on them really inspired me to consider, “Is that something that I could do?”

And what was your coming out journey?
I was 13 when I came out to my parents. And at about the same time, my friend Matt also came out. I remember everyone was kind of confused because we were sort of “dating” at the time.

It’s amazing how we find each other. Most of my former boyfriends ended up coming out as well. 
Yeah, but it was really difficult. My parents were not super accepting initially. Over time, they’ve really learned a lot about me and my queerness and are very accepting now. But it was definitely very challenging and not initially embraced.

What was the form of the initial pushback for them?
I think a lot of it had to do with religion. My parents are both Catholic and it was the religious aspect along with a lack of people in their lives that were out. A lot of my dad’s comments originally were around things like, any marriage I had would not be a real marriage. Because at the time when I came out, same-sex marriage was not legal. But they’ve definitely come a long, long way since then.

It’s interesting to see what different people face, and how that informs how they help other people. Someone I recently spoke to had super-religious parents who immediately put him in therapy, but not the good therapy. It was some kind of reparative therapy.
Yes, unfortunately, that can be really common. Honestly, I feel like with a lot of my clients, I’m almost having to do repair work from previous therapists who were really harmful. Either they were outwardly coming from a background of religion, and doing what almost amounted to conversion therapy, whether indirectly or directly; or therapists who were negligent and had no knowledge of the LGBTQ+ populations, which was harmful too.

Well, when it comes to knowledge, you’re no slouch. You have a bachelor’s degree in art therapy and psychology from Mercyhurst University and then went on to get your Master of Arts in art therapy and counseling from Drexel College of Nursing. Back to your coming out, how did you figure things out, especially if you had parents who at the time were pushing back on your homosexuality? How did you find it within yourself to say, “No, this is what I am. This is how I’m moving forth in the world?”
It’s such a good question. I feel like I attribute a lot to my friend, Matt, who I mentioned before, because at the time, he was the only other gay person that I knew. And he was extremely unapologetically queer at a time where he was made fun of for it. I really adored and appreciated his carefree nature. It helped me be really unapologetic when it came to saying, “No, this is really who I am.” I don’t really know how I was so confident in sharing my sexuality. If people questioned it, I was like, “Oh, this is exactly who I am. I can’t imagine anything else”. Over time, something that was really helpful to me was getting more involved in queer communities at college, getting involved with LGBTQ organizations, and surrounding myself with people who were really accepting and understanding.

I guess you sort of answered it but my next question was where did you find queer community in Cherry Hill? 
I feel like when I was in New Jersey, I had to outsource to Philly to find a queer space. Even now, I’m really good friends with Sophia, who runs Philly Gay Girls+, which is a community organization for meeting and connecting with queer people in the area. I found that to be super valuable even now. It’s really helpful to be able to meet new people. 

Which is kind of hard these days, because there aren’t any women’s bars anymore. There aren’t really any spaces for us to congregate other than some of the monthly parties. Tell me a little bit about your practice. How did you first start?
In school, I worked at a partial hospitalization program and I did a lot of stuff with adolescents. That was in Erie, PA. And then when I was at Drexel. I was at Cooper for a year doing art therapy there in a medical setting. That was very, very different than any other setting I have experienced. You’re constantly meeting new clients, almost daily. So you had to establish a rapport with a huge range of clients very quickly. My first job out of college was at a practice called Center for Family Empowerment. I was doing a lot of family work, working with parents and adolescents and children, and I facilitated a therapy group there. That was really what made me interested in continuing to specialize in queer therapy, especially working with parents of queer and trans kids; having sessions that facilitated parents talking about their background, and what their parents had said to them and their knowledge about being queer or trans or nonbinary; working on their stigmas and homophobia and how it impacts their relationship with their child.

That’s got to be a little bit tense sometimes. 
Yeah, definitely. I’ve had a lot of really uncomfortable conversations with parents.

Do you have to take self-defense courses just to be safe? 
Thankfully no, but maybe I should consider that. It can get heated. 

Can you give me a brief 101 on art therapy? Because I think most of us imagine a Rorschach test kind of thing or kids scribbling pictures to point out the perpetrators, like on “Law & Order SVU.”
I think a really common misconception that people have is that it’s me interpreting dreams and drawings, but really, I view art therapy as a complement to truth. It’s really just using art as a way to talk about yourself or talk about your relationships. That feels a little less intimidating, because you’re doing it in a visual and expressive way. It’s helpful for people, especially when we’re talking about big topics like identity, trauma or coming out, things that can be really, really hard to talk about. I think another misconception about art therapy is that it’s like arts and crafts, and that it’s primarily for kids. But honestly, most of my caseload are adults right now and they have found it like very, very valuable.

You’re right, the first thing that came to my mind was a kid scribbling and Daddy’s got black marks all over his face, and you’re like, “Whoa, something’s wrong here.” Have you ever had any of those moments where you see something very disturbing, where you’re like, “OK, well, we’re gonna have to really dig in here?”
I think a way that art therapy has really evolved is it used to be very much that you would look at something and interpret it. Art therapy has really moved away from that, always the first interpretation of art is the client’s interpretation. And then my judgment can come in, but I’m always referring to the client first, using their art as a guide. Like, “I’m noticing there’s like a lot of movement in this. It feels kind of chaotic. Does it feel that way when you experience it? Always referring back to the client.”

I’m the programmer for The Women’s Film Festival. I would say a good portion of the films that come in deal with sexual assault, domestic violence, sex trafficking, you know, all sorts dark things that women deal with all around the world. Since you specialize in trauma cases, how do you keep the light?
I think it’s important for anyone that’s in the mental health field to also seek their own therapy. I see a therapist myself, and that has been really helpful. Also having a good balance of my personal life and my work life is useful. I’d be lying if I said that throughout the week, there weren’t times where I’m thinking about a client and thinking about our session but I try to make sure I have a really positive balance of things that have nothing to do with the head — just fun, distracting things. I found that in my first year, it gets really hard to let some things go.

So what are some of the fun things that you like to do outside of work?
I like to paint, I always have a new hobby with art. So maybe a stained glass class, or I’ve been cooking recently. I like having several little hobbies.

How long have you and your partner been together?
We’ve been together for five years. 

Oh, wow.
It’s kind of funny, we have a couple of weird connections. She moved from Buffalo, New York to Philly. And I was going to school at the time in Erie, Pa and we had some overlap of people before I went to Erie. It was so random. Missed connections before we actually met. 

Why do you think it’s important to stress that you specialize with the LGBTQ+ community? 

I think it’s really important to have a therapist that is not only LGBTQ-friendly, but is also  knowledgeable and affirming. Someone who has a really in-depth understanding of what people in this community might face. I feel like we know what people in this community are at risk for, like a variety of mental health concerns, like substance abuse and suicidality, but I also think a really big part of therapy for this community should also be embracing joy. There are so many different parts of a person and it’s really important to shine light on our strengths and the things that make someone get excited.

Speaking of excited, let’s do some random questions! What’s something that people might be surprised to learn about you?
I think because I work in what can be a serious field and do a lot of work with teens, I think people are surprised to learn that I was a pretty rebellious teenager. I definitely put my parents through it when I was young. I’m far from that now, but I think it helps me relate to some of my young patients who may be little rebels themselves. 

Someone who’s wardrobe you’d love to have?
I feel like I have to say, Lady Gaga. I love her so much. Though she’s like 5’2, so I don’t know if anything would fit me. 

Any piercings or tattoos?
Yes. I used to have piercings from that rebellious stage we just mentioned. I have two tattoos. One of them says, “Imperfections are beautiful” and the “beautiful” is in Matt’s handwriting. 

Last time you went bowling?
Aww, I love bowling, but it’s been a few years. I guess that means I need to go soon. 

Ever been in a car accident?
Yah, a pretty bad one too. I was in NJ and my friend was driving and as we were turning, we got hit by a car going about 75mph. It was crazy, the back of the car looked like an accordion. 

Yikes! What’s the farthest you’ve traveled?
I went to Nepal with my school. It was a program teaching art classes there and it was super cool. 

I guess art transcends language.
Actually, in Nepal, most of them spoke English as a second language. I remember they were shocked that I only spoke one language.  

Americans! We’re the worst! What are your parting words of wisdom?
Trust the timing of your life. 

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