In thinking about the blog for The Healing Continuum, my intention is to take you a step further/deeper into my thought processes and life experiences. The reason behind this is that the most basic foundation of my therapeutic practice is that I am a human being, and you are a human being. That’s always our first point of contact, relation, and connection. Everything else is just… well, it’s everything else.
I started writing this post last week during World Mental Health Day and then life got in the way and I never finished it. Meanwhile, the angle I was going to write from last week has changed and a new post started to emerge today. It’s still on the topic of mental health, but different than what I had planned.
Either way, what better way to start my new blog than with the topic of Mental Health and Therapy?
I will start by saying how I see mental health now. For the sake of context, I have been actively studying a spiritual practice for 7 years, and Dramatherapy has been an active part of my life for the past 5 years. The combination of these two factors has meant that the past 7 years have been dominated by active self-development, self-reflection, self-awareness, self-awakenings, and the realisation that behind or underneath all the material illusions that permeate our lives, there is one simple truth: everything and everyone is connected. Not only that, our individual selves are an intricate system of interconnectedness. All of this to say that each one of us is a whole organism, which in turn is a microcosm for the wider organism that is our planet, and the universe.
As whole organisms, there is no separation of functions or elements. Everything depends on everything, because everything is connected. Thus, our physical health and our mental health are not only connected, but they are one and the same. They are just health. Simple as that. In the same way that we separate ourselves socially and culturally, we also have this nagging tendency to separate our individual selves. This is, in part, due to the way awareness and knowledge of health has evolved over centuries. It started with the body and experiments that would make our 21st century stomachs churn in revulsion. But that’s the beginning of western medicine, and that’s also the beginning of psychiatry.
The same way our bodies feel weaker sometimes, and require care or attention, so do our minds and hearts. You wouldn’t walk around with a broken bone for years, now would you? And yet, millions of people on this planet, walk around with untreated emotional trauma. However, therapy isn’t just about trauma or difficulties. We don’t just take care of our bodies when we’re sick. The fitness industry makes billions of pounds/euros/dollars every year, due to people’s commitment to improving their fitness and developing their bodies. I see therapy in the exact same way. It’s not just a place of healing trauma or illness, but it’s also a place of improving and developing psychological and emotional resilience.
Thus, because we all have mental and emotional health, it would make sense that we all would be committed to improving, developing, and taking care of that part of us, wouldn’t it?
Unfortunately, I believe we’re fighting against decades, if not centuries, of dogmatic thinking about the mind and the treatment of its many apparent dysfunctions. I still remember when I did an activity in a group therapy setting to identify emotions in the body, and all my clients that day identified them as being in the brain. I was shocked! Not even one person had put emotions in their heart space. It showed me that people perceive the brain and the head as the main centre of thoughts and feelings. That leaves a whole lot of body in complete disconnection from that centre. I don’t see it that way at all. In fact, the many studies on somatic psychology show otherwise. The body has and holds on to memories, feelings, and traumas.
Many people come to therapy and actually say “Am I crazy?” or “Am I normal?”. This isn’t just a question of language. Underneath, there is a real – and quite irrational – fear that you might be put in a straitjacket and be sent to a ward somewhere. When people use the word crazy in therapy, I believe that’s what they are alluding to. That’s the stigma. That’s the shame. Dr Brené Brown rightly says that shame “is the most powerful, master emotion. It’s the fear that we’re not good enough.” Coming to therapy, which is really seeking some kind of help, is for many people, the ultimate “I’m not good enough” action. And that’s why people don’t talk about their mental or emotional health – shame of not being good enough. I understand that fear – look at all the drama we all experience regarding our physical health, let alone our mental and emotional health! And yet, by not talking or expressing, we make it worse. Dr Brené Brown also states that shame “needs three things to grow exponentially in our lives: secrecy, silence, and judgement”.
I am here to break away from that shame and to help you do the same.
Growing up, I heard the word “crazy” many times in regards to my father’s side of the family. “Weak minds”, my mother would say. As I grew older, and especially after training to become a therapist, I was able to retroactively diagnose those members of my family: PTSD, schizophrenia, depression. We never talked about it.
My first memories of my own ill mental and emotional health go back to my early teenage years. I had begun to be bullied at school and had lost all my previous social capital. This was in relation to my perceived difference in sexual orientation and gender performativity, which I was trying to identify at the same time the entire world seemed to know exactly who I was. I look back at that time and know that I only survived due to my own naivety: I kept doing the things that I wanted to do, knowing that they were making the situation worse, and yet not really stopping to think about it. Things like being the only boy in gymnastics, or dance. Or the only boy in my school who (dared!!) to dye his hair. Just to give you an idea of where I grew up, my mother was actually called to the principal’s office because I had dyed my hair. Kids my age were doing drugs and getting pregnant, and yet, my mother was called to school because I had dyed my hair. Quite the scandal in 2001! I also tell people that I quit gymnastics because I had a “bad fall” during practice, which is true, but really, I quit my favourite sport because the bullying became too intense.
And so, there were days along the way where I would wake up and feel like there was no life in my body. I felt heavy, exhausted, my eyes could barely stay open. These days would come and go, and I wouldn’t know why. Obviously, I didn’t tell anyone. I was already covering up the relentless bullying at school and my sexual orientation for years, what was one more thing to hide? Slowly and quietly, this began to escalate, until one day when I woke up, and felt, for the first time in my life: “I want to die.” I would have been around 12 or 13 years old at the time. And as anyone who has ever tried to repress feelings and thoughts knows, repression only makes it worse. By dismissing those feelings and thoughts, they became stronger. I started expressing it through my writing, by watching horror movies, by listening to certain types of music. Death eventually became a daily feature in my thoughts and feelings. And this is during the advent of the internet and personal computers at home. Let’s thank the universe that I wasn’t as aware of the internet at the time, and never actually thought of researching suicide. All the information I got my hands on was through some books on psychology that I found in my school’s library.
I was to research, plan, and attempt suicide twice before I was 16. Again, I never really told anyone at the time. Suicidal thoughts and ideation are quite similar to depression in that they are completely isolating. Every thought takes you further inward, until they become all-consuming and start making perfect sense. People don’t tell that they’re thinking or planning to commit suicide because they truly believe that no one will listen or care. You’re in the dark tunnel. There is no light at the end, the beginning, or anywhere. You’re just in the dark tunnel. And people who commit suicide don’t necessarily want to die. They just want to end their pain. They are actually two very different things.
What ultimately, and very practically, helped in my case was that I changed schools. Not that many people knew me, and I could start more or less from scratch. And then I got a scholarship and left my country, family, friends, and everything I knew behind. I didn’t just leave, I ran away via plane!
The next stage of mental and emotional health illness arrived in my late teenage years and early twenties. I had decided to finally come out to everyone and live openly as a gay man. I rarely had any external issues with that, as I expected and feared. Instead, the demons were on the inside. Just imagine: you know that you’re somehow different than everyone you know from the age of 5 years old. You don’t know what it is, but you feel it. And somehow, you also know that your difference isn’t welcomed or accepted. You spend the next 14 years – and may I add that these are the formative years of mental, emotional, and physical health – hiding and pretending outwardly, and repressing and hating inwardly. Imagine that you spend the better part of those 14 years in constant fear of others and hate of self, and then you decide to tell everyone the truth. Do you think all the nice compartmentalisation you created is going to hold? Nope. I had more emotions in those two years post-coming out than I had ever felt, experienced, or been able to manage in my entire life. And so, I took to escapism: alcohol and sex were my highs of choice (more on these in a different, upcoming post!).
The heavy, exhausted body mornings came back. And because I didn’t actually have to attend lectures, I would stay home in bed for days at a time. And then the death thoughts also returned. And those were my darkest years. I would spend months at a time in a depressive state. Forcing food down my throat, so my body could function. And because I’d developed an aversion to actual suicide from my attempts, the next best thing was self-destructive behaviour. I gave myself a few alcohol-induced comas in those years. I wanted to end the pain, but I didn’t know how. And then one day, at the sexual health clinic, I was feeling so low, that I told one of the nurses: “I don’t know what I’ll do next, if I don’t get help now.” I think that was the first time in my life that I had asked for help about anything important. I was 21 years old, and that was the first time I had therapy.
Fast forward a few years, and a few life experiences, and I decided to enrol in my MA in Dramatherapy at 25 years old. I had studied drama before and thought I would just learn more about psychology and how to apply drama to it. Again, for context: my MA lasted 3 years. The first placement started after 3 months of training. It was a requirement to be in personal therapy throughout the whole thing – by the way, have you ever asked your therapist if they’ve had or have therapy? I’d just say that this is a very important point of being a therapist and some trainings do not actually require this! Go figure!
But anyway… personal therapy for 3 years. 3 years of being a trainee therapist. Also, do you know how we learn Dramatherapy techniques? By being therapist and client to our peers who are also training to become therapists. For 3 years! We practice therapy by being therapist and client to each other, we then go and be therapists to our clients, and then we go to our own personal therapy. Oh! And we also have a clinical supervisor, who is someone we talk to about therapy. Do you know how much therapy this is? I don’t know either!
The point is, if I didn’t know therapy before this training, I definitely know it now! And it was under this somewhat extreme set of circumstances that I began to find that therapy isn’t just useful when you are ill, or in crisis, but also when you are stable and balanced and want to know more about yourself, and live a fuller, more authentic life. It’s something you can do for a little while, stop, and return to, whenever you feel that you want or need it.
And I can say that there is no shame in asking for help, but I know that there is. That’s why I’ve shared very personal accounts of my own experiences of ill mental and emotional health. Even to this day, whenever something particularly challenging happens, I can feel those symptoms appearing, my isolation settling in, and my inability to ask for help. The main difference now is that, instead of spending months in depressive states and self-destructive behaviour, I’m able to spend only a couple of days feeling and being depressed and very rarely relapse into self-destruction. This is how I have measured my progress in a realistic and kind way. Others will have their own standards. But what I’m saying is this: yes, it is hard to ask for help. Yes, it might feel shameful. However, that feeling of vulnerability is ultimately the key to healing, transformation, and joy. Once again, to use the wisdom of Dr Brené Brown: “Vulnerability is the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness, but it appears that it’s also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love.”
Therapeutic processes enable us to heal mental and emotional wounds, and also to become more authentic and grounded in ourselves. They enable us to get and maintain balance in our mental and emotional health, in particular, and health, in general.
Ryan Campinho Valadas
HCPC registered Dramatherapist