…on Gay Narratives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Ryan Campinho Valadas

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

 

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…on Human Emotions

inside-out-1Inside Out (Disney/Pixar)

 

A friend wrote to me last week saying “I hate human emotions”. I knew exactly what he meant! Do you? This feeling that we sometimes get, that it is all a bit too much, that emotions are uncomfortable, inconvenient, and just plain awful. Why do we have to feel? And why do we have to feel so much, sometimes? Wouldn’t it be better if we didn’t feel at all? If we could just go through life bypassing all these burdensome emotions?

However, when we say this sort of thing and ponder on these type of questions, we are really only thinking of a particular set of emotions, right? I mean, no one wants to give up joy, do they? We just want to let go of sadness, anger, disappointment. I mean, not even to just let go, we don’t want to feel them in the first place! Unfortunately, we are not actually able to repress or suppress negative emotions without affecting the expression and flow of the positive ones. When we repress and suppress the bad, we always end up affecting the good. And because repressing and suppressing requires so much energy, this is what we end up focusing on: the bad. We focus so much on it, that it becomes familiar, often too familiar. Familiar to the point that it becomes the standard by which we experience the world around us.

A great example is people in the LGBTQ+ community. I will speak from experience here: I became aware of my attraction to the same sex when I was 5 years old, and I started living life as a fully out gay man at 19 years old. That’s 14 years of conscious effort and behaviour to hide who I was from the world around me. I actually saw a meme the other day which made me laugh. It said “What is your acting experience?” to which the response was “Well, I was in the closet for many years”. People who know me now find it hard to believe that I ever passed as straight, but when I was in the closet I literally thought about every single thing in my day to day: the tone of my voice, my body language and posture, hand gestures, the way I sat and crossed my legs, the verbal language I used, my hair, my clothes. There were periods of rebellion, when I didn’t care about any of this, but because I used to be immediately punished by my environment when I dared to leave my box, I learned to do it less and less.

What do you think the impact of all this pretending, this repression and suppression, was? Well, I was so conscious about masking every part of my being, that ultimately I forgot who I actually was. Inadvertently, I also bypassed joy, wonder, and fun in my life. It is truly ironic that I became a Dramatherapist, and that I now work in children’s mental health, because I really, really, really struggle with play, spontaneity, and the joyful bliss of wonder and innocence. For as far back as I can remember, people used to say to me that I was too serious, that I didn’t know how to take a joke, I didn’t know how to play. They were absolutely right. To this day, I still struggle with all of the above. Why? I literally spent half of my life controlling every single aspect of it, in relation to how it appeared to the outside world. A child can’t be a child if they are constantly worried about what the world thinks of them. By default, there is no innocence, wonder, or spontaneity in worry. By repressing and suppressing the more uncomfortable emotions, I ended up repressing and suppressing the comfortable and exciting ones as well. And this happens to everyone in various contexts and environments.

So, this got me thinking about a few things. Mainly that our problem isn’t really with our emotions, but perhaps with our expectations. To be honest, I never really liked to categorise emotions into positive or negative. I find them quite neutral in their origin, power, and manifestation. Now, our reaction to them is a whole different thing! The reaction, yes. It is definitely categorisable! But even here, I still don’t like the positive/negative label. I prefer to use the terms creative or destructive. Quite literally, are you creating or destroying? And so, going back to my point, our problem isn’t really that we feel, but that we feel things we didn’t want or expect.

When we start something new – a new job, move into a new house, meet a new person – we tend to lead with hope. We want it to be good, to mean something, to bring us joy and happiness. Hope is very important! However, when we face obstacles on our journeys, the feeling of hope and excitement, often turns into disappointment, sadness, even anger. We have just moved from one end of the continuum to the other. Emotions are fluid, they move back and forth on this continuum of felt experience. But what gives it meaning? What gives it the category of “good or bad”? The mind. The rational and logical part of our brains. In order to simplify the brain, many theorists and practitioners have divided it into three main areas: reptilian, emotional, and rational. These areas follow the evolution of humankind, and so, if you think about it this way, emotions are actually quite primitive. And really not that definable. They just are. With evolution, we started to assign labels to them and quantify them in terms of their outcomes and manifestation in the world around us.

Many somatic therapies – body-centered – focus on this exact point: feel the emotion, don’t think it. The body knows what to do with it, but when we interrupt that process with our minds and begin to rationalise their meaning, we actually end up losing their meaning completely. The rational brain will dissect it to the point where there is no emotion left. Obviously, this process is also helpful, otherwise the brain wouldn’t have evolved the way it did. However, how much is rationality actually getting in the way of living in a more wholesome, holistic way? When we say we hate emotions, what we are really saying is that our emotions and feelings did not lead us to the destination created by our minds, via expectations. We attached our emotions to an outcome, a result. We wanted them to lead us to a specific point, and we then blame them for that, rather than the expectation we created in our minds.

When we meet someone new, for example, it is obvious that we are probably going to create expectations. We are human, after all. We are social beings, who want to be loved, and belong, and know that we matter. We are relational, we literally need someone else. However, our disappointment about obstacles to our expectations, is literally about the expectations. Not the emotion! What a great thing it is to feel! To have a spark, a connection with someone, a fellow human, a fellow being who is also looking to connect and spark. But then the rational mind comes in and starts asking all these questions: what does this mean? Where will this go? How will I know if this is it? How will I know if this means something? I do this ALL THE TIME! I usually joke that by the time the other person sits down to watch the movie, I’ve already finished the trilogy. It’s not my heart that is doing that. It’s my mind.

Let the heart feel. Check your mind. Let your emotions be what they are.

 

Ryan Campinho Valadas

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

…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 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 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

 

…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