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