Assisting Recovery with Dramatherapy
Assisting Recovery with Dramatherapy
By Simon Marks
We do not wear purple kaftans with moon prints, nor do we make sacrificial offerings to another world deity!
I recently qualified as a Dramatherapist, after completing a two-year fulltime MA in Dramatherapy at Roehampton University. Roehampton’s department of Psychology is the only European place of learning that spearheads training in the five core Arts Therapies; Dance Movement, Music, Play, Art and Drama. As a gay man, my clinical interest as a Dramatherapist lies in working with the Recovery and LGBT communities (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender); communities that, in my opinion, are often misunderstood and stigmatized in the mental health sector, and yet, are historically known for seeking increasing amounts of therapeutic intervention.
But what is Dramatherapy? Well, it is not therapy for actors, as some might think.
Nor do you need a background in the arts to either practice or participate. It is not ‘being a tree’, and we do not pass round a ‘talking stick’. We do not wear purple kaftans with moon prints, nor do we make sacrificial offerings to another world deity! Dramatherapy is simply is a registered form of psychotherapy, which uses drama as an art form to bring about healing from emotional, psychological and behavioural difficulties. It can be practiced within groups, or with individuals.
As an experiential psychodynamic therapy, Dramatherapy is less concerned with analysis, but is instead, lead by the client as to what is felt, expressed and experienced in the moment. The focus is on process, rather than performance, and on the body, rather than the mind. A Dramatherapist simply facilities the clients journey by providing a safely contained structure and threshold to cross, moving them from the everyday, into a liminal space of creativity and possibility. Here, tapping the unconscious, their shadow material has the freedom to express itself through stories, embodiment, enactment, metaphor and pure imagination. This can offer powerful insight in to different aspects of the human psyche. You would be correct in thinking Dramatherapy is fairly Jungian in its approach. We work a lot with the collective unconscious and archetypes – especially the Hero and Saboteur, but more than that, where trauma may have split the psyche, the work can help restore and repair the whole self by facilitating techniques to integrate damaged or dysfunctional internal systems. Negative aspects of the self, such as shame, perfectionism, fear, anxiety and control, as well as the positive, self-confidence, love, intimacy, hope and compassion – can be characterised, projected out, met, integrated and ultimately healed to reveal the authentic self.
It is within this realm that I believe the work seems to be particularly beneficial for those in Recovery or suffering from poorer LGBT mental health.
Since many of the traumas experienced by these individuals may be pre-verbal, multi-split, passed down through family of origin and repressed in the unconscious, some may struggle to access their authentic feelings with talk therapy alone. I believe that in some cases, developmental trauma may lie at the core of these individuals. In neurology, it is widely accepted that the brain responds to early trauma by engaging in sooth seeking behaviours such as alcohol, drugs, food, TV, fantasy, exercise and sex; anything to change an unbearable feeling. For some, the predisposition to addiction can override everything else until only a rock bottom might kick start Recovery. Of course, trauma can be experienced by anyone in any circumstances. It is not confined to age, gender, class, race or sexuality. It is also worth noting that some in Recovery reflect on having had entirely happy childhoods, yet have still struggled with addiction. Furthermore, not all recovering addicts or LGBT people either want or require therapy. Sometimes, peer-support services such as harm reduction or 12-Step programmes are enough. But, for some, and also those in the LGBT community without obvious addictions, extra support might be required.
The issue of LGBT mental health is explored in a groundbreaking new book, Straight Jacket: How To Be Gay And Happy By Matthew Todd. It reveals how the trauma of growing up in a heteronormative society specifically affects the wellbeing of LGBT children. Todd suggests that many (not all) may experience bullying, violence, self-loathing, low self-worth and shame that is specific to being LGBT.
As most children growing up LGBT may not even have the language or comprehension to understand their feelings, many are unable to ask for help.
If they are growing up in a homophobic environment, there will be few positive rites of passage they go through as they enter adolescence. For some, this can lead to an unfulfilling relationship with themselves, an unhealthy attachment to others, and very possibly, they may develop addiction issues in adult life.
Of course, these experiences are not shared by all LGBT people; there are plenty living happy and contented lives today, in fulfilling relationships, and are untroubled by any of these issues.
But there does seem to be a problem that some are reluctant to talk about. Todd reflects on what he and some healthcare advisors are calling a crisis in LGBT mental and sexual health. Research now suggests disproportionately high numbers experiencing depression, lower self-esteem, anxiety and addiction. These symptoms may have many manifestations, the most recently reported, being linked by some to Chemsex – a phenomena taking place in bigger cities like London amongst some gay men in concentrated areas, who use drugs such as crystal meth and mephedrone to facilitate sex with each other.
My own clinical work has supported many of these findings. During my training, I worked with three incredible organisations across LGBT wellbeing and the wider Recovery community. At 56 Dean Street the award winning HIV and sexual health NHS clinic in Soho (featured in the recent Vice documentary Chemsex), I ran groups for gay and HIV positive men. With Antidote the UK’s only LGBT run drug and alcohol service (part of London Friend, the UK’s longest running and multi-award winning LGBT charity), I worked within their SWAP programme – a leading Chemsex support service; I ran a mixed gender group for recovering alcoholics in aftercare. Although levels of intervention differed depending on the needs of the individual or group, a universal theme emerged across all three; the desire to experience intimacy and authentic connection to self and others; a connection often lost in a world of using, self-loathing, fear, loneliness, toxic shame and isolation. On closure of the work, participants reported and displayed increased levels of self-confidence, self-esteem and connection. And this is why I’m both passionate and excited about my developing career as a Dramatherapist. Working alongside Recovery in its many forms, albeit in abstinence and 12-Step programmes, harm reduction support, or simply supporting an individual’s own quest for self-discovery and empowerment, Dramatherapy has the potential to offer those still struggling with an inner turmoil, the opportunity to step out from the shadows, and in to the light.