…on Addiction: Part 2 – The Professional

2017-24-11-14-48-40                              Fig 1. Archetypes, in Archetype Cards by Caroline Myss

 

I think I have mentioned this in a previous blog post, but Archetype Cards are probably my favourite therapeutic tool as a Dramatherapist, and as a healer in general. I love the power they have to help us find symbolism and meaning for what is going on inside of our hearts and psyches. And out of everything I have ever tried in my Dramatherapy work within the field of addiction, they were always the most cathartic, powerful, profound, and healing tools. My clients used to love and fear them in equal measure. In fact, it was so rare that someone wouldn’t connect with them, that I never got used to that eventuality and was always taken aback by it.

I start this post with the Archetype Cards because, as you may see above, these were all the cards that I associated with my role as a Dramatherapist working in addiction. There are 17 of them in the picture: 17 archetypes to describe my experiences running individual and group sessions. Sometimes, I would experience them all in one session, other times only one or two of them would surface and dominate. No matter my experience, it was always a full one. Full as in powerful, profound, moving, painful, joyful, vulnerable, courageous. It was so many things at the same time. At the time of writing, it has been my most fulfilling role as a therapist by a long mile! Even more so than working with fellow gay men in relation to intimacy – which has become my main field of research. By the time I took a break from addiction services in July of 2017, I had run close to 400 group sessions and more than 100 individual sessions.

My journey into and through this field is in direct relation to the events described in Part 1 of this series. I decided to stop drinking in that moment, laying in my bed, recovering from a blackout caused by a spiked drink, and as hundreds of fans gathered outside Amy Winehouse’s house, just around the corner, as news of her death spread. As I said, it is still one of the clearest moments of my life. Nothing that happened in the following months as friends and acquaintances challenged me on my decision deterred me from it. As my clients would confirm many years later, one’s circle of people really struggle sometimes when a person decides to quit drinking or taking drugs. It’s almost as if we’re attacking or offending them. Needless to say, many people who were in my life then, are no longer. Making life-changing decisions tends to weed out the people who are in your life for more superficial reasons. And as my clients would also confirm, removing any drug from your system, really allows you to experience a sense of physical, mental, and emotional clarity that feels both overwhelmingly joyous and terrifying.

As clarity began to take hold in my life, I was not only confronted with the damage I had caused to myself and others, but also with the fact that there was no one else to blame but me. There was no one else to share the responsibility of my own life with. The awareness that it was all in my hands was empowering and daunting, and that’s why I completely relate to clients’ unwillingness to change or fear of responsibility. It’s hard. It’s hard to acknowledge one’s traumas, but then knowing that it isn’t anyone else’s responsibility to heal them for you, and you have to do it yourself. Obviously, we all need help and support, but the ultimate choice to change and heal? That’s a personal choice, whether we like to admit it or not. But what surprised me as I began to see my life with more clarity was the realisation that it had never been about the alcohol in the first place. That the alcohol was not “the thing”, but simply a tool to avoid “the thing”. And so, I focused on “the thing” and to this day, I still don’t know how to explain this, but I felt freed from the power of alcohol. I then had this deep feeling and certainty that I could drink again, because I had managed to change the meaning it held for me. I no longer “needed” alcohol.

It was from this experience that I decided to go work in addiction. I wanted to know if what I had experienced, was also part of other people’s experiences. And I wanted to know why and how: why some people become addicted and others don’t, and how I had managed to change the meaning of drinking and therefore changed the grip alcohol had on me. As a disclaimer, I never really labelled myself as an addict, or anything else. I was well aware that my experiences of substance misuse and abuse were very different and even less damaging than many other people’s stories. But I always felt that I understood the need to escape, the feeling of being engulfed by demons, the urge to have more until I couldn’t possibly take anymore, the self-destructiveness and everything that causes it and is fed by it.

I ran my first session in November of 2013. I had been assigned to the abstinence-based programme, and the one thing I remember from that first session, was probably one of the most powerful lessons I have ever learned as a therapist: to not have preconceived ideas about clients! As I sat around the circle guiding a group of men through their first Dramatherapy group session, I kept thinking that everything I thought I knew about addicts was wrong. I grew up in Portugal, where heroine ravaged through the country in the 1990s and it was hard to go anywhere without being a witness to aspects of that epidemic. But instead of “junkies” or “addicts”, I just kept meeting people. As in other humans. Hardened and suffering humans, yes, but humans nonetheless. Most importantly, as the weeks progressed, I began to notice that I wasn’t afraid. And that I was not easily shocked by their experiences and stories. I was aware of their scale, and also aware that for many people, some of these stories would sound terrifying, disgusting, shocking, but not to me.

I have never felt the manifestation or realisation of my inner potential as clearly or powerfully, as in when I ran my recovery groups. The whole continuum of human experiences would be present in those sessions, and I could be present with it. I could challenge it. I could hold it. I could establish, maintain, and reinforce healthy boundaries. I could remove judgement. I could create a space of true empathy and compassion. Of vulnerability, authenticity, and courage. I felt and lived through many things with my clients in that first year of practice, but couldn’t really articulate it very well. I knew I was on to something, but didn’t know what it was or what it meant. And then, one day, during a clinical meeting, one of the clinical psychologists said something that I’ll never forget: “Yes, she’s fine now, but she’ll be back. They always come back.” And there it was. It the midst of my curiosity, creativity, learning, eagerness, and naivety, I had missed the context of where I was working, and how people around me worked. That was my first instance of real conflict between the medical and creative ritual paradigms of healing. I knew in that moment, that I did not agree with that statement at all. I mean, not with the statement in itself, but with its connotation. Suddenly, I could see this conflict everywhere. In how colleagues talked about “addicts”, and how rare it was that anyone really believed clients could go on to have lives outside the cycle of addiction.

Everyone around me was treating the symptoms of addiction, and I was the only one looking for the causes. Why and how had they ended up in my rooms in the first place? My goal was to find “the thing” for each of my clients. I believed, as I still do, that once we find “the thing”, the healing can truly begin. It is hard to believe in this, and then work in a system which cannot, and sometimes does not, support true, holistic healing because of financial constraints. I feel that I became an expert in controlling the depth of creative expression and exploration of my clients. I could only take them as deep into their psyches as they could manage within the time frame imposed on us, but I felt a duty of care to help them as best as I could. I was under no illusions that I could “fix”, “save”, “heal”, or “cure” them. I don’t believe in any of those terms in this context. The healing is continuous, it never ends. It’s in the small, day-to-day actions, it’s in consistent work, rather than one-off cathartic releases. That was always my message to my clients: recovery won’t be easy, but it will help you to live your life, rather than survive it. It’s hard for people to understand that, actually, there is no magic pill. No matter how much we are fed that illusion by the medical paradigm.

I saw my work as creative and compassionate realism: in order to get better, they had to do some work. There was no easy fix for their problem, but their livelihood depended on them doing this work. However, even though it wouldn’t be easy, it could be creative, it could be compassionate. There could be joy and fun in their recovery. In fact, recovery also depends on joy and fun. In the weekly hour, or two hours, they spent with me they had the time and space to practice this. It was the only space in their lives where there was no right or wrong, good or bad. There was just trying. Sometimes it was about completely taking their minds off of their outside lives, sometimes it was about ruthlessly exploring and analysing their lives. I was rarely surprised by their stories, but I was always surprised by their willingness and desire to get better. That never changed. I got to witness the resilience and light of human compassion, connection, authenticity, and vulnerability every day. Certain Dramatherapy techniques would often go right over their heads, but never over their hearts or spirit. I could see it in their body language in each session, in their smiles, in their eyes. I could see it in their personal moments of insight, in their reflective words, in their tears, in their laughter. I could feel it in their deep gratitude, even though they couldn’t explain it themselves.

Above all, our sessions – yes, I always included myself as a fellow human still learning new things – were about life and death. This may sound dramatic, but this became apparent to me fairly early on. For a great part of the clients I worked with, to pick up again could literally mean death. A lapse could lead them straight to overdose and death. And whilst a lapse is never sudden and there are always signs before it happens, if someone is not paying careful attention, they can really sneak up on you. Sometimes, it’s not even an overdose, but it’s the fact that someone’s liver or heart has truly had enough. A few clients who worked with me over the years have lost their battle to drugs. The news of a client’s death always takes a toll, no matter how much supervision or boundaries one has. The presence of death inevitably influences the value we ascribe to life. This is why I was relentlessly and unapologetically passionate about my clients’ wellbeing and treatment. Not from a prescriptive stance of ascribing a certain number of sessions, or “dealing with diagnoses”, but by trying to find out their past, to help them change their present, and future. By listening to and acknowledging their whole lives.

This is in dedication to the thousands of clients I worked with in those 4 years, from whom I learned so much, who changed my life in immeasurable ways, who allowed me to feel and witness the true potential of human connection and compassion. I hope I made some kind of difference in your lives.

 

If this resonates, feel free to share with friends, family, and networks.

Thank you. xx

 

Ryan Campinho Valadas
HCPC registered Dramatherapist

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

 

Advertisements

…on Addiction: Part 1 – The Personal

img_2540.jpg                                   Fig 1: Addict in Archetype Cards by Caroline Myss

In a very similar way to what I mentioned in my “…on Mental Health and Therapy” post about people in my family not discussing mental health, addiction and substance misuse, particularly with alcohol, was also something I grew up with. There was never a real discussion about it, but I remember thinking, feeling, and even stating to my mother that I would never be drunk in my life. Watching some people in my family abusing alcohol and not knowing what to say or do about it, played a big part in my teenage introspection, angst, and internalised anger.

Yes, I experimented here and there as a child and teenager – what else do you think kids in small town suburbs get up to? – and even got quite tipsy with some friends during a school day once. All things that pass as “cool” when you’re growing up, because who doesn’t like to push and test the boundaries of what’s acceptable?

This all changed when I moved to Glasgow in 2006 for my first degree. I love this city dearly and deeply to this day, and always will. But as Dickens famously wrote: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” As I was planning to write this, I began to think about the first time I got really drunk in Glasgow. I even texted a friend to ask her if she remembered her first time, because we might have been together. And then I remembered: sometime either on or just after New Year’s Day 2007. It involved vodka, a pool table, and kissing someone I didn’t like. The story of that night eventually took on a life of its own, and I met someone a couple of years ago who lived in those some student halls the year after I left, and the infamous pool table story still existed, albeit completely different. But anyway… the really important thing about that night was this: being drunk gave me a feeling of freedom that I had never experienced before. I felt that I could be truly myself, say whatever I felt, and do whatever I wanted.

As I was finally living out of my closet and experiencing all these feelings for the first time, alcohol provided the perfect tool for me to be this new person I was becoming, but still didn’t know. It gave me the freedom to experiment and not give a damn about anything. I, who had been in active control of every single minute of my life, was now actively not in control. It was the best feeling ever! And so, I tried to capture that feeling every chance I could. This didn’t happen suddenly, however. I was very much still attached to goody-two-shoes me, and it was hard to let go of that. Progressively, I also began to notice that, lo and behold, I had a really HIGH resistance to alcohol. Tiny-waisted, 5’5, me! Since I had never really had my “wild teenage years”, I began to push this further and further, to find my limits, but also to crush them. I wanted to go beyond everything I ever knew. I continued to have my fun and discovering new things, but it wasn’t until my 2nd year in Glasgow, that things took a turn. I moved in together with some great friends, and as it so often happens, we stopped speaking to each other in the first few months of that living arrangement. Some of my other friends often told me that my flat felt like a really dark, cold, place. It was. Unbeknownst to all of us, that year was the trigger to a lot of future dysfunction and chaos in each of our lives.

I took my drinking to high gear. This was the year of the flat parties! Everyone had moved out of halls of residence and living in their own flats. Sometimes, there would be parties every day of the week, and club nights catering to different things every night of the week. That September of 2007 was the first time that I got so drunk that I couldn’t go home, because I couldn’t walk, and could only move by crawling. This would become a regular pattern for me at parties. That feeling of absolute loss of control was also amazing. It sounds crazy, perhaps, but in comparison to my life experiences, having no control was awesome! Even more than that, to be destructive! Slowly, I began to notice that what my body did was this: I didn’t have many stages of drunkenness. I went from sober to tipsy to crawling. And I could stay in the tipsy stage for many, many hours, and suddenly I would be crawling. There would be one drink that would send me over the edge, but I never knew which one would do the trick, and I found that extremely exciting!

Alongside all of this, I was also feeling a lot of feelings. Uncontained, unboundaried, needy, co-dependent feelings towards other men. You see, I had always repressed these, and when I let them out, I couldn’t control them anymore. And because I had repressed them in the shadows for many years, when they came out, they were not at all balanced. I was not at all balanced back then. If I kissed someone, or slept with someone, I would become emotionally attached to them. When they didn’t reciprocate I would feel awful. When they did reciprocate I would feel awful. I would feel awful no matter what. And so, slowly and progressively, being drunk was the only state in which I felt truly at peace. There were days where I was feeling so much that I would leave work or university, stop by the supermarket, grab a bottle of something – usually a 2L Strongbow – go home, and have that as my dinner. I would wake up the next day still wearing the clothes from the previous day, with the bottle next to me, completely numb: mission accomplished! I don’t think even my closest friends know I used to do this back then. This was the year I spent more money on alcohol than food. I used to say that as if it was a badge of honour. I no longer say it in the same way.

And then, my luck and my body ran out on me. I was out clubbing with some friends and I had some “boy drama”. Completely insignificant now, but then? Well, you’ll see what I did. I was at the Polo Lounge on a Wednesday, where all drinks were £1. I started having shots to get drunk quicker. But I kept feeling too many emotions and not enough drunkenness, so I kept having shots. To this day, I still don’t know the official count. I lost count around shot number 30. In the space of an hour. Oh yes! I still remember telling a friend, “I need to get some air”, and then I was throwing up outside the club for what felt like hours. Obviously, everyone I was with dispersed, or tried to help and I couldn’t take it. I don’t even remember. Someone I knew took me home, with several stops on the way for me to throw up, and I spent the next 3 days in bed. On day 1, I couldn’t even move my eyes. I didn’t eat, I didn’t drink. I was just in and out of consciousness. On day 2, I managed to call a friend and ask her to come over and help me to make some toast. Yes, I needed help making toast. My body promptly rejected that. I think I managed a shower around day 3, and was able to leave the house on day 4. After that day, every single time I had a certain amount of alcohol, I would throw up. Which for me meant that every single time I went to a party or a night out, I would end the night throwing up somewhere. Every. Single. Time. I still didn’t stop, though. I kept trying to go back to my “glory days”.

The “glory days” never returned. I slowly began to retreat from parties and nights out around my 4th year in Glasgow. I still drank too much every time, and threw up every single time, but at least I was doing it around 2 or 3 times a week, rather than 5 or 6. How I managed to do this alongside my full-time degree, 3 part-time jobs, dance company rehearsals and other activities, is still a mystery to me. Ah, youth!

I knew I would leave Glasgow a year in advance of my actual departure. When I left, it just felt natural and completely uneventful. I came to London to face a set of new and unknown challenges. The drinking pattern remained, but the expensive life in London was a great container for how often I used to do it. And then life gave me another wake up call. On Friday, 22nd July 2011 I went out with some work mates, and had two glasses of wine. I remember saying to a friend “I need to go outside”, and after that I have only faint memories of throwing up outside the club, being dragged into a taxi, being dragged into a bed, and waking up the next day not having any idea of what the heck had happened. My drink had been spiked, and luckily my friend had taken me to her house.

I made my way back home to Camden the next morning, where I lived, and went straight to bed. Several hours of going in and out of consciousness, and staring into space wondering how I had gotten there – figuratively and literally – I received a text from one of my great friends in Glasgow. It said: “Have you heard about Amy Winehouse?” I loved Amy. Her Back to Black album epitomised a lot of the darkness I felt about self, men, and drink. I still listen to it in moments of melancholy and depression. In that moment, as I laid in my bed, in my room in Camden, which was literally around the corner from her house, where she had literally just died from alcohol poisoning, is still to this day, one of the clearest moments of my life. As a personal symbol of recklessness and substance abuse died, I felt this choice for the first time in my life: stop or carry on. Live or die. Fight or flight.

I have been choosing to fight ever since.

If this resonates, feel free to share with friends, family, and networks.

Thank you. xx

Ryan Campinho Valadas
HCPC registered Dramatherapist

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

Deconstructing: Systems

 

fond_power_system

I’ve come to a point in my life where I’m confronting the fact that I’ve always been trying to be part of some kind of establishment, without even actually agreeing with it in the first place!

Why have I done this, in general? But most importantly, why have I done this to myself? Why have I made all these decisions to belong to places, people, and things, that 1) I don’t value, support, or believe in; and 2) don’t value, support, or believe in me? Fake belonging, validation, and low self-worth, that’s why!

Admitting this is not easy. In fact, I’m fucking angry and disappointed at myself. Making all sorts of decisions to please others and get their validation, whilst fooling myself into thinking that this is what I wanted, feels like a damn waste of time and life! Being 30 and realising that my goals and dreams were in direct proportion and relation to my family’s validation of my own “specialness” is quite depressing! I mean, it’s not their fault, and this is definitely not a “blame my parents” kind of blog. I don’t even believe in that. I was the one who accepted the story, believed it, internalised it, and have been living it until now.

A story of perfection. Do you know that it took more than 10 years of formal education for me to even drop below 90% in a test? I remember hearing mentions of “future Dr” from a really young age. Not even for the fact that doctors save lives or anything, it was for the title! People wanted me to have the title. And then I found myself wanting the title. I don’t even know when that transition happened. But it did, and it took until these past two weeks for me to finally ask myself the question: why do I want to be a Dr? For nothing special or that truly matters, that’s the answer.

Allow me to elaborate on that. Whilst I like some material things, I can actually be quite detached from the physical world. Emotions, spirituality, and bigger picture have always been my thing. My own mom sometimes asks me how I can be so detached from family affairs, and my honest answer is that in the grand scheme of things, most human interactions tend to be petty and superficial, including and especially family! I always wanted depth of everything. I never really wanted to just have friends to talk about boys or music, I wanted friends who could talk about how they FELT. I believe everyone has depth, but not everyone can access it. And so, if you can’t access the depth of your feelings, I’m sorry, but we are probably not going to make it as friends, or anything, really.

And this is what struck me this week: my insistence on becoming a Dr at some point in the future had nothing to do with depth. It was superficial, pure and simple. It was simply supposed to feed the image of perfection that I grew up to believe in and have been trying to deconstruct since my early 20s, first through self-destruction, and now through hard and uncomfortable spiritual and emotional work.

As I continue to do this work of deconstructing all these messages and social/cultural/familial conditioning I have received, accepted, and lived with, sometimes it becomes difficult to figure out what is really me and mine, or theirs. However, I can say with some certainty that one of my most genuine qualities and intentions in life is to help others. Again, going back to my earlier mention of depth. I want to help others in the depth of who they are. I think this is why I ended becoming a therapist, after studying so many other things. For example, when I studied Politics and International Relations with the intention to then go and work at the United Nations, I quickly discovered that I could never do that kind of work. The level, extent, and amount of game-playing, bureaucracy, and superficiality were too much for me. I felt that I would never be able to help people the way I felt that I wanted to help people, but also the way I felt people should be helped. Again, depth is my thing! And doing anything other than that, it frankly feels like a waste of my life. That is my integrity right there, and this is where I’ve often come into conflict with systems.

Every single time in my career of supporting and helping others – in its various guises – where I have been confronted with the choice of individual versus system, I have always chosen the individual, and have invariably always been punished by the system. A very practical example: I was working for a community service where I was therapeutically preparing clients for a residential service. The idea behind it was that I had seen clients go into residential services and then drop out within weeks because they couldn’t handle it, for a variety of reasons. So, me being me, I thought: what if I devised a programme where I emotionally prepared clients for their upcoming intensive therapeutic processes, thus giving them a chance to really understand and reflect on themselves, their choices, and their goals, and increase their chance of long-term recovery? In the end, I prepared them so well that the system asked me to stop, because I was hurting the system. Clients were choosing to remain in community services longer, to prepare better, therefore not going into residential services at such high rates. I argued, as I always will, that to me, the individuals are more important than the system, and if it is the system’s duty to care for individuals and the policies aren’t working, then change the policies, not the individuals. I no longer work with that service. And leaving my clients was one of the hardest days of the last few difficult months, because I knew that, deep down, not many people cared for them, in a system that is meant to care for them.

This is my problem with systems and the current paradigm of care: money always ends up hurting people, because people in those systems value money more than people. They value statistics more than people. In fact, my experience of political/egotistical fights within care services, is that the clients are always the ones who suffer the most. They are the last ones to know anything, to be consulted, or even to be considered. I love the work, but I do not enjoy the politics of the work at all. They are superficial and petty. No depth at all. The only thing that kept me going all these years in care services were the clients themselves. Everything else felt completely irrelevant to me. This is how I can tell the intention and integrity of any professional caring for people: how they refer to the people they work with. In the therapeutic world, if I hear a professional referring to people by their diagnoses or symptoms, I immediately know where I stand with that professional: in conflict. I will always defend the person, which actually entails letting go of everything I think I know, and they will always defend their training and profession. When the theory is more important than the person, then that’s another instance of the system taking over the individual.

I’ve always puzzled professionals when I get asked how I measure my clients’ progress. I often answer with “they smile more”. “And they can do their meditations without opening their eyes”, or “they found a safe metaphor for their trauma”. That’s all I need. And I say “all”, because actually I know that this “all” entails very profound and unconscious developments in the psyche, in someone’s heart, in someone’s spirit. It takes great unconscious dynamics to start a session full of anger, sadness, or resentment, and ending it with a genuine smile, and grounded body language. “How can you prove that this is due to your approach?” I used to get all flustered and try to answer this with all sorts of clinical jargon and theory in order to fit in into the clinical establishment of psychological therapies. My answer now? “I don’t need to prove a goddam thing!” My responsibility is to my clients. That’s it. And often, my responsibility is to my clients, despite themselves. The great paradox of therapy is that people will seek the help of a professional and will simultaneously reject it at every chance they can. That’s where the relationship develops.

So, this is what I mean by depth:
Basically, we all do things, simply because we’ve been doing them for a very long time. We developed a pattern out of some kind of need, but most patterns overstay their welcome. Here’s one of my most insidious ones, as an example: I experienced emotional neglect and hurt from men at a young age. So, I stopped trusting certain men to protect myself, but what happened is that I stopped trusting ALL men. However, I was not aware of this, and when I had any kind of relationship with men, I would never be fully myself because I didn’t trust them. I would present a façade, or in the odd circumstance of opening up to someone, I would promptly sabotage that relationship to avoid future pain. I wasn’t even aware that I was doing this!! And I spent YEARS doing this to every single man I met, gay or straight, personal or professional, friend or lover. No trust at all! I became fully and consciously aware of this pattern around the age of 25 or 26, and so, by that time, I had been doing this for 20 years. Most people are like this. We have decades upon decades of patterns which no longer serve us. Layers and layers of feelings, thoughts, sensations, circumstances, conditioning, external messages, all of them covering up the original seed of the pattern.

Now, tell me, in all honesty, do you really think ANYONE on this planet can help you with ALL of that, or something else, in 6 or 12 sessions? Let’s be honest with each other. My clients in addiction services always complained “But I spent 6 months in rehab, why am I still here?” Short answer: because you spent 20 or 30 years doing something, and you are not going to solve all of that in 6 months! I mean, simply look at the time difference! Why do we think this is realistic? Systems all around us tell us that this is the way, and we believe them! Every single time! We believe fast food is good. We believe fast diets are healthy. We believe we can sort through lifelong traumas through short-term therapy. Another example: I received some health news in May 2016, which changed my life. In turn, the news uncovered a deep-seated trauma, which not even 3 years of intensive therapeutic processes during my training had been able to reach. This thing had REALLY carved itself a deep, dark corner in my psyche. I was able to get some therapy through the NHS which I had to wait for about 5 months, and knew in advance that it would be short-term even though I wasn’t given a specific number of sessions. But anyway, I had a few sessions, worked through some stuff, released some demons, and then agreed with the therapist that for THE TIME BEING I felt good enough to stop treatment and go live my life for a while. Under no circumstance, did, or do, I think that I was “done” with the trauma. It’s there forever, and no amount of therapy will ever make it “go away” or “make it disappear”. What therapy does is help people to re-frame and contain their experiences, so these stories are not in control of you, but you are in control of them.

In the past 7 years of active and conscious healing in my life, this is what I’ve come to know and found difficult to accept at times: everything is a paradox, including healing and living a better, more fulfilled life. One of the greatest paradoxes of life is this: change is the only constant aspect of life, and yet is the one thing no one wants to do. Take that one in and let it percolate!

Do you want to feel happier, more focused, fulfilled, with more purpose, more joy? Then change will be necessary. Not always big changes, but changes nonetheless. And the biggest opponents to change are systems, for they represent collective patterns! So, when looking at your life and what might be in its way, it might be helpful to start thinking about which internalised systems might be trying to keep you “in your place”.

 

If this resonates, feel free to share with friends, family, and networks.

Thank you. xx

Ryan Campinho Valadas
HCPC registered Dramatherapist

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

 

We Need to Talk About Sex

SEX

Hello everyone!

It’s time we start having some serious conversations. And I think there is no better, or more relevant, subject than sex.

Do you know what has been the most surprising thing to me in all these revelations about sexual dysfunction? That people are surprised! I’m being very serious right now. I am surprised that people are surprised. I am surprised that so many of my male friends were surprised at how many of their female friends participated in the #metoo campaign online.

For a bit of context: I’ve always connected and related to women because 1) I’m very sensitive; 2) I grew up surrounded by women. I wasn’t just surrounded by them, but also felt like I had a front row seat to the dramas unfolding in their lives. I was very much an outsider growing up, so I did a lot of watching other people’s lives. I was always aware that there were different rules for me, than there were for my friends, my cousins, my colleagues, my aunts, my mom. I’ve witnessed the effects of discrimination, assault, abuse, and hate towards women all my life. I have witnessed women close to me being called whores, for daring to just be themselves. I had friends at school – school!! – who were beaten up by boyfriends who controlled them through force and power. I witnessed women being shut down every day of my life, in both explicit and implicit ways. And I say I witnessed this, because, I too, felt completely powerless to say anything about it. As the token gay person of the school/town/village, I was made to feel lower than any other social group around me. If I dared to say or do anything outside of my very controlled invisible presence, I would be punished for it. Harshly.

And as I came to grow into my sexuality and started having sex with men, I saw these same patterns being applied to me. As the receptive partner in sexual relationships, I found myself facing the exact same name calling, use of force, oppressive power, and violence that I had seen my female friends face in the hands of men, but this time, it was me in the hands of fellow gay men.

So, what I want all of us to start talking about is this: sexual dysfunction in ALL of its forms, guises, but most importantly, its origin!

I’ll admit, I’m feeling a bit aggravated. This was triggered after a therapy session where yet another client disclosed being a victim of sexual dysfunction growing up as a child and teenager. And let me tell you everyone: sexual dysfunction is REAL and it’s EVERYWHERE! And by sexual dysfunction, I mean the entire spectrum of psychological and emotional patterns which drive individuals to commit sexual harassment, assault, abuse, violence.

People who know me, know that I have a really high threshold for emotional distress, dysfunction, chaos, pain. I don’t know if it’s because I’m a therapist and I’ve been exposed to serious and complex lived experiences, or because I have lived through serious and complex life experiences myself, or even because I’m somehow more open and aware than most people. Whatever it is, I must say that one of the things that shook me to my core, and raised that threshold even higher, was the extremely high prevalence of cases of childhood and adulthood sexual abuse, sexual assault, and rape in the life stories of my clients in addiction services. All of it completely unacknowledged, unresolved, running people’s lives in absolutely destructive and unconscious ways. And as I accrued more clinical hours in my other field of work, HIV, similar patterns were present. And as I moved on to private practice, and to other life experiences and clinical presentations, there it was again! Statistics on childhood sexual abuse in the UK from the NSPCC may be depressing to acknowledge – https://www.nspcc.org.uk/preventing-abuse/child-abuse-and-neglect/child-sexual-abuse/sexual-abuse-facts-statistics/ – but my own clinical experience would say that these statistics are simply the tip of a very large iceberg!

So, in the past few months, I have been really reflecting on this, particularly the origins of all this dysfunction, not simply in relation to all the clients I have encountered in the past few years, but even my own personal experiences of aspects of this overall dysfunction. And let us not forget the current socio-cultural moment we are all living through at the moment!

For those outside the field of psychology and therapy, Abraham Maslow published a paper in 1943 where he proposed a theory of hierarchy of needs – you can read more about it here https://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html. According to this theory, represented by a pyramid, people are motivated to achieve certain needs, and some will take precedence over others. The needs at the bottom of the pyramid are our most basic ones, and the highest one is self-transcendence, or the fulfilment of a person’s spiritual potential. Guess where sex is on this pyramid? At the bottom, that’s right, with all the other physiological and biological needs. Right next to food, drink, sleep, warmth, breathing, etc. Let me repeat that again, in case you can’t see the profundity of our relationship with sex: it is on the same category as food, drink, sleep, and wait…breathing! And yet, if you think about it, how many of these other basic needs have been the subject, target, and used as a weapon of oppression, morality, misunderstanding, and misuse of power, not just for centuries, but for millennia? Think about that. Reflect on that. Let that sink in. Most of us are taught to dismiss, judge, oppress, repress, and shame, one of our basic needs. Perhaps the times in which he lived did not allow Sigmund Freud to tackle this matter in all its vastness, but he was definitely onto something with his focus on sex and sexual urges.

This moment is not just a moment for specific victims and perpetrators. It’s a moment of reckoning for all of us: where do each of us fall on this long and vast spectrum of sexual experience, and where exactly are all these lines that people keep crossing every day? Who’s responsible? Think back to your education about sex. How did you learn about it? Where? With whom? Obviously, factors such as gender, race, sexual orientation, age, disability, and belief system, play important roles in our relationship with sex, but really, beyond all of that, sex is something no one ever wants to talk about. It’s not a men’s problem or a women’s problem, it’s everyone’s problem! Not only no one ever wants to talk about it, no one wants the responsibility of dealing with it. How many times did I have to challenge colleagues when they told clients that it was inappropriate to talk about sex in therapy sessions, because they didn’t want to deal with it?

What are we teaching children? Young people? Why are people surprised about sexual dysfunction in adults when sex is almost universally seen and taught as something shameful and secretive, from the moment we are born? Do you really think that when toddlers are beginning to discover their bodies, and adults admonish them for touching themselves, that that doesn’t somehow leave a mark in that toddler’s psyche? They won’t remember it as a clear memory, but the feeling remains for a very long time, or even forever: “touching yourself is bad”. And as toddlers develop into children, and then into teenagers, and begin to really explore their sexualities and pleasure, whenever they masturbate, there will be a lingering feeling that even though it feels great, that it’s also bad and something to hide, and possibly feel ashamed of.

We cannot expect a world where adults engage with each other sexually with respect, boundaries, and care, if we don’t even bother to teach them anything as children. Someone does not become a rapist or a paedophile out of nowhere. Men don’t learn to look at women as objects out of nowhere. Women don’t learn to think of themselves as passive or powerless out of nowhere. Everything has an origin, a cause, a seed. We can’t ignore that. Talks of how men should behave towards women are empty, if we are not willing to look at the root cause of many of these issues: our relationship with sex, with all of our judgements, misconceptions, fears, insecurities, power dynamics, morality, and shame. Because the root cause driving the behaviour of abusers is the same as what drives the silencing of victims: a dysfunctional relationship with this basic need of ours. Can you imagine applying all this morality to the basic need of breathing? It sounds absurd, doesn’t it? Because it is!

Sex is a basic need because it provides us with specific nurturing, wellbeing, developmental, and healing qualities, but we somehow found a way to completely detach it from all the other needs and put it in a category on its own. But sex isn’t on its own – it is fundamentally connected to everything else about us as a species. If you had a group of children in a room, and you singled one out, and kept telling that child that they were bad, immoral, shameful, etc, how do you think that child would feel, and develop? This is what we do with sex as a need. We dismiss it. We hide it. We shame it. We avoid it. We disconnect from it. We compartmentalise it. How are you surprised about all this dysfunction? Oh, apologies. You most likely say to yourself that you couldn’t possibly commit some of these acts, or if you were a victim you would have reacted differently to the threat. Maybe, maybe not. The truth of the matter is that HUMAN beings commit and are victims of these acts every single day on this planet. I assure you that everyone will know someone who has been a victim of sexual dysfunction in their lifetime. And if we all know a victim, then we will all also know a perpetrator. Think about that, and let that sink in.

Going back to the list of basic needs listed above: food, drink, sleep, warmth, breathing, sex. Do you notice anything? I’ll point it out to you: sex is the only basic need that requires another person. Right there, as we grow up and develop, we receive the message that one of our basic needs, which is inextricably about how we relate to others, is something shameful and to be hidden away. If that isn’t the beginning of a whole lot of dysfunction, I don’t know what is!

I don’t have many answers. But I know we need to start talking about sex openly and authentically. We need to re-build the bridges between the physical and the emotional/spiritual aspects of sex in our lives. There haven’t been any bridges up until now, and that is how dysfunction has managed to thrive. We need to have these very uncomfortable conversations, shining light on this part of us that has been forced to live in the shadows. Some people’s lives literally depend on it. And I don’t mean just physical lives. Emotional, psychological and spiritual lives too! If your body is here, but your emotions and spirit are trapped, then you are surviving and coping, which is very different than living. All of our lives, and their authentic transcendental potential, depend on this. We can start this process by looking at ourselves, acknowledging and exploring what and how we feel about sex physically, emotionally, spiritually. And then we need to acknowledge where perhaps we have misused it, or been subjugated to its misuse. This part will be difficult. Very difficult. And then we can expand this process to other people. Perhaps sharing parts of our stories. Perhaps just listening to other people’s stories. Without judgement or shame. With compassion and kindness. With love. This will feel cathartic. But the healing will only occur, if we continue to follow these steps, consistently, continuously, and authentically. With each other.

If this resonates, feel free to share with friends, family, and networks.

Thank you. xx

Ryan Campinho Valadas
HCPC registered Dramatherapist

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