…on Gay Narratives

imageedit_1_3760168418

 

Around a year ago, triggered by a gay-themed movie or play that I watched, I decided to challenge myself to write a story where the protagonists were gay, but without the usual plot points of a gay narrative: bullying, suicide, coming out, sex, drugs and alcohol, HIV, religion, self-destruction, or violence of any kind. I wrote the main parts of that story, but I’m yet to finish it. In fact, I’d forgotten all about it until this past week.

A few days ago, I went to see a musical called Everybody’s Talking about Jamie, the story of a 16-year old boy who wants to grow up to become a drag queen. It was such a fun, as well as emotional, show! But it reminded me of the story I started writing, because at one point in the narrative, there was the coming together of a few of the plot points listed above: bullying, violence, coming out, alcohol, self-destruction. I rolled my eyes because yet again I was watching a gay narrative about the same old things. And whilst I can really appreciate different narratives, sometimes I get quite upset by them, because there’s never an alternative. Where is our freaking happy ending narrative? A recent example of this was Call Me By Your Name. Yes, it’s a beautiful film. I, too, got caught up in the lovely fantasy of a summer romance in Italy, but that ending?? C’mon! I saw it coming miles away, and it still annoyed me! Gay romances tend to always follow this narrative: a passionate and beautiful connection, which never lasts, because someone goes away or dies. Seriously!

But as that scene in the musical was followed by a lovely uplifting song, my cynicism withered away, and that’s when it dawned on me: gay narratives in film, media, literature, performance, etc. always have those plot points because most REAL LIFE gay stories include all of the above as well! Which is a terribly sad thing to admit. And maybe, perhaps, that’s why I always felt a bit annoyed by stories depicting the same plot points over and over again! Or maybe, like I mentioned above, I would like to see a happy ending every now and again. Not that I believe in the Disney-fantasy of happy endings, but a few examples would be nice. Don’t get me wrong, there are a few recent changes on this front: movies like The Way He Looks, Boys, 4th Man Out, the series and movie Looking. Apparently, this new upcoming movie Love, Simon is meant to reinforce more positive experiences of gayhood.

However, predominantly, many gay narratives will deal with bullying, HIV/AIDS, substance misuse, heartache, and yes, even early death, because guess what? Such is the gay experience for many people. I not only have the personal insight of some of these matters, but I also worked professionally for many years in the frontline of this kind of lived experience, as a youth worker and as a therapist. Different studies from the British Psychological Society, British Association for Counselling & Psychotherapy, the former LGBTQ+ mental health charity PACE and National Institute of Mental Health in England (amongst others), highlight LGBTQ+ people as experiencing a raised level of anxiety, depression, internalised shame, isolation, addiction, suicidal ideation, and early death. This is not hyperbole. One only needs to pay closer attention to the current subculture of chemsex in cities like London, to get a glimpse into the perfect storm created by all these factors. Where does one even start? I remember always feeling great trepidation when dealing with gay men involved in chemsex in my former substance misuse practice, because I honestly never knew what to address first: the substances, the sex, the self-esteem, the abuse. I feel great admiration for those who continue to work in those frontlines – it is no easy task! It is hard to maintain empathy and boundaries, when so many of the experiences we see trigger our own.

I believe there is much hope, however. I believe in finding a balance. And I believe this, because I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it in former clients who have recovered and been able to maintain balance in their lives, in current clients who are making a genuine effort to know more about themselves and find healthier ways to live. I’ll never forget a few years ago, when exploring archetypes in the life of a gay man, one of my clients ended up choosing an overwhelming number of positive archetypes. The type that focused on creativity, connection, even spirituality. I remember how surprised we both were, that his unconscious actually perceived gay men as possessing more qualities than demons. I know how that sounds. Really, I do! But the thing you need to understand is that when one is born in an environment which constantly tells you that there’s something wrong with you, inevitably, you will end up believing parts of that message. If not the whole message. And so, actually, it is always profoundly surprising and revolutionary when a gay man awakens to the insight that they are much more than those wounded parts, and that those wounds can be healed, and that a new way of living is possible. A life where there is love, visibility, inclusion, acceptance. A life where, even though the darkness may still emerge every now and then, the light will be the default.

I recently had a major breakthrough in my own therapeutic process. I was exploring different internalised beliefs that I held about myself, or scripts – we are Dramatherapists after all! – and as I was describing the two main ones, my therapist asked me: “Are they yours? Did you come up with them, or were they given to you by others?” And it dawned on me: all the life scripts that I carry with me and which basically prevent me from living a more fulfilling life, belong to other people. They were things other people told me about myself, and which over time, I started believing. There was great power and freedom in that slight shift in perspective: these scripts are not mine! Therefore, I am under no obligation to follow them, or even give them any attention.

And this is where the narratives we see around us matter: if we only get access to a set number of stories, that ultimately reinforces those same stories and the fact that they are the only stories. But they are not. There are many other stories out there. Stories of triumph, love, compassion, authenticity. What if we all worked a bit harder on focusing on those narratives?

 

Ryan Campinho Valadas

W: http://www.thehealingcontinuum.com/
E: info@thehealingcontinuum.com

 

Advertisements

…on Human Emotions

inside-out-1Inside Out (Disney/Pixar)

 

A friend wrote to me last week saying “I hate human emotions”. I knew exactly what he meant! Do you? This feeling that we sometimes get, that it is all a bit too much, that emotions are uncomfortable, inconvenient, and just plain awful. Why do we have to feel? And why do we have to feel so much, sometimes? Wouldn’t it be better if we didn’t feel at all? If we could just go through life bypassing all these burdensome emotions?

However, when we say this sort of thing and ponder on these type of questions, we are really only thinking of a particular set of emotions, right? I mean, no one wants to give up joy, do they? We just want to let go of sadness, anger, disappointment. I mean, not even to just let go, we don’t want to feel them in the first place! Unfortunately, we are not actually able to repress or suppress negative emotions without affecting the expression and flow of the positive ones. When we repress and suppress the bad, we always end up affecting the good. And because repressing and suppressing requires so much energy, this is what we end up focusing on: the bad. We focus so much on it, that it becomes familiar, often too familiar. Familiar to the point that it becomes the standard by which we experience the world around us.

A great example is people in the LGBTQ+ community. I will speak from experience here: I became aware of my attraction to the same sex when I was 5 years old, and I started living life as a fully out gay man at 19 years old. That’s 14 years of conscious effort and behaviour to hide who I was from the world around me. I actually saw a meme the other day which made me laugh. It said “What is your acting experience?” to which the response was “Well, I was in the closet for many years”. People who know me now find it hard to believe that I ever passed as straight, but when I was in the closet I literally thought about every single thing in my day to day: the tone of my voice, my body language and posture, hand gestures, the way I sat and crossed my legs, the verbal language I used, my hair, my clothes. There were periods of rebellion, when I didn’t care about any of this, but because I used to be immediately punished by my environment when I dared to leave my box, I learned to do it less and less.

What do you think the impact of all this pretending, this repression and suppression, was? Well, I was so conscious about masking every part of my being, that ultimately I forgot who I actually was. Inadvertently, I also bypassed joy, wonder, and fun in my life. It is truly ironic that I became a Dramatherapist, and that I now work in children’s mental health, because I really, really, really struggle with play, spontaneity, and the joyful bliss of wonder and innocence. For as far back as I can remember, people used to say to me that I was too serious, that I didn’t know how to take a joke, I didn’t know how to play. They were absolutely right. To this day, I still struggle with all of the above. Why? I literally spent half of my life controlling every single aspect of it, in relation to how it appeared to the outside world. A child can’t be a child if they are constantly worried about what the world thinks of them. By default, there is no innocence, wonder, or spontaneity in worry. By repressing and suppressing the more uncomfortable emotions, I ended up repressing and suppressing the comfortable and exciting ones as well. And this happens to everyone in various contexts and environments.

So, this got me thinking about a few things. Mainly that our problem isn’t really with our emotions, but perhaps with our expectations. To be honest, I never really liked to categorise emotions into positive or negative. I find them quite neutral in their origin, power, and manifestation. Now, our reaction to them is a whole different thing! The reaction, yes. It is definitely categorisable! But even here, I still don’t like the positive/negative label. I prefer to use the terms creative or destructive. Quite literally, are you creating or destroying? And so, going back to my point, our problem isn’t really that we feel, but that we feel things we didn’t want or expect.

When we start something new – a new job, move into a new house, meet a new person – we tend to lead with hope. We want it to be good, to mean something, to bring us joy and happiness. Hope is very important! However, when we face obstacles on our journeys, the feeling of hope and excitement, often turns into disappointment, sadness, even anger. We have just moved from one end of the continuum to the other. Emotions are fluid, they move back and forth on this continuum of felt experience. But what gives it meaning? What gives it the category of “good or bad”? The mind. The rational and logical part of our brains. In order to simplify the brain, many theorists and practitioners have divided it into three main areas: reptilian, emotional, and rational. These areas follow the evolution of humankind, and so, if you think about it this way, emotions are actually quite primitive. And really not that definable. They just are. With evolution, we started to assign labels to them and quantify them in terms of their outcomes and manifestation in the world around us.

Many somatic therapies – body-centered – focus on this exact point: feel the emotion, don’t think it. The body knows what to do with it, but when we interrupt that process with our minds and begin to rationalise their meaning, we actually end up losing their meaning completely. The rational brain will dissect it to the point where there is no emotion left. Obviously, this process is also helpful, otherwise the brain wouldn’t have evolved the way it did. However, how much is rationality actually getting in the way of living in a more wholesome, holistic way? When we say we hate emotions, what we are really saying is that our emotions and feelings did not lead us to the destination created by our minds, via expectations. We attached our emotions to an outcome, a result. We wanted them to lead us to a specific point, and we then blame them for that, rather than the expectation we created in our minds.

When we meet someone new, for example, it is obvious that we are probably going to create expectations. We are human, after all. We are social beings, who want to be loved, and belong, and know that we matter. We are relational, we literally need someone else. However, our disappointment about obstacles to our expectations, is literally about the expectations. Not the emotion! What a great thing it is to feel! To have a spark, a connection with someone, a fellow human, a fellow being who is also looking to connect and spark. But then the rational mind comes in and starts asking all these questions: what does this mean? Where will this go? How will I know if this is it? How will I know if this means something? I do this ALL THE TIME! I usually joke that by the time the other person sits down to watch the movie, I’ve already finished the trilogy. It’s not my heart that is doing that. It’s my mind.

Let the heart feel. Check your mind. Let your emotions be what they are.

 

Ryan Campinho Valadas

W: http://www.thehealingcontinuum.com/
E: info@thehealingcontinuum.com

…more on Self-Love

IMG_0262

 

Imagine this: you know a person for about 20 years. During that time, this person has consistently treated you with negativity: dismissing you, abusing you, shaming you, humiliating you, calling you all sorts of names and using all sorts of demeaning words to describe you. And then one day, that person turns around and says, “I love you”. Literally, WTF? How would you respond to such a person?

I don’t know about you, but I doubt that I would be able to trust them in any way. Or even accept what they had to say, no matter how kind or loving. How does a person go from such an extreme to the other? And to expect the words to sound true and authentic? What kind of sick mind game is that? I would need some serious behavioural and emotional consistency to be able to change my mind about that person!

And yet, dear readers, this is exactly the type of sick mind games we play on ourselves.

I had a very profound epiphany recently, inspired by someone else’s therapeutic process. The situation described above? This is any person who struggles with self-love. The other person? It’s me. It’s you. It’s us. It’s us, against us! It’s you, against you! It’s me, against me! As mean and horrible as anyone can be against someone else, there is hardly any greater harm than the one we inflict on ourselves. By dismissing ourselves, abusing ourselves, shaming ourselves, humiliating ourselves, calling ourselves names and demeaning terms, accepting this from others around us, and ourselves. Believing the narrative that we are not enough, not worthy, not lovable.

Do you ever wonder why it’s so difficult to actually love yourself? How long have you spent doing all of the above against yourself? Really, think about it. Think about your greatest wounds, your greatest difficulties. What have you called yourself in relation to them? And for how long? And how much have you believed these names and this narrative about yourself? How insidious are these beliefs?

Whilst most of my core wounds were initially inflicted on me by someone else, the fact that I then went on to believe certain things about myself, is, unfortunately, all on me. I believed it, I perpetuated it, I lived it. The seeds of my main insecurities and wounds were planted by someone else, but I happily went along with it, and watered them until they grew strong and rooted. This is why it’s hard to change aspects of oneself: time. With some of my “stuff”, I have spent a good two decades perpetuating it, triggering it, making it bigger, turning it darker.

Time goes by so slowly, when you finally accept and decide that you want to change and become a better version of yourself, and to love yourself. Alongside my recent epiphany, I realised that the sole reason why I find it difficult to fully love myself, and to accept love from others, is that I don’t trust myself and others. But this is where it gets a bit tricky: over the years, I have received both negative and positive criticism, but I chose to believe the negative. Why is that? Why do we do this? Why, if there is evidence of both love and hate in our lives, do we find it so much easier to accept the hate?

I’m currently reading a really interesting book called Letting Go, by David R. Hawkins, where the author has managed to rank emotions based on the energy they emit, their vibration. Don’t ask me exactly how he has done this, but it actually makes perfect sense to me. Emotions like shame, fear, grief, guilt, anger, are all on a lower scale, and therefore easier to reach, as they require less effort to both experience and maintain. I mean, wouldn’t you say on a practical level, that feeling shame is actually much easier than feeling love or joy? It would follow that the same goes for life narratives and self-beliefs. It is easier to accept the negative ones.

And if you consider the amount of time you have spent criticising yourself, versus the amount of time you have spent loving yourself, you may begin to get a glimpse of the journey ahead of you. For me, even the thought of saying “I love myself” out loud, makes my eyes spontaneously roll a dozen times! It’s clear and absolute cynicism on my part. Because let’s face it: the other main aspect of loving myself is the fact that I will have to let go of all these narratives that I have believed, reinforced, and lived. The narratives that say that I’m not good enough, or worthy, or lovable. I spent my teenage years believing and telling myself that I was unworthy, and then I spent my 20s believing and telling myself that I was damaged. Why did I expect that at 30, when I have finally decided that I’ve had enough of these narratives, that I can suddenly believe a new one? I certainly believe that I can do it, but I also know that this won’t happen overnight. Why would I suddenly believe that I love myself, when I have spent the last two decades believing, doing, and acting otherwise?

It’s not all doom and gloom, however. From my own personal experiences of healing, and being a therapist to many, many clients, this is something that I have learned: if I choose to spend more time focusing on my positive traits, on positive narratives, on positive evidence of love, affection, and joy, then the negative ones will inevitably become weaker. Because that which we focus on, grows. This is why exploring one’s past traumas and wounds is a very delicate process. One needs to accept and investigate certain life events, but do it too often or too deeply, and you’re actually reinforcing the experiences, rather than healing them. Shining light on something painful is often the first big step. Accepting that it happened is the second. Exploring the emotional aftermath is the third, and letting go is the fourth. Once we have truly let go of something, once we have truly surrendered, that thing no longer has power over us.

This is what I’m currently working on: exploring and letting go of the patterns and narratives of self-hate. Letting go of unworthiness and feeling damaged. This is difficult because I’m under the wrong impression that I’ve lived with these for longer than I’ve lived with messages of love, including self-love. But if I’m really honest with myself, I can easily go back in time and pull out plenty of evidence that, in fact, I’m worthy and have been immensely loved throughout my life. The difficulty lies in letting go of this warped version of my life which I have been holding on to, because it feeds into the shame, fear, and victimhood of my own ego, which as I’ve mentioned earlier, are much easier to connect to than the higher frequency emotions of love and joy.

But isn’t the rest so much better? Aren’t love and joy so much better than shame and fear? All the people that I’ve met and deeply bonded with, all the places that I’ve lived in and visited, all the amazing experiences I’ve had? Yes, they are immensely better. And as I move forward in my quest to live in a more loving and kinder narrative of my own life, these are the experiences that I need to focus on and these are the stories that I need to remember and re-tell, because they will allow me to raise the frequency and vibration of emotions that I experience on a daily basis, and ultimately be able to love myself without spontaneously rolling my eyes at the thought or feeling of self-love.

 

Ryan Campinho Valadas

W: http://www.thehealingcontinuum.com/
E: info@thehealingcontinuum.com

…on Self-Love, Relationships, Narratives, Change, Paradoxes

DSC_0247

 

Boy, oh boy! What a couple of weeks! Yes, I skipped a week. I felt anxious about it for a few days and then realised that it wasn’t conducive to my already fragile wellbeing and decided to let it go. At the end of the day, not writing for a week, is really not THAT serious!

I started last week telling my flatmate that I had no idea what to write about, when in fact, I knew fully well that the only reason I couldn’t write was because there was in fact too much to write about. Too many thoughts, too many feelings. Too many conflicting patterns all going off at once, leaving my internal wellbeing a hot mess of chaos. This was caused by an unexpectedly combination of events in my real life: two great friends’ birthday parties, no sleep, no rest, irregular food intake, and alcohol. I stayed up for more than 40 hours on some kind of energy and adrenaline, I most likely drank too much, even though I never felt overtly drunk, and didn’t eat properly. To add on to all of this, I spent the weekend surrounded by gay men. Usually, this wouldn’t have caused anything in particular, but the slow debilitation of my physical energy, meant that I probably opened up my emotional reserves more than I would have otherwise.

And let us not forget: whoever one is in the world, wherever we come from, whomever we relate to, there is always a high chance of being triggered by one’s identity, one’s place of origin, one’s community. Between being at a party full of gay couples and a party with mostly single gay men, something in the air was carefully pushing all my buttons and triggering all my core traumas, without me even realising that this was taking place. In short, I was confronted with the thing that causes me the most insecurity: relationships. And indeed, this is one of the core principles of The Healing Continuum, and one which I understand in concept, but not in actuality. I mean, I know that we are all wounded in relationship – traumas do not appear from nowhere by themselves – and I understand that most of our healing must actually happen in relationship. Please note my carefully placed distinction between “knowing” and “understanding” in that sentence. I know the wounding, but I only understand the healing. This means that even though I am more than comfortable guiding others through their relationships, when it comes to my own… well, I still don’t know.

And since I also ended up getting ill following that wild weekend, I ended up having a lot of time to think about all sorts of painful things. Too much time, if you ask me! When I drop into my rabbit hole, I really drop into it. It is often days before I’m able to resurface, and re-establish some kind of connection and balance in my life. This particular trip lasted longer than usual, and it took me back to the days when I used to be in a depressive state for months. Something had really been shaken up in my core. The days following this drop into the rabbit hole were marked by several “signs” of what I needed to focus on. Even on Valentine’s Day, of all days, I get this message: “it’s about you, Ryan.” It’s about loving me, taking care of me, being the best me I can possibly be. It’s not about finding those things in others, so I can somehow feel healed, complete, or whole. Again, I understand this, but I’m incapable of knowing this at this point in my life. I’m very comfortable guiding others through their self-love, but my own? I remember Maya Angelou and Oprah often talking about the maxim of “Those who can’t do, teach”. I deeply relate to that. I don’t know many things, but I understand many things.

My self-love, in association with my self-worth, is something that has escaped me ever since I can remember having a sense of self. Many, many, many things have contributed to this. Some major, and deeply traumatic; others subtle, but deeply corrosive. The Rumi quote above came to me on Valentine’s Day via my Facebook feed. It is so simple, and yet profound. That’s Truth, I guess. There is indeed a seed, planted somewhere in my past, and from professional experience I know others have experienced the same, whereby love becomes about someone else. We learn that love is something that someone else brings into our lives, which ultimately leads us to a place of peace, happiness, and salvation. By default, we learn that we are not enough.

The message of self-love has been beaten out of most fairytales we tell our children, and each other. No wonder people roll their eyes at the mention of self-love: it truly is a foreign concept for many of us. In fact, I woke up feeling such exasperation on the day after Valentine’s Day that I decided that I needed to go back to personal therapy, for my sake and that of those around me. I was truly feeling like I had given everything I had to my unhealthy patterns of emotional unavailability, and it was truly time to change.

The day after this decision, I was talking to some colleagues and fellow arts therapists about monumental life changes and decisions, and one of them was telling the story of how, a few years prior, she had reached such a point in her life, that she could no longer figure out anything about the world around her. That she couldn’t even figure out how to change the narrative of her life, only that the narrative had to change, no matter what. This had felt imperative, crucial, almost life or death. As she was telling this story, I felt deep resonance with this idea that the narrative needs to change. The story needs to change. That some things have gotten to such a point, that it is not even about finishing a chapter and starting a new one. The whole, unfinished book needs to go out the freaking window! I don’t need to start a new chapter, I need to start a new book! I felt this need for a change so deeply that I not only knew that my new commitment to personal therapy was indeed vital, but that this new process will also be excruciatingly painful and critical to my own survival.

The main quote on my Facebook page is by Carl Jung and it goes: “Only the paradox comes anywhere near to comprehending the fullness of life.” I feel that there’s probably no greater paradox than that of Change. It’s the only way to move forward in life, and yet, it is one of the scariest experiences anyone can go through. I’m not simply talking about changing jobs or houses – which are in themselves great examples of this paradox – but I’m referring to the type of change which reaches the core of oneself, and after which one can no longer go back. Moments of before and after in one’s life: diagnoses, death of someone we care about deeply, trauma, meeting someone, moving somewhere.

I mean, my move to the USA at 17 years old triggered such a monumental succession of events, that I’m not even able to imagine who I would be if I’d never done that. But I’m talking about change, because, right now, this is what I fear: the unknown of this new Ryan who will emerge from the letting go of all of these unhelpful and toxic patterns of emotional unavailability. I understand that this new Ryan will be a much better and healthier version, but I don’t know that yet. And because I don’t know it yet, it is very scary. Simultaneously, it is also essential. Therein lies the paradox: fear and love, destruction and creation, death and life, are always together.

 

Ryan Campinho Valadas

W: http://www.thehealingcontinuum.com/
E: info@thehealingcontinuum.com

… on Life’s Purpose

IMG_0577

I’ve been having many conversations about “purpose” recently. As in, one’s purpose in life. Personally, I’ve thought many different things about this through the years. I’ve been “certain” about what it is, but as I spoke about it on three different occasions to people in the past week, I realised that my perception of it had shifted again.

For context, I’ve always been quite driven. I was probably around 10 years old the first time someone told me that my dreams were too big. At the time, I must have been in my astronomy phase, where everything was about starts, planets, asteroids, the universe. I read books, I watched videos, and nothing felt more exciting than to figure out the universe. Even at that age, I understood that my dream would entail me leaving my hometown and my family behind, and go somewhere abroad, probably the USA. Interestingly enough, I also thought my dreams were too big. Not too big for me though; but too big for the people around me. And then the arts and creativity came into my life in a big way: dance, singing, writing, performing. It was the early 2000s, and my dream morphed into wanting to be an international pop star. People didn’t seem to be too excited about this, at all! Yes, I was attracted to it due to the bubble gum pop explosion of that era, but when revisiting the songs I used to write and compose back then, it is very interesting to notice that there was a very clear intention to explore serious issues. Yes, I was quite an intense teenager!

I remember having this feeling of wanting “to help people through my music”, and as my dream morphed from pop star to actor, from politician to humanitarian, from activist to therapist, this feeling was the thing that remained throughout those transformations: helping others. Even from my days of wanting to be an astronomer, I carry this life perspective of macro dynamics, of bigger picture, of understanding the individual by understanding the collective. Anyone who knows me really well, knows how much I can actually struggle with day to day life interactions, but get me talking about, or exploring, or working through the bigger picture of anything, and I’m happy and engaged. I guess that’s why the majority of those dreams were in the form of a profession or role that entailed macro dynamics. And then I ended up becoming a therapist, which is really about the intimate relationship between therapist and client. It made sense in terms of the helping people, but not so much in terms of the macro dynamics. At least, not at first. But after a few years of seeing clients, I began to discern the macro from the micro, as patterns and life stories began to merge into these collective narratives of the human experience. It’s not necessarily that we are all screwed up, but actually, yes we are! I mean, everyone has attachment issues. Validation issues. Relationship issues. Confidence issues. Everyone has been emotionally wounded by someone else, and everyone has inflicted emotional wounds on someone else. Everyone wants to be loved. Everyone wants to know that they matter. What’s really so different about all of us?

Through these professional developments and my own personal spiritual studies, I’d come to the comfortable conclusion that I was indeed here to help others. This was my life’s work, my life’s purpose, and everything I did was about that. But then questions started to creep in: how exactly am I helping others? Through Dramatherapy or spirituality? Through both, perhaps? And who are these others that I’m helping? Just my clients, or also my friends, my family, my acquaintances? By helping, do I mean saving? Isn’t that a bit too conceited? Did they ask for my help? Why do I want to help them? Where does this need of helping others comes from? What am I trying to prove, or validate? Why do I like to be around such darkness and chaos all day long? And why can’t I seem to help myself? Am I a hypocrite?

At first, most of these questions were quiet. And they would pop up only every now and then, and only one or two at a time. And as they became louder, I began to actively ignore them. I mean, I had now discovered the macro dynamics in my work, and I was slowly on the way to develop some kind of grand theory and methodology in psychotherapy that I would present to the world via a Doctorate, and finally become the Doctor my family always expected me to be! Yep! My work with my clients was somehow contributing to the deep validation I needed from my family. And from authority figures in general. And then I realised that I was in a co-dependent relationship with work, where my work was to help people through their own co-dependencies. Yikes! For those of you who used to follow my old blog and have read some of my newest posts, you know what happened next. Breakdown, existential crisis, falling apart, going away, confusion, loss, grief, death, rebirth.

Amazingly, I hadn’t really noticed the rebirth until this past week. Last Sunday, during one of my private practice sessions, one of my clients said to me: “You know Ryan, I’ve been actively looking for my purpose for years, and it’s only now that I’m beginning to think that perhaps my purpose is to just be me, the best me I can possibly be. You know?” Hearing that resonated deeply throughout my whole being. Yes, indeed! What if our purpose is really to just be the best we, we can possibly be? Not helping people, or saving people, or creating this, or changing that. But to just be present enough in your life, where you can genuinely and deeply say that “I’ve lived!” What if that’s it?

A few days later, someone else I know was having a hard day as they questioned what their purpose in life might be, as they perused through social media and looked at the apparent “success” of all these people they knew. And it was in that moment that I realised that my views on purpose had completely shifted post-breakdown. That I wasn’t looking to do this or that with my life, or through my work, or anything at all. I looked into the horizon of my own life and saw a completely blank canvas, rid of expectations of what that horizon should look like, or could look like. There were no specific plans, no visions. Most importantly, there were no expectations or hidden agendas about hardly anything. It was an inner freedom I had never experienced before, and I realised that for the past few weeks I had been living in the present moment of each day without many expectations. I was talking about this process to another friend yesterday, and I just find it remarkable that life actually feels so peaceful right now, in comparison to even two months ago.

The thing is, I surrendered. I woke up one morning in mid-November, after 6 months of inner strife and helplessness, and told myself that I was going to stop. No more being a therapist, no more living in London, no more to the future that I thought I was entitled to live, no more to the purpose of helping others and the world. I closed my private practice, my third sector HIV practice, and started reaching out to people in Lisbon about job opportunities. I truly let go of everything and surrendered. I had come to a place where I felt there was nothing else I could do, besides letting go. In that moment, last November, I felt the biggest relief I’d felt in a very long time, and felt, for the first time, that it was okay not to know anything about what my future would look like. All I had, truly, was each day, and my only purpose under those circumstances, was to pay attention to each day. Therein lies my shift in perspective. I no longer see my life as having purpose, my life is the purpose. Being myself is my purpose.

Ryan Campinho Valadas

W: http://www.thehealingcontinuum.com/
E: info@thehealingcontinuum.com

…on Gender in the LGBT community (in support of Trans)

 

2000px-Transgender_Pride_flag.svg

 

Yes, I want to talk about this! Mainly because I’ve had some conversations recently, or seen some less than nice comments on social media, and sometimes I just generally feel a bit lost as to why some people think the way they do.

During and after my coming out process, one of the things that I always made sure to do was to start learning some history about my community. Maybe it’s because I always loved History as a subject, but I found it very important to be informed, and to at least have a basic awareness of who had come before me, and how they had managed to break through and overcome the many challenges that gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people face growing up. And let me be clear: growing up in a Catholic country, mostly pre-internet, access to this kind of education was difficult. Most of what I was able to learn growing up was through the prism of the HIV/AIDS crisis, and some pop culture. I consider that my LGBT education officially started when I was 19.

However, even before then, this is something I always felt: my gender expression was not the same as the men in my environment. I started dancing and performing at a young age, I was in gymnastics, I experimented with fashion and hairstyle, I was an avid lover of pop music, and I had a deep affinity with girls and women. Maybe in certain cultures this wouldn’t be that big of a deal, but to just give you an idea of the toxic masculinity in the environment I grew up in, I was always made to feel like a failure as a man, simply because I didn’t like and couldn’t play football (soccer for the American readers). I was literally good, even very good, at all the other sports, but because I couldn’t play the “king of all sports” (yes, the Portuguese actually say that!), I was always dismissed as less than a man. Now, I never felt like I was a girl – even though I often fantasised about being one – but what I’m trying to say here is this: I always knew my gender expression was different, freer, more fluid!! I felt gender fluidity before we called it that. And I’m sure plenty of other people felt it too. We just didn’t have the language to describe such feelings.

I also understood early on in my LGBT education that sexual orientation and gender identity were indeed different. A trans person can be, and often is, heterosexual. And a gay, lesbian, and bisexual person can be, and often is, cisgender. Cisgender is another term that has only gained traction in the past few years. We’re using it, so stop fighting it: it’s called EVOLUTION! For those of you who don’t know what it means, cisgender denotes or relates to a person whose sense of personal identity and gender corresponds with their birth sex. I was born with a penis, my identity and gender correspond with male, therefore I am cisgender. When the identity and gender do not correspond to someone’s birth sex, that someone is transgender. If I identified as a woman, then I would be transgender. Additionally, nowadays, some people have actually begun to go beyond these labels and identifications and live outside the world of binaries: in a way, they might be everything and nothing at all, simultaneously. I find this very exciting and look forward to a world where this may be the norm, even though I probably won’t be around to see that happen.

But I digress: yes, I always understood sexual orientation and gender identity as different experiences, BUT extremely interconnected nonetheless. I always saw the inclusion of the “T” as essential to the wider struggle of the community, because I always felt that what all the letters in the acronym really do is this: they challenge everything that is systemically considered “normal”. Think about it: the simple notion of sexual and gender fluidity is, in itself, in absolutely radical opposition to the construct of most societies, their foundations and institutions. Whether you feel it or not, to be part of the LGBT community is to be radical and to live radical lives. Religion institutions tend to be our worst enemy because they are the oldest representation of the status quo of “normalcy”.

One of my first, and most important, jobs of when I lived in Scotland was at LGBT Youth Scotland. I think I probably met a trans person through that work for the very first time! And I was 20! By then, I had already started reading tons of queer and feminist theories and began to challenge my own perceptions of gender and sexuality as constructs, and my own privilege – even though we also didn’t really call it that back then. Most of this reading validated much of what I already suspected: that gender and sexuality could be, and were indeed, fluid rather than static. That one’s expression may change throughout one’s life, and even throughout one’s day. It felt very radical to read some of these things for the first time, and I remember feeling so special and unique, with so much to offer the world by way of just being. It enabled me to feel powerful in my difference.

Simultaneously, my manager at LGBT Youth Scotland would often report the differences in advocacy work from down south in England, where organisations insisted on separating the T from LGB, and I remember finding that incredibly counterproductive to the overall mission of liberation and freedom of every member of the community. It was also in Scotland, through my studies in International Relations, that I came across another level of understanding of gender dynamics in the LGBT community. I was writing an essay and researching LGBT movements in Latin America, when I read something which I probably had already witnessed countless times, but which I’d never stopped to think about until that moment: misogyny and patriarchy in the community itself. Suddenly, I could see it everywhere in the way gays treated lesbians, in the way “masculine” gays treated “camp” gays, in the way “butch” lesbians treated “lipstick” lesbians, and in the way both bisexuals and trans people were always ignored, if not dismissed. Suddenly, I could see that the “LGBT movement” was really only “gay”, and everyone’s needs were secondary. I remember being so disappointed at this realisation, because I just always expected that oppressed people would genuinely come together to fight common oppression, rather than waste time infighting.

But it was actually in England, a few years after leaving Scotland, that I came across my next level of understanding of gender. By then, I was volunteering with an organisation called Diversity Role Models and we went into schools to discuss homophobic and transphobic bullying and share our very personal stories with children and teenagers. Such powerful work! I got to meet many more transgender people and it was in one of those workshops that another facilitator mentioned “policing gender”, meaning that most of us in the community are initially marginalised not because of our sexual orientation per se, but because of our gender expression. And BAM! Lightbulb moment right there! I found this to be so true to my own experience. Think about it: you don’t think a child is gay or lesbian because you see them ACTUALLY loving children of the same sex; you think that BECAUSE their gender expression is different. We perceive people as having different sexual orientations because of their gender expression, not because of their actual sexual behaviour or emotional attraction. That’s why some gay men, lesbians, and bisexuals “pass” as straight. They don’t exhibit enough traits from the opposite sex, to elicit discrimination or oppression on the sexual orientation front.

I think what I’m trying to say is that our trans sisters and brothers deserve our unconditional respect, compassion, and support. In many ways, trans people represent the last frontier of dismantling every oppressive system there is. The true acceptance of gender norms as constructs, of gender as something fluid and non-binary is at the heart of a completely new way of being and engaging with the world. In many countries around the world, trans people are the victims of some of the most heinous hate crimes, their life expectancies are drastically lower than their cisgender counterparts, their mental health worse, so on and so forth. For as long as this continues, no other social justice movement will be truly liberated, as no other group in society embodies intersectionality of identities as wholly as trans people.

I understand that change at the collective and macro levels happens very slowly. I get that. So, I’ll start with baby steps, and start by calling on my fellow gay men. Learn your history. Attempt to understand gender and its many dynamics better. Acknowledge the entrenched misogyny and patriarchy and its negative effects within our community, and in your personal lives. Remember, that it was trans women of colour who started the riots against police brutality at the Stonewall Inn in New York, which initiated the start of our movement together. Remember that this movement was quickly hijacked by the sole concerns of gay men, leaving behind the pioneers of their own liberation behind.  Remember that during the AIDS crisis, as thousands of gay men died, it was mostly lesbians who came to our rescue, nursing us and helping us organise. And remember that after the breakthrough of HIV treatment, gay men once again pushed lesbians aside. In short, remember that even though we are still heavily oppressed for being gay, we are also the most privileged group within our community, because we are men, and we have the power, and I dare say duty, to help everyone else. Our own freedom depends on this.

Finally, I highly recommend you to watch The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson on Netflix, which chronicles the events pre- and post- Stonewall Riots, and documents the sad destiny of the two trans women of colour who led the liberation for gender and sexual fluidity. (In fact, not surprisingly, the research used for this documentary was conducted and gathered by a trans filmmaker and activist, who has accused the director of stealing her material to his own advantage.)

 

 

Ryan Campinho Valadas

W: http://www.thehealingcontinuum.com/
E: info@thehealingcontinuum.com

…on Swimming (and other life lessons)

2023B751-4D5D-461B-A7A5-E01FD1D34DA7

Picture: (from left to right) Ryan at 18, at Langley High School; Ryan at 30, at Out to Swim

I’ve just come back from a weekend where I participated in a swimming competition for the first time in 13 years! The whole weekend had a very full circle moment type of feeling. The last time I’d been in a pool competing, I was swimming a butterfly event, where my goggles had fallen off, and I miscalculated the distance between myself and the wall, and took a stroke too many and smashed my head into it. I was out for the rest of the event, and for the rest of the season. Back then, I used to swim for my former high school in Northern Virginia, Langley High School, home of the Saxons. This time, I’m swimming for Out to Swim, a LGBT Masters Club in London, where I also do synchronised swimming. This weekend, my first event was the 50m butterfly. My return to competition was in the exact same event where I had left competition. Needless to say, I was very, very, very nervous! I wanted to do well for myself, for the team, whilst trying not to be consumed by the fear of having another accident in the water.

The moments just before diving into the water this weekend, reminded me of two very important life lessons: overcoming myself, and being in the moment. I mean, at one point, I actually thought: “Ryan, you’re being your own worst enemy with all this fear!” And it’s so true!! How many times do we falter because of our own fears and doubts? It’s not even about the people around us at all. It’s all on the inside! I’d forgotten how sports really do bring this point home so quickly and in such a physical way: the only person you need to beat in a race, is yourself. The presence or absence of doubt and fear can make or break an athlete, in whatever discipline. Not just in races and events, but also in training. How many times these days am I in a pool, and think “I don’t need to work that hard”. Yes, maybe not. But also, maybe I could. Who knows what’s on the other side of overcoming an obstacle, right? I remember many a session in my high school team, where I had to run off to the changing rooms mid-session to throw up, and then come back to the pool and continue swimming. There’s a very special, which sometimes may seem a bit brutal, discipline in sports, where you overcome both physical and psychological limits. It’s a deep pain followed by a great release into something new and previously unexplored: a new personal level.

Being in the moment is also crucial. One of the swimmers, who is also a coach on the team, said something along the lines of “Dive in, see how you feel, and go from there!”. Isn’t that great? What a fantastic way to think about a race, or any challenge really! Dive in, see how you feel, and proceed accordingly. This actually really helped me this weekend, which, needless to say, also pointed out how I tend to experience life: I’m always in the future. I used to be always in the past, and to some extent, I still am, but these days, I spend a lot of time in the future. I often miss out on life, not because I mean to, but because I’m not paying attention to what’s around me NOW. Like this weekend. In all of my races, I was already at the end – almost avoiding the whole thing, by wanting it to be over. I do that too often, if you ask me! Unsurprisingly, my best race this weekend, was the one race where I did exactly as my fellow swimmer and coach said: I dove in, I saw how I felt, and I proceeded accordingly. In all the other ones, I got a bit too distracted by other things. But in that race, I felt fully present throughout. From diving in, to the first few strokes, to my breathing, to my arms, my legs, to the last few meters. It is the simplest, yet most difficult thing there is: to be present in each moment.

However, the best part of the whole thing, was the feeling of community, of belonging to a tribe and group of people, bonding firstly through the love of the sport, but more deeply through each other’s humanity and conquering of personal limitations and doubts. Being with my team this weekend, really reminded me of my old team, and my old community of swimmers, and their parents. Even though I’d been swimming since I can remember, my time at Langley was the first time I swam competitively, and trained accordingly. Swimming every day of the week, being part of a community of swimmers and their parents, who all loved the sport and the thrill of the competition. I had joined the team to make new friends – because that tends to be the best way to find one’s tribe in the world – and felt very much at home. I remember some practices being gruelling, but the feeling afterwards was always amazing. And even though I wasn’t at all the fastest or anywhere near being any kind of “star”, being part of that team was very important to me. In fact, my favourite part about swim meets wasn’t even about swimming my own events, but about cheering for and supporting my teammates. And this is what I experienced again this weekend, and what gave me real joy: cheering on for my peers, bonding through our shared experiences, and just generally being together with friends in a spirit of friendship and unconditional support.

I’d also forgotten about this wonderful aspect of sports: the community it can create, and the power it has to bring people together. I feel very grateful to have been reminded of this.

Ryan Campinho Valadas

W: http://www.thehealingcontinuum.com/
E: info@thehealingcontinuum.com