…on Self-Love, Relationships, Narratives, Change, Paradoxes

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Boy, oh boy! What a couple of weeks! Yes, I skipped a week. I felt anxious about it for a few days and then realised that it wasn’t conducive to my already fragile wellbeing and decided to let it go. At the end of the day, not writing for a week, is really not THAT serious!

I started last week telling my flatmate that I had no idea what to write about, when in fact, I knew fully well that the only reason I couldn’t write was because there was in fact too much to write about. Too many thoughts, too many feelings. Too many conflicting patterns all going off at once, leaving my internal wellbeing a hot mess of chaos. This was caused by an unexpectedly combination of events in my real life: two great friends’ birthday parties, no sleep, no rest, irregular food intake, and alcohol. I stayed up for more than 40 hours on some kind of energy and adrenaline, I most likely drank too much, even though I never felt overtly drunk, and didn’t eat properly. To add on to all of this, I spent the weekend surrounded by gay men. Usually, this wouldn’t have caused anything in particular, but the slow debilitation of my physical energy, meant that I probably opened up my emotional reserves more than I would have otherwise.

And let us not forget: whoever one is in the world, wherever we come from, whomever we relate to, there is always a high chance of being triggered by one’s identity, one’s place of origin, one’s community. Between being at a party full of gay couples and a party with mostly single gay men, something in the air was carefully pushing all my buttons and triggering all my core traumas, without me even realising that this was taking place. In short, I was confronted with the thing that causes me the most insecurity: relationships. And indeed, this is one of the core principles of The Healing Continuum, and one which I understand in concept, but not in actuality. I mean, I know that we are all wounded in relationship – traumas do not appear from nowhere by themselves – and I understand that most of our healing must actually happen in relationship. Please note my carefully placed distinction between “knowing” and “understanding” in that sentence. I know the wounding, but I only understand the healing. This means that even though I am more than comfortable guiding others through their relationships, when it comes to my own… well, I still don’t know.

And since I also ended up getting ill following that wild weekend, I ended up having a lot of time to think about all sorts of painful things. Too much time, if you ask me! When I drop into my rabbit hole, I really drop into it. It is often days before I’m able to resurface, and re-establish some kind of connection and balance in my life. This particular trip lasted longer than usual, and it took me back to the days when I used to be in a depressive state for months. Something had really been shaken up in my core. The days following this drop into the rabbit hole were marked by several “signs” of what I needed to focus on. Even on Valentine’s Day, of all days, I get this message: “it’s about you, Ryan.” It’s about loving me, taking care of me, being the best me I can possibly be. It’s not about finding those things in others, so I can somehow feel healed, complete, or whole. Again, I understand this, but I’m incapable of knowing this at this point in my life. I’m very comfortable guiding others through their self-love, but my own? I remember Maya Angelou and Oprah often talking about the maxim of “Those who can’t do, teach”. I deeply relate to that. I don’t know many things, but I understand many things.

My self-love, in association with my self-worth, is something that has escaped me ever since I can remember having a sense of self. Many, many, many things have contributed to this. Some major, and deeply traumatic; others subtle, but deeply corrosive. The Rumi quote above came to me on Valentine’s Day via my Facebook feed. It is so simple, and yet profound. That’s Truth, I guess. There is indeed a seed, planted somewhere in my past, and from professional experience I know others have experienced the same, whereby love becomes about someone else. We learn that love is something that someone else brings into our lives, which ultimately leads us to a place of peace, happiness, and salvation. By default, we learn that we are not enough.

The message of self-love has been beaten out of most fairytales we tell our children, and each other. No wonder people roll their eyes at the mention of self-love: it truly is a foreign concept for many of us. In fact, I woke up feeling such exasperation on the day after Valentine’s Day that I decided that I needed to go back to personal therapy, for my sake and that of those around me. I was truly feeling like I had given everything I had to my unhealthy patterns of emotional unavailability, and it was truly time to change.

The day after this decision, I was talking to some colleagues and fellow arts therapists about monumental life changes and decisions, and one of them was telling the story of how, a few years prior, she had reached such a point in her life, that she could no longer figure out anything about the world around her. That she couldn’t even figure out how to change the narrative of her life, only that the narrative had to change, no matter what. This had felt imperative, crucial, almost life or death. As she was telling this story, I felt deep resonance with this idea that the narrative needs to change. The story needs to change. That some things have gotten to such a point, that it is not even about finishing a chapter and starting a new one. The whole, unfinished book needs to go out the freaking window! I don’t need to start a new chapter, I need to start a new book! I felt this need for a change so deeply that I not only knew that my new commitment to personal therapy was indeed vital, but that this new process will also be excruciatingly painful and critical to my own survival.

The main quote on my Facebook page is by Carl Jung and it goes: “Only the paradox comes anywhere near to comprehending the fullness of life.” I feel that there’s probably no greater paradox than that of Change. It’s the only way to move forward in life, and yet, it is one of the scariest experiences anyone can go through. I’m not simply talking about changing jobs or houses – which are in themselves great examples of this paradox – but I’m referring to the type of change which reaches the core of oneself, and after which one can no longer go back. Moments of before and after in one’s life: diagnoses, death of someone we care about deeply, trauma, meeting someone, moving somewhere.

I mean, my move to the USA at 17 years old triggered such a monumental succession of events, that I’m not even able to imagine who I would be if I’d never done that. But I’m talking about change, because, right now, this is what I fear: the unknown of this new Ryan who will emerge from the letting go of all of these unhelpful and toxic patterns of emotional unavailability. I understand that this new Ryan will be a much better and healthier version, but I don’t know that yet. And because I don’t know it yet, it is very scary. Simultaneously, it is also essential. Therein lies the paradox: fear and love, destruction and creation, death and life, are always together.

 

Ryan Campinho Valadas

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Ryan Campinho Valadas

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

…on Swimming (and other life lessons)

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Picture: (from left to right) Ryan at 18, at Langley High School; Ryan at 30, at Out to Swim

I’ve just come back from a weekend where I participated in a swimming competition for the first time in 13 years! The whole weekend had a very full circle moment type of feeling. The last time I’d been in a pool competing, I was swimming a butterfly event, where my goggles had fallen off, and I miscalculated the distance between myself and the wall, and took a stroke too many and smashed my head into it. I was out for the rest of the event, and for the rest of the season. Back then, I used to swim for my former high school in Northern Virginia, Langley High School, home of the Saxons. This time, I’m swimming for Out to Swim, a LGBT Masters Club in London, where I also do synchronised swimming. This weekend, my first event was the 50m butterfly. My return to competition was in the exact same event where I had left competition. Needless to say, I was very, very, very nervous! I wanted to do well for myself, for the team, whilst trying not to be consumed by the fear of having another accident in the water.

The moments just before diving into the water this weekend, reminded me of two very important life lessons: overcoming myself, and being in the moment. I mean, at one point, I actually thought: “Ryan, you’re being your own worst enemy with all this fear!” And it’s so true!! How many times do we falter because of our own fears and doubts? It’s not even about the people around us at all. It’s all on the inside! I’d forgotten how sports really do bring this point home so quickly and in such a physical way: the only person you need to beat in a race, is yourself. The presence or absence of doubt and fear can make or break an athlete, in whatever discipline. Not just in races and events, but also in training. How many times these days am I in a pool, and think “I don’t need to work that hard”. Yes, maybe not. But also, maybe I could. Who knows what’s on the other side of overcoming an obstacle, right? I remember many a session in my high school team, where I had to run off to the changing rooms mid-session to throw up, and then come back to the pool and continue swimming. There’s a very special, which sometimes may seem a bit brutal, discipline in sports, where you overcome both physical and psychological limits. It’s a deep pain followed by a great release into something new and previously unexplored: a new personal level.

Being in the moment is also crucial. One of the swimmers, who is also a coach on the team, said something along the lines of “Dive in, see how you feel, and go from there!”. Isn’t that great? What a fantastic way to think about a race, or any challenge really! Dive in, see how you feel, and proceed accordingly. This actually really helped me this weekend, which, needless to say, also pointed out how I tend to experience life: I’m always in the future. I used to be always in the past, and to some extent, I still am, but these days, I spend a lot of time in the future. I often miss out on life, not because I mean to, but because I’m not paying attention to what’s around me NOW. Like this weekend. In all of my races, I was already at the end – almost avoiding the whole thing, by wanting it to be over. I do that too often, if you ask me! Unsurprisingly, my best race this weekend, was the one race where I did exactly as my fellow swimmer and coach said: I dove in, I saw how I felt, and I proceeded accordingly. In all the other ones, I got a bit too distracted by other things. But in that race, I felt fully present throughout. From diving in, to the first few strokes, to my breathing, to my arms, my legs, to the last few meters. It is the simplest, yet most difficult thing there is: to be present in each moment.

However, the best part of the whole thing, was the feeling of community, of belonging to a tribe and group of people, bonding firstly through the love of the sport, but more deeply through each other’s humanity and conquering of personal limitations and doubts. Being with my team this weekend, really reminded me of my old team, and my old community of swimmers, and their parents. Even though I’d been swimming since I can remember, my time at Langley was the first time I swam competitively, and trained accordingly. Swimming every day of the week, being part of a community of swimmers and their parents, who all loved the sport and the thrill of the competition. I had joined the team to make new friends – because that tends to be the best way to find one’s tribe in the world – and felt very much at home. I remember some practices being gruelling, but the feeling afterwards was always amazing. And even though I wasn’t at all the fastest or anywhere near being any kind of “star”, being part of that team was very important to me. In fact, my favourite part about swim meets wasn’t even about swimming my own events, but about cheering for and supporting my teammates. And this is what I experienced again this weekend, and what gave me real joy: cheering on for my peers, bonding through our shared experiences, and just generally being together with friends in a spirit of friendship and unconditional support.

I’d also forgotten about this wonderful aspect of sports: the community it can create, and the power it has to bring people together. I feel very grateful to have been reminded of this.

Ryan Campinho Valadas

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

…on Making a Positive Impact (aka Lollipop Moments)

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Meredith Grey, in Grey’s Anatomy

 

Ryan Campinho Valadas

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

 

…on Politics and Consciousness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

Ryan Campinho Valadas

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

…on Gardens

Voltaire quote

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let us cultivate our gardens.

 

Ryan Campinho Valadas
HCPC registered Dramatherapist

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

…on Addiction: Part 3 – Lessons in Human Connection

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How did my sessions help?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Thank you. xx

Ryan Campinho Valadas
HCPC registered Dramatherapist

W: http://www.thehealingcontinuum.com/