…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 Gardens

Voltaire quote

 

I didn’t know what to write about for this week’s post. In fact, I’m still not exactly sure of where this is going. But I told a friend earlier today that I was struggling with a theme, and she quoted the above phrase to me, from Voltaire’s Candide, which also reminded me of a lyric from a song called Special by Janet Jackson: “You have to learn to water your spiritual garden. Then you will be free”. And a little light bulb went on in my mind. “Let us cultivate our garden.” What does it mean? I see it as focusing on my life, on what I plant in my garden, what grows in it, if I’m able to take care of it, or if I let it die. Am I letting it grow wild, or am I controlling it?

I fall into the trap of comparing my life to other people’s lives all the time. This becomes particularly acute when my own life feels like it’s going astray. And since my life has felt like that for many months, all the way up to only a couple of weeks ago, I’ve been doing this a lot. Looking at other people’s lives. Their jobs. Their relationships. Their successes. Their weddings. Their babies. Their families. Their travels. Their accomplishments. And every single time I looked at these things, I felt worse about myself. I felt lonelier. A bigger failure. Not good enough. And thus a nice little cycle of depression ensued.

When we look at other people’s lives to compare them with ours, we tend to conveniently select the parts which are seemingly perfect and positive. And then we look at our lives and choose to only see the negative and the lack. It’s a funny thing, don’t you think? This tendency to only see the perfect in others and the bad in ourselves. I mean, why is it so difficult to see the good in our lives too? I was recently talking to another friend and telling her about my recent difficulties and the support I have been receiving, but somehow talking about my support in a negative way, as if it was a burden, or something I didn’t deserve. She just said: “Wow, Ryan, I don’t see it that way at all! As you were talking, I just felt how blessed you were to have that support!” This stopped me right in my tracks! There I was, going on and on about how bad I felt about this support I had been receiving, and failing to acknowledge how blessed I was to actually receive that support in the first place!

And why was I failing to see this? Well, I had been looking at everyone else in my life and focusing on their new relationships, their new jobs, their new everything, and feeling like I was missing out on those life experiences, because somehow I didn’t feel good enough to have those things myself. I was looking at their gardens and thinking that grass was definitely greener on their side. Every time we look over the fence to look at other gardens and their greener grass, we are literally turning our backs to our own gardens. We are neglecting our lives. And guess what? Grass will definitely become greener on the other side, because we eventually let our own grass die out, by being so busy looking over the fence. I looked so much at other people’s lives, that I allowed myself to feel bad about my own, because I wasn’t hitting the same goals as everyone else. And I wasn’t just doing this, I was also ignoring what was already happening in my life that was positive, rewarding, and purposeful. I had blessings all around, and I kept missing them.

It’s difficult to stay focused on one’s own garden sometimes. Most of our conditioning is about comparing ourselves to others, measuring up our successes and achievements against the failures of others, and dealing with our shortcomings through unkind and destructive actions. By focusing on comparison we are by default devaluing our own lives. By looking elsewhere and unfavourably comparing ourselves to others, we are really just telling ourselves that what we have is not enough. We all want more for ourselves. And there is nothing wrong with that at all. But is your wanting driven by lack or inspiration? Do you feel resentment and jealously, or compassion and support, when you look over the fence? Do you want to take people down, or do you wish them well?

We will look, and we will compare. Whilst it’s not always useful, since it’s something inevitable about human nature, why not use it to our wellbeing’s advantage? Focus on inspiration, rather than lack. On wishing people well, instead of wishing them bad things. Focus on love, rather than fear. If you think about it, our gardens often die out, or grow out of control, due to our own negligence. We have a part in every single situation in our lives. Even if that part is simply managing our reaction to a crisis.

We can’t expect things to grow, if we don’t take the time to plant them, and then nurture and nourish them as they grow. And we can’t expect things to grow overnight either. Growth takes time, patience, nourishment, care, and love.

Let us cultivate our gardens.

 

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 2 – The Professional

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Thank you. xx

 

Ryan Campinho Valadas
HCPC registered Dramatherapist

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

 

Deconstructing: Systems

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Thank you. xx

Ryan Campinho Valadas
HCPC registered Dramatherapist

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

 

We Need to Talk About Sex

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Hello everyone!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you. xx

Ryan Campinho Valadas
HCPC registered Dramatherapist

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

… on Mental Health and Therapy

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In thinking about the blog for The Healing Continuum, my intention is to take you a step further/deeper into my thought processes and life experiences. The reason behind this is that the most basic foundation of my therapeutic practice is that I am a human being, and you are a human being. That’s always our first point of contact, relation, and connection. Everything else is just… well, it’s everything else.

I started writing this post last week during World Mental Health Day and then life got in the way and I never finished it. Meanwhile, the angle I was going to write from last week has changed and a new post started to emerge today. It’s still on the topic of mental health, but different than what I had planned.

Either way, what better way to start my new blog than with the topic of Mental Health and Therapy?

I will start by saying how I see mental health now. For the sake of context, I have been actively studying a spiritual practice for 7 years, and Dramatherapy has been an active part of my life for the past 5 years. The combination of these two factors has meant that the past 7 years have been dominated by active self-development, self-reflection, self-awareness, self-awakenings, and the realisation that behind or underneath all the material illusions that permeate our lives, there is one simple truth: everything and everyone is connected. Not only that, our individual selves are an intricate system of interconnectedness. All of this to say that each one of us is a whole organism, which in turn is a microcosm for the wider organism that is our planet, and the universe.

As whole organisms, there is no separation of functions or elements. Everything depends on everything, because everything is connected. Thus, our physical health and our mental health are not only connected, but they are one and the same. They are just health. Simple as that. In the same way that we separate ourselves socially and culturally, we also have this nagging tendency to separate our individual selves. This is, in part, due to the way awareness and knowledge of health has evolved over centuries. It started with the body and experiments that would make our 21st century stomachs churn in revulsion. But that’s the beginning of western medicine, and that’s also the beginning of psychiatry.

The same way our bodies feel weaker sometimes, and require care or attention, so do our minds and hearts. You wouldn’t walk around with a broken bone for years, now would you? And yet, millions of people on this planet, walk around with untreated emotional trauma. However, therapy isn’t just about trauma or difficulties. We don’t just take care of our bodies when we’re sick. The fitness industry makes billions of pounds/euros/dollars every year, due to people’s commitment to improving their fitness and developing their bodies. I see therapy in the exact same way. It’s not just a place of healing trauma or illness, but it’s also a place of improving and developing psychological and emotional resilience.

Thus, because we all have mental and emotional health, it would make sense that we all would be committed to improving, developing, and taking care of that part of us, wouldn’t it?

Unfortunately, I believe we’re fighting against decades, if not centuries, of dogmatic thinking about the mind and the treatment of its many apparent dysfunctions. I still remember when I did an activity in a group therapy setting to identify emotions in the body, and all my clients that day identified them as being in the brain. I was shocked! Not even one person had put emotions in their heart space. It showed me that people perceive the brain and the head as the main centre of thoughts and feelings. That leaves a whole lot of body in complete disconnection from that centre. I don’t see it that way at all. In fact, the many studies on somatic psychology show otherwise. The body has and holds on to memories, feelings, and traumas.

Many people come to therapy and actually say “Am I crazy?” or “Am I normal?”. This isn’t just a question of language. Underneath, there is a real – and quite irrational – fear that you might be put in a straitjacket and be sent to a ward somewhere. When people use the word crazy in therapy, I believe that’s what they are alluding to. That’s the stigma. That’s the shame. Dr Brené Brown rightly says that shame “is the most powerful, master emotion. It’s the fear that we’re not good enough.” Coming to therapy, which is really seeking some kind of help, is for many people, the ultimate “I’m not good enough” action. And that’s why people don’t talk about their mental or emotional health – shame of not being good enough. I understand that fear – look at all the drama we all experience regarding our physical health, let alone our mental and emotional health! And yet, by not talking or expressing, we make it worse. Dr Brené Brown also states that shame “needs three things to grow exponentially in our lives: secrecy, silence, and judgement”.

I am here to break away from that shame and to help you do the same.

Growing up, I heard the word “crazy” many times in regards to my father’s side of the family. “Weak minds”, my mother would say. As I grew older, and especially after training to become a therapist, I was able to retroactively diagnose those members of my family: PTSD, schizophrenia, depression. We never talked about it.

My first memories of my own ill mental and emotional health go back to my early teenage years. I had begun to be bullied at school and had lost all my previous social capital. This was in relation to my perceived difference in sexual orientation and gender performativity, which I was trying to identify at the same time the entire world seemed to know exactly who I was. I look back at that time and know that I only survived due to my own naivety: I kept doing the things that I wanted to do, knowing that they were making the situation worse, and yet not really stopping to think about it. Things like being the only boy in gymnastics, or dance. Or the only boy in my school who (dared!!) to dye his hair. Just to give you an idea of where I grew up, my mother was actually called to the principal’s office because I had dyed my hair. Kids my age were doing drugs and getting pregnant, and yet, my mother was called to school because I had dyed my hair. Quite the scandal in 2001! I also tell people that I quit gymnastics because I had a “bad fall” during practice, which is true, but really, I quit my favourite sport because the bullying became too intense.

And so, there were days along the way where I would wake up and feel like there was no life in my body. I felt heavy, exhausted, my eyes could barely stay open. These days would come and go, and I wouldn’t know why. Obviously, I didn’t tell anyone. I was already covering up the relentless bullying at school and my sexual orientation for years, what was one more thing to hide? Slowly and quietly, this began to escalate, until one day when I woke up, and felt, for the first time in my life: “I want to die.” I would have been around 12 or 13 years old at the time. And as anyone who has ever tried to repress feelings and thoughts knows, repression only makes it worse. By dismissing those feelings and thoughts, they became stronger. I started expressing it through my writing, by watching horror movies, by listening to certain types of music. Death eventually became a daily feature in my thoughts and feelings. And this is during the advent of the internet and personal computers at home. Let’s thank the universe that I wasn’t as aware of the internet at the time, and never actually thought of researching suicide. All the information I got my hands on was through some books on psychology that I found in my school’s library.

I was to research, plan, and attempt suicide twice before I was 16. Again, I never really told anyone at the time. Suicidal thoughts and ideation are quite similar to depression in that they are completely isolating. Every thought takes you further inward, until they become all-consuming and start making perfect sense. People don’t tell that they’re thinking or planning to commit suicide because they truly believe that no one will listen or care. You’re in the dark tunnel. There is no light at the end, the beginning, or anywhere. You’re just in the dark tunnel. And people who commit suicide don’t necessarily want to die. They just want to end their pain. They are actually two very different things.

What ultimately, and very practically, helped in my case was that I changed schools. Not that many people knew me, and I could start more or less from scratch. And then I got a scholarship and left my country, family, friends, and everything I knew behind. I didn’t just leave, I ran away via plane!

The next stage of mental and emotional health illness arrived in my late teenage years and early twenties. I had decided to finally come out to everyone and live openly as a gay man. I rarely had any external issues with that, as I expected and feared. Instead, the demons were on the inside. Just imagine: you know that you’re somehow different than everyone you know from the age of 5 years old. You don’t know what it is, but you feel it. And somehow, you also know that your difference isn’t welcomed or accepted. You spend the next 14 years – and may I add that these are the formative years of mental, emotional, and physical health – hiding and pretending outwardly, and repressing and hating inwardly. Imagine that you spend the better part of those 14 years in constant fear of others and hate of self, and then you decide to tell everyone the truth. Do you think all the nice compartmentalisation you created is going to hold? Nope. I had more emotions in those two years post-coming out than I had ever felt, experienced, or been able to manage in my entire life. And so, I took to escapism: alcohol and sex were my highs of choice (more on these in a different, upcoming post!).

The heavy, exhausted body mornings came back. And because I didn’t actually have to attend lectures, I would stay home in bed for days at a time. And then the death thoughts also returned. And those were my darkest years. I would spend months at a time in a depressive state. Forcing food down my throat, so my body could function. And because I’d developed an aversion to actual suicide from my attempts, the next best thing was self-destructive behaviour. I gave myself a few alcohol-induced comas in those years. I wanted to end the pain, but I didn’t know how. And then one day, at the sexual health clinic, I was feeling so low, that I told one of the nurses: “I don’t know what I’ll do next, if I don’t get help now.” I think that was the first time in my life that I had asked for help about anything important. I was 21 years old, and that was the first time I had therapy.

Fast forward a few years, and a few life experiences, and I decided to enrol in my MA in Dramatherapy at 25 years old. I had studied drama before and thought I would just learn more about psychology and how to apply drama to it. Again, for context: my MA lasted 3 years. The first placement started after 3 months of training. It was a requirement to be in personal therapy throughout the whole thing – by the way, have you ever asked your therapist if they’ve had or have therapy? I’d just say that this is a very important point of being a therapist and some trainings do not actually require this! Go figure!

But anyway… personal therapy for 3 years. 3 years of being a trainee therapist. Also, do you know how we learn Dramatherapy techniques? By being therapist and client to our peers who are also training to become therapists. For 3 years! We practice therapy by being therapist and client to each other, we then go and be therapists to our clients, and then we go to our own personal therapy. Oh! And we also have a clinical supervisor, who is someone we talk to about therapy. Do you know how much therapy this is? I don’t know either!

The point is, if I didn’t know therapy before this training, I definitely know it now! And it was under this somewhat extreme set of circumstances that I began to find that therapy isn’t just useful when you are ill, or in crisis, but also when you are stable and balanced and want to know more about yourself, and live a fuller, more authentic life. It’s something you can do for a little while, stop, and return to, whenever you feel that you want or need it.

And I can say that there is no shame in asking for help, but I know that there is. That’s why I’ve shared very personal accounts of my own experiences of ill mental and emotional health. Even to this day, whenever something particularly challenging happens, I can feel those symptoms appearing, my isolation settling in, and my inability to ask for help. The main difference now is that, instead of spending months in depressive states and self-destructive behaviour, I’m able to spend only a couple of days feeling and being depressed and very rarely relapse into self-destruction. This is how I have measured my progress in a realistic and kind way. Others will have their own standards. But what I’m saying is this: yes, it is hard to ask for help. Yes, it might feel shameful. However, that feeling of vulnerability is ultimately the key to healing, transformation, and joy. Once again, to use the wisdom of Dr Brené Brown: “Vulnerability is the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness, but it appears that it’s also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love.”

Therapeutic processes enable us to heal mental and emotional wounds, and also to become more authentic and grounded in ourselves. They enable us to get and maintain balance in our mental and emotional health, in particular, and health, in general.

 

Ryan Campinho Valadas
HCPC registered Dramatherapist

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