…on Gay Narratives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Ryan Campinho Valadas

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

 

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…on Human Emotions

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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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Ryan Campinho Valadas

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

…on Swimming (and other life lessons)

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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 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/

…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