Ask the Dramatherapist…”What is it all for?” – Creativity and Big Magic

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As you may have read in my previous blog post, some big changes have been happening in my professional world, which are inextricably connected to big changes in my personal world.

I have been asking myself many questions lately, and have been seeking answers and wisdom from different sources. However, and even though I know this to be true, answers haven’t really come to me until this morning, for the simple fact that this morning was the first time that I allowed myself to listen to myself, to my intuition, to the inner resonances of my soul.

I am very aware that clients often think that the only healing taking place in a therapy room is theirs, when in fact, the healing is mutual. I learn and heal as much as my clients do. As Yalom said: “it’s the relationship that heals”. Not the theory, or technique, but the relationship between therapist and client. Why? At the end of the day, we are simply two human beings connecting. And if that connection is founded upon authenticity, openness, and compassion, then I think healing will always manifest itself.

One such example occurred yesterday. I am currently seeing a client who is a performer, and we have been engaging in exciting, authentic, truthful, challenging and compassionate explorations of what it is all for. Why do we create? Why do we make art? And holding the space for this client to find their own answers, has allowed me to find my own answers.

In my recent questioning of what it is all for, I have started reading a wonderful book, Big Magic, by Elizabeth Gilbert (https://www.elizabethgilbert.com/). She is the author of Eat, Pray, Love, which is one of my favourite memoirs, and I have always resonated with her ever since I first read that book 8 years ago. She is a creative being, with an active spiritual consciousness, and I relate to that deeply.

But going back to Big Magic! Yes, I had had this book on my bookshelf for more than a year, and a week or so ago, I found myself in my bed wondering “What is my next step, what should I do next?”, and this book caught my eye. So, I got up, picked it up, and began to read it. I must say, it is not a book that made me go “WOW!” or anything, but it was a book that moved me deeply. And this is what we fail to notice in life, sometimes. That the messages and signs are simple, quiet, but deep. We always think that life happens in the big moments, but it’s often the combination of smaller, quieter, simpler moments that add up to form our legacies.

There are many, many, many nuggets of powerful wisdom in this book, but the biggest thing I’m taking away from it is the motivation to create. She asks a question towards the end of the book which is a trickster play on the famous self-help question “What would you do if you knew you could not fail?”

Instead, she asks: “What would you do even if you knew that you might very well fail? What do you love doing so much that the words failure and success essentially become irrelevant?”

Let me ask that again: WHAT WOULD YOU DO EVEN IF YOU KNEW THAT YOU MIGHT VERY WELL FAIL? WHAT DO YOU LOVE DOING SO MUCH THAT THE WORDS FAILURE AND SUCCESS ESSENTIALLY BECOME IRRELEVANT?

She also addresses the question earlier in the book of what happens when someone doesn’t actually love anything that much, but that’s a matter for another time.

Right now, in this moment, I want to write about this. What do I love so much that failure and success become irrelevant? I don’t necessarily have the words to describe it, but in a Dramatherapy session is when the client and I both experience a revelation at the same time. There is a burst of energy in the heart space, the eyes open up, the lips form a smile, and there’s a deep breath. A deep knowing has been reached. A wall has collapsed. The flow is flowing again.

I have thought about these moments a lot, and I feel them as creation. As life. It’s my very own way of contributing to the flow of life on this planet. The act of creation: to allow something to be born, or released. And that right there, is what I love. And that, my friends, does not depend one bit on whether I fail or succeed. I will always love that.

As I continued to think about that, I realised that I have been neglecting the artist in me. The uniqueness of any arts therapist is that we are all both artists and clinicians: we are painters, sculptors, craftspeople, musicians, singers, dancers, actors, directors, writers, poets. And we know how to channel the creative process to facilitate the connection between unconscious and conscious living. We create with our clients. We create! That’s what we do!

And this is what it is all for, for me: to create. Full stop. To create without an agenda, without the saviour/rescuer/helper complex. In Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert very wisely writes: “it is very kind of you to want to help people, but please don’t make it your sole creative motive, because we will feel the weight of your heavy intention, and it will put a strain upon our souls.” Ouch! When I read that, I felt like I was being slapped across the face. And I felt that because it was true. Because I have made my whole life about helping others. I mean, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that, but I could still feel an imbalance, you know?

I felt not only an imbalance, but a dependency. That my creativity was solely to help others. And then Big Magic made me question this, at the same time that I have been questioning many other things, and it dawned on me this morning, that my creativity was for its own sake.

That creation is creation is creation.

Life is life. Creation is creation. Art is art.

I encourage my clients to stay in the moment, in the process, and always reinforce the fact that Dramatherapy is not about the outcome of showing anything to anyone. That the process of Dramatherapy just is. We create, in order to create some more.

And this is what I’m left with in this moment of my own process of questioning and reflection.

What is it all for? To just be. We don’t need to justify our creation, just like we don’t need to justify our existence. This is my commitment to my very own Big Magic, which is a term Elizabeth Gilbert uses for the flow of inspiration: to create and enjoy the process. Full stop.

I exist in order to exist more. I live in order to live more. I create in order to create more.

“Creativity is sacred, and it is not sacred.
What we make matters enormously, and it doesn’t matter at all.
We toil alone, and we are accompanied by spirits.
We are terrified, and we are brave.
Art is a crushing chore and a wonderful privilege.
Only when we are at our most playful can divinity finally get serious with us.
Make space for all these paradoxes to be equally true inside your soul, and I promise – you can make anything.
So please calm down now and get back to work, okay?
The treasures that are hidden inside you are hoping you will say yes.”

– Elizabeth Gilbert, in Big Magic

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An open letter…The margins of therapeutic practice

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To: All practitioners working at, and in, the margins of mainstream structures.

Last year, I presented a paper at The British Association of Dramatherapists’ Annual Conference, exploring the dynamics of visibility between margins and mainstream. I presented and reflected on my work as a therapist in a marginal profession with a marginalised client group, HIV+ gay men. I defended that more must be done to move Dramatherapy and the work that we do as a profession, from the margins, to the mainstream.

I am here now, to challenge and dismiss that assertion, and to accept, embrace, and own my place at, and in, the margins of therapeutic practice.

Some of the most common feedback I receive in my sessions goes like this:

“I was really anxious about this session, but I feel so much better now. I don’t know why.”

“What we did last week really shifted something in me, but I don’t know why or how.”

“At first I thought this was weird, but then it made sense. I don’t know how to explain it.”

Do you notice anything about those statements?

Yes, they all include “I don’t know” why, how, what, etc. And guess what? Most of the time, I don’t know either.

Now, let’s look at this scientifically.

In fact, let’s not. If I wanted to be a scientist I would have studied Psychology or Psychiatry. And not to say anything in particular about those disciplines, but I studied Dramatherapy. And that’s that.

I never had a scientific mind, or enjoyed that process very much. I was always a “feelings” and “energies” type of person. I could always sense things and knew them to be real. Could I prove it? Not really. Did I feel the need to prove it? Not at all. Why? I always felt that an authentic connection between people did not need a piece of paper to validate it.

I read clinical articles sometimes and think “What else is new? Tell me something I don’t already know!” Now, I completely understand and value the process of rigorous methodologies and studies in order to prove something, and create the necessary robustness that a health care profession needs in order to be registered and protected. But I never felt the need to go through those processes myself. I’m currently writing my first clinical article, and the headaches this is giving me are quite something. The idea of finding theories to prove the dynamics of human connection, is frankly stressful. I know, crucify me already!

However, somehow in between the beginning of my training as a Dramatherapist, and my current work almost two years post-graduation, I have found myself trying to be part of the clinical psychology establishment. Me! Of all people! Me, who has always pushed against established ways and systems.

Yes, for the past few years, I have found myself trying to seek the validation of senior clinical teams who demanded evidence-based research for my work and approach, and for years I have endured this fight with openness, poise, and willingness to learn. And yet, I have continued to be on the losing end of that fight, and I have finally understood why: I have been trying, mostly unconsciously, to make a marginal and relatively new therapeutic approach part of the established mainstream. And I have been trying to do this on my own, in my little corner of the Dramatherapy world.

Thus, after a renewed demand that I stop using the term Dramatherapy because there is no evidence-based research for drama as therapy, I finally decided to claim my own boundaries, and respectfully said no. No to this demand! As a registered and protected title, a Dramatherapist IS a therapist, and it is my professional and legal right to use it. Moreover, I will cease to attempt to be part of the mainstream, because, guess what? I doubt Dramatherapy will ever be part of the mainstream therapeutic establishment. And for the first time since I have started studying and practicing this approach, this is perfectly okay. I have experienced this recent situation as a classic case of “I’m not good enough.” Somehow, I have felt inferior to other psychological therapies, and this has been my drive to be part of, to be accepted, and validated by the more established professions in psychology and psychiatry.

And, if I may say so, I sense this is a general feeling amongst the profession. Not consciously, per se, but if I have been experiencing this, I can’t be the only one, right? I still remember a few years ago at the AGM of our professional association, there was a motion to seek out accreditation from the BACP (Counselling and Psychotherapy association), and a member of the community stood up and asked why we needed such a thing, if we were already a registered and accredited profession? I think this has stayed with me until now, because now I get it. Why, indeed? If we are strong, authentic, and boundaried enough in our conduct, why do we need others to tell us what great work we do? And if we don’t think we are good enough, then let’s all look at that, and have a conversation about it.

I can honestly say that it was a rude awakening this week to realise that, actually, I didn’t think I was good enough all these years of studying and practicing. That a part of me carried the belief that Dramatherapy was not good enough. That perhaps other professions had a point of challenging every single one of my moves and decisions. As I was going through my process of awakening this week, this anonymous quote came through on one of my social media feeds:

“Stop asking why they keep doing it and start asking why you keep allowing it.”

And then it all made sense. It’s not just that people keep challenging my profession and training, it’s also that I ALLOWED IT to happen. I kept accepting their authority without question.

No more allowances on this front. I have put in place a healthy boundary: a boundary which whilst remaining open to new ideas and approaches, is also protecting and taking care of my own approach and my sense of growth within it.

By asserting this boundary, I am saying: this is what I do as a Dramatherapist. I use drama to explore the depth of individuals’ emotional experiences, and facilitate the sustainability of long-lasting change and fulfilment in their lives. No more, no less. No comparisons to other professions and approaches. No further explanations. This is it. I experience the value and worth of my training and talents on a daily basis, by the feedback I receive and transformation that I witness. And that is enough for me!

I choose to focus on causes. On people. On human connection. On compassion. On experience. On living, and thriving. And this is my commitment to all my clients, and myself.

 

Reflexions… On Loving Thyself

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I have been proactively studying and practising spirituality for 7 years. It has rarely conflicted with my Dramatherapy practice and studies, and I find that it actually complements my professional training.

One of the main teachers of my spiritual practice used to say this about the teachings of any religion or spiritual practice: “Love thy neighbour as thyself; and the rest is commentary.”

Meaning that, everything that everyone ever needs to know, and do, is in that little sentence. Simple? Yes. Easy? Not so much.

I have been observing for many years, that whilst most people understand the premise of that teaching and reality, they often leave out the last part of it. In fact, how many times do you just see “Love thy neighbour”? We are all trying to love and accept the “other”, but we often fail to love and accept the “self”. We forget the “thyself” part of the equation, and then we wonder why there is so much hate and misunderstanding in the world around us. We can only love and accept others in relation to how much we love and accept ourselves. If we don’t see enough love and acceptance towards others around us, is because there isn’t enough love and acceptance towards self.

I think most people know this, but not everyone feels this. Someone once told me that the most arduous path there is, is the one that connects the mind to the heart. And I’m not even adding the soul to that equation. Connecting the mind and the heart is a big enough task to start with.

Why am I writing about this today? Firstly, recent events and the ways in which we perceive the “other”, hate, and love. Secondly, a dear friend was questioning his spiritual/sexual identity recently, and I found myself using this teaching to make the point of acceptance clear. Thirdly, every point/topic/theme/concern/issue/etc. in the therapy room boils down to this: being able to love thyself. And yes, I can hear people scorning about this and its corniness/naivety, but I stand by this statement.

At one point or another, due to a myriad of circumstances, everyone’s development is affected by someone else’s words and/or actions, which then becomes internalised as a belief that “there’s something wrong with me” or “I’m not good enough”. Logically, it might be simple to state that there is nothing wrong with anyone and that everyone is good enough, because that information comes from elsewhere. It doesn’t come from the individual. No one internalises the belief that they are wrong, without an external influence giving them that information. But emotionally? Well, understanding this emotionally can take years, even decades!

Why? Because at the same time we might be receiving the message that we’re wrong, we’re also learning about right and wrong. Is anyone taught to love and accept what’s wrong? I feel and observe so many of us growing up under the conditioning that there is something wrong with us, having great difficulty accepting certain parts of who we are and of our history, hiding and hoping no one will notice. Even if no one else notices, do you know who will always notice? The other parts of you.

One of my favourite theories/techniques is that of Subpersonalities, by John Rowan. In it, there is the idea that we all possess distinct subpersonalities in our psyche, with different functions, motivations, origins, beliefs. No other aspect of my training has been more influential to me than this. The core principles of Integrative Dramatherapy – Self-Compassion, Relationships, and Integration – all stem from this. It is a technique I always return to, because it offers amazingly profound insights into someone’s behaviour, emotions, and traumas. Within someone’s subpersonalities, there is usually a very neglected, and a very over-compensating one. They are usually very dependent of and reactive to each other. They tend to disrupt the functions of other subpersonalities. Moreover, sometimes the very neglected and very over-compensating one, become one and the same. Their functions, motivations, and beliefs merge, and their origins disappear. The neglected becomes a bully and takes over the entire psyche, as it loses track of what it was there for in the first place.

Subpersonalities are very powerful (and surprisingly real) metaphors for our unconsciously-motivated behavioural and emotional patterns. The optimal goal is to have them all working together, interdependently, in an integrated manner. Integration, therefore, is not simply about having the “right” subpersonalities running the psyche, but to have all of them doing so, according to their own function and strength. Fear is a great example, for instance. Fear appears in our lives for a reason, often primitive and instinctive, but what happens to fear, and many other emotions, is that it overstays its mission, and its function becomes corrupted. It is there, but it is no longer serving the psyche, and becomes a block.

Thus, when a part of us begins to accept the conditioning that there is something wrong with us, according and in relation to others, a respective subpersonality emerges in the psyche to make sense of that new information. Depending on subsequent life experiences, that subpersonality will then live out its function and integrate, or it might overstay and change its function, which then permeates the entirety of the psyche. The individual is no longer able to recognise it, but it is still developing ways in which to express itself.

Subpersonalities tend to overstay their mission when they are neglected. We think we are taking care of something by ignoring it, but we are only forcing it to find new ways to express itself. This often appears in “random” events, behaviours, or emotional outbursts. We say “I was not myself when I did/said that!”. And we’re probably right. The subpersonality was ignored in its authentic expression, and so it found a new way to catch our attention, by changing itself completely and being someone/something else.

In short, this subpersonality was not shown any love or acceptance. It was deemed wrong, and forcibly ignored, and put to the side, or the back of the psyche. So, over time, the neglect turns into something else: resentment, anger, shame, disgust, hate, sadness, destruction. All of this, because it wants to be listened to, seen, cared for, validated… loved. The psyche, in the form of behaviours, emotions, and physical sensations, is constantly reminding us to focus on the “thyself” part of the equation. Love your neighbour as THYSELF! This is the paradox: the most important part of the teaching, comes last. It is a test in itself. Can we get past the obvious and notice what the core message is?

We believe we must always love others first, but the opposite is true. Without self-compassion, it is hard to create and maintain healthy and authentic relationships. Without helping our subpersonalities relate to and love each other, we cannot expect to treat others in ways which are balanced, authentic, and loving.

A client told me the other day, that they were not willing to change until the rest of the world changed too. Perhaps exacerbated, I challenged that position by asserting that the world was not sitting across the room from me, and that I was not being the world’s therapist, but an individual’s. And this is the trap: because we place the emphasis on others, we believe that others are responsible for loving, accepting, and validating us, and yet, we are often incapable of doing that for ourselves, and even go so far as rejecting that responsibility for the self.

LOVE THYSELF! The rest is commentary.

Ask the Dramatherapist… “A session with my psyche”

Exactly two months ago, I began to experience a nagging sense of questioning what I was doing with my life, and even wrote about it in the March Reflexions feature. I rarely experience this, particularly in the professional context.

I was always fairly certain about what I wanted to do, but the how has been through some dramatic changes. And today, the how was questioned to such an extent, that it also made me question the what.

“Do you want to be a Dramatherapist? Do you even want to continue helping others?” Talk about a slap in the face! I haven’t questioned my what in about two decades.

As someone who has been actively working on self-awareness and reflection for the most part of the last 10 years, it is very clear to me that these questions will be around for a while. Particularly that second one. When the what is questioned, one must pay very close attention. I guess this is what growing older entails. Can I go back to my playground, please? Anyway…

This post will begin to address the first question above, in a way which I have never done before in this blog. I was so taken aback, that I decided to try and do some Dramatherapy on myself. For all the non-Dramatherapist readers… have you ever wondered what it might be like? Well, here it is.

One of my favourite tools in Dramatherapy is my deck of Archetype Cards, by Caroline Myss (2003; http://www.hayhouse.co.uk/archetype-cards-a-80-card-deck-with-guidebook).

From the accompanying guide book:

Archetypes have been around since at least the time of Plato (…), but it was the 20th century visionary Swiss psychologist Carl Jung who put archetypes on the map of modern consciousness.

In essence, most archetypes are psychological patterns derived from historical roles in life, such as Mother, Child…; they can also be universal events or situations, such as Death. Along with our individual personal unconscious, which is unique to each of us, Jung believed that “there exists a second psychic system of a collective, universal, and impersonal nature that is identical in all individuals.” This “collective unconscious” (…) is inherited, rather than developed, and is composed largely of archetypes and mythological figures.

Although archetypes are both ancient and universal, they become personalised when they’re a part of your own psyche.

Now, from theory to practice. I use these cards in various ways, but this is one of the most common ones. I asked myself “Who am I as a Dramatherapist?”, and went through the deck, picking out the ones which instinctually resonated with me. The instinctual resonance is key here, because it prevents the rational mind from making too many decisions. Below, is the result of this first exercise: 11 cards.

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Fig 1. 11 Archetypes: Shape-Shifter; Companion; Alchemist; Guide; Prostitute; Child:Wounded; Seeker; Healer; Pioneer; Artist; Addict

Immediately, I felt drawn to some of them and not others, so I removed the ones that didn’t hold enough resonance, which left me with 7 cards, as below.

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Fig 2. 7 Archetypes: Addict; Prostitute; Child:Wounded; Artist; Pioneer; Seeker; Healer

As I looked at this second selection and got in touch with feelings and sensations, by taking a few deep breaths and grounding myself, I began to gain some clarity on feelings of who/what was in control – expressed by the Shadow attributes of the Addict (allowing addictive patterns to have authority over inner spirit), the Prostitute (placing material considerations and security above self-empowerment), and the Healer (failing to care for oneself).

What does this mean? I interpreted it in the context of what I’ve been feeling – an overemphasis on business, rather than passion, and a focus on others’ wellbeing, before my own.

There were also feelings of neglect of the following Light attributes – Artist (expressing a dimension of life that is beyond the five senses), the Wounded Child (awakening compassion and desire to serve other Wounded Children), and the Healer (passion to serve others by repairing the body, mind, spirit connection).

I felt this neglect was mainly about passion, and the fact that I have been feeling disconnected from the purpose of why I do this work.

Three main observations from this exercise:

  • The aspects of the Healer were present in both groups – I realised I was feeling controlled by its Shadow attributes and neglecting its Light attributes.
  • I realised I was quite angry at the concept of Pioneer.
  • The Seeker felt completely invisible and ignored.

I was curious about the anger directed at the Pioneer, and realised that this archetype had driven all the other ones to their extremes, and that its Shadow attribute of a compulsive need to keep moving on has been the driving force in my psyche for many months.

I then proceeded to engage in an instinctual dialogue between myself, as therapist, and the Pioneer archetype. This type of dialogue is done by following a flow, allowing the unconscious to speak by writing the first things that come to mind, rather than to rationalise it or try to make sense of it.

This dialogue revealed that the Pioneer was running away from something by pursuing something else in the future, rather than facing its fear in the present. It also allowed me to understand that part of my motivation of being a therapist was not appropriately aligned to the present and future, but still stuck in a distant past, which led the dialogue to an end, for the Pioneer couldn’t get past this obstacle.

I then went back to the cards I had previously picked and asked myself, which one of them could the Pioneer reach out to first, for help? I often pose this question to clients, because ultimately all the archetypes can be helpful, but it is also important to establish which one of them could be helpful in the here and now, when facing an obstacle in the present. Having many sources of help can often be overwhelming, so sometimes it’s important to identify and focus on one of them, and take small steps. The answer this time pointed to the Artist.

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Fig 3. 2 Archetypes:  Artist; Pioneer

I employed the same dialogue technique, but this time between the two archetypes. The content of their conversation was not that surprising: lack of passion, burnout. The realisation that my motivation for wanting to be there for others because I didn’t have anyone there for me, has led me to the exact same place: to feeling like there is no one else there for me. I continue to support others, whilst feeling unsupported.

At the end of this “session” I am left with the questions: how and where do I find others for support? And how do I re-ignite my passion?

This blog has aimed to show a glimpse of what a creative psychodynamic process can be like in Dramatherapy, as well as that the therapeutic process is often about trying to answer a question, only to find more questions.

I feel that the questions will never stop, but I also feel that life, and living, happens in the process of answering questions as they appear in our lives. 

Reflexions… On Doors

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Every now and then, I hear this in my therapy room:

“I’ve been in therapy for years, and I’ve never talked about this”, or “I’ve been in therapy for years, and I’ve never made this connection before”.

Anyone else experiencing this?

No matter what my response is in the moment, depending on what the disclosure is, I often think why this is. Why are people going to therapy for years and not addressing something? What are they doing there? And then I remember my own therapeutic process and get the answer: sometimes, people aren’t ready. Sometimes, something doesn’t become pertinent until a specific time in one’s life. Sometimes, layers upon layers of life events and emotional processing need to be peeled off before revealing the cause of something. I spent three years in continuous therapeutic process during my training, and didn’t start addressing a core wound until after a year post-graduation.

And then, I also remember this: I work as a Dramatherapist, which is an incredibly powerful profession within psychological therapies.

A bit of a disclaimer here: I’m quite rational and analytical in my cognitive processes. I can expand, elaborate, explain, extrapolate to my heart’s content. I often tell this to therapists and supervisors, because I am very good at hiding when talking. I have a moderately strong photographic memory which allows me to access articles, books, films, music, references in general, within seconds and incorporate that in my verbal expression. I disclose this, because I often just need someone to tell me to stop thinking, and start feeling. Because of this, I can also be quite the rational and analytical Dramatherapist.

I am still finding my balance between creative expression and exploration, and cognitive reflection. Therefore, I admit that my delivery of Dramatherapy is substantially filled with verbal expression, a talking therapy. But I also have to admit that whenever I have heard one of the statements above, it is always during a post-creative expression reflective experience. It is rarely when we are just talking, but always after we’ve done something drama-related. And here lies the power of Dramatherapy, and why I feel so passionate about it, regardless of how it is delivered and which techniques are used.

This past week, I explored this with two clients, after their admittance that they have both spent more than a decade in therapy and had not made such connections before.  I found myself explaining that individuals will often experience this in Dramatherapy because, as a therapy, we often go through the back door of the mind. We may knock at the front door of the mind, through some talking, but it is through the back door that our work may be most profoundly felt.

I don’t mean to imply that Dramatherapists are somehow surreptitiously tricking clients into disclosing information, but I have found in my practice that this is a regular, unintentional occurrence. In the sense that the mind’s front door is rational and analytical, and the mind’s back door is emotional and instinctive. The former is founded upon control, and the latter upon freedom. Creativity is the corridor that connects both doors. And most of the time, even I’m surprised at what my clients and I find by going through the back door.

And this is where our work is invaluable: the creative processes we use are not meant to trigger for the sake of it, and sometimes they don’t. But when they do, our psychological training will enable us to hold, contain, and support the emotional ups and downs of our clients. I believe Dramatherapy is a tremendously powerful approach, and to be able to do it is a gift and talent. The combination of depth and enjoyment that Dramatherapy provides to psychological development and wellbeing are astounding. How do I know this? Because I often get this feedback: “I have never told this to any other therapists”, “I didn’t know I wanted to talk about that”, “I didn’t know that was there”, “I can’t believe how quickly we’ve progressed”.

I will support myself here a little bit and say that part of why this happens may be due to my own approach, but it is also important to acknowledge that part of it is the client’s readiness at this point in their lives, and, of course, because of Dramatherapy itself.

One of my clients was telling me yesterday that they were really enjoying the dance between their conscious and unconscious mind, and I just felt like saying “ABSOLUTELY!!!”. That is exactly how I feel about Dramatherapy – I love the dance, and drama, between conscious and unconscious processes. I love engaging and spending time with the back door keepers. Their language is different, yet the same, for they communicate through symbols, metaphors, feelings, and sensations. They are unpredictable, but often, they just want someone to spend time with them, and then they will happily, and safely, take you inside the house to show you what is calling for attention.

Ask the Dramatherapist… “Addiction”

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I recently had the privilege and pleasure of being a visiting guest lecturer at the Dramatherapy programme in Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge. I presented and delivered two different sessions, related to my clinical specialisms: addiction, and sexuality in the LGBTQI+ community.

During the Q&A section of the lecture on addiction, one of the first-year students asked me whether I believed addiction is something people can truly overcome, or not. This is a great, and yet complex, question.

Prior to my work in addiction, I had no experience in this field. I had a very strong personal motivation and curiosity, and general knowledge of reading different research sources on drugs, and treatment approaches. I also had personal experience of addiction, as a family member and friend, and of substance misuse in my personal life.

I don’t share this very often, but I spent a big part of my early 20s drinking irresponsibly and dangerously, and dealing with the consequences of such behaviour. I felt very confused at times, because at one point, I recognised that I had stopped being able to do certain things without alcohol. Things like dealing with overwhelming emotions. Or going for a meal. Or a party. Having sex. Sometimes, even, going to sleep. At the time, I didn’t have anyone that I could confide in with these doubts, and so I kept avoiding the question of whether I had a problem.

And then, on the night of 22nd July 2011 someone spiked my drink in a club and I lost consciousness for most of that night. I woke up feeling completely ashamed and confused at a dear friend’s house, and made my way to my small flat in Camden. As I lay in bed that morning, wondering what had happened to me and feeling completely lost, I received a text which said: “Have you heard what happened to Amy Winehouse?” This was a big life-changing moment, for as I lay in my bed wondering whether I needed to stop drinking, I received news that Amy Winehouse – who lived literally around the corner from me – had died from alcohol poisoning.

I took it this a sign, and decided there and then to stop drinking completely. And I did – for two whole years. And what happened in those two years was that something shifted, and I was able to understand my escapism for what it was, including the understanding that it wasn’t about alcohol at all. And so, I have been able to go back to drinking, without abusing it, or without escaping into it. How? I’m not sure. If I knew, I would package it and help make millions of people feel better.

Why am I sharing this with you? Because, ultimately, this is what drives me. The experience of this shift, from feeling helpless to feeling in control. The experience of managing my self-destructive part. Because I don’t exactly know how this happened to me, I remain completely open to everything when it comes to addiction treatment and approaches. I am open to the medical/disease model, the 12 steps model, the harm reduction model, the relapse prevention model, to name just a few. I am open to everything because I have also learned that different clients will need and connect to different things, or a mix of things. Some clients actually find it helpful to think that they have a disease, and others don’t. I go with what is helpful for each client. Who am I to say anything, anyway?

I am driven to finding the answers that will enable people to stop the suffering in their lives. I never assume that I know something. Sometimes, I think that I do, and a client proves me wrong. And I never feel defeated about it. Not even when a client dies. It makes me more determined. One thing I always mention when referring to addiction, and which people tend to forget or dismiss, is that addiction truly is a matter of life or death. When a client tells me that if they pick up a bottle again, they will die, I believe them unconditionally, because it is the truth. To me, this work is not textbook. It is real life, about real lives. When a client goes to sessions for weeks and then they stop going, there is always a feeling of dread. And this feeling is very real.

Another thing that I notice in my addiction work is the weight of the consequences. I would argue that shame, guilt, and regret, kill more people than the drugs themselves. Of all the things that I believe that I know and learned through the years is this: we need to be more mindful of the language that we use in treatment. The idea of lapsing or relapsing may carry with it such overwhelming weight for clients, that when they lapse or relapse, they end up feeling worthless, like failures, and a waste of space.

I don’t claim to possess answers to anything at the moment. I feel that I spend most of my time listening and following what is needed. The weight of a lapse or relapse is absolutely unnecessary. It carries with it the illusion that someone needs to start again from the beginning. I would always argue that we never fully go back to the beginning, because making a mistake does not imply that we have lost our skills or knowledge. We will always be slightly more ahead than we think. This goes for me, and my clients.

I work from the position that yes; addiction can be overcome. Always. This is my hope and my guiding light through the darkness of active addiction and its aftermath. How is this achieved? I am still figuring that out, but I know that it starts with the following:

  • Looking into, listening to, and treating each person, as a person.
  • Caring deeply, and unconditionally, because they are living beings and for no other reason, and many people don’t even know what this feels like.
  • Being open to dark and light, death and life, and everything else in between.
  • Practising, and encouraging, meaningful and authentic connections.

I am a firm believer that the opposite of addiction is authentic human connection.

Reflexions…On Butterflies

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It may be a strange analogy within the context of therapy, but do you ever experience being in a clinical session with an individual client, or a group, and the dynamics of that session give you some kind of butterflies? That feeling of excitement because you want to know more, of hope that the unknown will turn out okay, of belonging because you feel you are in the right place, of achievement because you have found something special, and of awe because you have witnessed someone’s spark?

I recently saw my first clients with pronounced clinical depression, and the bleakness of those presentations stopped me in my tracks. Every day, I work with chaos, anger, sadness, ups and downs, glimmers of hope and joy, life and death, shame, guilt, anxiety, to name just a few. But bleakness to the point where there is no alternative, no hope, no light, no movement… well, I was not ready for that.

And this got me thinking about a lecture in my first year of Dramatherapy training, where a lecturer said – and I’m paraphrasing here: “Just because you’re becoming therapists, it doesn’t mean that you can, or should, work with everyone and every kind of condition. You actually have a choice on that.”

I remember how deeply that resonated with me, because I recognised that a part of me did think that I would be somehow responsible to respond to all the problems of the world. I remember mumbling that to myself for days… “I have a choice. I have a choice. I have choice.”

Sometimes there is nothing scarier than having choice. It means that a decision must be made. That something must be left. That something must be taken. And that we are responsible for the consequences of whatever that decision is.

I also remember thinking “How selfish!”. How selfish that I, a therapist, could refuse to help someone, when I’ve been given all these tools to do just that. And yet, there was also a relief: I didn’t have to help everyone.

And through the years, I have been not only actively and consciously making this choice, but I have also been noticing something else. That, perhaps, whatever butterflies a therapist experiences towards a specific client group or clinical context, may be in alignment with some kind of inner talent, skill…an aptitude. Allow me to expand on this.

In my first year of training, I also remember having a chat with one of the lecturers about which client groups I wanted to work with, both practically in terms of my clinical placements, but also generally, in terms of profession and career. It was always very clear to me that I wanted to work within addiction, and with gay men. These were clearly aligned and influenced by my own lived experience and by wanting to know more about myself, by helping others through similar experiences.

It sounds selfish, I know. But I believe that this is something mostly unconscious at first, rather than conscious – this idea that we might want to know more about ourselves, by working with others who share similar life experiences. This became more conscious to me, the more clients I met and worked with. And also, sometimes it’s not even about the condition or context, but about the effects, the aftermath of an experience. For instance, a great friend of mine has never spent time in prison, and yet, she has great affinity and aptitude to work and empathise within that field. Even in my work within addiction, I notice it every day, that I have much greater empathy and affinity towards clients who have overcome active addiction and are now in active recovery. I tend to find the aftermath of active addiction much more fascinating.

Why has this come about now? I have been noticing through the years, and particularly in the past few weeks, that there are certain clinical presentations to which I’m really drawn to and am greatly curious about, and others to which I’m not. And when this occurs in a session, when I’m not drawn towards something or feel no curiosity at all, I notice it immediately, because I always feel like I have to “work at it”.

I felt this particularly during the sessions where I was presented with complete bleakness. I was taken aback, not simply because I couldn’t get through, but also because there was a part of me which, frankly, didn’t necessarily want to get through. This got me thinking about the why of this occurrence, and also why I literally feel so alive in certain clinical contexts, and so indifferent in others. As I’m writing this, my inner therapist just said: “There’s probably a reason in your lived experience for why this is, and if you give it enough time and space, you’ll know exactly why.”

He’s right. My inner therapist tends to be right. And as I think about it further, without getting into much detail, I can connect why I tend to distance myself from both intense bleakness and active chaos – such as psychosis, or drugs withdrawal. I’ve learned and witnessed how well I can create deeply profound connections with individuals who, whilst still experiencing chaos and distress, are also willing and stable enough to want to create some kind of change in their lives.

I feel this may be related with my 7 years of active spiritual practice. If there’s a willingness and an awareness that change is required, no matter how faint this is, and no matter how many difficulties that individual has experienced in the past, or is experiencing in the present, then my curiosity, my drive, my empathy, are fully there. But if I can’t feel that from the client, then those traits don’t seem to make an appearance.

I have been very aware of my choices recently, both in relation to what I feel curious about, and to how much chaos I am willing to engage with on a daily basis. I have been noticing that my aptitudes, and my butterflies, may lie in clinical contexts and presentations where someone has already decided to change, no matter how determined or faint that decision is. And then I look at and talk to some of my colleagues and realise that their butterflies lie elsewhere.

This is the beauty of healthcare professions, and where we can find relief from the potential pressure of wanting to help everyone: there is always someone who is interested, driven to help, experiencing butterflies, in every single clinical presentation that exists. I don’t have to worry about helping everyone, because there are other professionals who are helping people at every single stage of their recovery. I don’t need to feel guilty about not feeling more curious at the earlier stages of someone’s treatment, because someone else is, and I feel that the combination of my knowledge, skills, and talents, is better served when there is a certain level of, or potential for, stability and balance.