… on Life’s Purpose

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I’ve been having many conversations about “purpose” recently. As in, one’s purpose in life. Personally, I’ve thought many different things about this through the years. I’ve been “certain” about what it is, but as I spoke about it on three different occasions to people in the past week, I realised that my perception of it had shifted again.

For context, I’ve always been quite driven. I was probably around 10 years old the first time someone told me that my dreams were too big. At the time, I must have been in my astronomy phase, where everything was about starts, planets, asteroids, the universe. I read books, I watched videos, and nothing felt more exciting than to figure out the universe. Even at that age, I understood that my dream would entail me leaving my hometown and my family behind, and go somewhere abroad, probably the USA. Interestingly enough, I also thought my dreams were too big. Not too big for me though; but too big for the people around me. And then the arts and creativity came into my life in a big way: dance, singing, writing, performing. It was the early 2000s, and my dream morphed into wanting to be an international pop star. People didn’t seem to be too excited about this, at all! Yes, I was attracted to it due to the bubble gum pop explosion of that era, but when revisiting the songs I used to write and compose back then, it is very interesting to notice that there was a very clear intention to explore serious issues. Yes, I was quite an intense teenager!

I remember having this feeling of wanting “to help people through my music”, and as my dream morphed from pop star to actor, from politician to humanitarian, from activist to therapist, this feeling was the thing that remained throughout those transformations: helping others. Even from my days of wanting to be an astronomer, I carry this life perspective of macro dynamics, of bigger picture, of understanding the individual by understanding the collective. Anyone who knows me really well, knows how much I can actually struggle with day to day life interactions, but get me talking about, or exploring, or working through the bigger picture of anything, and I’m happy and engaged. I guess that’s why the majority of those dreams were in the form of a profession or role that entailed macro dynamics. And then I ended up becoming a therapist, which is really about the intimate relationship between therapist and client. It made sense in terms of the helping people, but not so much in terms of the macro dynamics. At least, not at first. But after a few years of seeing clients, I began to discern the macro from the micro, as patterns and life stories began to merge into these collective narratives of the human experience. It’s not necessarily that we are all screwed up, but actually, yes we are! I mean, everyone has attachment issues. Validation issues. Relationship issues. Confidence issues. Everyone has been emotionally wounded by someone else, and everyone has inflicted emotional wounds on someone else. Everyone wants to be loved. Everyone wants to know that they matter. What’s really so different about all of us?

Through these professional developments and my own personal spiritual studies, I’d come to the comfortable conclusion that I was indeed here to help others. This was my life’s work, my life’s purpose, and everything I did was about that. But then questions started to creep in: how exactly am I helping others? Through Dramatherapy or spirituality? Through both, perhaps? And who are these others that I’m helping? Just my clients, or also my friends, my family, my acquaintances? By helping, do I mean saving? Isn’t that a bit too conceited? Did they ask for my help? Why do I want to help them? Where does this need of helping others comes from? What am I trying to prove, or validate? Why do I like to be around such darkness and chaos all day long? And why can’t I seem to help myself? Am I a hypocrite?

At first, most of these questions were quiet. And they would pop up only every now and then, and only one or two at a time. And as they became louder, I began to actively ignore them. I mean, I had now discovered the macro dynamics in my work, and I was slowly on the way to develop some kind of grand theory and methodology in psychotherapy that I would present to the world via a Doctorate, and finally become the Doctor my family always expected me to be! Yep! My work with my clients was somehow contributing to the deep validation I needed from my family. And from authority figures in general. And then I realised that I was in a co-dependent relationship with work, where my work was to help people through their own co-dependencies. Yikes! For those of you who used to follow my old blog and have read some of my newest posts, you know what happened next. Breakdown, existential crisis, falling apart, going away, confusion, loss, grief, death, rebirth.

Amazingly, I hadn’t really noticed the rebirth until this past week. Last Sunday, during one of my private practice sessions, one of my clients said to me: “You know Ryan, I’ve been actively looking for my purpose for years, and it’s only now that I’m beginning to think that perhaps my purpose is to just be me, the best me I can possibly be. You know?” Hearing that resonated deeply throughout my whole being. Yes, indeed! What if our purpose is really to just be the best we, we can possibly be? Not helping people, or saving people, or creating this, or changing that. But to just be present enough in your life, where you can genuinely and deeply say that “I’ve lived!” What if that’s it?

A few days later, someone else I know was having a hard day as they questioned what their purpose in life might be, as they perused through social media and looked at the apparent “success” of all these people they knew. And it was in that moment that I realised that my views on purpose had completely shifted post-breakdown. That I wasn’t looking to do this or that with my life, or through my work, or anything at all. I looked into the horizon of my own life and saw a completely blank canvas, rid of expectations of what that horizon should look like, or could look like. There were no specific plans, no visions. Most importantly, there were no expectations or hidden agendas about hardly anything. It was an inner freedom I had never experienced before, and I realised that for the past few weeks I had been living in the present moment of each day without many expectations. I was talking about this process to another friend yesterday, and I just find it remarkable that life actually feels so peaceful right now, in comparison to even two months ago.

The thing is, I surrendered. I woke up one morning in mid-November, after 6 months of inner strife and helplessness, and told myself that I was going to stop. No more being a therapist, no more living in London, no more to the future that I thought I was entitled to live, no more to the purpose of helping others and the world. I closed my private practice, my third sector HIV practice, and started reaching out to people in Lisbon about job opportunities. I truly let go of everything and surrendered. I had come to a place where I felt there was nothing else I could do, besides letting go. In that moment, last November, I felt the biggest relief I’d felt in a very long time, and felt, for the first time, that it was okay not to know anything about what my future would look like. All I had, truly, was each day, and my only purpose under those circumstances, was to pay attention to each day. Therein lies my shift in perspective. I no longer see my life as having purpose, my life is the purpose. Being myself is my purpose.

Ryan Campinho Valadas

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

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…on Making a Positive Impact (aka Lollipop Moments)

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Meredith Grey, in Grey’s Anatomy

 

Ryan Campinho Valadas

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

 

…on Following Life’s Clues

“Lives fall apart when they need to be rebuilt.”Iyanla Vanzant

 

As I was watching an episode of one of the many TV series that I follow, I was pleasantly surprised to see a cameo from one of my favourite motivational speakers: Iyanla Vanzant. In her cameo, Iyanla says the line above to the main character, and this has stayed with me for the past few days.

I always find December an interesting time of the year. Even though I have been following a spiritual tradition for the past 7 years whereby the new year actually starts around September/October, the previous years of conditioning have left me with this December = final month of the year type of melancholy and reflection.

In many ways, it has felt like my life has fallen apart this year. Mostly, that it has fallen apart in relation to what I expected from it. When I turned 30, earlier this year, I was frankly filled with excitement and hope. I was more than happy to leave my 20s behind, and I was looking forward to this new decade. A few months later, I was quitting a job and taking a leave of absence from my life in London. At first, I rationalised that, indeed, I needed a break, and sometimes breaks may appear in unexpected, dramatic form. I hoped that my time away would provide me with the necessary insight that I would require upon my return. In short, I was expecting a nice epiphany a la Eat, Pray, Love, whilst seeping cocktails by the beach. I know, I should know better than that. More importantly, I should know better than to make deals with life, and expect a specific result from a specific action. Why can’t I do something, and the result be exactly what I want and expect? I know! I keep having to learn this lesson, and honestly, it’s getting old.

I did indeed get my rest. I was able to have a wonderful summer, catching up with lifelong friends who also happened to be having some kind of “I’m 30 years old” crisis. I basked in the sun of my home country, Portugal, spent beautiful days at the beach, and had no concerns besides food, drink, rest, and entertainment. Honestly, my first real holiday in many, many years. What I didn’t do, however, was to allow myself to feel the things that had led me to my precarious situation of no work and no direction. I didn’t allow myself to fully and wholly experience the feelings of shame, failure, depression, and questioning, that were to come and needed to be processed with care and compassion. I returned to London with some trepidation as I was coming back to nothing specific, except some job interviews. I was aware that I hadn’t really processed much of what I needed to process, and told myself that “it would all be okay”. As I hadn’t experienced any kind of epiphany, I made a simple deal with myself: follow the clues. Follow the clues of what appears, of what manifests, and of what doesn’t happen. That was my only personal commitment upon my return.

The past few months have been months of falling apart. Not necessarily on an external level, but definitely on an internal level. These months have been months of unwillingness to let go and then being forced to let go. To let go of what? Of life itself, as I thought I knew it. Of dreams that I had and the expectation of how those dreams should come true. Of not getting what I thought I should get. Did you notice the use of “should”? Yes, me too. It’s peculiar, really, because even though I never actually got what I thought I would get, I somehow kept holding on to this belief that one day, I would. I mean, nothing in my life has ever manifested in the way that I expected, so why did I keep pursuing this belief, and causing myself unnecessary suffering in the process? Social, cultural, parental conditioning, perhaps. I mean, 9 years ago, I enrolled in a Politics degree because I had the ambition to become the Secretary General of the United Nations – the first out gay man to do so, too! I love my “firsts”. But anyway, it turned out that life experiences and decisions led me to qualify as a Dramatherapist, instead. Yes, it’s a long story!

In the past few months I have been battling with all my internalised oppression and judgement; social, cultural, parental, and familial expectations and conditioning; my own sense of failure and inadequacy; a very old destructive sense of worth; feeling lost and hopeless; trying all the options that I could think of; and being trapped in the midst of a situation that I didn’t understand and had never experienced. Even in the life experiences that led me to change my “purpose” from wannabe pop star to stage actor to politician and diplomat to therapist, I was always driven by something that felt clear. I haven’t felt that drive in months. I ran out of drive and motivation. In a way, I had accomplished much of what I had set out to accomplish when I was younger. Now what? When you’ve achieved everything you wanted, what’s next? It wasn’t clear. After a particularly tough day a couple of weeks ago, I decided to have “a heart to heart” with myself, about the future. The result of this was the ultimate letting go: letting go of how I thought and expected my life to be.

First, I decided to start removing things in my life that were not adding anything or were, in fact, adding chaos. There’s no point in adding new things, if you hold on to the things that aren’t working. This involved small and big things: from simply leaving a whatsapp group, all the way to letting go of my private practice. Second, to admit that I was struggling emotionally and mentally, and had been depressed for many months. You can’t heal what you don’t reveal. Third, I opened up to close friends, family, and colleagues. I was surprised by each of those groups of people. Some of my friends had been or were going through similar situations. I wasn’t alone anymore. My own mother said that it was okay that maybe I didn’t get to work in the area of my postgraduate degree! My mother! I thought she was going to be the most disappointed about the whole thing. No, it was all in my head, as it always is. And then my colleagues, particularly a manager, who was extremely kind and supportive of my decision to stop practicing. Fourth, I began to accept that, actually, I am not on any specific schedule to accomplish or do anything in particular, and therefore, I don’t need to struggle so much with “purpose”. I mean, if your purpose feels like a struggle, it is most certainly not your purpose. Fifth, and finally, I began to look at what was working. And there were a few things, despite everything.

I’m not writing this to now finish and say that I’ve got it all figured out. I don’t. I really don’t. But this is what I can observe from this experience: life did feel like it was falling apart. In many ways, it was. Deep held beliefs and values about life and purpose have completely crumbled and given way to something new: something that is unknown, uncertain, but ultimately something that feels true. How does it feel true? Well, do you remember when I mentioned about my personal commitment to follow the clues? Often unbeknownst to my own rational mind, this is what my soul has been doing all these months. In spite of all the superficial chaos and uncertainty, there has been a steady flow of consistent alignment with life’s clues. Perhaps, if I had paid closer attention to this, I could have avoided some suffering, but I can’t change that now. Hopefully next time, I will be able to let go and surrender quicker.

I will leave you with a clear example of all of this – it’s always nice to philosophise about life, but without practical life examples, what’s the point? So, for the past few months, I have been pursuing Dramatherapy work as a therapist in many ways: private practice, jobs, partnerships. Nothing has worked. And by nothing, I mean nothing. I saw that clue a couple of months ago, but kept ignoring it. 98% of my actions with the intention to deliver therapy led to nowhere. However, what has been working is the following: therapy-related, but not therapy-delivery roles, such as writing academic journals and blogs, editing an academic journal, convening subcommittees, working in a clinical field completely outside my previous clinical experiences. The moment I let go of being a therapist and all the hidden meanings attached to that, I was able to see the clues around me once again, and began to take confident steps into an unknown future, in an unexpected, but very exciting, new role.

Paradigms are changing at the speed of light. Things that were certain even a few months ago, no longer apply. Expectations are always limiting. Let go of them. Don’t try to bargain and negotiate with life. “This” action might not lead to “that” result. Accept that.

Follow the clues in your life: what’s working? What isn’t working? Pay and keep attention. Step confidently into the unknown. The clues will lead you to your treasure. Just let go of the idea of what that treasure might actually be. You don’t know.

Many of us are on this journey. You are not alone.

 

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

Thank you. xx

Ryan Campinho Valadas

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

 

…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

We Need to Talk About Sex

SEX

Hello everyone!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you. xx

Ryan Campinho Valadas
HCPC registered Dramatherapist

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