…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

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…on Swimming (and other life lessons)

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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

…on Making a Positive Impact (aka Lollipop Moments)

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I’ve started this blog many times over this week, but somehow couldn’t get it finished. I’ve started and stopped. Deleted and rewrote. I worried that I wasn’t committing to my pledge of a weekly post. And then I reminded myself: “It’s not that serious”. Which is so true!

But as I was chatting to a friend last night, I finally got the piece that was missing.

Exactly a week ago, I received some professional training for a leadership programme that I will be delivering to children in the next few months, and it included the following short video:

 

 

In it, Drew Dudley describes a moment where he changed someone’s life without even realising that he was doing it. A few minutes of his life where he made a joke and talked with some strangers, and those people’s lives changed in that instance. He reflects on the power of these moments in each of our lives – when we say or do something which ends up having or creating a lasting effect on someone else’s life, or when others do this for us. He also questions why we rarely share these moments with the people who created them. Why do we rarely say: “You changed my life when you said that”?

He uses this moment to illustrate a new type of leadership – a positive impact leadership – where the goal is not to be better or above anyone else, but really to share, include, inspire, educate, and care. And then to use this knowledge and wisdom that we care about and nurture the experiences of others around us, and accept that as a positive trait about ourselves. To build on our own self-esteem and self-compassion, which then inevitably translates in more positive actions and words. It’s a win-win! His particular moment involves lollipops, hence why he calls these moments of positive and long-lasting effect, “lollipop moments”. Now, before you go any further down this post – have you watched the clip yet? Please do. It’s quite short, around 6 minutes, and it’s nicer to hear him share this moment in his voice, rather than through my words. Once you finish watching it, come back.

What did you think? Did it resonate? Did it move you? Have you ever experienced something like that? I have – many, many times. Many people over the years have said or done something that either changed my life, or validated its importance, which sometimes can be life-changing in itself. That’s why I got all teary-eyed when I watched this clip. Because people had done that for me, without knowing it, and I’ve probably done the same for others, also without knowing it. And so, I’d like to take the time to mention a few of those moments, and to let people know how they’ve changed my life. In no particular order:

One of my 7th grade teachers, Helena Garcia. Upon writing my first short story for a school assignment, she simply said “bring me more”, thereby encouraging me to keep writing, using my imagination, and giving meaning to my life at a time when I used to contemplate suicide on a daily basis. The AFS student, whose name I can’t even remember, who gave a presentation about AFS’ exchange programmes at my school in 2002, and COMPLETELY changed the course of my life. Mrs Schultz, whom I’m able to call Nancy now, who let me have lunch in her office at Langley High School, which made me feel so welcomed and taken care of and allowed me to slowly become accustomed to American school and culture. To Ms Mary Marshall, who has sadly passed away, and introduced me to the writings of Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, and Flannery O’Connor, and always asked, “so what?” Her contribution to my critical thinking, creative writing, and passion for literature are immeasurable and I miss her wisdom dearly. She’s very much the reason why I decided to write a memoir, which is currently in the works. To Yuri, who looked at me one day in a cafeteria in Glasgow and said “You have so many thoughts running through your mind!”, thus making me realise that other people were actually paying attention to me and could see right through my masks. To Jenny, who didn’t judge me after a particularly crazy night in Glasgow, and showed me through a very simple “It’s okay”, that it’s indeed possible to have relationships without judgement. To Miryam, a Kabbalah teacher and volunteer, who just asked me one day “Do you want to change or not?”, and I’ve never looked back on my spiritual transformation since. To Claire, who after hearing about my most life-changing news to date, said “It’s time to live your life”, and she was absolutely right. By saying such a simple statement, she actually helped me to focus on life, when all I could think about was death.

These are just a few examples. There are many, many more, by many, many other people in my life. Some are no longer with us, some I haven’t seen or spoken to in years. Some, are still with me on a daily basis, which brings me to the point my friend made last night: consistency. As a devout follower of the “Church of Oprah”, I remember her telling the story of when she was stopped by a woman whilst grocery shopping one day, and this person told her: “I used to beat my kids. I don’t anymore. I heard you say that you shouldn’t beat your kids on your show many times. I didn’t hear it the first, second, third, even fourth or fifth times, but I did eventually. And then I stopped. Because you kept saying it. You never changed your message”. And this is so important!!

As much as life can change in specific moments, life also changes through the day-to-day, through the consistent effort each one of us puts into our lives, relationships, and work. Last night, my friend Waddah said that he always thought I was consistent, that I was a rock. And this moved me, because consistency is actually one of the most important maxims in my life. I’ve learned this personally, and I’ve seen it many times as a therapist – the paradox of life changes lies not necessarily in big moments of change, but most often in the daily, consistent practices that we choose to act on. Even though I write a lot, there is nothing more important in human relationships than action. And if I’ve struggled with something, I always try to ensure that other people don’t struggle with the same. It’s in my nature, but it’s also become part of my consistent practice of living. To not just say what my values are, but to live them. To walk my walk. There aren’t that many things that I value more than this.

And so, I also wanted to give special mention to the consistent presences of love, support, and life-changing daily interactions: Natasha, David, Matthew. Words escape me to fully express what you mean to me.

What are some of your lollipop moments? Who has changed your life? Have you told them? Have you shared how much they mean to you and why? Don’t wait too long.

“Did you say it? ‘I love you. I don’t ever want to live without you. You changed my life.’ Did you say it?”

– Meredith Grey, in Grey’s Anatomy

 

Ryan Campinho Valadas

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

 

…on Politics and Consciousness

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When I was 17 years old, I moved to Great Falls, Virginia, a beautiful and wealthy suburban area of Washington DC. The year was 2004 and George W. Bush was to be reelected that November. Being so close to Washington was really inspiring. Before the election, my school held student-led debates on different issues, and students of each political party got to participate. I’d never seen that before to that extent: so many politically active minds amongst my peers! Not only that: I was an exchange student, on an exchange programme, with dozens of exchange students from all over the world. The organisation is called AFS and you should check them out and the amazing work that they do – https://afs.org.

My mind opened up to such an extent during that year, that I knew in my heart and soul that my life would never be the same again! And how could it stay the same? When you meet people from every corner of the world, your view of the world inevitably expands and your values change. When you immerse yourself in a different culture, you not only understand people’s differences better, but also their similarities. I have defended this ever since: every young person should get the opportunity to not only travel, but to be able to live in a different culture for at least 1 year before they’re 25 years old!

My desire and commitment to change the world and make it a better place became solidified after that exchange programme experience.

Was it difficult to leave everything I knew behind at 17 years old, go live with an American family I’d never met, and go to a school filled with teenagers I didn’t know? You’re damn right it was! Would I change it? Not at all! I truly believe I wouldn’t be me today, without that experience. In fact, I was so inspired by my time living near Washington DC, that I decided to enroll in a joint university degree of Theatre Studies and Politics. I still wasn’t sure at the time whether I would change the world via theatre or politics, so I decided to do both and hopefully know by the end of the 4 years. Because I was planning to go and work with the United Nations, I focused on Human Rights, Refugees, Humanitarianism, International Development, Nationalism, and Politics of Latin America (a post-colonialism interest of mine). I knew within a few months of studying Human Rights and International Development policies and dynamics, that this would not be the place for me to make a change.

My biggest take away from the practice of diplomacy was that everything was always considered above a human life. Culture, economics, religion, politics. Everything seemed to be more important than someone’s life. I felt that diplomacy often rested upon the idea of political correctness, which I saw as a way of never confronting oppressors. I mean, so much money is poured into certain impoverished areas of the world and everyone involved knows that money is never going to get to the people who really need it, so why is it going there in the first place? I couldn’t get past questions like these! When I learned about the bureaucracy within the various UN systems, I decided to stop pursuing this possibility. Not because it’s not good enough in general, but it wasn’t good enough for me. It wasn’t urgent enough. In fact, the more I learned about the dynamics between developed and developing countries with regards to debt and interest rates, the more disgusted I felt. I mean, “developed countries” continue to keep “developing countries” in their place through exorbitant debt and interest rate payments, which are usually attached to aid, but they were the ones who pillaged these countries of natural and human resources for centuries, in the name of religion and progress. Who actually owes whom in this dynamic? Whilst I love theatre, when it comes to real life and people’s livelihoods, these are not matters to be played with, and I couldn’t play what I saw as a game of diplomacy for personal/national interests to the detriment of others. Even then, my tolerance for systems taking advantage of people was almost non-existent. I’m not a game player when it comes to human dynamics and relationships, and I knew then that I would hate working in political environments.

However, I was also introduced to something else during that period of my education, and this actually came from Theatre Studies: the idea that “the personal is political”. An argument originating in second-wave feminism from the 1960s, this is the notion that personal experience is inherently and inevitably connected to larger social and political structures. The study of feminism, queer theory, and postmodernism gave me the language to describe the feelings of oppression and marginalisation I had always felt as a gay and queer individual, and witnessed as a close friend of many other marginalised groups of people, particularly people of colour. I’m not sure that people who have never experienced political, social, and cultural oppression are able to fully grasp the concept that “the personal is political”. In fact, the whole idea of privilege is attached to this: if you consider your personal life private and separate from political structures, you are privileged by default. Marginalised groups always experience their personal livelihoods as political. Oppression and marginalisation are not simply felt on a personal level between individual oppressor and oppressed. They are systemic. Societies, countries, and institutions are built, and depend upon them. And this was when I began to truly comprehend the notion that you can only change the world one person at a time. Because the personal always comes first.

I don’t claim to know when or how, but I suspect that at some point in human evolution, this idea that the personal is political was there, but it progressively became separated. Much like everything else. I see much of history as a story of division and separation. Current cries for empathy and love in today’s world are not resonating enough, because we have millennia upon millennia of divisive stories and histories to overcome. This idea that politics is somehow “over there”, away from us, that only certain people should discuss or be in politics, is ludicrous. Politics belongs to all of us. Politics is how societies are structured. Politics, in reality, tend to be a reflection of its populace. Not necessarily of who they are, but of how they are. I always go back to the basic human needs I have discussed many times on this blog: to be seen, to be heard, to be validated, to be loved, to know that we matter. This is who everyone is. But how everyone is, depends on how we act according to these needs, whether we have them met or not. And thus, going back to my previous point of changing the world, we cannot change our politics, unless we change ourselves. The world gets changed one person at a time. We all go through the same global events and circumstances, but we all react differently to them, and it’s in our personal reactions to the world around us that we need to start this work of transformation.

Human evolution has brought us to a place of deep divisions. I’m not sure where I read or heard this, but Charles Darwin didn’t just write about natural selection, but also natural cooperation. Nature isn’t thinking about “survival of the fittest”; it evolves at its own pace, in an intricate cycle of life-death-rebirth. Even human-created systems are cooperative at their core: religion, politics, culture, societies. But it’s always easier to focus on the negative, rather than the positive, and so all of these systems have, over time, chosen to focus on separation, division, and lack, rather than cooperation, integration, and abundance. And I feel that this is where much of the world is at, at this point in time. There’s a growing number of us who can clearly see a new way, and are prepared to cooperate, integrate, and share in the world’s abundance, and others who are simply not there, and perhaps never will. And just like we can’t save anyone from themselves, we can’t make anyone change their views, until they do. We cannot control the process and timing of this, and that is why it’s painful. But the acuteness at which politics is influencing everyone’s lives at the moment, seems to be a sign that there is indeed a change taking place. It is important to remember that “the secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new” (Socrates).

Politics is not just for a few, it’s for everyone. It is ultimately a system of cooperation, rather than division, and so, as long as there are groups of people with less rights, or without representation, there is work to be done. As long as the system accepts division and fear-mongering, there is work to be done. We are all connected, and ultimately a system that only works for a few, will ultimately collapse. As much as we repeat history in terms of conflicts, the collapse of corrupt empires and structures is another very common feature of our collective histories. Whenever this happens, a new world order is born. It is in our hands to lay the foundations of a fairer, more cooperative, more integrated, more inclusive, and more compassionate system.

For inspiration, and some comforting consciousness, on what may be happening in the world right now, watch this video:

 

 

Feel free to share, if this resonates. Thank you!

 

Ryan Campinho Valadas

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

…on Family

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Christmas has now passed and being with family in my home country, has made me quite reflective about families in general, and mine in particular. I read yesterday morning – Christmas Day – that the sacred book of the Zohar, used by students of Kabbalah and orthodox factions of the Jewish faith alike, actually says something along the lines of “Who needs enemies when you have family and relatives?” That’s probably a comment and reflection on how dysfunctional biblical families are, but it resonated deeply with me.

I come from a large family. My mother is one of five siblings, each sibling had two children and so I grew up surrounded by aunts, uncles, and cousins. We all used to live fairly close by to each other, and growing up, the whole family used to get together for everyone’s birthday, Christmas, Easter, and most Sundays. We used to even go on holidays and beach trips together. It was messy, loud, but tons of fun. As everyone grew older, this began to change, as disagreements between grown-ups created irreparable rifts, and family gatherings began to diminish in size. I half-joke about this, but I’ve told my mother that the five siblings will definitely come back together again in their next lives, as there’s no way their souls will resolve their issues in this one. There isn’t a single one of them who currently speaks with the other four. It’s sad, really, but unfortunately, it’s also human.

I’ll admit it, I always had an idyllic and naïve perspective on family, always feeling my family’s many disagreements quite acutely, and always returning home quite excited to see them all. I’m the youngest of 10 cousins, so maybe that’s why. I also ended up being one of the first ones to leave home, at age 17, to go and live in the USA, as part of an academic exchange programme. That was my first, and so far only, Christmas away from my family. In hindsight, calling my family home on Christmas’ Eve and speaking to everyone was quite brutal. I remember hanging up the phone and crying uncontrollably for hours. I vowed to never spend Christmas away from home again. But in the 12 subsequent years of returning home for Christmas, I have noticed this feeling dwindling more and more, as I guess my own notion of family changes.

In the 13 years since leaving home, I have done and been through many experiences, including coming out and changing my first name. These are not small matters. In the beginning, this was a clear break with the past, a fresh start in every possible way. Over time, this “new me” has become “just me”, and the people who have witnessed that process, and been with me through ups and downs, have turned out to be family as I always envisioned it to be. You see, at least for me, the older I got, the more aware I became of others’ expectations of me. Almost as if there were conditions for love and support. Being away from biological family, enhanced my experience of human relationships and dynamics, of true acceptance and belonging. Different people of different cultures will pick up on different signs and behaviours, and being part of a true global family has meant that not many signs have gone unnoticed. I still remember being at some cafeteria in Glasgow, staring into space, when a friend of mine from Japan tells me: “You have so many thoughts running through your mind!” I mean, I’d been doing that for years, and no one had ever noticed that I wasn’t actually staring into empty space, but really travelling through many different thoughts, feelings, situations, etc. A bit of my mask came off right there and then.

And there have been many instances like this over the years. From my Scottish friend, raised in Singapore, showing me complete empathy and no judgement the first time I threw up after drinking too much; to my Spanish-Indian friend who has been my most constant and consistent friend for the past 11 years; from my friend from Hong Kong who shows me the joy of living every time we’re together; to my dearest, dearest flatmate and friend, born in Serbia and raised in Australia, with whom I’ve lived for the past 4 years and with whom I’ve never had a disagreement – we laugh and cry together, we talk about EVERYTHING, and we are absolutely playful and authentic with each other. Alongside these friends, there are many, many others, whom I trust and love with every fiber of my being, and know they feel the same. This was always my vision of what family should be: a group of people who unconditionally support and love each other, have healthy and clear emotional and spiritual boundaries, are able to challenge each other with compassion, and are able to be equally joyful and serious around each other.

For a few years, I thought this was too ambitious, or too idyllic, and that it didn’t exist. I mean, I certainly had no experiences of this in my own family. Why did I think this would be possible? As I changed aspects of my own personality, through spiritual practice and emotional/personal development, I began to meet more and more kindred spirits like the ones I described above. Around 10 years ago, they would come into my life very subtly and very few far and between. As my growth and consciousness expanded, as I reduced chaos in my life, and as I woke up to different realities around me, the more of these wonderful people kept appearing. And lo and behold, I have found my own family and it’s exactly as my vision always pointed me towards. Through this kindred spirit family, I have been healing the core wounds acquired through my biological family. Sometimes it’s hard work, sometimes it feels hopeless, but most times, it feels inspiring, freeing, and above all, loving.

I suspect this experience may be similar to many other people’s experiences around the globe, particularly queer folk, who often grow up in families which don’t accept, understand, or even care for, them. A chosen family is often more powerful, because they represent the healing in relationships, self, and spirit which we all seek. In Kabbalah, we learn that the soul actually chooses the family in which it will be born in a specific lifetime, in order to resolve whatever karma it has from previous lives and overcome this correction. And so, actually, biological families are often the most complex relationships we will ever have, because they represent most aspects of what our souls are here to correct or work through. Talk about baggage!! Biological families are here to show us the way, but their role is not necessarily about being on the actual journey.

This is for the family that comes with me on the actual journey. I love you dearly.

 

Ryan Campinho Valadas
HCPC registered Dramatherapist

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

…on Addiction: Part 3 – Lessons in Human Connection

 

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One of the great lessons I learned in my addiction work was to connect humanely, by listening and being present.

Some people believe in the disease model and therefore find relief in having a diagnosis of addiction. Others refuse the label. Some people have found salvation in religion, others in AA and similar fellowships, others in a life of service to peers who are starting out their own path of recovery. Some people need abstinence, others harm reduction. Some go to SMART meetings, others need therapy. Some have decades upon decades of trauma, others have lived a fairly ordinary life.

We still don’t know why some people can binge on alcohol every single weekend and not become addicts, and why some do. Why some people can engage in chemsex once every few months, and why some can’t live without it. Why someone can try cocaine once and never do it again, and why some can’t stop doing it. There are clues, theories, studies. But no conclusions yet. Even if you can’t understand why someone can’t live without a fix of something, you need to believe that that’s their experience in that moment. It’s not your morality or judgement which will magically change someone’s mind and heart about it. Not even your love sometimes.

Whilst I provided the same sessions to everyone, I never worshiped at the pedestal of any one theory or method. Some people only need to follow one approach, others need to follow several. Some people reach balance fairly quickly, others take countless attempts. There is no one size fits all for anything, especially not in addiction. And it’s important to be honest, and have the integrity and authenticity to say that, sometimes, my own approach is limited. I’m not trained in medicine to be able to understand certain physiological and neurological processes, or even extensively trained in psychological theories. Part of the magic of an arts therapy is that it is a collaborative process. The art form provides a container for whatever trauma, issue, or theme is being explored, and the therapist carefully checks in with the client about each stage of the process. And whilst sometimes art is indeed cathartic and enables people to experience powerful releases, it is also something which provides healing on an unconscious, rather than conscious, level. In short, it is something qualitative, rather than quantitative. For that reason, its effects manifest at a slower pace at the surface, but provide greater potential to transform at a core level and on a long-term basis.

But sometimes, people need results fast, and practical actions now! Often, an arts therapy is not able to do that. But another therapy or approach might. And that’s why treatment shouldn’t only be a collaborative process between client and therapist/practitioner, but also between practitioners. I always told my clients: use the elements of every approach that work for you, and use them for you. You don’t need to like every single thing about AA, but if there are a few elements of it that work, why not incorporate that into your life? Again, the magic pill illusion is strong and pervasive and everyone wants the solution to come from one source only, but the truth of the matter is that the solution is in many different places at once. There is nothing more dangerous to someone’s care than a practitioner’s unwillingness to collaborate with other approaches and colleagues.

Around halfway through my time working in addiction, I read an article by Johann Hari, and promptly bought his book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, an impressive account of an investigation carried out over 3 years about the war on drugs. There is also a TED talk you can watch here: https://www.ted.com/talks/johann_hari_everything_you_think_you_know_about_addiction_is_wrong. But the book opened my heart and mind not to something new, but to something I already believed and had experienced: the opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety, but human connection. He uses several examples throughout the book to illustrate this, and whilst there are always people trying to debunk theories and experiments for whatever kind of hidden agenda, I deeply resonated to that main hypothesis. And I believe it, because I have felt and lived it as truth, every single time for close to 1000 actual hours of seeing clients in the field of addiction.

And I think this is why I experienced my work in addiction with such depth and power. It was about connection. I’ve shown pictures of archetype cards in Parts 1 and 2 of this addiction series, and I feel that the general archetype of an addict holds so many things for people. Ask yourself: what are your views on addiction? What do you think about addicts? How do you feel about people who become addicted to something? There is such dehumanisation in the label of addict. And “junkie” is even worse. If someone receives that label, there’s absolutely nothing human about them. I mean, I understand the process of using language to dehumanise people. I’ve had that done to me many times because I am gay, and so I find it very easy to recognise the same processes in different contexts. There may be many reasons for it, and people will be triggered by different aspects of the addiction experience, but I feel a great deal is about control. Addicts represent and symbolise this idea of losing control of everything. In societies which rely on the illusion of perfection, having people show and demonstrate the opposite, is quite sacrilegious. Thus, addicts bear the brunt of many of our judgments. We demonise the fact that they have lost control, we demonise the behaviour they engage with in order to get their fix, and we can’t seem to understand why they can’t “just stop.”

But this is what I saw in most of my clients: trauma and abuse. I’ve said it before in a different post, but the scale of childhood sexual abuse or sexual violence in this population, shocked me. Also, as I said before, I’m always curious about causes. Why and how? What happened? When? With whom? By whom? As sobriety is not the opposite of addiction, so is addiction not about the drug of choice. That’s why drug treatment services get it so wrong sometimes: it’s not just about removing the drug. The drug is used to hide something. That something is the issue. All these programmes of 8 or 12 weeks are only useful up to a point. Yes, the client has reduced their use, reduced the harm caused to themselves and others, and maybe achieved abstinence, but now what? Goodbye and good luck? No wonder “they always come back”, as that clinical psychologist said in that life-changing meeting. The system has created a structure which puts bandages on life-threatening wounds and bleeds. Addiction is the opposite of connection, because the connections that exist in active addiction are broken, toxic, dangerous, and life-threatening. You can remove the drug, but if no one takes a look at those broken, toxic, dangerous, and life-threatening connections, you’re damn right “they always come back”. And yes, sometimes people do need to come back because they are not ready to face “the thing” they’re trying to escape.

This is why and how my work became less metaphor-based and more realistic. I needed to provide enough hope and enjoyment that clients would feel motivated to be in recovery, but I also needed to work on their expectations that 12 sessions could get them out of a cycle that some of them had been in for decades! Not months or years, but decades! What kind of short-term intervention do you think can help in the long-run? The only clients who have managed to remain abstinent for long periods of time were clients which needed to go through the system several times. People don’t change when you want them to, they change when THEY want to. That’s why no one can save anyone else, but themselves.

Ultimately, this is the lesson: I don’t have many answers. In fact, the only answer I have is that it is imperative to re-humanise addicts, if that even makes sense? No treatment will ever be successful if the person does not have the experience of being treated like a person, with valid thoughts, feelings, life stories, and if they’re not allowed to try new things without fear of failure. More importantly, no recovery from addiction will be successful if a person is not given the time and space to heal relationships and how they connect to others.

How did my sessions help?

In spite of the confusion people normally project onto Dramatherapy, I always tried to run sessions that were quite simple in their structure and intention:

1. Mindfulness exercise – the intention was to help clients have greater awareness of their bodies, minds, and hearts in the here and now.
2. Checking in – allow each person to share about their week, day, or current moment, without interruptions
3. Creative activity – this could be based on the themes of the check-in or the continuation of whatever work we might have already started in previous weeks. No rules in this section. No right or wrong. No good or bad. The intention here was to try, to be present, to connect, to be creative, to imagine new things.
4. Reflection – sometimes equally, sometimes more important than the creativity itself, this section was about making connections between the creative process and the real-life process. The focus was on insight and on finding practical solutions.
5. Checking out – any final reflections, insights, feelings, thoughts, or questions they may have at the end.
6. Mindfulness exercise – same as above, but with the addition of focusing on something positive they could take away from the session that was helpful and hopeful.

Every single one of my sessions follows this structure. In a world of constant chaos, this provides clients with a stable, safe, and reliable structure. And so, generally, this structure alone helps clients in a myriad of ways:

  • Awareness of self: body, mind, and heart
  • Reflective processing: not just about relaying what happened, how, and with whom, but also focusing on their feelings about people, places, and things. Making connections between outer and inner worlds.
  • Sharing authentically and vulnerably with others
  • Being challenged on patterns in a compassionate, healthy manner
  • Developing healthy boundaries
  • Increasing sense of self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-compassion
  • Building positive relationships and healing relationship patterns
  • Using active imagination, being creative, having fun whilst helping themselves and others
  • Changing perspectives and ways to look at things
  • Finding practical solutions: translating therapeutic insights to real life actions.

As I said above, these things wouldn’t necessarily all happen in one session, and certainly not with each client. And also not all at the same level. Every now and then, I bump into clients on the street years after our sessions and I often hear: “I finally get it Ryan!” And that’s enough for me. I go through that all the time as well! In fact, sometimes I still remember things I did years ago and think “Oh, so that’s what they meant by that!” There are always exceptions, of course, and some clients never connected at all. But this list was my own personal guide to keep me focused on my role and responsibilities. I see each of these items as a seed, and I see my sessions as an opportunity to plant these seeds. Whichever way they grow is not something I can control.

And then specifically, there were real instances of making changes in someone’s life which I cannot share in detail, but they range from helping someone to gain an insight about certain relationships, whether it’s neglect, abuse, or even actual love and care – you’d be surprised at how many people cannot recognise love and care! Or coming to terms with death, severe trauma; releasing anger and rage for the first time; understanding how they had hurt someone; finding redemption and forgiveness; recognising shame; accepting joy and love; embracing hope.

Thus, my main focus was to help them feel their life experiences, love themselves, find growth from their trauma, and connect to others with healthy boundaries. Everything I did, had these four main intentions as a foundation. My final lesson from this experience is: meet people as people, remove judgement or morality from the interaction, listen to their needs as they perceive them, feel with them, be authentic, be open and creative, offer suggestions, let them choose, tell yourself that you’re no different from them, smile from your soul, with your heart and body.

 

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/