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Painted Brain | Billy Bang Douglas – Superpower: Empathy
We're bridging communities and changing the conversation about mental illness using arts and media.
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  • September 2, 2017

Billy Bang Douglas – Superpower: Empathy

Prior to becoming a Painted Brain superstar, Billy Bang Douglas was originally responsible for driving Naomi, our loudest and proudest speaker and group leader, to the Painted Brain offices.  On a regular basis, he informed everyone within hearing distance of his booming voice, “I shot heroin for twenty years, and now I’m clean for eight.”  At that time, Billy was nearly pushing sixty and working as a security guard, wasting his prodigious intellect protecting the property of others.  As he got to know people at Painted Brain, he realized he’d found kindred freethinking and rebellious spirits and began hanging around.  Fortunately for everyone, this coincided with our decision to start an online newspaper.  Almost as long-winded as he is long in the tooth, Billy was the perfect candidate for Painted Brain News Editor.  The fact that he was also willing to do it as a volunteer was an added benefit, as we had no money at the time.   He led poetry and writing groups for Painted Brain and established an online community of writers and contributors for Painted Brain News.

    Though Billy is creative and intelligent beyond normal mortals, his true superpower is empathy.  He is so real that people never doubt his authenticity, which is vital when establishing a connection with people in trouble.  He is strong and loud as well as vulnerable.  Entirely open, he has incredible boundaries and a capacious desire to learn, to understand and untangle his own impulses and the challenges of interpersonal communication.  taking on leadership duties at Painted Brain meant learning to balance his role as editor while supporting the growth of his writers, some of whom wanted no feedback on their work despite its obvious need for editing.  In long, intense conversations between the two of us, we sought ways to communicate support while also setting limits and expectations, discovering ways to process the emotional reactions that people have when their work is criticized without taking it personally.  Billy wrestled with these contradictions heartily and productively, and this started to show in his leadership style as well.    

    There was a period in the spring of 2015 when Billy, along with our former social work intern (and current PhD candidate in Theology) Matthew Lyons ran a writing group for homeless teens in Hollywood in the morning every Friday, then drove to an expensive substance abuse treatment center for teens located in an exclusive area of Topanga. There, they ran the very same writing group for the residents, all children of well-to-do parents, at a place that offered tennis, organic gardening and round the clock clinical support. Billy and Matthew found themselves dealing with the same mental health challenges at the very top and bottom 1% of our society.  

   From spring 2015 to early 2016, Billy ran writing groups at a high-end substance abuse treatment center with social workers from Painted Brain, and soon he became so good at it that they offered him a job. With members of their own clinical staff sitting in on his group sessions, he’s now earning four times what we were able to pay him.  His title is Experiential Counselor, running both writing and meditation groups at their Intensive Outpatient Program as well as their detox unit. He is especially fond of working directly with those still in the throes of withdrawal and early sobriety.  Currently, he is working with Matthew on the beginning stages of codifying his ideas about substance abuse recovery into a handbook or manual.  Meanwhile, Billy is still hard at work completing his magnum opus, a first person story about the early days of punk rock and the ravages of heroin abuse.    

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  • Editorial

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