Taking a Break from Therapy: The Miracle of Integration
I am lucky to be alive; we all are. Humans forget this all the time due to short term memory processing and the cognitive distraction of interpreting environmental experiences into lessons both subconsciously and consciously, which then form long-term memory neural networks we refer to incessantly. We are always forgetting the gift of a very precious human life, becoming distracted by petty feuds or a belief that we are right and someone else is wrong, or inversely guilting and blaming ourselves for someone else’s bad behaviour. In reality, that’s all smoke and mirrors; love is it. It’s really all there is, and as Peter Levine said in a recent lecture I watched on the anatomy of trauma and shame-trauma healing in particular, good therapy in a nutshell is completely platonic universal love offered by therapist in the therapeutic alliance (2015)..
In my personal life, I’m always telling people I love them. I banished the fear of this phrase a couple of years ago. It’s crucial that in our time that people realize how much they matter and how debilitating believing in the illusion of separateness truly is.
I got into the psychology business because I genuinely love people. That might sound trite or unbelievable to some, but it’s true. I love people in that filial, humanitarian and universal kind of way that Levine declares is such a powerful catalyst for healing from extraordinary events and experiences. I’ve always done it even when people speak and act in ways that are distinctly unlovable. I understood the correlation between traumatic events, loss of autonomy or self-respect and tendencies for cruelty (or the silent killer, passive aggressive undermining of another’s emotions or needs), at a very early age. And I loved them because I was related to them both by blood and as being part of the same human family. I identified compassion as more powerful than fear, hatred and avarice.
No one in my family was a psychopath, but I really wanted to understand the“worst of the worst” in order to go backwards from toughest mental health work to lightest as I knew I only had so much time as a young student and wanted the most “bang for my buck.” A bit of a strange conceptualization of how to be a proficient helper now but back then, I reasoned “treating anxiety and relationship problems is a dime a dozen, but treating Hannibal Lector? Now that will really prime me for understanding and helping even the sickest of puppies!” I jest, and the humour gets dark as doing this sometimes dark, heavy and dangerous work requires some lightening up.
I wanted to learn how to work with psychopaths, people with narcissistic/borderline conditions and those stricken by chronic, serious mental impairment. I wanted to understand their unique aspect of humanity when the public by-and-large dismisses it. How can a father kill his own son? How can a mother sell her daughter into the sex-trade for drug-money? You may be cringing or groaning or combating a strong urge to click away from this article now that I’ve introduced these scenarios into your mind, but wait.
I love people, I refused to deny the reality that these things happen and I turned toward these individuals’ and families’ darkness BECAUSE I loved them. Would you leave your child to drown in a pool when she couldn’t swim? Well, that’s how I felt about those psychopaths, their mothers and fathers and all involved who didn’t know what the hell happened. I wanted to help them find out.
Turns out it wasn’t the patients in those forensic wards that prompted me to vow not to work in the environment again, it was the institutional policies regarding institutional violence. But I’ll stop there. This article isn’t about institutional betrayal or lateral violence or how it is imperative at all levels of healthcare governance/public health policy for us to provide interventions based on care and not vengeance, on restorative justice and not punitive isolation and withholding of basic needs. Those topics, I will address later, but this article is about the miracle of integration.
In my practice, I have been doing the work of three of my ilk; the north has such a need for help, it can be tough for a swollen heart with plenty of knowledge and compassion to stop when she knows how families are dying from mental health problems, and those institutional and systemic limitations I alluded to earlier. I work diligently and provide my clients sound advice, advocate for the oppressed, teach new ways to self-advocate, am anti-colonial and pro-reconciliation and have to report child and spousal assault on a weekly basis. This is far more frequently than any such responsibility I’ve had to execute in the southern provinces where I’ve lived and worked in Canada. I knew this would be the case when I decided to come up but much like any professional enterprise, the translation from theory into practice can be more complex.
My favourite kind of work is helping those who’ve used violence in whatever form (mental, physical, sexual, verbal) to stop, identify why they started, decide to change and see them actually change. The inverse work I enjoy is helping those who are being abused in intimate relationships get out and heal away from that hellish attachment trauma. This is my soul’s bread and butter and it gives me great mojo to treat people with such severe impairment successfully. When they leave my office after 6 months of biweekly treatment with renewed vigor, conviction, certainty and peace in their commitment to themselves and the human race, I know I have lived out my purpose. I know that’s good, lasting healthcare. But sometimes they want to stay on, or continue working with me but on another issue: addressing codependency, their hatred of their mother, their fear of confrontation, etc. and I have to say no.
It’s integration time.
After a year of running my private practice, I recognized several salient things:
I was growing professionally and personally at an exponential rate and trying to mark, remember and integrate each lesson flawlessly so again I could continue to expand to serve more people.
But expansion doesn’t always look like growing in the same ways we have months already when we have been learning DIFFERENT lessons than ever before for much of that time.
I learned that I need to celebrate my successes and strengths by writing about them. I’m a writer by first trade (wrote everything from restaurant reviews, short stories, films, plays and poetry) while I completed my undergraduate degree). I am a writer by origin and learning and I have several books I’ve already written but haven’t published yet due to my time being given to my practice so completely.
I’ve recently bought “Managing Oneself” by Peter F. Drucker and indeed, as is quoted, Winston Churchill was another leader who learned predominantly not by listening or reading, but by writing. Drucker validates the experience of writer-learners as school for us can be challenging due in my opinion to what can be the highly condescending and critical landscape of creative writing environments in a top-down system. But, writer-learners get by and do well, usually developing a sound facility in one of the other forms, because well, we know we need to in order to survive in a world where our secret gift, given the right environment and catalyst, could enable us to help others more powerfully in the future. I’m of that age, level of experience and expertise now to begin sharing it. And unlike when I was a teenager, don’t care if you insult, belittle or disagree with anything in it. This creative shame reflex is unfortunately common, and is often what keeps good work hidden as it was introduced at an early age. Psychology Today’s writer Ariel Gore and Higher Education Revolution’s writer Debby Donsky both address the progressive erosion of our human entitlement to create and have a voice, often starting when we first enter school and as children, experience the shame scars that create the illusion of diminuativeness, or a fear of rejection, inferiority or retribution.
Disagreement and debate are what make better ideas percolate and we have some major challenges to address and insert solutions toward for my generation (i.e. climate change and sustainable economies just scratch the surface). I refuse to remain silent any longer.
This willingness to detach from the disapproval, frustration, intolerance or belittling by others regarding my writing, personal or professional acumen has been a long-time coming and a major feature of another great psychotherapist, author and lecturer, Wayne Dyer. His book, “Living an Inspired Life” where it explores these concepts as part of the 5 things we need to do to free ourselves from uninspiring garbage (a great deal of which can be traced back to those shame scars inherited and internalized earlier), and I am always recommending it to my clients as essential reading.
Another normalizing and highly inspirational figure of our modern era is Elon Musk. After reading Musk’s biography by Ashley Vance, I was inspired by seeing a model of a person who like me was shamed for these gifts at an early age but chose to surround himself with stabler, healthier people in his university career so that he could find space, time and opportunity outside of his original environment to try and save the world. He did this by utilizing his skills in new and innovative ways and by working to shift peoples’ consciousness at a technological and engineering level, which I applaud. By Vance’s descriptions, he is exacting and unwavering in his momentum to improve and integrate his lessons for humanity’s evolution, but like many of us, struggles with taking the empty space that actually affords this integrative process to naturally occur. Let’s keep going.
In this integration process, I recognize that the opinions of others were essential to me during my undergraduate and master’s degrees; they helped me understand, often gruellingly with much initial confusion over the disparity of them all, what was required to succeed (hint: it’s tolerance, except when violence, risk of loss of life, limb or child abuse is involved). But now, the training phase as it once was is over and I have learned to apply healthy and protective boundaries that reflect my interdependence upon the world and my right to share the insights I’ve garnered as any other human does.
My chief lesson over the past 3 years is recognizing that healthy attracts healthy, and when I encounter unhealthy people who aren’t my patients, I don’t have to try and help everyone live more honourably, especially when I know what I need to stay well is varying my experience away from the chronically ill so that I don’t work at home, with my friends, partner or anyone else other than my patients in my offices. I can choose (guilt free!) to detach from those unhealthy people with love and simply interact and exchange ideas, love and gratitude with the healthy ones. A mindblowing revelation for a devoted caregiver/professional helper, but one that prevents compassion fatigue, caregiver burnout and a slough of other unpleasant workplace hazards in our field.
I repeatedly tell my patients when they struggle with the idea of taking a break from therapy, trying a new intervention that doesn’t involve talking with me or mentioning that we will need a plan to support their recovery after therapy concludes, that I don’t recommend anything I haven’t applied myself or studied the impact on others both quantitatively and qualitatively first. And I’m going to follow my own advice to integrate my lessons. In psychology practice, this is known as “living in congruence” and is statistically the number one quality that ensures a provider doesn’t burn out or compromise their ethics.
I recognized toward the start of October that I have a very hard job. I don’t often feel it, it’s become so second nature to me now and infused with such a high amount of intrinsic reward, but after having to report child sexual abuse to very lukewarm responses on the part of protective officials, contending with a very violent man in denial of his violence who was trained in lethal combat and was actively abusing his wife in front of his children along with helping a first responder come back from the brink of very severe suidice risk, I knew I needed to create time and space for integration. These and at least 50 other cases of lesser immediate trauma but historical instances of abuse echoed in a mental chamber I can usually turn off by caring for myself while still caring for others, but something was wrong.
I felt guilty for needing a break and time to integrate my lessons and lived in a kind of limbo of postponing my integration time, simultaneously trying to cultivate adequate healthy relationships within my sector as well as outside of my work with other professionals that hadn’t been traumatized from serving such severely wounded populations. It felt bleak and challenging to find those supports and as such, began to doubt myself and my voice after giving so much away to others. I continued to access Southern consultation and reviews of my cases, but as is so commonplace in the North, however on more than one occasion, I was considered to be the expert on these particular complexities and really if anyone should be providing supervision, it should’ve been this lady (imagine two thumbs pointing toward my chest with a big grin).
I worked with a man during my master’s degree who specialized in counselling executives and his business’ tag-line was “It’s lonely at the top.” I could relate in a strange way to this paradox as with all my power, responsibility, skill and business management thanks to countless others who mentored me and invested time and dedication to helping me build my practice, it was quite lonely at times and I was in need of basic mutual aid (i.e. when someone says “Oh yeah, me too. I had a case just like that the other day”). I didn’t have the time to write up the advocacy letters, begin the journal articles or even keep up with these handy medium articles as my priority was keeping people alive.
Now I am finally on a break, I see the post traumatic growth in me emerging. This is the opposite to the stress response, a similar workplace hazard experienced by other professionals faced daily with life-or-death situations requiring aptitude and immediate de-escalation such as physicians, fire-fighters, police, paramedics and other first responders where they gear up for the worst and then begin to project this defensive type reaction toward everyone and everything.
Instead, I saw my growth come out in laughing at my flight being rerouted, feeling utterly in awe of the children, people from different faiths, the intersecting humanity of eastern and western cultures as I interacted and observed others in the many airports I traversed through.
I stood in gratitude for the universal kindness and consideration extended by others in symbiotic reciprocity. People were beautiful again. People were safe, even at the airport where a TSA member rifled through my luggage and swabbed a selenite inukshuk I planned to give to my friend in Copenhagen. I was happy he did that, the action was like that of a loving parent rifling through a new foster kid’s belongings, not because he judged or condemned the child as being bad or wrong, but wanted to protect them from harm because he knew foster kids can sometimes be targets for criminals/others wanting to take advantage of them and something could’ve been planted in my bag without me noticing. Being privileged to share in those charming moments of conciliation, of commiseration, of appreciation, of getting to look people in their eyes and see their happy souls dancing. This was real balanced life again.
Now, not all of my doom-and-gloom prophesizing is completely post traumatic stress. In actuality, the environment and lack of consistent resources where I currently practice would fatigue even a counsellor who didn’t subconsciously overload themselves out of some old subconscious script of guilt at leaving those who’re still struggling behind (a.k.a. “compassion fatigue”). It is a fact that where I live and work has one of the highest suicide, homicide and sexual abuse rates in Canada and the world. It’s why I moved here, I wanted to be put to good use. I wanted to help and I wanted to work to reduce suffering for those living in impoverished conditions, ironically in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. In my own country, they are my family. The secret to coming back to this work is grit, dedication, intelligence and compassion. I choose to cultivate this and am honoured to witness others do the same every day in my offices.
Take time to learn and grow, whether you’re in therapy or providing it; the best test is to practice your new skills in a generalized manner in novel situations after you’ve spent weeks learning and practising them. Don’t skimp out, keep growing but be mindful of doing so to be “better than anyone else” as this is an egoistic illusion that is not only impossible (as we are all connected) but highly self-defeating (as there is no real “self”) and any negative esteem you project onto others reflects back upon yourself very quickly and you will begin to feel like you are “never good enough,” which is such a grand delusion. Do it for you; this is the most unselfish thing you can do as any investment you pay to yourself unquestioningly extends and serves the whole in exponentially positive ways that you won’t necessarily ever get to see. It send your subconscious the message that you matter, which is a testament to the truth as you do. Honouring your truth is good for the soul.
So, go easy on yourself when you take on a bit much, slow down when you need to, forgive yourself for your blunders and only try to build better skills than you had before.
Let us all give ourselves permission to rest, to integrate our unique lessons, be humble and be strong in our trust of ourselves when we need to take appropriate actions to attempt to help ourselves or others. For anyone on this incredibly human, fallible, life-changing, incredible, beautifully messy and soul-invoking journey of psychological healing, you too have a great deal of grit, dedication, intelligence and compassion. Never believe that taking a break to connect with, review, learn, compare or contrast your insights is a sign of weakness or giving up the ghost. In fact, it is your greatest strength. Come back home and then go out there again when you’re ready.
Donsky, D. (October 3, 2015). The Mantras of School Principals and Shaming Helicopter Parents. Higher Ed Revolution. Retrieved from: https://higheredrevolution.com/the-mantras-of-school-principals-and-shaming-helicopter-parents-d49313aca16d
Drucker, Peter F. (2017). Managing Oneself. Boston, MA: A Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation
Dyer, D. (2016). Living an Inspired Life. Hay House Publishing.
Gore, A. (June 21st, 2014). Creative Shame: Some notes on writing, entitlement, and the things they told us were unspeakable. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/women-and-happiness/201407/creative-shame
Levine, Peter. (2015) Peter Levine, PhD on Shame — Interview by Caryn Scotto D’Luzia. Retreived from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i2CN5nhmfxk
Vance, Ashley. (2015). Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future. New York, NY: Harper Collins.